Death of the Critic

Gender Theory

Written by: Tom Blaich

As this site moves forward and we begin to introduce more complex topics it will become useful for us to give a primer in some of the themes and ideas that we are talking about. We've done a little bit of this already, but we will be digging in a little deeper into the topics in question. Death of the Critic is, at its heart, a critical website where we try to take a deeper look at different aspects of media. From movies to games to music and more, we aim to enhance the discussion around media in order to deepen our knowledge and understanding.

Let’s talk about schools of theory. When we critique, frequently we do so through a specific lens. Works can have a lot of meaning hidden deep within them, and if we aimed to fully analyze a book, movie, or game, we could easily fill an entire book. So we use these schools of theory as a way to focus in on one particular area of a work. This helps us hone in on a specific idea and expand upon it more fully than if we had tried to do a very broad reading. By centering on one aspect, the analysis becomes more clear and focused.

Continuing on from our discussion from last week, let’s talk about Gender Theory. The other half of our look at
Queer Theory, Gender Theory is the examination of the dynamic between men and women in texts. This can be anything from the way that a woman is depicted as opposed to a man, what they say, the prevalence of male versus female characters, or they way that they interact. And once again, just like with Queer Theory, this school of thought pulls in methods from New Historicism, New Criticism, Structuralism, and more.

If you were to read a copy of Theodore Dreisler’s
Sister Carrie (1900) side by side with a copy of Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black (2010), you are going to see substantial differences in the way women are portrayed. Even though both books are about a woman, Sister Carrie revolves around her relationship with men and how it affects her path through life, and Orange is the New Black is about the path a woman takes through her mistakes in life that aren’t predicated on how she interacts with men.

Gender Theory would have us examine these differences, but also look at the power structures that surround each woman. A woman moving alone to the big city in 1900 was a substantial enough event that it prompted exploration through a text, but in 2010, the idea of a woman living alone is much more commonplace. This is part of the reason that
Sister Carrie heavily revolves around her relationship with men, because the abnormal situation in which she finds herself in could be solved by having her live with a man. Then we have Kerman’s story of her incarceration, which  gave audiences a look at women’s prison, something that is very foreign to most readers and looks at the dynamic between women in a gynocentric society.

As with Queer Theory, Gender Theory is a vast topic, and as such, authors usually choose to focus in on one aspect to talk about, like our pieces on showing sex in film. Due to the inherently broad focus (most stories have both male and female characters interacting in some way) it is enormously beneficial to look at one part, from individual tropes like the Damsel in Distress or the Nagging Housewife, to  what happens in a single story, like the
freewheeling women of Some Like it Hot, to the sex objects of Michael Bay’s Transformers films.

Gender Theory does in fact cover both sides, looking at the roles men take as versus women. The reason that criticism usually focuses on women and their roles comes down to the simple fact that in the vast majority of texts, women are placed into lower roles than men. It is a much more interesting question to look into why women always need to be rescued than why men are really good at shooting guns.

That is not to say that these questions are not looked at. In more recent years, the exploration of the ingrained gender roles has become broader as we look at the way we push genders towards prescribed roles, nudging boys to be more aggressive and violent, and girls to be more subservient and passive.

As with many of the contemporary schools of criticism, Gender Theory is often used in concert with other schools and methods to more fully analyze the different and complex aspects of a text. It is a lens to look at a text through, and not a set of rules to religiously follow.

Further Readings:
Imitation and Gender Insubordination - Judith Butler
From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies - Molly Haskell
A History of Sexuality - Michel Foucault


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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