Dr. Cynthia Bryant
20 November 2015
The reading of gender and sexuality can often pose a problem, as, unless explicitly stated or demonstrated otherwise, we often assume what Judith Butler describes as ‘the heterosexual presumption’; that is we read male characters as intrinsically ‘masculine’, female characters as intrinsically ‘feminine’, and all characters as ‘heterosexual’ as prescribed by the society we live in. In this essay I hope to show the importance of reading gender and sexuality in the interpretation and understanding of literary texts. We are often so used to societal gender norms that it may not even occur to us that there are a variety of ways of interpreting a character and their relationship and importance within a literary text.
Gender and sexuality are most commonly used by characters in literature to exert power and control over other characters – most commonly male characters over female characters, although occasionally characters of the same sex will be described in terms of the ‘other’ gender, usually to demonstrate that they are somehow flawed or perverse. As language is not gender-neutral, a character with masculine traits will often be seen to dominate or to desire domination over those they perceive to be feminine. A similar use is reserved for sexuality in literature: it is used by characters to assert their superiority, as Judith Butler writes: ‘homophobia often operates through the attribution of a damaged, failed, or otherwise abject gender to homosexuals,’ to be labelled as ‘homosexual’ is an indication that one character believes another to be somehow lacking an essential part of what makes them a man or a woman.
A perfect example of literary texts with central issues of gender and sexuality are Shakespeare’s plays. At the time Shakespeare wrote his plays, men and women had clearly defined gender roles (perhaps even moreso than today’s) – to be a man was to be strong, bold, decisive...