The Pressure to Perform

Throughout the various posts in this blog we’ve explored the pressure of performativity in literature and life, and examined how gender performativity enforces traditional gender role stereotypes that are based on heteronormative values  (See the terminology page for a refresher on bold terms).  The pressure to perform an ideal, normative female identity exists strongly  in Western society and is a tremendous pressure experienced by girls and women. The pressure to perform the acceptable expression of an ideal femininity is so extreme, it is nearly impossible for any woman to meet; who can be sufficiently skinny, attractive, passive, innocent, sexy, and  traditional all at the same time in order to be a ‘good woman’?

In Defoe‘s Moll Flanders we saw how the pressure to act out traditional gender expectations was given more societal value than the fight to survive. As Moll fights to survive in the social conditions she experiences by adapting her identity to varying situations, we consistently see society’s negative connotation of Moll’s non-traditional femininity – a woman being active instead of passive is shocking.

All of the works mentioned here have allowed women to create their own identities.

All of the works mentioned here have allowed women to create their own identities.

In Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic we saw how the pressure to conform and perform a normative identity of gender and sexuality is strongly enforced. Bechdel’s autobiographical account reveals to us that the pressure to perform starts at a very young age and that it takes a great level of courage to resist social pressure and perform your own identity.

In Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creatures play, we saw emotional effect and vulnerability created by performativity. The script expresses how the pressure to choose a female identity and then adequately perform in society, is challenging, hurtful, and ultimately unjust. From Eve we also see that through resistance, discourses can be broken.

From Judith Butler’s perspective on the construction of gender through performativity, we have been enlightened and given a new critical perspective to approach notions of gender and sexuality in our lives. We can move past the idea of gender as a determinant and rigid feature of our lives, and towards the idea that gender is constructed – meaning we can take control of our performances.

We’ve examined how discourse makes meaning, produces a subject, and legitimizes power – often expressing discourses of gender and sexuality  of male/female, dominance/submission, and heterosexual/homosexual. While literature and language is a prominent form of discourse that has historically been one of the main means we’ve come to understand both gender and sexuality, there  are two increasingly popular and important forms of discourse prominent in our society today – the media and the online world.

A large portion of time for many individuals is spent consuming media images (television, movies, magazines, advertisements), and engaging in the online world provided by internet sites as well as social media. We are presented with a literally endless amount of ideals of gender and sexuality through these forms of discourse – and an audience so extensively large it has never before been reached. Media forms are translated into multiple languages and the internet is highly accessible from almost any location, creating an alarming  level of power in these forms of discourse. And what may be even more alarming is that many of us merely accept media and the web into our lives without ever thinking twice about what we are being presented.

Take a look at this trailer from the documentary Miss Representation that explores how the misrepresentation of women in media, has led to an under representation of women in society – it is an eye opening and insightful piece.

While the pressure to perform a female identity that is both gender stereotypical and heteronormative is tremendous, there is definitely hope that we can change the level of pressure girls and women experience in our society. By acknowledging that social pressure does exist and that the performance expected of women is both misrepresented and unrealistic, we can then critically analyze the discourses that present these ideals of gender and sexuality to us. Critical analysis can lead to new perspectives and action to change the construction of female identity and decreases the pressure of performativity in the lives of girls and women. Knowledge has always been said to be power, but in the discourses of gender and sexuality knowledge is empowering.

During my research for the course Gender, Sexuality, and Literature, as well as for this blog I have been happy to find popular resources that are openly available to provide knowledge, motivation, activism, and empowerment. Here’s a short list of the many sites out there;

This  short video clip from THNKR TV discusses why online forms of discourse are important and how they can be used positively to challenge the existing discourses of gender and sexuality in our society. If the fourth wave of feminism has gone digital it allows all of us to be active members in a movement of online activism.

I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to view and contribute to this blog, I have truly had a very positive experience blogging. I hope that I have been able to effectively communicate the role of gender performativity in various forms of discourse that affect our lives. My goal was for this blog to enlighten viewers about the relationship that exists between gender, sexuality, and social performance- and I hope I have succeed in doing so. The pressure to perform the ideal female identity is immense; however our identity is our own, and although it may be difficult we do have the power to choose not to perform society’s expectations.



The Pressure to Perform a ‘Normative’ Identity


Gender roles are undoubtedly influenced by heteronormative values of sexuality. Gender role stereotypes (discussed in more detail in a previous post) refers to the features individuals assign to men and women, and these features are not assigned due to one’s biological sex but in accordance to the social roles held by men and women in society (Helgeson, 2012).  Heteronomativity (discussed in more detail in a previous post) is a socially constructed belief that values heterosexual as superior to homosexual (GEA, 2013). The prescribed gender roles of masculinity and femininity encompass binaries of male dominance and female submissiveness that can be a common social script in heterosexual relationships. These gender role scripts express the stereotypes we are all familiar with today; boys wear blue and girls wear pink, boys are active and girls are passive, men are aggressive and women are emotional, men are dominant and women are beautiful. These are examples of what is considered “normative” in Western society – traditional gender role stereotypes built upon heteronormative values.

