Think Outside the Box: An Alternative Feminist Perspective on Gender and Sexuality


Drawing on the concept of think outside the box, this paper attempt to encourage the reader to view the issues of gender and sexuality in an alternative way by exhibiting a few case studies. Firstly, the problem regarding the word ‘feminism’ will be discussed. Next, an analysis of sodomy through the lens of feminist will be displayed. Then, an alternative viewpoint regarding polyamorous relationship will be reviewed. Finally, by reviewing the history of the flapper in the 1920s and the traditional female roles in the literature, this paper further provides a chance for the reader to rethink the meaning of feminism and its role in the future.

Keywords: feminism, deconstruction, equality, think outside the box

1. Introduction

Recently, the word ‘feminism’ has become a hot topic as many find it implies more negative connotations than positive. In Martin Daubney’s “Why men have a problem with the word ‘Feminism,’” the word ‘feminism’ implies sexism towards men or male subjugation, thus, the author suggests that the concept itself should be renamed (The Telegraph 2014). Indeed, the word ‘fem’ seems more likely to imply the supremacy of women over men. However, in response to Martin, the Britain’s leading feminists Jude Kelly argues that “Feminism, like Suffragettes, is a word that is associated with struggle, and therefore it is associated with conflict” (The Telegraph, 2014). In fact, feminism is a movement focused on advocating gender equality; the feminist movements not only attempt to improve the social position of women, it also seeks to “bring justice to people who have been discriminated against in terms of their race, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, and much more” (Fembot, 2015). Similarly, if men were the ones who had been oppressed in the past, the word we may have used today might have been ‘manism’ or ‘masculism.’ Nevertheless, some suggest changing the word “feminism” to “humanism” as it seems to be able to solve the conflict between male and female. In the English Oxford Living Dictionaries (2016), humanism is defined as
A variety of ethical theory and practice characterized by a stress on human rationality and capacity for free thought and moral action, and a rejection of theistic religion and the supernatural in favor of secular and naturalistic views 
of humanity and the universe.
From the description above we understand that humanism is something totally different from advocating for human rights. It concentrates on “how wonderful the human mind is and how humans need not rely on an invisible entity to conduct their lives” (Fembot, 2015). On the other hand, in the English Oxford Living Dictionaries (2016), feminism is defined as “advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex.” In other words, feminism can be viewed as a space in which many voices are gathered and heard regardless of class, race and gender. Therefore, it is clear that changing the word ‘feminism’ to ‘humanism’ is a needless argument because they are two different ideas. In short, choosing a new name for the gender equality movement would imply that feminism is somehow wrong, shameful and negative. A new name will not get us any closer to gender equality, and would lessen the contribution of those feminists who came before us. Fighting for changing the name of the gender equality movement is meaningless. Fighting for gender equality is not. So why should we not focus on the latter?

2. Think Outside the Box

Before talking about equality, it is necessary to introduce iO Tillett Wright’s view on the LGBT spectrum. According to Wright (2012), “human beings start putting each other into boxes the second that they see each other.” For instance, he is a businessman, she has two daughters. The second time people meet, as Wright suggests, they get more personal with it—he is gay; she is bisexual. People who have different sexual orientations than the majority groups are then put into the box labeled ‘LGBT.’ It is understandable that we tend to a draw line between others and ourselves in order to confirm our own identity. According to P. Ranjan, Edward W. Said claimed that by defining the non-Westerners as ‘the Other,’ Westerners came to construct themselves as developed, rational, flexible, and superior, while the non-Westerners as backward, sensual, inflexible and inferior (86). However, problems such as discrimination appears when we come to see the marginalized others as inferior to ourselves through putting them into boxes—for instance, heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, transgender—that we think exist. As Wright argues, there is no way to draw a clear line between people who are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or the other because human sexuality is not one dimension, that if we must draw a line to define every single person in the world, then we must admit that there are not enough boxes in the world. Nevertheless, instead of creating more and more boxes, Wright supposes that training oneself to think outside the box would be a wiser choice. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2017), to think outside the box means “to explore ideas that are creative and unusual and that are not limited or controlled by rules or tradition.” Based on this idea, in the following section, this paper will exhibit an alternative perspective on some issues of gender and sexuality that are still regarded as ‘abnormal,’ ‘perversion’ or ‘disorder’ from the gaze of majority groups.


