Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

Gender (dis)order

Tamara Shefer

Psychology Department, University of the Western Cape

[email protected]

Central to the construction of gender are the dualistic subjectivities of male and female with their designated roles and characteristics. Within a restrictive regime of gender norms and rules, children's lives are ordered from the moment they are named 'boy' or 'girl' upon birth. While gender is socially constructed and takes on different and constantly changing forms in different times and places, the division of society along gendered lines and gender power inequality are globally evident. Yet the path to gendered subjectivity is by no means smooth and unproblematic as socialisation type theories would have us believe. Rather, children and adults take up their subjectivities by positioning themselves in often fluid and shifting ways in relation to the dominant discourses of gender. Furthermore, the development of a gendered self also involves a struggle with and against the expected gender role and identity, especially for girls and women who find themselves constructed as unequal 'other' in patriarchal society.

This paper is an exploratory account of some of the experiences of resistance to 'gender and sexual orders' as they emerge in autobiographical essays by a group of students at the University of the Western Cape. Students were asked to write an assignment for a developmental psychology course at 2nd year level in which they reflected on their experiences of gender and sexual development. The essays were rich and contained a wealth of information about diverse South African experiences of growing up as girls and boys. I expected to hear of the process of socialisation, the rigid and often oppressive experience of being moulded into the designated roles. But what really struck me was the number of women who told of rejecting femininity, desiring masculinity (or what that represented) and shared their stories of actively resisting, albeit not easily, their designated gender. While some would like to pathologise these accounts as 'gender disorders', there are different readings which suggest that gender development needs to be theorised in ways which account for the multiple positions that boys and girls, women and men may take up in relation to the rigid and restrictive categories of femininity and masculinity in patriarchal society.

"The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of 'identities' cannot 'exist' - that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not 'follow' from either sex or gender... Indeed, precisely because certain kinds of 'gender identities' fail to conform to those norms of cultural intelligibility, they appear only as developmental failures or logical impossibilities from within that domain. Their persistence and proliferation, however, provide critical opportunities to expose the limits and regulatory aims of that domain of intelligibility and, hence, to open up within the very terms of that matrix of intelligibility rival and subversive matrices of gender disorder." (Butler, 1990, p.17) (my emphasis)


The story of this paper dates back to an assignment that I set for 2nd year psychology students at the University of the Western Cape, an historically black university (HBU) in the Western Cape, as part of a Human Development semester course. Students were ask to write an autobiographical account of their own gendered and sexual development. I set such an assignment partly out of my own needs for interesting reading, as marker of about a third of 650 assignments, but also because I wanted to stimulate self-reflection and creativity on the part of students who all too often are required to regurgitate sections of the textbook with little reference to their own lives. I had also hoped that the assignments might provide some insights, possibly data for my own research and long-term interest in gender and sexuality.

With my feminist lenses, I had expected to read about students' experiences of socialisation, of being moulded into boys and girls - the usual signs of gender construction, like clothing, toys, parental expectations etc. I had expected to hear of punishment for straying out of prescribed gender and sexual roles. I had expected to hear of experiences, especially by women, of sexual abuse and harassment. I was hoping to hear of the diversity of gendered development in South Africa, stories of the complex intersections of colour, class, and gender that are usually excluded in the euro-american texts that we rely on for our teaching (Seedat, 1990, 1992; Shefer, Van Niekerk, Duncan & De la Rey, in press). I did hear all of these things.

But what I was not really prepared for, at least was surprised by the extent of and intensity of, was the number of women who expressed deep resistance to prescribed femininity and described locating themselves in different positions to what was expected of them sexually and 'genderally'. There was a wide range of these kinds of accounts, but all of them speaking of experiences I had not often heard voiced publicly, that underlined some of the questions that I, and many others, have about sexual/gender difference and the complexity of the construction of these subjectivities.

The paper is exploratory and not rigorously theorised, but my reading of the experiences is clearly infused with social constructionist, discourse analytic philosophical frameworks and contemporary debates in feminist theory. Feminist and other critical literature of the 1960's and 1970's theorised gender as socially constructed and therefore contextual; constructed differently, in different times and places; and constructed within a system of gender inequality, such that what is male is valued more highly and has access to more power, than that which is female. While the distinction between gender and sex may have served an important role politically, the term gender has become as problematic as that of sex. Inherent in traditional feminist theorising of gender is a deep assumption that while gender is not biological, the female, disempowered gender is imprinted on the biological female body while the male, empowered gender is imprinted on the male body. In this way the essentialist conception of gender inequality as being tied to biological differences is inadvertently perpetuated. The conceptual distinction between sex and gender has been critiqued as setting up a rigid deterministic relationship between sex and gender (West & Zimmerman, 1992) and perpetuating the biological vs social dualism (Butler, 1990). Moreover, the traditional notion of gender, while challenging the social constructions as restrictive and repressive, especially for women, still reproduces and naturalises the notion of a dualism of gender, the binary opposites of male-female.

