Traditional Gender Roles and Performative Gender in Joyce Carol Oates’ "Sexy"

Term Paper, 2019

33 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1 Traditional gender roles
2.2 Performative gender

3. Literary Analysis

4. Didactic Analysis
4.1 Topic relevance
4.2 Learning targets and competences
4.3 Methodological analysis

5. Conclusion

Works Cited


1. Introduction

Gender is a binary construct that fundamentally influences how individuals both perceive themselves and are perceived by others. As soon as a baby is born and enters the social world, it is immediately categorised as either boy or girl. Ambiguities and discrepancies are considered to be biological accidents which eventually are sanctioned or treated professionally (Decke-Cornill 181).

Later, “[s]chool is traditionally the place of dichotomized gender formation” (Volkmann Gender Studies 212). Dissolving from traditional gender systems can unease young learners in the already difficult times of adolescence shaped by bodily and mental changes, peer-pressure and the search for (sexual) identity. When teachers choose literary texts dealing with gender identities, a considerate and careful choice is indispensable (213).

The following paper analyses Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Sexy”. Darren, the main protagonist, finds himself between rising sexuality, his parents’ and teachers’ expectations towards him as an adolescent man as well as peer-pressure in his boys’ clique. The interplay of power structures, homosexuality and gender identity additionally contribute to the complexity of the novel. Therefore, the research question of this paper focuses on how general notions of gender influence individuals’ identities.

The first part of the paper is a literary analysis of the text regarding traditional gender roles and Judith Butler’s notion of sex and gender. Men and women perform according to what they learn is appropriate for their biological sex, caught within binary categories. The same applies to the characters in Oates’ “Sexy”, except for Mr. Tracy who does not fit gendered categories and becomes victim of homosexual persecution. Shifts in “gender-appropriate” performances can also be observed regarding Darren. Thus, this paper argues that sex and gendered identity are multidimensional constructs characterised by fluidity and changeability.

According to Thaler (23) literature is not only taught for the sake of personal enrichment or intercultural learning but also language development. Therefore, a didactic analysis is provided in the last chapter regarding the curriculum, the topic’s classroom relevance as well as a methodological analysis.

2. Theoretical Background

Literary criticism focuses on the “study, discussion, evaluation, and interpretation of literary texts” (Thaler 37). It is a practical application of theory as it directly examines specific literary texts, mostly within cultural and social perspectives. Judith Butler’s theory is classified within feminism and discusses the role of gender identity and relations in literature (40). The following chapter hence introduces traditional gender roles and Butler’s theory of performative gender.

2.1 Traditional gender roles

The term ‘gender’ is controversially discussed nowadays. It seems to be the busiest term in the English language, especially within Cultural Studies. It appears in every culture and every time yet its’ use changes continuously (Glover and Kaplan 1). In order to understand the traditional notion of gender roles, it is necessary to distinguish between the terms sex and gender first.

Sex is a biological construct, categorising people due to their primary sex characteristics: hormones, anatomical and physiological features as well as genetics (Johnson and Repta 19). Biology determines our sex: male or female. Gender, on the other hand, is considered to be a status one can achieve, depending on the interplay of physiology, culture and society. It is constituted by cultural practices and expectations which set the framework of how women and men (should) behave and which role they adopt. Therefore, it is a multidimensional construct (Barker 73). Culture determines our gender: masculine or feminine.

Gender roles are social norms that dictate individuals’ personal interests, chances, responsibilities and boundaries. They influence how people dress, which jobs they have and how they spend their leisure time (Johnson and Repta 23). Different values and beliefs about gender within a social group give individuals an idea about what is appropriate for their biological sex and what is not.

When it comes to traditional gender roles, women are depicted as “emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing and submissive” (Tyson 83), being modest characters (85). Especially in Western societies, women are regarded as more nurturing than men. They devotionally care for their families full-time instead of taking any other employment outside of the family’s home.

Men however would count as the leaders, caring for the family in financial ways and taking central decisions (Blackstone 337). They are “rational, strong, protective, and decisive” (Tyson 83). Their strength should be present both physically and mentally. Crying men symbolise mental softness, a sign that one has been overwhelmed by their emotions and is not able to control them. The same applies to showing any kind of weakness such as pain or fear (86). Especially crying is regarded as “womanish”. When men cry, they are often called “sissies”. This term sounds like sister, obviously a female person, which is a synonym to coward or feminine. Consequently, being related to female behaviour appears as a verbal attack to men (87).