3. An Alternative Perspective on Gender and Sexuality 

3.1 Exploring Sodomy

Throughout the history, sodomy has been used to distinguish femininity from masculinity through its sexual position. Jonathan Goldberg, in his book Sodometries (2010), claims that men who are sodomized are often being seen like feminine women (202). This conception is formed under the influence of a patriarchal and heteronormative society, whereby “the prevailing and predictable sexual narrative depends upon the man having the role of a penetrator, dominating women” (Burke 134). Anal sex, in which men are receiving end of penetrative sexual acts, upsets the ‘masculine-top/feminine-bottom’ stereotype of sexuality, and thus, is often viewed as ‘abnormal’ or even criminal.

Nevertheless, sodomy has gradually become a sexual practice not only among homosexual couples but also heterosexual couples. According to “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction and Sexual Identity in the United States” (2011), among thousands of people between the ages of 15 and 44, there are 44 percent of straight men and 36 percent of straight women admitted to having had anal sex at least once from 2006 through 2008 (9). Although submitting to sodomy can be “both painful and accompanied by an aura of humiliation,” some individuals, as R. Fantina suggests, can barely resist themselves from partaking in the pleasure and pain that sodomy engenders (71).

Regarding the physical pleasure, a leading feminist publication called The New Our Bodies, Our Selves claims that “the anus can be stimulated with fingers, tongue, penis or any slender object. For many of us, it is a highly sexually sensitive area” (218). Thus, it is possible to achieve a state of bliss or jouissance through the stimulation of the anus in a gentle and proper way. As to the psychological aspect, it is far more complicated as it relates to humiliation and the sense of guilt produced by the superego. According to S. Freud (1961), a man who holds the desire to “be copulated with” characterizes “masochism” (XIX 277). Drawing on this, Richard Fantina quotes Leo Bersani’s statement that there is a strong link between masochism and sodomy, which is the “self-shattering jouissance” (74). To be able to understand what “self-shattering jouissance” means, first, we have to see Leo Bersani’s comments on human sexuality:
“Human sexuality is constituted as a kind of psychic shattering, as a threat to the stability and integrity of self—a threat which perhaps only the masochistic nature of sexual pleasure allows us to survive.” (60)
“We desire what nearly shatters us, and the shattering experience is, it would seem, without any specific content—which may be our only way of saying that the experience cannot be said, that is belongs to the nonlinguistic biology of human life.” (39-40)
On the basis of the descriptions above, we are being led to believe that human sexuality is a threat to the self as it destabilizes our ego. However, as humans, we seek to experience what nearly destroys our ego, the shattering stimuli, in order to become more ‘human.’ This paradoxical condition is then alleviated by masochism, which functions as a vehicle to fill the “gap between the period of shattering stimuli and the development of resistant or defensive ego structures” (Bersani 39). Thus, we come to the point that “masochism lies at the very core of all sexuality” and sodomy, an essential component of masochism, also represents an important issue when we talk about human sexuality (Fantina 74).

Either it is male-on-female, female-on-male, female-on-female, or male-on-male sodomy, we recognize the fact that male and female both have anuses and therefore, they can desire “the same” (Goldberg 1994: 1). In this sense, sodomy can be used as a method to promote gender and sexual equality. As Fantina suggests, it “remains a polymorphous practice that transcends categories of sexual preference” (73). This transcendental act further calls into question the current system of gender and sexuality that is insufficient to cover the diverse desires of human beings. In other words, the ideological identification that encourages compulsory heterosexuality needs to be questioned in order to embrace more fluid notions of sexuality.

3.2 Discovering Polyamory

Today, monogamous relationships still remain within mainstream culture in most parts of the world. It is suggested that monogamous relationships have been enforced by society throughout the history for the purpose of ‘convenience’—it is easy to manage a society—because human beings are not naturally monogamous, we are taught to embrace monogamous instead. In fact, according to Meghan Laslocky (2013), “only 3 percent to 5 percent of all the mammal species on Earth ‘practice any form of monogamy’; “no mammal species has been proven to be truly monogamous.” Nevertheless, P. Pearsall (1994) emphasizes that a loving, committed monogamous relationship provides physical healing to the individuals: “Sexual pleasure may be programmed into us as a signal to our brain that we are on the right track in preventing illness and staying well by making contact with another person” (11). Moreover, scholars such as E. Moschetta and P. Moschetta (1998) claim that “When you have the marriage spirit you are monogamous by choice” (256), emphasizing monogamous marriage as a spiritual path.

