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literature

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Feminist Literary Theory  
 
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Contributions to Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Studies

Despite these differing opinions, several interrelated principles and techniques of feminist theory clearly affect lesbian, gay, and queer studies.

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The most far-reaching contribution is, of course, feminists' analysis of the social construction of gender. By distinguishing between sex (that is, the biological differences between male and female) and gender (that is, the social, psychic, and cultural meanings imposed on these sex-based differences), feminists have denaturalized gender and demonstrated that masculinity and femininity are unstable categories that vary across cultural and historical periods.

This sex-gender distinction has been further extended by lesbian, gay, and queer theory to encompass analyses of the intersections between gender and sexuality. As Rubin, Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, and other recent theorists argue, sexuality--like gender itself--is a socially constructed category that has been shaped into heterosexual and homosexual identities that vary cross-culturally and historically.

In addition to the pivotal role played by this sex-gender distinction, feminist theory has made a number of other significant contributions to the burgeoning fields of lesbian, gay, and queer studies, including the development of techniques to analyze the erasure of women and other socially marginalized groups from literary canons, the recognition that interlocking systems of oppression shape gendered identities differently, and arguments concerning the political implications of apparently personal issues.

Given feminism's early emphasis on woman-centered issues, it is not surprising that feminist literary theory has had a more extensive engagement with lesbian literature than with gay male writing.

Indeed, as Smith's and Zimmerman's assertions suggest, often the challenges to feminist criticism have developed from within feminism itself and entail the use of feminist theory to critique existing feminist perspectives.

The Development of a Lesbian-Specific Theoretical Field

In addition to expanding feminist theory significantly, these challenges have played an important role in developing a lesbian-specific theoretical field.

For instance, in her influential 1980 essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Adrienne Rich draws on feminist critiques of patriarchal social structures developed by Dorothy Dinnerstein, Nancy Chodorow, and others, yet expands them by suggesting that heterosexuality is a political institution that naturalizes women's social, economic, and psychological oppression.

By exposing the heterosexist bias that naturalizes male-female bonding in western cultures, Rich simultaneously builds on and critiques gynocritics' call for a separate, distinctly female literary tradition and an exclusively woman-identified relationship between writer, reader, and text, thus making possible a lesbian aesthetic.

Similarly, in writings by Marilyn Farwell, Julia Penelope, Luce Irigaray, and Hélène Cixous, lesbian identity functions as a metaphor capable of breaking open the heterosexual male-female binary.

Yet as other lesbian-feminist theorists like Judith Roof, Teresa de Lauretis, and Elizabeth Meese have observed, these metaphoric uses of lesbian identity obscure lesbianism's sexually specific dimensions.

Thus in A Lure of Knowledge (1991), Roof adapts feminist theories of reading and writing developed by Rich, Cixous, Irigaray, Patriancio Schweickart, Jonathan Culler, and Peggy Kamuf and argues that literary representations of lesbian sexuality function metaphorically to secure conventional, heterosexist definitions of female identity.

Similarly, de Lauretis draws on already existing feminist critiques of heterosexist binary systems, as well as feminist-inspired analyses of the erasure of women and female desire, to examine the gaps and silences within existing representations of lesbian identity.

Feminist Literary Theory and Gay Male Studies

Despite its fairly recent emergence, gay male studies have benefited greatly from feminist literary theory. Indeed, by building on already existing feminist insights, gay male theory has made remarkable progress since the early 1980s.

The recognition that male-authored texts are marked by gender, coupled with feminist critiques of the heterosexual matrix underlying Western literary and cultural forms, has provided scholars with a useful theoretical framework for the analysis of male homosexual and heterosexual identities.

For instance, in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Eve Sedgwick applies feminist insights concerning the gendered nature of all social relations to her analysis of the interconnections between male homophobia and the oppression of women.

Drawing on Gayle Rubin's 1975 essay, "The Traffic in Women," Sedgwick reinterprets a number of canonical nineteenth-century literary texts to suggest that the exchange of women between men mediates yet conceals male bonding.

In "Rebel Without a Closet" (1990), Christopher Castiglia modifies Sedgwick's model and applies it to popular culture films in which the homosexual, rather than homosocial, rivalry is more explicitly developed. He argues that by feminizing same-sex desire, recent filmic representations of gay male identity attempt to contain the growing AIDS-inspired fear of homosexuality.

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