Also, sympathy or the like towards other men is connotated to be feminine, therefore weak. Especially any kind of loving feeling for the same biological sex is a social taboo because the concept of male patriarchy assumes that “appropriate” relationships between men are free of any homosexual tone (86). At least for the white American men, homosexuality is declared as “feminine” action (87). Additionally, men are not allowed to fail in anything they try or want to achieve since this automatically implies fail in general manhood.

Regarding their profession, men are more likely expected to work as managers or executives since they are assumed to be more ambitious and focused on their tasks (Blackstone 337). Also, sportiness is attributed to the masculine image (Miller 121).

Sex is often contrasted to the idea of gender. Nevertheless, the traditional notion of gender not only assumes the biological differences between male and female but also includes the separation and social valuation of femininity and masculinity. Consequently, gender is created socially in the context of social interactions and the human environment yet is built upon the basis of biological differences (Blackstone 335).

In linguistic contexts, a clear-cut distinction between the two terms might make sense yet when thinking about the cultural notions of both sex and gender, one should keep in mind the interweaving.

For most English-speaking gender theorists, the term gender does not refer to human anatomy but rather to the individuals’ behaviour as – socially and through cultural discourse – programmed men and women. Men and women do not act like men and women because it is natural for them doing so; rather, they are taught to (Tyson 91). Regarding gender roles this means that they are not innate but somehow acquired.

2.2 Performative gender

As mentioned above, the terms of gender and sex are often distinguished from each other. Judith Butler, American philosopher and gender theorist, rejects a clear differentiation of sex and gender and questions the general notion of biological sex and cultural gender.

The following chapter gives a brief overview of Butler’s complex work, exploring how gender identity is culturally and socially shaped by repetitions of everyday life activities. Due to word limitations within this paper, only the crucial aspects relevant for the designed lesson and the literary analysis are introduced.

Although prominent in prevalent discourse, Butler claims that nothing is naturally given, not even sexual identity. In her opinion “even anatomical differences can be experienced only through the categories and expectations set out by the culture’s signifying order” (Leitch et al. 2485). Given that, also sex must be something cultural as biological facts are negotiated within human discourse (Barker 73).

Anatomical differences are not only set in relation to expectations about an individuals’ “gender appropriate” behaviour but also to sexual desire. Especially the heterosexual matrix posits that there exist two sexes and that one’s sexual desire affects the other’s (Leitch et al. 2485). Butler claims sexuality as one crucial part of identity since both peoples’ sex and sexual desire somehow seem to give indications of who they are. Her aim thus is to uncover that even something “naturally” given is discursively constructed by society and culture and therefore limited. To her, connections between sexual desire and anatomy are not inevitable since they differ within cultures and throughout history. That is because the categories and meanings by which human beings understand and organise their lives can be and were negotiated all along.

Cultural and social perceptions of gender supporting the idea of masculine hegemony and the superiority of heterosexuality are embedded both into our psyches and social and political life (Butler Gender Trouble 33-34). Alteration in these realms consequently does not happen easily.

According to Butler, we understand gender and sex as “citational repetitions” (Leitch et al. 2486): a consensus of several cultural discourses constitutes a predominant understanding of what signifies “boys”, “girls”, “men” and “women”. Individuals then copy, imitate and cite these meanings. Little boys learn that crying is not masculine whereas girls become aware that some behaviour might make them a tomboy. Boys and girls therefore both must grow into their masculinity and femininity, imitating and copying “male” and “female” behaviour until it becomes their “second nature” (ibid.).

Corresponding to that, Butler quotes Simone de Beauvoir stating that “one is not born, but, rather becomes a woman” (qtd. in Performative 519). Needless to say, this thought does not only apply to women but by extension any gender (ibid. 521).

Through feeling themselves into different roles, individuals experience this process as identity formation. Escaping from these roles seems to be impossible as they somehow form a trap. Both people who fit certain categories and those who do not are caught. This is especially the case for the latter, bisexuals or homosexuals who deviate from what is considered to be the “norm” (528).

