From the 'Margins' to the 'Mainstream': Gender Identity and Fraternity Men's Discourse

By Kiesling, Scott Fabius | Women and Language, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

From the 'Margins' to the 'Mainstream': Gender Identity and Fraternity Men's Discourse


Kiesling, Scott Fabius, Women and Language


Recent work by researchers of what we might call `marginalized' gender identities have suggested that gender is creatively constructed and fluid, and that language plays a large part in this construction. In this paper, I consider what happens when we take lessons learned from these studies of gender at the `margins' and apply them to analyses of more `mainstream' gender displays. I begin with a discussion of some of these studies, and their implications for theory in language and gender. I then move to an analysis of talk in a fraternity, presenting three different excerpts of one man's talk. Finally, I discuss how we might construct a theoretical framework to account for speakers who use language to display `mainstream' gender identities as well as those who present us with more `marginalized' gender identities.

Recently, researchers such as Hall (forthcoming), Hall and O'Donovan (1995), and Gaudio (forthcoming) have investigated transgendered identities in India and Africa, respectively, and shown how biological males combine elements of `masculinity' and `femininity' contingently to create gender identities that change from situation to situation. These researchers show, through analyses of these `marginalized' genders, that gender is a creative construction that is fluid and situated. Hall's hijras and Gaudio's `yan daudu use the linguistic forms and strategies culturally associated with both `masculinity' and `femininity' as resources for constructing their identities, often constructing more culturally `feminine' than `masculine' identities. They are considered `transgendered' because their biology does not line up in culturally expected ways with their gender construction. However, as Butler (1993:133) points out, "the denaturalization of sex does not imply liberation from hegemonic constraint." That is, these identities are created against a background of an ideology which values and reproduces dichotomous gender categories, `masculine' and `feminine', and it is these `pure' genders that the transgendered individuals allude to -- or even try to recreate -- when they construct their `marginalized' identities. Thus, they use `mainstream' resources to create an identity that challenges that very mainstream.

Two important insights arise from these studies of `marginalized' genders. First, as many of these researchers argue (along with Kessler and McKenna 1978 and Butler 1990), we find that gender is not something that is an essence, but is rather a construction; as Tannen (1994a, 1994b), following Goffman (1977), points out, gender is a display of a connection to a `sex-class' such as `men' and `women.' Second, we see that these constructions exist within a cultural context that provides models and expectations for these sex-classes, and that these models and expectations can restrict the kinds of genders that people may construct. Of course, people can also resist these models, or be ignorant of them, or use the `wrong' model. Thus, the transgendered hijra and `yan daudu are marginalized precisely because they illustrate the constructed nature of gender. What we see, then, is social structure in the form of cultural models not necessarily restricting behavior, but being used as resources for social practice. There is thus a tension between the emergent, constructed nature of gender, and the structurally restricted cultural models of gender: a tension between social practice and social structure.

But what happens when these lessons from the `margins' of gender identity are brought to bear on linguistic constructions of gender in the `mainstream'? Namely, how is gender constructed among a group of predominantly European-American, straight, middle-class men in their late teens and early twenties who are members of a culturally conservative organization -- the college fraternity? Can we see the same process taking place as when the `yan daudu `act like women'? My answer to the final question -- if a simple answer were required -- is `yes,' in that the men I study draw on cultural models, as do the `yan daudu, although the fraternity men employ these models quite differently. …

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