However, it is now regarded that the traditional monogamous marriage can no longer provide adequately for the intimacy needs of some individuals due to social changes like globalization and the popularization of the internet and so on. In fact, it is estimated that half of a million Americans are polyamorous even though they are not familiar with the word “polyamory” (Weber 2002). Also, E. Cook in “Commitment in Polyamory” Chapter 2 has shown that people who engaged in polyamorous relationships were more highly educated than the general population and had a higher household income. Cook further notes, people who are higher educated are more likely to be able to “find a subset of the society that is outside their original social group,” and perhaps also more likely to be willing to question the traditional values of monogamy: “You need to take on poly as a path for long term personal growth, because if you don’t, you’ll be taking it on as a path for long term personal suffering,” it is always hard work to challenge the traditional norms (Cook Chapter 4).

Nevertheless, if we look at polyamorous relationship from an alternative perspective, we discover that challenges serve as “growth-promoting” (Cook Chapter 4). One of the challenges in polyamory is the struggle of ambivalence, as practitioners often feel, according to Sheff (2005), both more empowered and more disempowered in their relationships: they are empowered by their “greater freedom to make their own sexual choices” while disempowered by the “feeling of jealousy,” the “fear of censure and social stigma because of their deviance” (Cook emphasis Chapter 2). As to the feeling of jealousy, drawing on the Kerista community (a polyamorous commune that existed in San Francisco from 1971 to 1991), L. Wolfe (2003) in “On Kittens and the Very Inverted Culture of Polyamory” suggests that jealousy can actually be overcome by interpreting it in an opposite way, which is the concept of compersion—“having loving empathy for one’s partner’s outside erotic and emotional adventures.” Also, jealousy can be decreased by a total honesty or open communication between one another, as V. White (2004) defines polyamory as “Living by the principle that it is possible to love more than one person at a time without deception or betrayal” (17).

The most significant difference between monogamy and polyamory is that the latter feel a greater sense of community bonding than the former. This benefit of polyamory is emphasized by Lizful, a poly practitioner that
“It’s one way of having a wider community of people with whom you can rejoice and on whom you can count if you need help. Some people do it through their church, but the same kind of thing, you can do it through your poly.” (Cook Chapter 4)
Undeniably, Lizful’s description also embodies a sense of spiritual healing, which had once been emphasized in the monogamous relationship. Besides community bonding, this sense of spiritual healing is also associated with sexual healing, as “polyamorous people are more likely to be open to being sensual and touching and giving nurturing touch than non-polyamorous people” (Cook Chapter 4). Another benefit of polyamory is that it is truly more fun, as Carol in her interview claims that she and her partner were more playful when they were with a third person than they were when they were just by themselves (Cook Chapter 4).

After all, no matter whether one chooses to be a mono or poly practitioner, we should respect his or her freedom of choice. From a feminist viewpoint, polyamory should be celebrated as it embodies equality in making choice in term of love and relationships: “One of my big challenges in life has been being able to make choices, to feel that I [have a] choice, and by choosing polyamory I am choosing a path of choice…I equally believe that monogamy needs to be a choice too” (Cook Chapter 4).
4. Rethinking Feminism: Looking Back to Move Forward

4.1 The Flappers in the 1920s 

Through the cases above, we can determine that the boxes labeled ‘disorder’ or ‘perversion’ or ‘abnormal’ is actually a means used to stabilize and normalize dominant identities such as whiteness, masculinity and heterosexuality. In fact, the image of flapper founded in 1920s is, on one hand, a symbol of the liberal form of feminism while on the other hand, is a symbol os the ideological submission to the patriarchal society. Regarding the former conception, the image of the New Woman or Flapper is viewed as a representation of feminism as “American women had just gained the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution” (Liming 137). Also, the less form-fitting styles of the 1920s that gave way to exposed arms, legs, and necklines are perceived as representing women’s sexual freedom and a trend toward androgyny. However, some claim that the flapper style—boyishly cropped hair, dramatic “vamp” makeup, loose, amorphous frocks and so forth—is in fact less representative of a move toward androgyny than a move “towards a distant and hazy ideal of pre-pubescent female youth” (Liming 109). In other words, instead of moving toward a gender-neutral condition, the youthful flappers were actually moving away from adult female bodies so that women remained “non-threatening to the continued operation of patriarchal norms” (Addison 8).