Gender identity according to Butler is not something that is planted in individuals and waits to be discovered but much more it is “performatively produced by acts” (Leitch et al. 2487). In her article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”, Butler (Performative 519) states that “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed”. Much more, it is constituted in time. Further, she describes gender identity as a performative accomplishment regulated and influenced by social sanctions and taboos in relation to norms (520).

A norm is regarded as a “social and cultural rule that governs patterns of activity” (Barker 137) including moral, ethical and political aspects. Norms can be what is common or – as the term already indicates – ‘normal’ within cultural groups. Yet norms also indicate how one should behave in order to avoid sanctions (ibid.). For Miller (Miller, S. 317) social norms regulate both actions and inactions. They appear in social groups and their members acknowledge the existence of these norms. Any kind of failure to behave according to the norm is then disapproved by the members. Both action and inaction can be seen as “common knowledge” (317), contributing to a set of culturally and socially accepted rules. Members of a group internalise certain norms and consequently performing to these norms becomes essential in terms of integrity (317-319).

Referring to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of bodies being historical ideas instead of a natural species (Performative 520), Butler compares bodies to a “set of possibilities” (521) whose emergence in the world is not preassigned or predetermined. Bodies depict and express historical possibilities and cultural circumstances. These conditions influence how individuals act, which eventually defines their gender. Social acts necessitate performances which are repeated to a certain extent. Through this repetition, individuals both re-experience and re-enact different social norms and meanings which are already established.

Although it is the very individual that enacts different possibilities and circumstances for and by itself, its actions simultaneously become visible for the public. Consequently, “gender is a public action and performative act” (526). Bodies are not naturally male or female but are defined and negotiated via social discourse. Gender identity does not lead to a certain, “gender-appropriate” performance but this very performance establishes identity (Meyer 194).

Summarising, Butler defines the process of identity formation as a performative act. For her, it is constructed and produced via cultural and social discourse. Both gender and sex appear to be negotiated. Given the fact that gender is a performative act, one could conclude that it only comes into existence in the moment of its performance and neither is imposed nor inscribed upon individuals.

How the notion of gender can influence individuals is subject of the following chapter.

3. Literary Analysis

As a teacher, it is essential to create a framework where students can learn and perform the best way possible. Not only the teacher’s personality and professionality as well as a safe learning environment contribute to that framework (Grimm et al. 20). A narrow analysis and pre-planning of the course’s content is also indispensable in order to react to and moderate student’s answers, statements and questions and to improvise if things do not work out as planned (221). The following chapter therefore analyses how Darren, his father and his teacher are depicted regarding certain gender roles and stereotypes concerning the theoretical background discussed in chapter 2. These analyses are also performed by the students in the designed lesson.

Darren Flynn is the main protagonist of Oates’ novel “Sexy”. He is a 16-year-old high school student at North Falls High and member of the school’s swimming team (Oates 5). Being only at the beginning of his adolescence, Darren experiences both physical and mental changes interrelated to finding his own identity. The notion of gender and therefore of “gender-appropriate” behaviour as well as traditional gender roles influence this process indispensably.

The novel’s title “Sexy” already suggests that sexuality is a key subject throughout the story. Darren is portrayed as an athletic and handsome youngster, admired not only by girls of the same age but his outward appearance is also noticed by teachers (5-6). He generally perceives himself as a “guy’s guy”, “a jock” (6), careless when with his friends but rather shy when interacting with girls. They see him as “sexy, but shy. Or he was shy, but sexy” (6). Not only his outward appearance is set into relation with sex and sexuality but also Darren’s thoughts seem to be interspersed with sexual phantasies and desires, threatening to let his young body explode (8ff.). This is not only due to Darren’s biological and mental development but also because of his older brother Eddy who constantly teases him about girls and sexual experiences (22ff., 172). Finally, the school rumours about Mr. Tracy, Darren’s English teacher, being gay and molesting young boys again marks the dominance and relevance of sexuality, especially homosexuality and the accompanying gay-bashing.

-ates’ novel is shaped by notes of traditional gender. Darren’s mother Edith Flynn for example is depicted as an “adoring” (125), soft, decent and quiet housewife. She rarely is heard throughout the text and if, she worries about her family’s welfare or how others perceive the Flynn family (9ff., 50). Darren’s friend Molly Rawlings is portrayed as an intelligent young woman who is considered to be a virgin “obviously”, since she is “nice” and “rich” (17). When the students hear of their teachers’ death, girls are “weeping openly” (153); Molly “wiping her eyes” (155) whereas the boys look “dry-eyed” (154).

