Howling for Gender and Sexual Justice

Alex_Stevens_werewolf_Dark_Shadows_1969

By Matthew Chase

Gender suffers from lycanthropy. It is the werewolf, in other words. Granted, this monster metaphor is perhaps harder to see and imagine than the last two I wrote about, let alone describe it within one blog post. Yet it goes to show the uncertainty of what exactly we mean by gender. Unlike class, the concept of gender is not as strongly based on wealth or at least, we are not socialized to think so. The reality of women tells a very different story, however. The income levels between men and women remain unequal, that there exists a glass ceiling for women both professionally and academically. What about the management and global sale of women’s bodies for the pleasures and profits of men via prostitution, human trafficking, sweat factories, and pornography? All of which would point to the oppression of women. Again though, this is not our common imagination of gender.

Like race, our imagination of gender is tied and limited to the human body. It is here that we begin to see the similarities between gender and werewolf, for the werewolf is defined by biology. The werewolf is part man and it is part beast. Gender faces a very similar contrast to how it is constructed as we often think about the female and male biologies: reproductive organs, genitalia, hormones, etc. I say “constructed” because gender is not really about these things. Gender identities are informed by the society, and herein lies the problem. Our understanding of gender is still stuck in the debate of nature versus nurture. What part of our identity is natural and what part of it is social?

When we’re talking nature and nurture, we’re really talking about sex and gender. Sex represents biology. Sex is the essential part of ourselves, and it informs the gender we are supposed to take on: the behaviors, the expectations, and the roles we are supposed to assume and act on. It becomes clear that these roles are simply props, parts to play organized on a much larger stage. Yet we never seem able to tell sex and gender apart from each other.

We do gender. It’s an act, a performance, conforming to the roles provided to us. Much like how the werewolf blends in the society for survival, the townsfolk unaware of his beastly “nature,” we conform to gender norms so as to avoid detection and punishment for being deviant. At least, this is the logic behind doing gender. Yet it neglects to consider the uncertainties of what we mean by sex. How does this sex-gender logic explain intersexed people (i.e., people born with both male and female genitalia) and cultures that have more than two genders? A parallel could be drawn with the werewolf, as his biology is constantly changed and reimagined from film to film, book to book. Sometimes he appears more humanlike, and in other instances he is represented as a pure wolf. It is not a spectrum, but a continuum and goes to show the faults with either-or gender logic.

The flaws become even more apparent as we consider the werewolf’s own gender. Throughout this blog, I have identified the werewolf as masculine, as a “he” or “him,” and this is no typo on my part. Both media and folklore depicting the werewolf have been overwhelmingly and historically male. The Wolfman. This portrayal suggests the presence of maleness over the absence of femaleness. The werewolf represents not only terror and violence, but strength and dominance as well. It is the ideal masculine figure, much like how the vampire is the ideal white figure. The same could not be said for women, who are all but absent in the werewolf mythology.

Consider women’s standpoints or lack thereof in history textbooks, for example. Women’s history gets an official month, but why is it that men’s history is enjoyed all year-round? That is male privilege. Women and feminine narratives are effectively removed. The situation is even more biting as the writers and teachers of history are overwhelmingly men.

Dore_ridinghoodThe only significant role that women assume in the werewolf narrative is that of the victim. Horror fiction and cinema consistently portray women characters in such roles, framing them as vulnerable and perhaps even deserving of their grim fate. Not to say men are immune to the violence, as violent crime statistics show men as being more likely to be the victims of male violence. This hyper-masculinity is matched with the werewolf’s hyper-heterosexuality. The werewolf is portrayed as a very sexual being in film and folklore, expressed both through sex appeal and violence, preying on women in particular.

At the same time, his sexuality is uncertain (sensing a theme here) considering how his “animal” side goes against the bestiality taboo. It is not uncommon in U.S. politics to hear the claim that we will slide down a very slippery slope to bestiality if same-sex marriage is legalized. As ridiculous as this claim is, it nonetheless shows how sexual ambiguities are not just resisting heteronormativity but perhaps justifying it as well. Drag queen shows are an excellent point, showcasing a transgressive gender performance that is both personal and political. In the werewolf mythos, his ambiguities incite justified violence from the townsfolk. In a similar vein, LGBTQ communities are framed as a problem, a threat to the social order and therefore require punishment for their “transgressions.” All of which reinforces gender and heterosexual norms. If we are to cure this lycanthropy, we require change at the interpersonal and the institutional levels. We need a careful and a caring revolution, with more equitable social services and protections for all genders, for all sexualities. We need more opportunities for women and queer leaders in all spheres of public life, to challenge our werewolf monstrosity of a society and undo gender.

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