“Normative” refers to establishing, relating to, or deriving from a standard of the norm, especially behaviour (Oxford University Press, 2013). If the norm of Western society is traditional, heterosexual gender roles, then ideas of gender and sexuality become established and expressed through “normative” discourses. Discourse makes meaning and produces a subject through a system of ideas or knowledge inscribed in specific vocabulary; discourses are used to legitimize the exercise of power over certain persons by categorizing them as particular types (Peacocke, 2010).  Discourses of gender and sexuality frequently promote ideals of heterosexual male dominance.

A prominent example of ‘normative’ identity can be found in the graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Alison BechdelFun Home is an autobiographical narrative of the interconnected experiences of family, relationships, sexuality, and self-identity during Alison’s youth. The complicated and fragile relationship of Alison and her father Bruce is explored in great detail throughout the novel – through their relationship the extensive pressure to perform a ‘normative’ identity is made evident.

Both Bruce and Alison would be considered by Western society to have non-normative identities through their sexual-orientation; Bruce was (allegedly not admittedly) gay or bisexual, and Alison identifies as a lesbian. Sadly, non-normative behaviour is related to many negative connotations, and can lead to stigma and discrimination – consequently many individuals have to hide or suppress aspects of their identity such as sexual orientation. The ‘closet’ refers to the notion of hiding, suppressing, or not disclosing homosexual orientations; the ‘closet’ is a state of gay oppression produced by a condition of heterosexual domination and life-shaping patterns of homosexual concealment (Bergstrom-Lynch, 2012). Until recently the ‘closet’ was the primary option for LGBTQ individuals, the old ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ motto.

Through the history given of Bruce throughout the novel it can be argued that he had a closet identity (as a gay or bisexual individual), and worked tirelessly to present a normative (heterosexual) identity as Bruce was married and had children – the hallmark of traditional or normative identity at that time. As a father, Bruce pressured and pushed Alison to also present a normative identity, which can be seen in various illustrations throughout the novel where traditional gender role stereotypes are enforced.

          What's Wrong With Pearls!Where's Your Barrette?

The motivations behind this behaviour can be debated; did Bruce push Alison to resist homosexuality, or did he push Alison in an attempt to protect her from the backlash of non-normative identity? While everyone who reads the text may have different oppinions – and the truth might never be known with Bruce’s passing – it is my personal belief that although Bruce and Alison’s relationship was complicated it was also dynamic and filled with love at the end of the day. Therefore the pressure to perform a normative identity may have been driven proactively in an attempt to avoid the harsh backlash of society’s rejection of non-normative identities – whether gender, racial, sexual, or class minorities.

A Leap of Faith

Today a large number of individuals, including Alison Bechdel, feel comfortable enough to openly state their sexual identity as a component of their self-identity. While this is a definite improvement over the closeted social policy of past decades, it is important to remember that merely coming out of the ‘closet’ does not lift the oppression and discrimination members of the LGBTQ community experience – as visibility does not equal acceptance in our society. Judith Butler addresses an important concern about the discourse of homosexuality during a Big Think Interview;

While discourses are changing and a more positive representation of non-normative identities is being created, we must still be critical and analyze the discourses of gender and sexuality presented to us – as there is still much improvement needed before all individuals are free to be who they are and still treated equally.

What is Sexy?

An insightful post by a classmate on the pressure women feel to be “sexy”

A Journey of Resistance


What is Sexy?

Sexiness in women can be portrayed and looked at in so many different perspectives. What one person thinks as sexy, the other may not. Social media affects our culture so much considering the ways in which we think, act, and perceive the world around us. In Western culture the media is around us everywhere we go. Billboards, TV shows, commercials, music, social networking cites etc. and in each one often shows slim, tall white girls who are wearing little to no clothing.

However, the western worlds ‘perfect’ view of a women is not always attainable. How many women are sizes 6 or larger? In the world of modelling this is considered a ‘plus size.’ What the media portrays as ‘sexy’ influences society… which in result creates many self-esteem issues. The media often looks at Jennifer Lopez as ‘bigger’ but really she is much smaller than the average…

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A Different Kind of Beauty


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The Pressure to Choose Between Binary Female Identities

The Game of Life: Attempting to meet expectations and trying to answer impossible questions

From a very young age we are asked a seemingly straightforward question – What do you want to be when you grow up? Throughout our lives we continue to be asked this question in various forms; educational aspirations, career prospects, marriage and family intentions. While we each have our own unique answers to these life questions (if they can ever truly be answered), there is often social pressure related to the normal or appropriate answer – and these expectations differ based on one’s gender and sexuality.