Post-modern theory has facilitated a way of moving beyond binary oppositions to acknowledge the multiplicity of gendered and sexual identities that may exist. In line with Michel Foucault's (1978) influential work on sexuality many have begun to theorise the way in which sexual identity and practice, including the identities of heterosexual and homosexual, are socially and historically constructed (for example, Richardson, 1996; Rubin, 1984; Vance, 1984; Weeks,1985, 1990; Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1993). Theorists have begun considering how men and women, girls and boys may position themselves in multiple ways to the dominant discourse of gender and sexuality; may shift and change in relation to this discourse; may resist and reproduce these subjectivities, in what may appear to be contradictions and confusions (Smart, 1996). The students' stories illustrate resistance to stereotyped femininity, are evidence of subjective agency, but their interpretations of these experiences are also deeply imbedded in dominant discourses on gender and sexuality.

The title of the paper gender (dis)order, while raising questions about the gender order, is also raising questions (not new) about the way in which disorders are constructed in society. It is evident that our society still depends on a dualism between order and disorder, normal and abnormal, healthy and ill, in order to maintain order, in order to reproduce dominant power relations. We have massive evidence in contemporary modern society of the marginalisation of that considered to be 'other' to normality, of the locking away and treatment prescribed for those who do not 'fit' into their prescribed roles and identities. There are those I believe who would like to interpret some of the stories of the students as disorders, as evidence of some pathology or disturbance in 'normal sexual development' that needs to be 'treated'. Psychodynamic explanations, such as an unresolved oedipus complex or an unconscious repression of femininity, might be offered up as ways of interpreting such deviances from the sexual/gender order. Such frameworks are pathologising and stigmatising and foreclose any questions or debate about the rigidity of sexual categories, that may facilitate a destabilisation of those very categories. I do not want to glorify the students' experiences for many of them do indeed speak of psychological and emotional pain, but as will be illustrated, this is usually associated with the rigid and punitive gender system which constructs their experiences and desires as wrong, bad and abnormal.

The paper draws only on the experiences of women. While there were a few men who spoke of desiring to be women or resisting masculinity, they were in a minority. I think this is significant, and has to be understood within the context of patriarchal and androcentric society in which masculinity is valued and imbued with such power, is set up as the norm, while femininity is 'other', is always lacking, is as Spender (1980) puts it "minus male". Some of these significations emerge very powerfully in the students' accounts.

Before going further I need to share some of my discomfort in sharing the stories. Issues of representation in feminist research, knowledge production and struggle have been debated in the South African context and globally (Letlaka-Rennert, 1991; Lund, 1991; Serote, 1992; Bonnin, 1995). Questions like who has the right to represent who, to speak on behalf of whom, to do research on whom have been raised and debated, often with much emotion, particularly in the arena of feminist research methodology and critique levelled at the predominance of white women researching black women has been powerfully articulated over the last few years (see for example, Funani, 1992; Thompson, 1992; Fouche, 1993; Gouws, 1993; Sunde & Bozalek, 1993; Robinson, 1994). I am aware of my own identity as a white, middle class, english-speaking, urban woman and that I am representing the experiences of predominantly black, many of working class, rural background. Furthermore, I am the lecturer, already in a position of power, interpreting students' experiences through my particular ideological perspective and from my particular social location in what appears to be an exercise in voyeurism. The paper is about power and the process reflects power inequalities itself. I choose to believe, not without ambivalence, that the richness of the experiences, the questions they inspired in me, the challenges they pose for gendered society, are important enough to share. Students were of course fully informed that their essays might be used for research and were asked to indicate if they did not desire this. Those marked 'not for research' were not used.

Another related difficulty was my experience of helplessness associated with reading essays that were sometimes extremely troubled, confused and emotionally turbulent. Though I did insert notes into these assignments suggesting a 'chat' with a counsellor at the Student Counselling Centre or myself, I remained with a burden of guilt at having 'opened up' issues for students without being able to offer any subsequent support. I can only hope that there is value, as I believe there can be, in reflecting on one's life and its difficulties. I also did try to address some of the issues in the classroom in the lectures on gender and sexuality development.