It is claimed that Oliver Thomas (original name, Oliveretta R. Duffy) was the first flapper in American history (Liming 109). Thomas was born in the working-class steel town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania in 1894. Although her first marriage only lasted two years, her divorce somewhat gave her class and background. After the divorce, Thomas moved to New York City with a confidence that her beauty would assure her success there. Indeed, her beauty brought her the first prize in a magazine-sponsored “Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and as a consequence she became a model promoting the Victorian “Gibson Girl” in 1915. In The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media (2001), the Gibson Girl represents “the simultaneous embodiment of cultivated, Anglo-Saxon elegance and energetic, healthy womanhood” (Swinth emphasis 605). It was through a film called The Flapper (1920) that Thomas’s iconic image of the ‘Gibson Girl’ changed to the ‘Flapper.’ Ironically, Thomas was found dead in September 1920 after earning the title of “the first flapper.” As Liming claims, “Thomas might have been the first flapper, but she was far from the last, becoming an ultimately replaceable figure conscripted for use in the programs of jazz and modernity alike” (101).

Through the case study on Oliver Thomas, we can discern that the representations of a woman’s place were ambivalent and sarcastic in the 1920s. Although the flapper image dominated the decade’s magazine covers, they also symbolized a wider tendency toward ideological submission in the Western society. As C. Kitch asserts in The Girl on the Magazine Cover, “neither sophisticated nor smart,” the flappers were “self-absorbed and silly,” “a joke” (122). Interestingly, it is not difficult to discover that black college graduates appeared on 1920s African American magazine covers with the same appearance as white girl grads (Swinth 607). However, rather than illustrations, these women were portrayed via photographs. The reason given in Girl on the Magazine Cover is that “in an era where black achievement was denied, illustrations were too suggestive of idealization. Photographs gave the covers necessary realism” (95; Swinth emphasis 607). Another controversial aspect that can be found in 1920s magazine covers is the images of babies and children. While the images of Flappers were popularized on magazine covers for Life, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Smart Set and others, “family values” also became a dominant motif on the 1920s American magazine covers. As Kitch suggests, baby covers “helped idealize American childhood as a white, middle-class, suburban experience, while also…naturalizing the typicality of those families as ‘American’” (148).

Whether it were Gibson Girls, Flappers, African American flappers or babies, through looking back to the dominant female images on the magazine covers, we come to understand how magazine covers reflected contradictory beliefs about the changing roles of women in the 1920s in America. In fact, “the boundaries of what is thinkable about how women look, act, and behave” are set through the repeated images impressed on the minds of viewers, which then results in the shaping of gender expectation in a society (Swinth 610). Even though “the first flapper” was established in order to maintain the patriarchal norms in the 1920s, it has become a genre dedicated to the interchangeability of women. For instance, Clara Bow, the “It” Girl who was “carefree, energetic, self-assured and breezily independent,” sporting short hair and short dresses in the film “It” (1927), has became the archetypal modern woman since 1920s (Barber, 2014). Judith Mackrell, the author of Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, claims that Clara Bow “embodied the flapper girl…For the hundreds of thousands of women going to the cinema every week, she was a role model. Before that time, those role models wouldn’t have been available, but cinema gave a huge critical mass of women a notion of themselves as liberated” (Barber, 2014).

Today, we can still see that flapper style is everywhere on the street. For this we have to thank to Oliver Thomas who created the image of “flapper” and Clara Bow who further transformed the meaning of “flapper” into a more independent, liberal and modern form, which has become the spiritual strength of modern women today.

4.2 Traditional Female Roles in Literature 

Besides tracking back the flappers in the 1920s, it is suggested that the revision of female roles in traditional literature makes us rethink what women really are and what feminism really is. In the earliest works of literature, the basic roles of females are frequently determined through their relation to men. The submissive ones were rewarded while the rebellious ones were punished. Mothers and female ‘prizes’ are characters who are created in order to serve men; Jezebels, old witches and amazons are kinds of demons who will threaten male dominancy; old witches and Biddies belong to those who have lost value in the male market, and thus, they are either defeated or isolated at the end of a story. A clearer description of each category is shown below.

4.2.1 Mothers and Prizes

In literature, female characters are often seen as types of possessions to be won (prize) and then used according to their purpose, such as in the procreation of children (mother). For instance, in Looking Backward, women who are both wives and mothers are given higher ranks in the female society. Interestingly, in the feminist novel The Handmaid Tale, these roles of women have been reversed as men become worth nothing “except for ten second’s worth of half babies. A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women” (Atwood 130-131).