‘Normative’ life paths or choices are strongly influenced by traditional gender role stereotypes and heteronormative values. Gender role stereotypes refers to the features individuals assign to men and women, and these features are not assigned due to an individual’s biological sex (male or female) but in accordance to the social roles men and women hold (masculine and feminine) (Helgeson, 2012). In Western society gender role stereotypes commonly influence the educational programs and career choices of men and women (amognst many other things).  Heteronomativity refers to the hierarchical organization of sexual categories in society that has established heterosexual as superior and opposing to homosexual (GEA, 2013). In our society heteronormativity typically influences cultural acceptance of relational and family elements of our lives. Both of these concepts can often have a strong, constraining influence on a person’s gender and sexuality; affecting everything from our identity, our daily activities, our relationships, and our plans for the future.

While undoubtedly every person experiences the social pressure of expectations, I believe that young girls and women experience a unique and challenging form of pressure – the pressure of having to choose between binary female identities. The strong gender role stereotypes in Western society can often result in category based expectations – assumptions about individuals based on the characteristics of the general categories that they belong to (Helgeson, 2012).

Types of Women...Really?

Stereotypes of categorical expectations of women

And what are the categorical expectations of women and femininity? Do you fall into traditional or progressive/egalitarian (or dare I say feminist), positive or negative, caring or bitchy, attractive or ugly, sultry or slutty, underweight or over weight (we all know how average weight no longer exists), innocent or sensual, smart or cut throat, maternal or business orientated?? The categorization of women and women’s roles are endless, and yet they are almost always presented as binary opposites – dichotomous terms or concepts that are strictly defined through contrasting meaning and values; and one term often has a higher social value (for example good-evil, white-black, men-women, straight-gay).

eve2Eve Enslera feminist activist and playwright among many other talents, directly addresses the social pressure involved in the binary categories associated with girls, women, and femininity in a three part segment entitled “Would You Rather” in the play Emotional Creatures.


 Would You Rather

Would You Rather II

Would You Rather III

“I am sick of having to choose between two horrible and impossible things […] I want different questions”.  Why does our society try to dictate that we can only have one primary identity, why can’t we be all of the aspects that make up our unique identity? While we may not always understand the various factors involved in the social pressure of performativity, we often recognize consequences such injustice and inequality that occur from the pressure to the perform aspects of our identity. Recognizing how social pressure and performativity impacts your life is the first step, breaking the discourse is the next – and Eve Ensler provides us with an excellent example of how break discourses of sexuality, gender, and ultimately female identity.

The education I have gained from my time at Trent and the opportunities I’ve had to be involved in Eve Ensler’s production of the Vagina Monologues inspires me to be a V-Girl, and I hope that by highlighting issues of gender and sex this blog  can inspire you too.

The Pressure to Survive…. While Acting Like a Lady

Gender roles are inexplicably influenced by socio-cultural expectations of the time, and these expectations regulate normative and non-normative behavior.  In 18th century England, the general expectation for women was to act as a ‘lady’.  To be a virtuous lady, a woman had to be devout and accommodating to her husband, while also having a strong focus on ideal motherhood (Ludwig, 2012). The expectation of femininity during this socio-historical period appears to be one of submissiveness and passivity.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders

When Daniel Defoe wrote Moll Flanders in 1721, it’s easy to see why the novel was controversial – Moll is anything but the typical or expected portrayal of a woman. Throughout the novel Moll behaves in several gender non-normative ways – she steals, she lies, she abandons children and men alike, she invents identities and roles, she marries multiple times. Consequently, Moll has been associated with many negative connotations; a whore, a thief, a criminal or deviant, non-maternal, unladylike, a femme fatale.  Moll was the misrepresentation of women in 18th century England, or more accordingly the expectations of women during this time.

Moll has the reputation of being a wretched and despicable women – take this review of the story-line of Moll Flanders by Screen Rush on Hos on Shows;

“One might say the original and best, Moll Flanders was a tart with a heart, and an eye for the gold. […] Born to a convict at Newgate Prison, Flanders developed a lust for scamming men of means when her first husband died and she realized she could dupe them by pretending to be a wealthy widow to get them to marry her and furnish her with bountiful finances. Although she is not technically a prostitute, Flanders is a gold-digger of the highest order and is willing to sell her body, soul and even children to make more money.”

Albeit, this is a move description and Hollywood depictions are often more dramatic than the original literary works, we can still infer the general negative connotations and opinions of Moll as a female character.

