Everything is connected. Pull one thread as gently as possible in any attempt to explain the fundamentals of any society and this is abundantly clear, for in trying to unravel any of the important concepts or practices upon which society and culture are built and one finds that everything else begins to unravel as well. While "unraveling" might initially seem to be something that one would not want to do, in fact in terms of sociological analysis it is highly advisable. Especially when one is attempting to understand one's own culture, where familiarity with structures and norms can sometimes make it difficult to see clearly, one has often to take things apart in order to understand the dynamics of how the social world works.
Not only is everything connected to everything else, but analyzing one part of a system tends to cause changes in the rest of the system. An interlocked theory in sociological discourse is thus affected by factors like those in the physical world according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: We cannot know for certain anything about one part of the system so long as any other part of the system is in question. Since interlocking theory requires constant such motion, a researcher pursuing such a strategy must be willing to put up with a certain amount of uncertainty, a certain amount of messiness.
This paper uses interlocking theory to examine the ways in which gender is "performed" in our society and specifically how interlocking theories can be applied to media representations of both femininity and masculinity. Given that constructions of gender undergird nearly every aspect of our society, such an unpacking of the ideas of how gender is constructed must also touch on the ways in which normalcy and abnormalcy (paralleling concepts of ability and disability) are determined in public and private discourse, becoming further institutionalized in social practice and thus allowing for discourse to shape reality. The mass media are certainly a part of the public discourse: Indeed, this is a fundamental part of the way in which we define them. But one of the major points made by the authors cited in this paper is that the mass media are also a part of the private discourses carried on inside the heads of each one of us who lives in a modern Western society.
The performance of gender is rather like a long-running show that starts in the provinces and then eventually makes its way to Broadway before shuffling off to national tours where the actors can practically sleepwalk through their lines because they have become so familiar with their roles. Gender identity is not a single act of creation (or discovery). Rather it is a constant series of repeated actions that help create and sustain beliefs about identity, adequacy, and normalcy through a series of more-or-less private rehearsals that become increasingly routinized and public until they are ready to be debuted. After a while, both the players (which is to say all of us, each of us holding the role of a public actor) and the audiences forget that they have constructed the identity to begin with and believe that what they are enacting (and having constantly reinforced through the media) is natural and normal.
When one takes such an approach to the study of society, one sees that there are interlocking relationships not only between and among different constructed concepts in society (such as gender or ability) but also that as a researcher into social phenomena one must be careful to attend to the ways in which methodology and theory are related to each other (Long, 1992, p. 16). There is a conventional within most schools of social research that methodology and theory are distinct and independent from each other, allowing the observer of and researcher about society to pick any one or more methodological approach from behind Door A and any one or more theoretical approach from behind Door B.
However, an interlocking theory approach to social analysis strongly suggests that this is not so. The idea that everything is connected requires that certain common concepts underscore both theory and method, primarily the concept that the two focus not on the kind of objective reality that can be accurately measured and calculated through quantitative means such as statistical analyses. Rather, both theory and method must be able to incorporate the concept that much of what we generally and rather carelessly refer to as reality while ignoring the fact that much of what seems to be real and reified is in fact socially constructed (Long, 1992, p. 13).
The Construction and False Parity of Opposites
One of the most obvious ways in which gender is constructed in American society (as well as in all other societies, but the focus of this paper is on modern Western societies like the United States) is that concepts such as gender are constructed vis-a-vis opposition. Thus femininity is constructed and understood only in the context of what is perceived as its opposite, which is masculinity. This is both probably necessary given the ways in which the human brain is structured and extremely limiting given that most social categories do not exist in simple binary terms (Garland-Thomson, 2002, p. 98).
Gender, for example, can best be understood not in binary terms but as a spectrum. There is no single concept of masculinity in our society that is defined by (and constantly reinforced by) a single concept of femininity. Rather, there are distinct concepts of the two in different areas of social action (which is not to say that there are not connections between concepts of how gender is and should be expressed in different social arenas, such as sports and politics). Moreover, there are distinct differences in the ways in which social norms put pressure on people to perform their gender depending on race, class, generation, and other aspects of social affiliation such as religious and ethnic identity.
Dyer (1992) and Consalvo (2003) among many others describe how such social negotiations are carried out very visibly in the media in American society -- as well as in similar societies such as England. Gender is performative, and like all social roles and concepts that are performative, gender identity requires both an audience and constant repetition. The mass media (as well as more elite, more restricted media such as literary novels) provide both that audience and those repetitions. It is impossible to understand how gender identity is constructed and maintained in modern society without acknowledging these two key roles taken by the media in this construction.
There are also significant variations in the degree to which concepts of social identity can be negotiated and overtly constructed. To put it in simple, entirely non-technical terms, there is more wiggle room in some social constructions than in others. Halberstam (1998), for example, notes that masculinity and femininity have different degrees of latitude in their constructions and definitions. This is another problem with positing that important social constructs can be defined and understood in binary terms, because such a strategy (and theoretical model) suggests opposed concepts are in important ways congruent and equal when often they are not.
Part of the reason that masculinity and femininity have different degrees of self-determination vs. what we might call other-determination is that men and women have differential access to the mass media. When most directors, producers, and editors are men (along with most of the CEOs of companies that control the mass media), women will more often be constructed as the objects of men's concepts of femininity than the reverse.
Another way of looking at the above concept in terms of gender construction is that while there may be more possibilities for expanding or shifting the construction of one of a pair of social concepts (such as masculinity) there may also be more penalties for the individual in trying to do so. As Halberstam (1998) argues, that while "There is a long literary and cinematic history that celebrates the rebellion of the male" (p. 5), such rebellion (or renegotiation) of masculine identity tends to be temporary. "What's the point in being a rebel boy if you grow up to be a man?" (p. 5) Halberstrom paraphrases (rather loosely) Gertrude Stein as asking, and the point is a good one. Men, because of their greater social power, may well be able to take certain liberties in how they define themselves as men. But they also face stiffer penalties if they attempt to do so.
Both of these factors -- the ways in which masculinity has both greater flexibility and greater restrictions -- are seen in the media. Depictions of masculinity on television, in movies, and on sports playing fields tend to be much more critical of "deviations" than are depictions of women. Lesbians, after all, are far less threatening to the overall social order than are gay men, mostly because of the relative power that each group has in society.…