Postmodern Gender Fluidity versus the Victorian-era Binary Model of Gender: A Steampunk Feminist Perseptive

The Genderbread Person v2.1

I was pretty excited when I found the Genderbread Person meme. It clears up the confusion about what defines gender, sexuality, and biological sex. What I really like about it is the use of the word ‘person’. This doesn’t mean I’ll stop calling those doll-shaped gingerbread biscuits ‘gingerbread men’; but it allows for the possibility of ‘gingerbread women’, and everything else in between. It is only in the last decade that the majority of the Western World has come to understand that gender isn’t cut and dried, that gender is a performance, and gender is fluid, not a binary.

So let’s breakdown the concept of gender binaries for the Victorian era. Basically, whatever a man was, a woman wasn’t. Men were strong; women were weak. Men were tool-users; women weren’t (so who do you think invented grinding stones, baskets and slings?). Men were innately honest; women were deceitful by nature. The perfect example of this viewpoint summarized in the song from the musical My Fair Lady – based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (writing about gender and class). Extract:

Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that!

Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!
They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating,
vacillating, calculating, agitating,
Maddening and infuriating hags!
[To Pickering]
Pickering, why can’t a woman be more like a man?

Pickering: I beg your pardon?

Henry:
Yes…
Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square;
Eternally noble, historically fair;
Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat.
Why can’t a woman be like that?

Why does ev’ryone do what the others do?
Can’t a woman learn to use her head?
Why do they do ev’rything their mothers do?
Why don’t they grow up- well, like their father instead?
Why can’t a woman take after a man?
Men are so pleasant, so easy to please;
Wherever you’re with them, you’re always at ease.

Would you be slighted if I didn’t speak for hours?

Pickering:
Of course not!

Henry:
Would you be livid if I had a drink or two?

Pickering:
Nonsense.

Henry:
Would you be wounded if I never sent you flowers?

Pickering:
Never.

Henry:
Well, why can’t a woman be like you?

One man in a million may shout a bit.
Now and then there’s one with slight defects;
One, perhaps, whose truthfulness you doubt a bit.
But by and large we are a marvelous sex!
Why can’t a woman take after man?
Cause men are so friendly, good-natured and kind.
A better companion you never will find.
If I were hours late for dinner, would you bellow?

Pickering:
Of course not!

Henry:
If I forgot your silly birthday, would you fuss?

Pickering:
Nonsense.

Henry:
Would you complain if I took out another fellow?

Pickering:
Never.

Henry:
Well, why can’t a woman be like us?

[To Mrs. Pearce]
Mrs. Pearce, you’re a woman…
Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
Men are so decent, such regular chaps.
Ready to help you through any mishaps.
Ready to buck you up whenever you are glum.
Why can’t a woman be a chum?
Why is thinking something women never do?
Why is logic never even tried?
Straightening up their hair is all they ever do.
Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside?
Why can’t a woman behave like a man?
If I was a woman who’d been to a ball,
Been hailed as a princess by one and by all;
Would I start weeping like a bathtub overflowing?
And carry on as if my home were in a tree?
Would I run off and never tell me where I’m going?
Why can’t a woman be like me?

If this song wasn’t meant to be satirical, I would be completely enraged by these lyrics. But they do an excellent job of detailing how masculinity was portrayed by the average Victorian male, and how they perceived the portrayal of femininity. The problem is these portrayals are:

  1. Culturally Indoctrinated, and
  2. Only allow for a binary model of Gender
  3. skewed by our own culture’s bias towards a gender binary.

From our viewpoint – looking back at the Victorian era – we tend to only see those gender portrayals that fit neatly into the two boxes, masculinity and femininity. This view is most certainly incorrect. Thank goodness, we no longer see History as cut and dried, and most Postmodern historians realize that history is fluid and changing.

We know that women in the Victorian era were restricted socially, educationally and legally in comparison to men. But it is time to accept that not every woman  – or man  – followed those restrictions.

Cross dressing Michigan farm boys.

Cross dressing Michigan farm boys.

Carte de visite photograph of Ella Wesner, circa 1872

Carte de visite photograph of Ella Wesner, circa 1872

I mentioned the cross-dressing George Sand in a previous blog article. She was probably the best example of people rebelling against the severe restrictions of Victorian society, but she wasn’t the only one. Suffragettes were rebelling, female students were rebelling – with the support of their friends, colleagues and brothers, and the stage was set for Modernism and Postmodernism, and the Sexual Revolution of the 20th Century.

George Sand

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7 Comments

Filed under Gender and Sexuality, Historical Personage, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist

7 responses to “Postmodern Gender Fluidity versus the Victorian-era Binary Model of Gender: A Steampunk Feminist Perseptive

  1. Kara Jorgensen

    Reblogged this on The Writer's Habitarium: the Blog of Author Kara Jorgensen and commented:
    Awesome post about the Victorian gender binary

  2. amo

    Great title – it sure grabbed my attention over on Kara’s blog! And, strangely enough, I just wrote a post on gender in fiction today, too. After reading this, I realise that my post is coming very much from the “gender binary” perspective – but at the same time, part of my post is a rant about the Victorians and what today looks like absolutely petrified gender stereotypes. Great food for thought.

  3. Pingback: Some Victorian “Carte de Visites” | FROM THE BYGONE

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