Students' accounts of gender and sexual development(1)

Not 'fitting' femininity

I marked about 200 scripts out of a class of 650. Although I did not do a rigorous quantitative analysis, about 8-10% of women spoke of difficulties in and intense resistance to 'fitting' into prescribed femininity. For some this began at an early age, and became less significant in adolescence. For others, the feelings have persisted to the present age. For some the experience of 'difference' was more an experience of 'fitting in' with both boys and girls, than of not 'fitting in' with femininity. Interestingly this is constructed in retrospect as 'not having a particular gender-role' as illustrated by this quote:

I think of my pre-school years as a struggle since I did not have a particular gender-role. When I was with the boys I acted as if I was one of them but when I was with the girls I did the things girls normally did and enjoyed myself. This struggle with acquiring the 'proper' gender-role continued through to primary school. (my emphasis)

This experience of feeling comfortable with both boys and girls becomes even more difficult at puberty, as illustrated by another story:

When I was 11 or 12 years old I had many more girl friends than when I did when I was younger, but I still had many more boyfriends. I think that I needed those girlfriends to identify with. The physical differences between boys and girls were becoming more prominent and us girls started to discuss the boys who were liked and boys were hated. And because of my strong friendship with the boys I always knew both sides of the story. I even wrote letters on the behalf of the boys to the girls they liked. Sometimes I didn't actually know where I belonged because I wasn't a boy and sometimes the girls treated me like a boy so at times I was left out in the cold, unsure about my place.

For others, the experience of not fitting in, was more one of feeling extremely uncomfortable with the feminine role, for example:

Frill dresses did not suit me, I could not put on socks and get my hair done. I was different. I was always dirty. My mother tried to punish me for that behaviour (getting dirty). Her punishment was not effective. Because I found myself repeating the same thing again. I was everyday with boys, I used to play rough and I was really comfortable with it.

Playing with boys was not encouraged by anybody. Because it changes ones behaviour. My character suddenly changed, I ended up being aggressive. As I grew up, I found myself in a complex situation. People no longer associated with me. They could not play with or around me. I was in darkness, loneliness. My only friend was a bicycle.

.... It was not only my behaviour which was strange, my physical structure said a lot as well. I was so thin and I would eat as if it was for the first time. I was more of a boy than a girl.

... At school it was the same situation. There were playing groups of boys and girls. They would tease you for playing with the wrong gender group. I would be a victim all the time. I felt inferior and neglected.

This quote also illustrates the construction of non-stereotyped behaviour as 'strange', abnormal and of the heavy punishments, both overt and covert, associated with not conforming to the prescribed role.

Boys have more fun

For many of those, described as 'tomboys', wanting to do boy's things seemed to be about desiring to do more physical activities, and was associated with a form of freedom, activity, excitement and danger, denied by femininity:

I got bigger and just about ready to go to school and did not want to do girls stuff anymore. I wanted to try out boys stuff because it seems that they have all the fun. They always played rough, they have to be aggressive in whatever they do and I started to play with them. We jumped over fences and walls. We climbed trees and jumped off roofs. I played with their cars and their toys and I also cried for my own...

My poor mother suffered from all this because she said she wanted to raise a girl not someone that she is not always sure of to what gender it belongs. She wanted to buy dolls and teasets I said no I want cars and guns...

She wanted me to behave like a girl... I can still remember her saying 'If you hurt yourself don't come run to me and I don't even want to hear about it. A girl is not suppose to behave like that. How many times must I tell you that...' ... But typical child I would just ignore all that and would never go to her whenever I got hurt or one of the boys bullied me. I would cry in silence or fought back for all its worth.

The excerpt (above) also illustrates the pressure put on girls by parents, especially mothers who appear as the 'keepers' of femininity. Clearly, the construction of boys as tougher and less vulnerable is attractive to girls, as voiced by another woman's experience:

My parents constantly remind me of how stubborn I was and I can surely remember all those terrible spankings I got. I was very devious, I would without reason bite an unassuming victim, their toes being my speciality. I think my parents spanked me to get rid of my bad habits but also to avoid social embarrassment. Here I was a real hooligan when I was supposed to be all sweet and quiet, of course to fit with the sweet frilly appearance I had. I think if I had been a boy my parents would have attributed