Gender and Sexuality in the 21st Century Literature

The greatest conceptual innovation introduced by the feminist movement is the decoupling of sex from gender, the significance of which goes beyond the case of women. Sex refers to the anatomical structure of our bodies, whether male or female; gender refers to the values and norms assigned by social convention to those bodies, “womanhood” for females and “manhood” for males. While sex as a biological notion is more or less fixed, gender as a cultural notion is not. There is no “natural” or essential connection between the female body and the social conventions of womanhood, and the same goes for the male body and conventions of manhood.

Being a “woman” or a “man” is a matter of gender rather than sex. As can be seen from the conventional examples above, womanhood tends to be defined as the negative opposite of manhood, and these ideas tend to be affixed to female and male bodies. When we see “woman” or “man” as social constructs rather than immutable truths we begin to understand how such stereotyping can flatten irreducible differences among women and among men, and impose an artificial hierarchy that puts women generally and men that don’t comply with accepted notions of masculinity, at a disadvantage. Not all women are predisposed to motherhood or homemaking, for example, and in a patriarchal society that privileges men in the workplace, there is less elbow room for women to develop careers outside the home, especially careers that do not comply with gender hierarchies in the workplace (e.g., we can imagine a rather backward scenario wherein a woman is not allowed to be a manager over male employees by virtue of her sex). For men too, this kind of social formation influenced by particular notions of masculinity imposes pressures: a househusband to a career woman faces discrimination, as well as men seen to be exhibiting “feminine” traits frowned upon as belonging to the so-called “weaker sex.” These ideas also damage the spheres tangled up in the discrimination of the sexes: for example, the workplace can be privileged to the detriment of the home, and competition (seen as a “masculine” trait) can be favored over cooperation (seen as a “feminine” trait).

Thankfully, because of feminism, oppressive structures that privilege the male body, gender, and associated values are now (in enlightened societies at least) routinely put in question. It is because of feminism and other forms of identity politics that represent disempowered subjects (like ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians) that it’s now considered politically incorrect (and even socially embarrassing) to be racist, sexist, or homophobic. Women’s liberation movements have made possible, through long and painful struggles, the availability of education to women, the ratification of women’s rights, criminalization of domestic abuse, rape, and other forms of harassment.

Conceptually, the loosening of the connection between sex and gender (between the female/male body and womanhood/manhood as a set of socially-ascribed roles) enabled us to imagine not just either sex taking on roles traditionally set for the other sex, but also a wider and fluid spectrum of gender and sexual identities. An example would be subtle differences among male homosexuals themselves, like how the Filipino bakla differs from the Western gay: the bakla tends to see herself as a “woman trapped inside a man’s body,” a gendered understanding of oneself as a man with the qualities of a woman, while the Western gay would define gayness as a sexual rather than a gender preference, as a man who desires sex with another man (Manalansan 2006). Following suit after feminism are movements for equal rights, recognition, and freedoms to be allowed to both males and females who do not self-identify with the rigidly set genders. The popular LGBT acronym that stands for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals is to date still being adjusted to accommodate other identities, with the expanded term LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex, asexual, and more) now being circulated. 

We’ve been talking about gender and sexual difference among people, how about gender and sexual difference within a person? We can think about it in two ways. First, we can think about it in terms of identity in the plural, as identities. For example, is it possible for a person to be anatomically female, sexually-oriented as a lesbian, androgynous in choice of dress, motherly as a woman breastfeeding a child, and working in the male-dominated world of computer industries? Do these identities have to not conflict with each other in one person? Rather than unified constructs, identities are internally fragmented, have rough edges, and are multifarious. On a less radical scale, is it possible for a woman to possess qualities traditionally ascribed to men like physical strength, intelligence, leadership qualities, and so on? The answer is, of course, a resounding yes, and that woman is not less of a woman and more of a man because these traits are in principle gender-free. Second, we can think about the internal differences in terms of identity being open rather than closed. For example, just because one is born female and grows up heterosexually a female does not mean she cannot enjoy lesbian sex without self-identifying as a lesbian. Identities are fluid; there are no hard and fast boundaries between them, and they are always open to change.

Given the comparably gender-democratic setup, we have now thanks to consciousness-raising efforts by feminist movements (though some societies are still hardcore patriarchal, and subtle forms of gender discrimination still abound even in liberal societies), it can be a bit baffling and sad why feminism at present is made fun of A movement that fights stereotypes is itself being stereotyped as a kind of reverse sexism (female as the superior sex) or lesbian utopianism (dream of an all-female world that does away with males altogether) led by masculine or hypersexual women. There is a sense, too, that feminism may have created new pressures for women along with new liberties, for example, the pressure to be financially independent while pulling double duty as both “mother” and “father” to a child. In the name of embracing one’s sexuality, feminism may have given license to hypersexed depictions of women, a depiction of course that satisfies the male gaze all the more. Despite these, women are historically enjoying more liberties now compared to before.

