Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture

Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture

Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture

Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture


An expert on the rhetoric of the mass media, John M. Sloop has written several books on how the spoken and written word can influence political and cultural debate. In Disciplining Gender, he turns his attention to a topic that has attracted widespread public discussion--the treatment of gender ambiguity in American culture. He offers critical readings of five cases, showing the extent to which, in each instance, public discourse and media representations have served to reinforce dominant norms and constrain or "discipline" any behavior that blurs or subverts conventional gender boundaries. The five cases include John/Joan or David Reimer, Brandon Teena, k.d. lang, Janet Reno, and Barry Winchell/Calpernia Addams. Sloop draws on queer theory and research in the field of critical rhetoric to examine representations of "gender trouble" in these much-publicized stories. In each case, he provides a comprehensive analysis of the public discussions of their significance. In short, rather than simply study the people and circumstances involved in each case, he examines the public meanings attached to them and the implications of those meanings for how contemporary culture comes to understand what "man" and "woman" mean and which sexual behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. In highlighting the ideological constraints imposed by our society, Sloop also suggests the ways that these constraints might be loosened and understandings of gender and sexuality diversified.


Constraint calls to be rethought as the very condition of performativity. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter

Gender ambiguity, in and of itself, answers to many different political masters. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, “The Guarded Body”

This “politics of home” would analyze the persistence of sexual difference for organizing identity categories. It would highlight the costs to the subject of not being clearly locatable in relation to sexual difference. Jay Prosser, Second Skins

It is evident to any observer of popular culture that the 1990s were a decade in which sexual and gender norms, and the popularly understood “morals” underlying these norms, were challenged and battled over on multiple fronts. From 20/20 to Jerry Springer, from medical journals to South Park, from country music to retro glam, from Clintonapos;s White House, from editorial pages to ballpark conversations, a wide variety of ambiguously gendered and/or alternatively sexualized individuals were poked, prodded, presented, repoked, re-prodded, and re-presented. In each representation of, and conversation about, gender trouble, or gender ambiguity, cultural critics could of course find an ongoing cultural negotiation over what the dominant meanings of gender, sex, and sexuality should be. It is in these public representations and the ways individuals interpret and struggle over them that ideological transition and change can take place. Indeed, an optimistic critic might look at these representations and their interpretation in order to note—and reify—particular ways in which public understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality have changed “for the better. ”

While a case could indeed be made that the last few decades have . . .

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