Gender Performativity in Literary Texts and Media

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In this essay, I will be discussing how throughout history, literary texts have surrounded themselves with the limitations of gender as well as the transgressions of gender. Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, in ‘The Roaring Girl’, challenge the traditional gender conventions through the character of Moll Cutpurse. Similarly, Zadie Smith’s, ‘NW’ also questions the binaries of a heteronormative patriarchy through the female protagonists Leah and Natalie. While ‘The Roaring Girl ‘was published in the sixteenth century and ‘NW’ in the twenty-first first, both novels question humanities understanding of gender; precisely, when it comes to the female who is confined and restricted by masculine hegemony. This brings to light the conclusion that ‘gender itself has come to be understood as the category which more clearly exhibits the intersection of different forms of oppression’. Gender has played a key role in London which by one’s gender often determined their status and place in society.

Zadie Smith’s ‘NW’ explores the female gender in relation to marriage and motherhood. Leah and Natalie both demonstrate opposing views towards motherhood, however they both challenge the monolithic ideas surrounding the female gender. Leah is unsure as to whether she wants to enter motherhood as she associates motherhood with death, relinquishing her youth. Hence, she takes the pill without the knowledge of others (her mother and husband) despite the constant pressure to bear a child. Motherhood has been intertwined with the female gender for centuries in literature and is often seen as a rite of passage for womanhood. Judith Butler applies performativity to gender showing that “what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body. In this way, it showed that what we take to be an “internal” feature of ourselves is one that we anticipate and produce through certain bodily acts, at an extreme, a hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures” Thus, Leah secretly taking the pill is an act of deviation from social norms as she rejects the idea of the archetypal woman.

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The institution of motherhood is seen as a performative act of the female gender, forcing women to be understood through essentialism. ‘NW’ highlights the performativity surrounded by the idea of motherhood in literature and society. Leah is trapped between conforming to gender norms and discovering herself. This results in a life crisis where Leah is forced to deal with her unresolved sexuality. Leah is subjected to the heteronormative colonization of the society she lives in in terms of her sexuality and gender. She supresses her lesbian desires, choosing to accept the heterosexuality imposed onto her. Unable to live up to the standards of the ‘ideal woman’, Leah is ashamed of herself. This demonstrates the potential marginalization which is a result of not submitting to heteronormativity imposed by society.

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