Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Toward a Dialectical Model of Family Gender Discourse: Body, Identity, and Sexuality

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Toward a Dialectical Model of Family Gender Discourse: Body, Identity, and Sexuality

Article excerpt

The goal of this article is to propose a dialectical model representing gender discourse in families. A brief review of literature in sociology, psychology, and gender studies focuses on three dialectical issues: nature versus culture, similarity versus difference, and stability versus fluidity. Deconstructing gender theories from a postmodern feminist perspective, the authors discuss agency and context in families' gender discourse. Narrative excerpts from interviews with an adolescent daughter and her mother illustrate three emergent themes in the social construction of gender: body, identity, and sexuality. The article concludes with recommendations for family researchers.

Key Words: dialectics, feminist theories, gender discourse, narrative, postmodern families.

Over the past decade, family scholars increasingly have used social constructionist approaches to studying gender (Fox & Murray, 2000). From a social constructionist perspective, cultural discourse, or the institutional and social practices through which our experience of gender is organized, is seen as constituting gender (Leaper, 2000). In this article, as in most gender scholarship since the 1970s (Connell, 1999), the term sex is used to refer to physical differentiation (i.e., male-female) whereas the term gender is used to refer to a social construction (i.e., masculine-feminine).

Public discourse on gender is recognizable both in formal teachings and in informal messages from folk stories, conversations with friends, and communications media. At the same time, as individual family members interact with each other, they coconstruct their own family-level gender discourse. In fact, the everyday practices of families-feeding, bathing, dressing, and clothing-communicate to infants, children, and adolescents a set of meanings about appropriate gender behavior in a particular family. Often, but not always, parents' and children's gendered behaviors are sex typed, or consistent with stereotypes about their biological sex, such as when parents of infants talk more to girls than to boys. As a feminist project, this article is part of a public discourse of gender. We view the dominant discourse of gender stereotyping as restrictive and problematic both for individuals and for families.

The purpose of this article is to propose a dialectical model representing gender discourse in families. To accomplish this goal, we first brielly review social constructionist approaches to studying gender and identify three dialectical issues: nature versus culture, similarity versus difference, and stability versus fluidity. Next, we adopt a postmodern feminist perspective to deconstruct gender by focusing on agency and identity and on contextualism in families' gender discourse. Three emergent themes in the social construction of gender-body, identity, and sexuality-are illustrated with narrative excerpts from interviews with an adolescent daughter and her mother. We conclude by examining ways in which dialectical issues constitute the process of gender discourse in families.

THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF GENDER IN POSTMODERN FAMILIES

Many scholars have suggested that the strongest influence on children's gender occurs within families when parents communicate their beliefs-sometimes unconsciously- about sex and gender (Eccles, 1993; Leaper, 2000; Maccoby, 1998). Researchers have demonstrated that family interactions often reveal implicit gender ideologies, scripts, or rituals that enable family members to coconstruct shared understandings of the dominant gender discourse in society (Bern, 1993; Coltrane, 1998). Parents typically scaffold the child's gradual understanding of the world as gendered, either confirming or rejecting the dominant gender discourse (Coltrane & Adams, 1997). In this process of social construction (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Gergen, 1994), both children and parents contribute to a family's unique interpretation of sex-typed gender stereotypes, known as gender schemas. …

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