But perhaps Moll is not a terrible person or a fallen woman, but an adaptable person – a woman responding to tremendous social pressure and doing what she must in order to survive. What if we explain Moll’s behavior not by pathologizing her as an individual, but by examining the broader social situations and contexts her behavior takes place in. From this perspective Moll is not just a wretched woman, but a strong and determined woman. Moll does not act in gender non-normative ways to provoke a social response, but challenges the traditional beliefs of gender and expectations of a lady in order to advance herself within a constrictive society.

Women lived in an extremely restrictive world during the 18th century, largely confined to the private sphere. As opportunities for educational and employment were almost nonexistent for the average woman, marriage was a means of economic security and often became a form of chastity commodity. After being seduced at a young age, what was Moll left to do but reinvent her sexual identity so that she could marry? And after several marriages end due to actual or fabricated widowhood, what else could Moll do but reinvent her identity so that she could marry under another name? When single and struggling in poverty, what else could Moll do but turn to crime in order to survive?

In this sense Moll takes on several I-slots – subject positions within society. Throughout the novel Moll is a woman, a wife, a widow, a mother, a trickster, a thief, a criminal, a repentant – she accepts all of these positions and the associations, connotations, and treatments of each I-slot. Moll’s identity is fluid throughout the novel as she accepts different subject positions in relation to the situation or context she is experiencing. How then can Moll be blamed for taking on subject positions where she uses her body on the open market or engages in crime, if it is the only position that allows her to survive in the current situation? This becomes a question not of personal perspective, but of societal framing – the way expectations of womanhood portray actual woman.

While Moll struggles to survive and advanced herself through life, she is consistently pressured by society to find a way to do so within the gender normative behavior of a lady. When Moll cannot meet this nearly impossible expectation, she is unfortunately stigmatized as deplorable and wretched for her non-normative gender behavior. The pressure of gender performativity denotes Moll as a fallen woman, instead of recognizing the strength and redeemable qualities Moll poses as a person.

A quote by Nora Ephron is highly applicable to Moll;


Moll did not fall victim to the pressure of society to act  accordingly to her gender role as a lady, but fought to survive in a restrictive society and ultimately triumphed.

The Pressure of Gender

What is gender? What is your gender? Does gender significantly differ, or can it change?  These probably seem like very peculiar questions – after all, everyone just knows what gender is. But do we actually?  We are raised within a society where gender socialization (the reinforcement of cultural and conventional definitions of masculinity and femininity (McDaniel & Tepperman, 2011)) starts before we are even born, through the process of interpellation – to hail or call into a certain identity or subject status (Oxford University Press, 2013). Once assigned a gender identity of male or female the process of gender socialization begins at birth, is strongly enforced during childhood, and remains a constant policing presence throughout the rest of an individual’s life. Gender becomes an entwined and natural aspect of our identity, affecting our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and  relationships – every aspect of our lives.

From this perspective gender identity can be explained by the concept of essentialism –  the practice of regarding a human trait as having innate existence and/or universal validity, rather than as being a social, ideological, or intellectual construct (Merriam-Webster, 2013). Gender is often thought of as an essential aspect of our identity, and the characteristics of masculinity and femininity that define gender are the essential properties of gender identity.  Through the process of learning the distinct gender identities of male or female, we also learn to determine the value we are expected to place on these  ‘essential’ gender distinctions in our life.

But what if there is an alternative view to gender and gender identity? What if gender is not natural or essential, but constructed and performed? A social construction perspective of gender examines the social and historical contexts in which we make meaning of the world around us; gender identity is not an innate aspect of the human experience, but the result of the process of gender socialization.  The notion of social construction asks us to question and rethink our experience of an essential identity, and consider how identities are learned and can be fluid or changeable.

This brings us to the idea of gender performativity –  the idea that gender is performed within a social context; performative gender produces a series of effects  as we act and speak in ways that consolidate an impression of being male or female (Butler, 2011). The idea of performativity is different than the notion of performance, where a gender role is taken on and we role play as male or female in our representation of gender identity (Butler, 2011).  For a more detailed account of gender performance and perfromativity, please watch the Big Think interview clip of Judith Butler.

Through this blog select literary works will be examined with a critical perspective to highlight the portrayed roles of female characters, and the subsequently expressed views of gender and sexuality within a text.  Female identity will be explored  through characters, and the performance pressure each character experiences when they behave in ways that are gender non-normative. I’ll be conducting an in-depth study of the gender performativity of female characters in Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, and Fun Home: A Family Tragi-Comic by Alison Bechdel, and the tremendous pressure these characters experience to perform a normative gender and sexual identity.

Moll Flanders by Daniel DeforeFun Home by Alison Bechdel                               

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research, teaching, and a little angst

The Fallen And Flanders

Women Who Fell Into Sin In The Bible Along side with Moll Flanders