Literary Theory

Key Terms

Heteronormativity- denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.

Performative- characterised by the performance of a social or cultural role.

intersectionality the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

Key People

Judith Butler

Hélène Cixous

Lee Edelman

Michel Foucault

Julia Kristeva

Luce Irigaray

Laura Mulvey

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Key Works




Gender and Queer theory have been influenced by feminist theory and post-structuralism and investigates all gender and sexual categories and identities. At the heart of this is the notion of gender and sexuality as social constructions, which means that repeated social performative actions of gender and sexual identity, including those reinforced within texts, produce a social reality rather than reflect social reality. In essence gender and sexuality and both constructed through social action, rather than being biologically defined. Moreover, there is no ‘standard’ in which sexual or gender identity should be judged against.

Gender theorists may focus on groups that fit into traditional binary definitions such as masculine/feminine, heterosexuality/ homosexuality, while queer theorists may work with terms that can be ill-defined and not fit into traditional binary opposites, for example, they may investigate transgender, bisexual and other such broad terms. Furthermore, queer theory see sexual and gender identity as fluid and negotiated, meaning that clear boundaries and definitions between gender and sexuality are in a constant state of flux. This means not only do the understanding of these terms change over time, different groups may use queer terms differently from one another, defying any attempt at producing clear terms of reference for queer theory. Another way of understanding  Queer theory is to see it as looking at the liminal space of sexual and gender identities where individuals and groups cross boundaries, or even where boundaries may shift.

What Gender and Queer Critiques do

Consider the intersectionality of gender and sexuality with other categories of social status and identity, for example, race.

Challenges the myth of heterosexuality as the ‘proper’ or ‘desired’ outcome of sexual and gender identity.

Investigates how queer social practises and performances challenge heteronormativity.

Explore how specific sexual expressions may be privileged over others in texts.

Challenges the belief that gender identity and sexual identity and intrinsically intertwined.

Explores the relationship between power and sexuality.

Explore the discursive practices of sexuality and gender identity.

What Questions to Gender and Queer Critiques ask

What elements of the text can be perceived as being masculine (active, powerful) and feminine (passive, marginalized) and how do the characters support these traditional roles?

What sort of support (if any) is given to elements or characters who question the masculine/feminine binary? What happens to those elements/characters?

What elements in the text exist in the middle, between the perceived masculine/feminine binary? In other words, what elements exhibit traits of both?

What are the politics (ideological agendas) of specific gay, lesbian, or queer works, and how are those politics revealed in the work's thematic content or portrayals of its characters?

What are the poetics (literary devices and strategies) of a specific lesbian, gay, or queer works?

What does the work contribute to our knowledge of queer, gay, or lesbian experience and history, including literary history?

How is queer, gay, or lesbian experience coded in texts that are by writers who are apparently homosexual?

What does the work reveal about the socially, politically, psychologically operations that may be homophobic?

How does the literary text illustrate the problematics of sexuality and sexual "identity," that is the ways in which human sexuality does not fall neatly into the separate categories defined by the words homosexual and heterosexual?

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