Feminism as a revolutionary movement eventually lost steam, understandably, due to internal differences that led to the breaking down of the movement into factions. Women as a shared category proved untenable in the long run because as “identities” in the plural go, gender is just one aspect of identity; there are huge and oftentimes irreconcilable differences between first world women and third world women, white women and women of color, middle-class women and working-class women, straight women and homosexual women, etc. The good thing is that these factions can look at the various domains of female experience in more focused ways, rather than settling for generalizations for the sake of keeping a united front. Besides, why settle for a middle-class white woman’s experience as a paradigm for women all over the world? For taking differences into account, feminism has reached a point of maturity, able to reflect upon itself as it continues to win battles on behalf of those disenfranchised by society, woman or otherwise.

In Yvette Tan’s wildly entertaining yet very disturbing short story “Seek Ye Whore” (2010), Filipina mail order brides take their sweet revenge against their beholden white male husbands in a magical realist universe that grants them bewitching powers from Siquijor (“Seek Ye Whore” homonym) combined with 21st-century technological magic. In the story set in the United States, desk-bound American men use their credit cards to avail of the perfect wife from Siquijorbrides.corn, a Web site in substandard English
with a photo catalogue of “exotic” Filipina beauties in provocative poses doing household chores. These mail order brides literally arrive by mail in installments to save on shipping costs. Over the course of two months the “body in transit” arrives first as a leg, then another leg, a torso, a bust, an arm, the other arm, and finally the head. The men assemble the female body parts as they arrive by mail, one body part per week, each body part alive and capable of performing. Horror and hilarity escalate as the plot follows the week-by-week assembling of one bride in the home of her man where she is shown preparing restaurant-worthy meals using just two legs, a body, and one arm, or keeping her man awake at night demanding to be sexually satisfied, the man giving in though she’s literally just genitals, breasts, and limbs.

The brides’ revenge is presented as ambivalent. On the one hand, by grossly satisfying their husbands’ wishes the brides were able to drive the men into emotional, sexual, and physical submission. In the story, one of the men ended up obese and infantilized being fed and served like a king by his bride; another man ended up relocating to the Philippines—and both men were comically depicted as the happiest they’ve ever been though totally controlled by the Filipina wife of their dreams. On the other hand, the brides could overpower the men only by first becoming perfect objects of male fantasies: domestically subservient but aggressive in bed, with innocent faces on porn star bodies, and (most disturbing of all) capable of deriving pleasure from male subjugation as in the case of the male protagonist who, realizing himself the sex slave of his bride, retaliated in a fit of anger by choking her headless neck only to find her sexually aroused by the pain.

The story is told from the point of view of one American husband, with dramatic irony at work: the reader watches in horror as the fantasy-come-to-life becomes a beautiful monster in the house, and the man unable to discern his bondage. This point of view excludes the thoughts of the woman—if she had any at all, given that she’s depicted more as a body with drives, her agency coming from her passions rather than from a nuanced personhood. However, even as an assemblage of body parts she is able to cook pie with a deadly shard of glass in it when she wanted to express anger at her man who will eat it for lunch. The female body, though objectified, is depicted to be still capable of not just expression but also sly resistance and damage.

The magical realism in the tale made literally absurd the objectification of women as mere body parts, unveiling the fantasy of pornography—a fantasy that casts women as mere flesh and no brain, grotesquely depicted in the tale as headless vixens in bed, and the men desiring this monstrosity they have created. The metafiction in the tale exposed the fictions that men in a male-dominated world tend to make up about women, and how these fictions both overvalue and undervalue women (as objects of worship and possession). In a power reversal, the end sees the female subjects as mistresses rather than slaves, though the men-slaves still think of themselves the masters over their women.

Aside from the gender issue, this tale is also interesting in the way issues of race and class are layered on gender identities. The men are whites and middle-class rich, comfortably residing in American cities; the women are dark-skinned, “sourced” from a poor province in the developing world, exoticized for their looks and origins in a mystical culture.

Postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reworked the com-mon word “subaltern” to show how certain groups of people can be marginalized along the lines of not just gender and sexuality, but also race, ethnicity, class, location, neo/post/colonial relations, religion, etc., as intersecting hierarchical systems of values. As in the case of Filipina mail order brides, subalterns are overwritten by various discourses that push them further down the hierarchy, e.g., in a context where patriarchy intersects with colonial history and economic inequality, the identity of the Filipina mail-order bride is rendered inferior on at least three accounts: racially as dark-skinned, socially as lower class, sexually as a woman. “Seek Ye Whore” may be a fun read, but the ironic tone touches on familiar and uncomfortable figures: the mail order bride as a woman opening herself to exploitation for hope of salvation from poverty, ridiculed as a whore but envied for being a foreigner’s wife, looked down as desperate for a partner who will appreciate her looks (because her own neocolonial community prefers their women fair-skinned and mestiza-looking); on the other hand there’s also the figure of the white male who could not stand a woman his equal and so resorts to a wife-slave who needs rescuing from her backward culture. These are of course stereotypes, and they arise from prevailing discourses like Orientalism. 

