The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality

Sandra Lipsitz Bem

Published by Yale University Press, 1994
ISBN 10: 0300061633 / ISBN 13: 9780300061635
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Synopsis: In this book a leading theorist on sex and gender discusses how hidden assumptions embedded in our cultural discourses, social institutions, and individual psyches perpetuate male power and oppress women and sexual minorities. Sandra Lipsitz Bem argues that these assumptions, which she calls the lenses of gender, shape not only perceptions of social reality but also the more material things—like unequal pay and inadequate daycare—that constitute social reality itself. Her penetrating and articulate examination of these hidden cultural lenses enables us to look at them rather than through them and to better understand recent debates on gender and sexuality.

According to Bem, the first lens, androcentrism (male-centeredness), defines males and male experience as a standard or norm and females and female experience as a deviation from that norm. The second lens, gender polarization, superimposes male-female differences on virtually every aspect of human experience, from modes of dress and social roles to ways of expressing emotion and sexual desire. The third lens, biological essentialism, rationalizes and legitimizes the other two lenses by treating them as the inevitable consequences of the intrinsic biological natures of women and men.

After illustrating the pervasiveness of these three lenses in both historical and contemporary discourses of Western culture, Bem presents her own theory of how the individual either acquires cultural gender lenses and constructs a conventional gender identity or resists cultural lenses and constructs a gender-subversive identity. She contends that we must reframe the debate on sexual inequality so that it focuses not on the differences between men and women but on how male-centered discourses and institutions transform male-female difference into female disadvantage.

From Kirkus Reviews: A stimulating and tightly argued treatise on how American and Western culture defines gender and uses that definition to make the ``equality of women'' an oxymoron. Bem (Psychology and Women's Studies/Cornell) suggests that there are three ways--three lenses--through which society views gender. The first is ``androcentrism,'' the assumption that men's experience is the norm. Tracing androcentrism from Eve to the most recent ruling on disability insurance, Bem finds that the view of woman as ``the other'' is still firmly embedded in Western thought. The second lens is ``gender polarization,'' placing men and women on opposite ends of a spectrum that is rigidly defined, not so much by biology as by acculturation. Children, says Bem, learn to distinguish males from females by cultural clues (hair, dress) before they learn about anatomical differences, and quickly begin to assume the behavior that puts them on one end or another of the gender spectrum. The third lens is ``biological essentialism,'' the shifting theories that share the belief that biology is destiny. Bem argues convincingly that all three lenses both distort and shape reality. For instance, the arguments presently raging about whether women are or aren't different from men miss the point-- women clearly are different in some ways, and these differences should be considered but not devalued. Most controversial are Bem's arguments that children should be allowed to find their own spot on the spectrum of gender. She looks at homosexuals and transsexuals (``gender subversives''), and also at girls called ``tomboys'' and boys called ``sissies,'' while arguing that there are many more variations of masculinity and femininity than our society has permitted itself to explore. A concluding chapter offers suggestions for revaluing the male ``standard,'' for increasing social support of the bearing and raising of children, and for dismantling gender polarization. A thought-provoking study, bringing together many social, biological, and political theories into a well-reasoned volume. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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Title: The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the ...
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: 1994
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Good

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