The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality.

Author:Dahlmann, Jill M.

By Sandra Lipsitz Bem. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993. Pp. xii, 244. $30.

A pale eggy yellow background. Circles of different dingy colors -- murky avocado green, rusty orange, dull burnt sienna, and opaque sapphire blue, overlapping in parts to create smoggy brownish colors. Is this a dress worn by Marcia Brady circa 1974? A retro Venn diagram? No, it is the cover design of The Lenses of Gender. Sandra Lipsitz Bem,(1) who was a scholar of androgyny in the 1970s,(2) dresses her book in androgynous 1970s fashion.(3) In this book, she attempts to move beyond the concept of 1970s androgyny toward a broader, modern theory of cultural androcentrism, a concept she labels "gender schema theory." Her broad-ranging theory encompasses multidisciplinary fields such as biology, psychology, sociology, history, economics, politics, and law. In her preface, she acknowledges the risks of writing a book with such a comprehensive goal: "Because I poach on the domains of other specialists, my rendition of their discourse may seem unoriginal; on some occasions, it may not even ring true to their ears" (p. ix). Although the book does at times seem unoriginal even somewhat outdated(4) -- and at times gives cursory treatment -- of vast subjects, Bem does supply a new framework, or at least a new vocabulary, for understanding the oppression of women and sexual minorities.

The title of the book gives us the first component of Bem's new vocabulary -- the three "lenses of gender." According to Bem, we see the world through various "lenses," which are "hidden assumptions about sex and gender [that] remain embedded in cultural discourses, social institutions, and individual psyches" (p. 2). These lenses are (i) androcentrism, (ii) gender polarization, and (iii) biological essentialism. She calls them "lenses" because we are raised with them and we assume that we are seeing the only possible reality when we look through them, but if we learn to remove the lenses, we can see a different construction of reality.(5) The lenses of gender are problematic because they "invisibly and systemically reproduce male power in generation after generation" (p. 2). One of the goals of Bem's book is to teach us to recognize the lenses of gender in ourselves, thus enabling us to look at the lenses of gender rather than through them. This ability requires a "raised social consciousness" (p. 1) that allows us to recognize the ways in which gender as a social construction shapes our views of social reality. Exposing the lenses of gender, Bem argues, will transform the sex equality movement (p. 176). The end result of this raised consciousness, to which Bem aspires, would be a shift in the feminist debate away from the focus on differences between men and women, and toward a focus on the way in which "androcentric social institutions transform male-female difference into female disadvantage" (p. 177). As Bem acknowledges (pp. xi, 183-84), feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon has been making this same argument since the late 1970s.(6)

The first lens of gender is androcentrism, or male-centeredness (pp. 39-79):

[A]ndrocentrism is the privileging of male experience and the "otherizing"

of female experience; that is, males and male experience are treated

as a neutral standard or norm for the culture or the species as a whole,

and females and female experience are treated as a sex-specific deviation

from that allegedly universal standard. [p. 41] Bem surveys various cultural discourses -- theology, philosophy, psychology, and law -- pointing out the androcentrism in each area. Her analysis of equal rights law (pp. 62-79) reads like the text to an introductory undergraduate course on the history of women and the law. She easily flips through the infamous early cases -- Bradwell V. Illinois (7) and Muller v. Oregon(8) -- the leading 1970s equality cases -- Reed v. Reed,(9) Frontiero v. Richardson,(10) Craig v. Boren,(11) Geduldig v. Aiello,(12) General Electric Co. v. Gilbert,(13) and Personnel Administrator v. Feeney(14) -- and the "comparable worth" case -- AFSCME v. Washington.(15) The last case, AFSCME v. Washington, is the only case she cites that was decided after the 1970s. Bem gives cursory treatment to the cases and to the feminist strategies that went into them, using the cases only to prove her point -- that the law is androcentric. Bem also criticizes the predominant feminist legal strategy that framed the 1970s cases -- gender neutrality -- without mentioning the expansive debate over the issue, through which many feminists have come to the conclusion that gender neutrality is not the best feminist legal strategy.(16) Put Simply, Bem chooses an easy target and then makes it look even easier. Although the cases she cites clearly do demonstrate androcentrism in the legal system, she could have added dimension to the examples by expounding on the feminist discourse that went into the cases and came after them and by drawing on some of the more recent controversial focal areas of feminist legal strategy, such as sexuality, sexual harassment, pornography, prostitution, surrogacy, incest, battery, and rape. Overall, however, Bem's discussion of androcentrism proves, to anyone who has not already figured it out, that our institutions and fields of thought are defined and function from a male point of view.

The second lens is gender polarization (pp. 80 -132), or "the ubiquitous organization of social life around the distinction between male and female" (p. 80). This lens polarizes men and women so that we appear to have vast differences in many aspects of life, such as biology, modes of dress, social roles, emotions, and sexual desires (p. 2). This lens is also the reason why people generally perceive that there are only two sexes.(17) Bem begins her analysis of gender polarization by focusing on the way in which scientists have contributed to gender polarization by stigmatizing homosexuality as a sexual "deviation." She examines the late-nineteenth-century concept of sexual inversion, Freud's views on homosexuality, and American psychiatrists' pathologizing of homosexuality (pp. 87-101). She concludes that homosexual oppression is a result of gender polarization and compulsory heterosexuality.(18)

Bem then analyzes scientific studies that focus on what she calls the "nonsexual" masculinity-femininity of the individual psyche -- "the assessment of masculinity-femininity, the treatment and prevention of masculinity-femininity disorders, especially |transsexualism,' and the development of masculinity-femininity in |normal' children" (pp. 101-02). At this point, Bem includes the results of an interesting study she did to test children's understanding of gender as a biological concept.(19) Bem showed fifty-eight children (three-, four-, and five-year-olds) a photograph of a nude toddler. She then asked the children to identify the sex of that same toddler in two other pictures -- one in which the toddler is dressed in a sex-consistent way, and one in which the toddler is cross-dressed.(20) The children's responses to the test showed whether they understood that gender is based on genitalia or whether they thought that gender is based on dress or hairstyle. Sixty percent of the children in the study misidentified the gender of the toddler, failing the test.(21) Bem argues that this lack of biological gender knowledge leads to gender traditionalism and gender polarization because children grow up thinking that there are certain things that they must do in order to be male or female. Bem explains:

As I see it, the lepcy of learning a social definition of sex lasts long

after a child has learned about the special significance of the genitalia as

the defining attributes of male and female. Not only does the social definition

set up a pattern of behavior that is culturally consistent with

whatever sex the child is told he or she is; it also instills in the child the

never-to-be-fully-forgotten feeling that being male or female is something

to work at, to accomplish, and to be sure not to lose, rather than something

one is biologically. [p. 148]

Bem concludes that much of the previous psychological and psychiatric discourse contributes to gender polarization by privileging gender traditionalism and pathologizing gender "deviance" according to cultural standards (p. 115). Bem and other feminist psychologists began to challenge this discourse in the 1970s. Bem originally focused on the area of androgyny but soon came to recognize the limitations of that concept as a vehicle for social and political change. Feminist theorists at the time criticized the concept of androgyny as being "simultaneously so gender neutral, so utopian, and so devoid of any real connection to historical reality that it doesn't even acknowledge the existence of gender inequality" (p. 123). They also criticized androgyny for being "too private and too personal . . . to be of any value politically" and for...

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