According to another postcolonial critic Edward Said who coined the word, Orientalism names the discourse (or belief system) that ushered and sustained western conquest of the “orient,” an imagined construct that views the east and its people as the west’s negative opposite or other. With the west envisioning itself as rational, civilized, advanced, and carrying the “white man’s burden” of enlightening sav-age “others,” the west’s “discovery” and colonization of areas seen as irrational or backward and in need of saving was justified. This discourse is gendered and racialized: the masculine west was also beholden by travelers’ tales feminizing the orient as not only weak and inferior, but also magical and ancient, exotic and decadent, spectacular and wealthy, “dark” and mysterious—as in colonial fantasies of lavishly clothed “Indian queens” marrying European men and converting from an indigenous mystical religion to Christianity (originally an eastern religion but appropriated and politicized by the west). This discourse is also gen-dered in another way, as can be demonstrated by two of Shakespeare’s plays: in Antony and Cleopatra, the Romans represented by Antony are strong-willed governors, while the feminized old world of Cleopatra is breaking down under the weight of its own decadence and vulnerability to (male) Roman conquest; in Othello, the noble Moor of Venice is anxiously viewed by Venetian society as a “Turk” unfit to marry the virginal Desdemona, the quintessential Venetian woman. In the latter, the discourse of Orientalism cast the dark-skinned male subject as a sexual beast in contrast to the pure white woman. Orientalism also tended to feminize native men, or to generally cast natives as immature children under a “fatherly” colonial state.

When one does a close reading of the two Shakespeare plays above, they appear to not only demonstrate the workings of Orientalism, but also the anxieties on the part of the colonizers when faced with the object of their colonial/sexual gaze. Antony dies with Cleopatra, with Antony depicted as “emasculated” by love for Cleopatra; the noble and upright Othello is viewed by white Venetian men with hostility because he won Desdemona’s affection through tales of his adventures to faraway lands, a parallel to how western imperial fantasies were piqued by travelers’ tales.

Let’s return to Spivak’s “subaltern.” The subaltern cannot speak, according to Spivak, because being positioned outside of the dominant culture, they have no voice of their own and could only be “spoken for” by those whose voices are acknowledged by the dominant culture (e.g., men speaking on behalf of women, the rich speaking on behalf of the poor, intellectuals speaking for the uneducated, so on). When subalterns attempt to speak, there is usually the need to resort to the language of the oppressor in order to be understood (e.g., when the brides give in to their husbands’ demands in order to get what they want). Spivak’s point is not that subjugated voices cannot be recovered; what she’s pushing for is the taking into account of the various disc
ourses through which subalterns speak, the contexts that shape and filter their articulation rather than what is said at face value.

Literary texts can be thought of as representing the genders and the relations between them. Below are three poems. The first two are motherhood poems by Maria Luisa F. Torres (2011), a mother speaking to her son. What kinds of pressure does a mother juggling home and vocation face, especially as she is being watched by a young son who will possibly grow up without having to face those same pressures himself?

The third one is a “genderless” poem by B.B.P. Hosmillo (2016). What if the genders as represented in a text are not explicitly identified? “Explicit Hearts” is about two people in an unusually strong (“supernatural”) loving relationship, one that carries on in the face of death. Can you tell the gender of the lovers in the poem? Are their genders important to make sense of the poem?

Write a paper on “Explicit Hearts.” Be guided in your reading by the questions above. Begin with what you know are the traditional roles assigned to a male and female lover. Based on this, can you tell whether the speaker of the poem is male or female? Contrast the explicitness of their feelings for one another with the lack of explicitness in their genders. Do you think this is done on purpose? Why?

Ideas for creative work:

  1. Try your hand at creative writing and reimagine the poem in terms of the gendered differences between the couple. Without changing the basic details of the dramatic situation, assign a sex to the two: what is the sex of the speaker and the one spoken to in the poem? Do they or do they not comply with traditional roles assigned to the sexes? (Or, in the case of same-sex marriage, will the gender designation matter or not?) Come up with a few different scenarios that reimagine the poem as being about two gendered subjects, living together and approaching the end of their lives. In what ways do thinking about gender affect the story?
  2. Dramatize the situation in the poem “Sa Anak na Nahihimbing.” Here are two options:
    • Stage the conflict between the original characters in the poem, the mother persona and her son. Highlight the struggles particular to the working mother in a society that idealizes women as homemakers. End your dramatization by adding a response from the son, who was five years old in the poem but now a grown-up man in your dramatization. What would his response be to his mother?
    • Stage the conflict but this time, change the original mother-son pair to a father-daughter pair, with the father a househusband in a society that idealizes men as breadwinners. End your dramatization by adding a response from the daughter, who was five years old like the son in the poem but now a grown-up woman in your dramatization. What would her response be to her father?