THE LENS OF GENDER
The Lens of Gender
Excerpted from The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy's Future by Carol Gilligan and David A. J. Richards. Reprinted Courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
Beginning in the 1970s, the lens of gender brought into sharp focus a psychology so wedded to patriarchy that the omission of women from its research studies had, for the most part, not been seen, or if seen, had not been considered consequential. It was an omission "so obvious that no one noticed," to borrow a phrase from Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things. That it turned out to be no small thing was the discovery of subsequent research that began with women but quickly extended to girls, to young boys, and to a reconsideration of what had been taken as true about men.88 Women, enjoined by patriarchy to be selfless, to be responsive to others but to silence themselves, were holding up, it turned out, half of the sky. The long-standing and vaunted divisions between mind and body, reason and emotion, self and relationships, culture and nature, when viewed through the lens of gender turned out to be deeply gendered, reflecting the binaries and hierarchies of a patriarchal culture. Mind, reason, self, and culture were considered masculine and were elevated above body, emotion, relationships, and nature, seen as feminine and like women at once idealized and devalued. These splits revealed a chasm in human nature, a systematic distortion or deformation of both men's and women's natures. The consequence was an argument over which half was better – the masculine or the feminine part – but more deeply, a recognition that the problem lay in the paradigm itself.
In the classical manner of scientific advances, the discrepant data proved most informative, the evidence that did not fit the reigning patriarchal construction. Thus women's voices were privileged in informing psychologists about aspects of the human condition that by being tagged feminine and associated with women had been at once ignored and devalued. A paradigm shift followed from this research, joining what had been cast asunder. Whereas in the old paradigm, women were seen as emotional not rational, as having relationships but no self, and men, conversely, were considered rational insofar as they were unemotional, autonomous in their sense of self, the new paradigm in its reframing undid the splits. But the old patriarchal values crept back in: "feminine” qualities were taken as modifiers of "masculine” strengths – hence, "emotional intelligence," "relational self," and most recently, "the feeling brain.” And perhaps, more significantly, the history was rewritten, losing the origins of these insights in the different voices of women: different because they were resisting these splits in asserting the relational nature of all human experience. The insight that without voice there is no relationship and without relationship voice recedes into silence became the key to unlocking a paradigm that was falsely gendered, false in its representation of human nature and also human development. As the paradigm shift released voices in both women and men that previously could not be heard or understood, the early insights of Freud were retrieved along with those of Ferenczi and Suttie in a reframing of psychology which came increasingly to focus on the phenomenon of dissociation and the study of trauma. Studies of women, of babies and mothers, and new studies of men led to a remapping of development as starting not from separation but from relationship. 89 And in their light, the requisites for love and the consequences of traumatic loss became clear. All of this work laid the foundation for the psychology we explore in this book.
But it was studies of girls that illuminated more radically a critical intersection in development where psychology came into tension with the requisites of patriarchy, its gender norms and roles and values. The research highlighted what previously had been taken as part of the natural course of development and showed it to be a process of initiation, the induction of the psyche into patriarchy. The finding that most arrested attention, and one that consequently was often buried, was that girls in entering adolescence showed signs of a resistance, not to growing up but to losing their minds, as one thirteen-year-old put it. The crisis was one of relationship, and the resistance was to the split between voice and relationship. Paradoxically, girls were discovering that their honest voices were jeopardizing their relationships, not only their personal relationships but also their relationship with the culture they were entering as adolescents: secondary school, sexual relationships, economic and social opportunities. The initiation into patriarchy required a sacrifice of relationship, a sacrifice of love.90
The trajectory of this resistance was informative, along with the various meanings of the word itself: resistance in the sense of resistance to disease; resistance as political resistance – speaking truth to power; and resistance in its psychoanalytic connotation as a reluctance to discover one's thoughts and feelings, to know what one knows. Longitudinal studies following girls from childhood to adolescence charted a trajectory whereby a healthy resistance to losing voice and thereby losing relationship turned into a political resistance, a protest against the structures of patriarchy, including the equation of selflessness with feminine goodness, and where political resistance when it could find no channel for expression turned into dissociation or various forms of indirect speech and self-silencing. Hence the depression, the eating disorders, and the various forms of psychological distress that seemed visited on girls at adolescence. When Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire tells Eunice that she could not believe her sister and go on living with her husband, she captured the dilemma of women in patriarchy. It was necessary not to believe or to know what was happening in order to join a culture that mandated repression, where, as in Tennessee Williams's play, the streetcar named desire led to the insane asylum.
It is hard now to capture that first elation in discovering that we have within ourselves, within our very nature, the capacities for voice and relationship that are the foundation for love and for democratic societies. In the course of the initiation into patriarchy, girls would come to label an honest voice stupid (or bad or wrong or crazy), and boys would come to see their relational desires and intelligence as babyish, as associated with women and thereby unmanly. And yet, the striking finding of the research with adolescent girls and with four-and five-year-old boys was the evidence of a resistance that was associated with psychological health, a resistance that made trouble in the sense of challenging the necessity or the value of losses that had been taken as in the very nature of things or seen as sacrifices to be made in the interest of growing up and finding one's place in society.
In the 1990s, these insights from studies in developmental psychology were joined by discoveries in neurobiology, heralded by the publication of Antonio Damasio's widely acclaimed book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994). As developmental research had revealed the splits between self and relationships to signal a traumatic disruption of human connection, so neurological studies revealed the split between reason and emotion to signal trauma or injury to the brain. We had, we learned, been wedded to a false story about ourselves, through a process illuminated in Damasio's second book: The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999). Exploring the neurological foundations of consciousness, Damasio distinguished core consciousness or a core sense of self from what he described as the "autobiographical self,” the self that is wedded to a story about itself. We are wired neurologically to register our experience from moment to moment in our bodies and in our emotions, like a film running continually inside us, and our awareness of watching this film extends this core consciousness or core sense of self through time and history, leading to memory and to identity. Thus in our bodies and our emotions we register the music, the feeling of what happens.
