Gender discourse should move beyond accusations of misogyny

We Americans might well be considered to have reached an ideologically advanced state where students at major research universities, if not the hoi polloi, believe that women and men ought to be treated equally. The laudable attendance of classes in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies shows an academic interest in the problematic concept of gender that is ingrained in the contemporary world. The recent movement toward the hiring of a coordinator for the prevention of sexual assault, though sexual assault does not happen only to women, demonstrates the growing willingness of the University’s administration to confront an issue of major concern for many women on campus. And many students, even outside of classes convened specifically to focus on gender, do not hesitate to remark on the gendered nature of texts and those texts’ problematic approaches to women, sex and gender.

Many of these minute protests, I have found, take the form of broad accusations of misogyny against these texts. In my view, such accusations, in a world where the problematic gendered nature of discourse and of human interaction has already been established, reduce a complex problem to a simple wrong on the part of the accused. Though an unthinking male chauvinist might be productively rebuked by an explicit denigration of his ignorant viewpoint, in the classroom, and in other venues where the stakes are more theoretical, one benefits quite a bit less from such broad criticism.

Allow me to give an example. “Forever Overhead,” a story by David Foster Wallace included in the collection “Best American Short Stories 1992” narrates a newly adolescent boy’s introspective visit to the pool on his birthday and the build-up to his plunge from a diving board after the story’s finish. The story is narrated in the second person. Its second paragraph identifies “you,” the protagonist, as an adolescent male. Among other signifiers of such a state is when “two weeks of a deep and frightening ache this past spring left you with something dropped down from inside: your sack is now full and vulnerable, a commodity to be protected.” “You” are, compulsorily, male.

A student might easily, and rightly in some ways, say, “This story is profoundly misogynistic!” His/her classmates would have to agree, both because the story disallows female identification, portraying the paradigmatic experiences of adolescence as solely male, and because the defense of a text accused of such a thing as the hatred of women would set the defendant up for a similar, if implicit, indictment. From there, then, no discussion proceeds. This “misogyny” remains a black mark on the text, but spurs no further remarks in the class. A blatant value judgment establishes the superiority of the students who have joined in diagnosing the text, and with grim but satisfied unanimity, other topics are raised.

It seems to me not only that such broad diagnoses of the text are unproductive due to their lack of rigor, but also that they undermine the purpose many of the finger-pointers try to advance by diagnosing the text. By identifying a very simple and very unjust fault in any text’s approach to gender, one eliminates the significant complexity into which more professional academic accounts tend to delve. This particular story of Wallace’s may allow readerly identification only in the biologically male reader, but in other places Wallace uses “she” as the generic subject pronoun instead of “he”; in the same story collection wherein “Forever Overhead” is found, he includes a story cycle depicting men as the often disgusting (or “Hideous”) human beings as which they might be seen by the other gender; and his fiction in general works against the narcissistic male-centered sexuality depicted by Philip Roth and John Updike (see “The Naked and the Confused” by Katie Roiphe).

In other words, Wallace’s approach to women, gender and sexuality is much more complex than a simple “misogyny.” To label his, or any, text with that simple condemnation eliminates the possibility for any serious consideration of those topics. To allow for nothing other than “misogynistic” texts and “not-misogynistic” texts further solidifies the male-female polarization against which an equal-rights point of view would argue. To eliminate complexity from such accounts precludes any productive, civilized discussion of gender and sexuality and allows only for laconic pronouncements by those who see themselves (in the view of this article, wrongly) as those topics’ greatest advocates.

In class, and in any consideration of gender and sexuality in texts, we should strive to engage in conversation that does not begin and end with “This is misogynistic.” The next step, after our collective realization that men and women deserve to be treated equally, is to develop more complex understandings of why, despite the good intentions of at least this institution of higher education, they are not yet.

Dennis is a senior in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at sweeney@wustl.edu.