Gender has long been a hot topic and a point of interest for researchers, biologists, social scientists, and policymakers. Regardless of the feminism era, one goal that the movement has always strived to accomplish is to get rid of harmful, superficial labels that prescribe each gender that it can and cannot be. Doing so is challenging for many reasons: for starters, humans depend on labels and stereotypes because they assist them with navigating the world. The feminine and the masculine provide a clear, though oversimplified, classification. Another level of complexity is added by the mixed scientific evidence regarding the origins of gender differences. Now, the growing feminist movement observes the emergence of new labels – now putting feminists themselves into “bad” and “good” boxes. This essay argues that Blum’s paper on the topic is far more convincing than similar works by Gay and Devor due to its exquisite use of rhetorical devices and relevant supporting statistics.
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From the perspective of ethos, Blum’s and Gay’s credentials and background are somewhat similar in their potential in laying a solid foundation for their arguments. Both of them are college-educated women and professionals who have enough expertise in their corresponding fields that overlap. However, Gay’s distinguished academic accomplishments surpass those of Blum, which may give more weight to her work. Deborah Blum graduated from the University of Georgia where she was the editor of a major student newspaper. Today, she is a prolific author and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Blum is accomplished in her writing career, which is evidenced by the Pulitzer Prize she received in 1992 for a book in the genre of environmental journalism. Apart from her professional life, a social role that helps her build an argument about the subject matter is that of a mother. Blum opens her article with an anecdote from her son’s childhood when he showed a very strong preference for carnivorous, aggressive dinosaurs. She ponders: “Raising children tends to bring on this kind of politically incorrect reaction (Blum 679).”
Indeed, her own experience of child-rearing allowed her to gain an insight into how differently boys and girls manifest their gender identity from an early age. In turn, Gay went to some of the best universities in the world: she received her Bachelor’s degree from Yale University, her Masters – from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and went to the Michigan Technological University for her Ph.D. Like Blum, Gay uses her life experiences as a source of credible evidence. In her essay, she emphasizes the fact she is a woman of color and, hence, can see more clearly the intersection between gender and face. For example, she critiques white feminism: “Some feminists don’t seem terribly concerned with the issues unique to women of color (Gay 171).” In doing so, she critiques the false dichotomy of good and bad feminism both as a person with advanced degrees and a black woman for whom the described phenomena are her lived reality.
While Devor sees gender differences as imposed and constructed (hence, “natural” roles in double-quotes), to Blum, there are both social and biological components to gender. Devor argues that “biological evidence is equivocal about the source of gender roles,” though not citing any studies or providing further factual information. Even from the perspective of social sciences, Devor’s claims are blurry and ungrounded. For instance, he writes “many activities and modes of expression are recognized by most members of society as feminine (487).” An attentive and introspective reader is likely to have a few questions such as “what activities? what modes of expression? recognized by whom exactly?” and find no convincing answers. There are vague ideas galore throughout the work: “verbal styles usually associated with men and masculinity” and “suitable and unsuitable [concreteness] for each gender class (Devor 487).” The lack of concreteness makes the article neither scientifically sound nor at least relatable to an average person. In contrast, Blum takes a much broader perspective, hinging on the premise that humans are both social and biological creatures. Just like Devor, Blum is of the opinion that there is plenty of space for society to influence a person and mold them into a certain gender. However, according to her, all humans are born with certain predispositions, but society tends to “amplify” and “exaggerate” them, molding a person into the perfect masculine or feminine image (679).
An inarguable advantage of Blum’s article over all others is the author’s ability to weave relevant scientific facts into her narration, unlike Gay who relies on anecdotal evidence and popular media. Like Devor, Blum points out the well-documented and observed male aggression but goes further by bringing up statistics and in vivo studies. Firstly, “The Gender Blur”‘s author showcases the consequences of male aggression in society and, specifically, much higher crime rates among men. Then she cites a study in monkeys that have sexual behavioral dimorphism just like humans. From early childhood, male monkeys prefer rough games while their female counterparts show no such inclination. The researchers manipulated the testosterone levels in animals, raising them in females and suppressing them in males. The experiment resulted in “creating sweet little male monkeys and rowdy young females” – in other words, the gender roles swapped (682).
At the same time, Blum abstains from biological determinism and concludes that while scientists know that hormones do play a role in gender expression, all the intricacies of their workings have yet to be uncovered. Lastly, in her article, Gay addresses a concept that is fully socially constructed, which is being a woman and being a feminist. Because there is no biological aspect to becoming “good” or “bad” at feminism, one can hardly find any studies and hard evidence. Therefore, the sources of information that Gay uses are popular media, magazines, and women in power. In the first half of her article, Gay synthesizes the different opinions on what a feminist should be like, comparing and contrasting them. In the second half, however, she resorts to autobiographical and anecdotal data to showcase the divide in the feminist movement. The author explains how she herself is a bad feminist because many of the things and activities that she likes or dislikes are stereotypically female. For instance, Gay “[hates] pink” and “[knows] nothing about the cars (173).” It is extremely hard to prove or disprove any of her ideas because so many of them are grounded in personal experiences.
Both Blum and Gay show extensive use of pathos in their respective articles; however, Gay’s argument depends on pathos much more than that of Blum. At first, Gay evokes feelings of confusion in the reader by listing all the different definitions of feminism that set an impossible ideal for women. Because of the controversy that feminism still causes, she “sometimes cringes when someone refers to [her] as a feminist. as if [she] should be ashamed of [her] feminism or as if the word “feminist” is an insult (169).” The emotional intensity of the article peaks near the end where Gay admits that “[she] is failing as a feminist (173).” However, it does not look as if she wants pity but rather sympathy and the certainty that other women can relate to her experience. Blum does not use pathos for the same purposes but rather to demonstrate the shock of her awakening from what she knew before. “I had been fed a line and swallowed it like a sucker” – she writes referring to the myths about boys and girls that feminism had long nurtured (Blum 681). Later, it is logos that overpowers pathos in Blum’s article and becomes front and center of her argument.
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It is in the last few decades, marked by the onset of the third wave of feminism, that gender has been looked at from new perspectives. Aside from the masculine and feminine labels, another dichotomy that came into prominence is good and bad feminism. Devor, the author of Gender Role Behaviors and Attitudes, juxtaposes the ideal male and female image but fails to provide supporting scientific evidence. Besides, she ignores the biological aspect and the cultural context of gender. Gay’s account of good and bad feminism is anecdotal and largely based on her personal experiences, which makes it difficult to prove or disprove its validity. In contrast, Blum does a great job showcasing the biological and social underpinning of gender while referring to relevant numbers and figures and citing studies.
Blum, Deborah. The Gender Blur: Where Does Biology End and Society Take Over? n.d. Web.
Devor, Holly. “Gender Role Behaviors and Attitudes.” Signs of life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, vol. 4, 2003, pp. 484-89.
Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist: Essays. btb Verlag, 2019.