Womanhood is only a side issue in the novel whereas masculinity and manhood are discussed constantly. In the beginning, Darren states that “[m]an is a sexual being” and “that everything was reproduction of the species”. Only the “smartest and strongest go ahead”, accompanied with the “adaptation and survival of the fittest” (9). Darren’s thoughts probably result from the notion of traditional gender roles suggesting that biological and anatomical features of men (and women) also act as social determiners. Male is the gender that is strong and responsible for the maintenance and founding of a family. Yet not only mental but also physical strength is a feature of masculinity (Tyson 83). Darren represents these exact features since being a swimmer he is “[t]all, lean-hipped, with broad shoulders. An inverted V!” (39).

Further, he asks himself the question of “why did people try to pretend they were 99% spiritual beings?” (9). This supports the traditional notion of men being the tough and focused, not wasting any time for spiritual or “soft” thoughts. Rather, they appear as if their thoughts are more primitive (Miller, T. 121). This occasionally applies to Darren who some time “met girls”, “got drunk” and “got high” (9, 79) and Eddy Flynn, who seems to be only talking about girls and sex and uses a “phony black jargon” (23).

When Kevin Pyne forgets to give him a ride home, Darren feels hurt but “he’d long ago learned that it was better to sound pissed off than to show your true feelings” (32). Additionally, he is holding back his feelings with hurting eyes (157) when he talks to Molly about dead Tracy. Little boys learn that crying is perceived as unmanly and therefore hold back their tears later. Corresponding to that, Darren imagines that he would have killed Tracy if he had touched him indecently (57). Similar aggressive behaviour becomes visible when Darren and his friends meet a gay boy, a “fag”, in the mall. They beat him up violently and run away (69). Since sympathy or any kind of loving feeling between men depicts feminine behaviour it becomes obvious that Darren tries to clearly distance himself from that. Further, he adapted “how to deal” (61) with fags from his older brother. This mirrors Butler’s assumption of individuals imitating and copying the cultural consensus of what signifies boys and men until it finally becomes their second nature.

That kind of “coolness” Darren also needs to represent in school in order to be socially accepted as a man conforming certain ideals. As he perceives himself as a “guy’s guy”, “a jock” (6) he is somehow indirectly forced to not putting too much effort into school matters but concentrating on sports (18). Regarding school subjects, Darren and his father Walt Flynn consider Maths as a boy’s and English as a girl’s subject (82, 125), reflecting the common assumption (Tyson 85).

Walt Flynn is a construction worker for the county and his speech is rather casual (9). He expects Darren to attend a university where he can study anything related to business or engineering, typical “male” studies (Oates 25, Blackstone 377). Further he wants to push his son regarding his athletic career, constantly telling him that he “can do a hell of a lot better than your brother and your old man” (Oates 28). Since failure in any area of everyday life implies general fail in manhood, Darren’s father wants him to successfully accomplish everything he does, especially his sports.

Concerning sexuality, Walt seems to hold onto traditional beliefs of the norm, rejecting and almost judging homosexual men. He accuses them to be “born with some kind of chromosome or hormone screwup” and that “they can’t help what they are” (60). Taking it one step further, he even compares gay people to women (61) which simultaneously categorises individuals in a hierarchical order, meaning that homosexual men are subordinate to heterosexual.

At the same time, he seems to be concerned about Darren but fails at expressing his worries. He describes his son as “kind of quiet, and trusting” referring to his face but then directly seems to apologise that Darren is not “the least feminite – feminate?” (60). Quietness, shyness and trusting characteristics consequently seem to be attached to feminine behaviour patterns for Walt which leads to awake even more insecurities inside Darren as his father’s words run through his head even a while later (63).


Excerpt out of 33 pages


Traditional Gender Roles and Performative Gender in Joyce Carol Oates’ "Sexy"
University of Koblenz-Landau
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
traditional, gender, roles, performative, joyce, carol, oates’, sexy
Quote paper
Ingrid Detter (Author), 2019, Traditional Gender Roles and Performative Gender in Joyce Carol Oates’ "Sexy", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Traditional Gender Roles and Performative Gender in Joyce Carol Oates’ "Sexy"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free