Why Anne Makes Us Dizzy: Reading Anne of Green Gables from a Gender Perspective

By McQUILLAN, Julia; Pfeiffer, Julie | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Anne Makes Us Dizzy: Reading Anne of Green Gables from a Gender Perspective


McQUILLAN, Julia, Pfeiffer, Julie, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Critics struggle to understand how gender influences authors and readers, focussing usually on gender as something that exists purely in individuals. These authors read Anne of Green Gables to demonstrate how what social scientists call "a gender perspective" gives us new insights into literary texts.

Matthew [...] was getting a little dizzy. He felt as he had once felt in his rash youth when another boy had enticed him on the merry-go-round at a picnic.

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

One of the central projects of feminist criticism has been to rediscover and reinterpret works of fiction lost in patriarchal assumptions of female inadequacies. The tomboy figure has proved particularly rewarding for such analyses, providing the feminist critic with the raw stuff for paradigms of female value and rebellion against stereotypes of female passivity. But, while classic girls' books such as Anne of Green Gables have often been seen as supportive of girls as powerful actors, they still reinforce the gendered social structure.

Literary studies often see gender as a role that a character can put on and take off (for specific examples, see Kornfeld and Jackson; Inness). These authors use a methodology typical of literary critics, focussing their attention on how gender operates within the individual and seeing gender as a series of roles, hanging perhaps like dresses in a closet. Rather than conceptualize gender as simply a role, we borrow from recent work on gender in the social sciences that emphasizes gender as co-created by situated behaviour and social structure. Our goal is to add to literary discussions of gender by conceptualizing gender as something people construct through action and as a social structure that shapes interactions. We argue that even, or especially, when heroines like Anne lack gender-specific attributes, they still reinforce the social construction of gender. Gender theory asks us to look at these novels not simply in terms of empowerment--either the heroine's own (Weiss-Townsend; Foster and Simmons) or th at of a female community (Gay; Huse; Foster and Simmons; Kornfeld and Jackson)--but also as examples of the ever-present focus on difference in our culture. Gender theory provides a lens to see how girls' books and their independent heroines paradoxically provide lessons that reinforce gender-based inequality even as they challenge it.

Our focus in this essay is on analyzing the multiple ways that gender operates in Anne of Green Gables. Gender theory, as conceptualized by Barbara Risman in Gender Vertigo, which builds on the work of other contemporary social science researchers, offers different conceptual levels of analysis--individual, interactional, and institutional--that are all influenced by gender as a structure. We examine Anne of Green Gables at each of the levels that Risman defines in order to uncover the ways that the novel shows instances of, and reinforces, gender regimes. Just as Matthew experiences vertigo while listening to Anne's conversational fluency, reading a text using multiple levels of analysis can make us dizzy.

The key to understanding Risman's notion of gender as structure lies in understanding her belief in the inadequacies of current ways of thinking about gender. Risman argues that theories that locate gender only in the individual, only in institutions, or only in interaction oversimplify the complexities of gender.

Locating gender in the individual, for example, as sex-role and socialization theories do, makes gender something static. These theories presume that gender is something created at conception (biological theories) or in childhood (socialization theories) and that it is not subject to changes. If you have been "socialized" to be a girl you'll always be feminine. But we know that feminine girls sometimes grow up to be unfeminine women; we know that identity is not constant over time (Lorber, Gender). …

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