It can be seen as a sign of the times, the persistence of suspicions regarding the subject of gender or perhaps an incipient recognition of what we come to see when looking through a gender lens, that research as brilliant as that of Damasio and other neuroscientists working at the forefront of their field has been strikingly silent about gender with the exception of scanning their findings for evidence of differences that serve for the most part to reinforce old stereotypes or lend them a seemingly naturalistic grounding. But some of the most illuminating current research, notably studies of trauma, has called into question the sharp division between nature and culture by showing the effects of their interactions. These findings take us back to the Studies on Hysteria; as psychic pain could convert into physical pain, so trauma can alter neurophysiology.
By bringing the lens of gender to Damasio's distinction between a core self, grounded in the body and emotions, and an autobiographical self, wedded to a story about itself, it becomes possible to understand in new ways the process of an initiation that weds us to a false story about ourselves. Here again the research on girls was instructive, underscoring Apuleius's insight that women can play a crucial role in resisting the Love Laws of patriarchy by challenging the objectification of women, the idealization and denigration, and above all, the prohibitions on seeing and speaking that keep women from trusting or saying what they know through experience about men and love.
A gender lens then hones the perception that this ability in women re?ects their different position with respect to initiation into the demands of patriarchy, typically imposed earlier on boys. Because the initiation into its codes and scripts of manhood and womanhood tends to occur at adolescence for girls rather than around the ages of four and five, because it is in adolescence rather than early childhood that girls are pressed to incorporate a father's voice as the voice of moral authority and to live by the law of the father, girls have more resources to resist the trauma, the loss of voice and the dissociation. In fighting for real relationship, women are joined by men who similarly are moved to resist patriarchal constraints on love. It is in this sense that adolescence becomes a second chance for boys, when sexual desire and more intimate relationships with girls may lead them to reveal what they have repressed or hidden, their own intimate voices, their tenderness, their desire for love. And thus to challenge patriarchal constructions of manhood.
As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl observes in a recent essay, Suttie indicated how Freud's bias "against recognizing the mother-infant 'love reciprocity' . . . put [him] in harmony with the sexist 'law of the father' bias of patriarchal culture generally," resulting in what Suttie described as "the 'specially inexorable repression,' the grudge against mothers and a mind-blindness for love, equal and opposite to the mind-blindness and repugnance that many of his opponents had for sex.” Yet because relationality has the deep place in human psychology that it does, resistance has the appeal and hold on it that it does. Young-Bruehl "identifies a taboo – the antifeminist taboo on tenderness – in the heart of psychoanalysis and sees psychoanalysis's history as a struggle over that taboo."91
The tenacity of this struggle, the forces marshaled on both sides within psychoanalysis and more generally within the human sciences, along with the incoherence of much of the argument suggest once again that what is at stake are not competing positions within a single framework but a shift in the paradigm, a change in the framework. With this shift, what previously was seen as a resistance to separation or maturation appears instead as a resistance to loss or trauma. The importance of the new research in developmental psychology and neurobiology thus lies in the challenges it poses to the underlying assumptions of the psychology on which patriarchy rests and relies. More specifically, what was taken as human nature or the natural or ideal course of development can now be seen as a distortion of both our nature and our development, a distortion that bears some of the hallmarks of injury or trauma.
We end with the insight that our ability to love and live with a sense of psychic wholeness hinges on our ability to resist wedding ourselves to the gender categories of patriarchy. That this capacity for resistance is grounded in our neurobiology only highlights the importance of a devel¬opmental psychology that provides us with an accurate map with which to chart our course. Once we see where we have come from, we also can recognize more clearly the alternative routes we might follow – one marked by Oedipus and leading to the birth of tragedy, one by the resistance of Psyche and Cupid leading to love and the birth of pleasure. It is thus that we join Damasio in the optimism of his most recent book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and The Feeling Brain (2003). Advances in the human sciences have brought us to the point where we can alleviate some of the causes of human suffering, and this guarded optimism suggests that we have within ourselves the capacity to pursue not only life and liberty but also happiness.
Patriarchy's error lies in wedding us, men and women alike, to a false story about human nature and then characterizing our resistance to this story as a sign of pathology or sin. The long-standing divisions of mind from body, thought from emotion, and self from relationships enforce a kind of moral slavery in that they erode a resistance grounded in the core self and cause us to lose touch with our experience. Damasio's research demonstrated how the severing of thought from emotion leaves the capacity for deductive reasoning intact (the ability to deduce thought from thought) but impairs our capacity to navigate the human social world, which depends on an integration of thought and emotion. The associative methods of psychoanalysis were able to break through dissociations that were psychologically induced and/or culturally enforced, leading to a release of voice and a recovery of relational capacities, and imbuing psychoanalysis with a liberatory potential. But it is by looking through a gender lens that we are able to see the problem whole: not as a problem of women or men, or of women versus men, but rather a problem with the framework we have used in thinking about these questions. The artists to whom we now turn anticipated these insights, serving as early warning signals. Their associative methods broke through dissociation and allowed them to see the framework.
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Excerpted from The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy's Future by Carol Gilligan and David A. J. Richards. Reprinted Courtesy of Cambridge University Press. * * *
Related links at Feminist.com:
Conversation with Carol Gilligan