4.2.2 Angels and Jezebels

“Angels are quite frequently virgins or very virtuous but gentle married women and mothers” (Vukadinovic 6). Their important attributes are submissiveness to the appropriate male authority (husband/father); their main role is to support the hero emotionally and reform or domesticate him if necessary. Losing physical virginity or sacrificing oneself is generally perceived as the price to domesticate the hero. The term Jezebel is derived from the name of the biblical queen, a name that has “not only become a synonym for a prostitute but also for an amoral manipulative female” (Vukadinovic 7). They are female characters that use their sexual attractiveness to gain financial support or to achieve their wish for revenge. The lack of maternal feelings is their common characteristic, thus they are usually punished or reformed in the end due to this negative preference. Lady Macbeth is an example of a Jezebel.

4.2.3 Amazons

Women who refuse to accept male authority and who take control of men in literature. Since they were regarded as “some kind of hybrid or half-male creature,” their fictional image is often negative (Vukadinovic 8). Because they are perceived as examples of “unnatural womanhood”, they too often end up being punished or dying in a story (Vukadinovic 8). Generally, their loss of virginity symbolizes their submission to male dominancy. An example of this is Dickens’ Mrs. Joe Gargery.
4.2.4 Old witches, Biddies, and Wise Women

In literature, an old witch is normally an unattractive and authoritative older mother figure who is feared or hated. Similar to Jezebels and amazons, the old witches’ fate in literature is very often either “reformation by penance or remaining defeated and alone” (Vukadinovic 9). The classic example for this is Dickens’ Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Biddies are older women who always behave in a repellent manner. A fine example is the drink-sodden midwife, Mrs. Gamp, who is listed by the Telegraph as one of Charles Dickens’s best grotesque characters (Collin, 2012). Also, Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet is an excellent example of a biddy. Wise women are those who communicate with the gods in order to help and advise the hero in legends. This character is rarely found in the end of nineteenth and the beginning of twentieth century literature due to the phallocentric social system of that era.
Over the centuries, the basic roles as such have not changed much. However, with the rise of feminism, some of the female roles that were traditionally viewed as negative have been re-evaluated in a positive light. This is because more people have come to understand that “a woman is much more than a single role can define,” that the lines between the roles have become blurred (Vukadinovic 106). Thus, in modern literature, female characters have become representative of more than one role, sometimes even in a paradoxical manner. For instance, Lady Brett Ashley in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises attempts to remove herself from traditional Victorian sexuality but at the same time she plays up her feminine sexuality in public (Hemingway 30). From this aspect, studying literature is a good way to understand the changes in relationships between men and women, especially the changes in the identities of women, in each historical moment. As Vukadinovic suggests, “it is not only reality that influences literature but that literature too influences our lives and our perception of the world,” knowledge of the traditional female roles in literature can cause as a crucial key for us to rethink ourselves as liberal and modern feminists (107).

5. Conclusion

When we perceive something as other, we stop understanding it and we become afraid of it, resulting in an urge to escape from it. But when we come to understand it, we begin to embrace its existence. By applying the concept of think outside the box into the subject of gender and sexuality, we come to understand that engaging in the act of sodomy implies a meaning of promoting gender and sexual equality, which reminds us that how insufficient the current system of gender and sexuality in our present society. Moreover, through gazing into the concept of polyamory, we realize that monogamous relationship is constructed for the convenience of the society’s management. Thus, to choose to be in a polyamorous relationship is itself a feminist act as it implies one’s basic right: the freedom of choice. After all, the boxes we marked as ‘abnormal,’ ‘disorder,’ or ‘perversion’ is nothing but a product results from the process of normalization enforced by the patriarchal ideology. In opposed to this is the concept of feminism and the feminist movements that serve as a catalyst in deconstructing the predominant norms, which leads to the reconstruction of women’s identity. For instance, the flapper in the 1920s was originally used to symbolize the ideological submission of women in the society but through the influence of feminism it has become an icon of the liberal feminist movement even in today. Also, while in the earliest works of literature female roles were determined through their relation to men, through the popularization of feminism, female roles have become blurred and more fluid. Therefore, holding on to the historical knowledge regarding feminist movements becomes extremely important as it represents the process of becoming: how we have become a liberal feminist today. After all, human beings are not one-dimensional and for the sake of everyone’s right, now is the time to make more boxes, or no boxes at all.


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