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Girls Behaving Badly

posted: 6.30.11 by Jack Solomon

One of the most important concepts in teaching cultural semiotics is that of the gender code. Gender codes consist of those often unwritten rules that govern the conduct of males and females within a society, and they customarily unfold as a list of binary oppositions—for example, men should be aggressive and powerful/women should be passive and nurturing; men should work outside the home/women should stay at home with the children; and so on and so forth. It was through the work of feminist cultural analysts that the socially constructed foundations of such codes were revealed, challenging the common presentation of them as dictated by nature and biology. Feminists also pointed out the patriarchal privileging that is inscribed in the traditional gender codes as well.

But how one approaches gender codes can depend upon one’s own theoretical positions.  The “American” style of feminist analysis, for instance, takes an equalitarian approach, challenging not only the privileging within a patriarchal gender code but also the treatment of men and women as different. From such a perspective, women should have equal access to male-coded characteristics. The “French” style, as espoused by such theorists as Helene Cixous, Lucy Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, on the other hand, celebrates rather than challenges gender difference and explores the characteristics that distinguish women from men. A Queer Theory approach to gender codes, for its part, deconstructs the entire structure, undermining any basis for making an unambiguous distinction between the categories of male and female.

Within the context of American popular culture, understandably enough, it is the “American” approach to gender codes that predominates. That is, challenges to the code present women displaying the characteristics that the traditional code assigns to men. Thus, movies like Thelma and Louise present the traditional male-buddy duo as a female duo, while Alien cast the monster-slaying warrior as a woman. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was widely understood as a feminist series in the way it presented an unattached woman as the manager of a news program (Murphy Brown was essentially an updating and continuation of MTM).  Cagney and Lacey took the cop show and put women in the lead roles. The examples of such gender code reversals within American popular culture are numerous, of course, though sometimes something happens along the way to reverse the reversal, as in Ally McBeal, whose concept featuring a Harvard-trained lawyer came to be undermined by the way that the protagonist was presented as a romantic fashion plate rather than a serious professional.

Which takes me to the description of the lead character in the just-released movie Bad Teacher. “As an unrepentant moral scourge in her new film .  .  . [Cameron] Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey—an educator who steals, cheats, lies, sleeps in class, smokes pot in the school parking lot and swears like a trucker, often in red pen remarks scrawled on the work of her middle-school students” (Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2011). And that’s just the beginning of Elizabeth Halsey’s misbehaviors. Now, what is going on here?

Basically, what we see in Bad Teacher is a signifier of a dual shift within the traditional American gender code. The first shift involves the male side of the code. Traditionally, the tacit understanding behind the male power and privilege awarded by the code held that men must act responsibly in return for their privileges. We saw that understanding reflected in the benign patriarchs of numerous family sitcoms, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. But what with the dissolution of the image of the benign patriarch in popular culture and beyond (from Al Bundy and Homer Simpson to Don Draper), a new masculine figure has been appearing in American popular culture: the irresponsible goofball whose behavior falls far short of the benign patriarchs of yore. Anyone for Hangover 3?

Movies like Bad Teacher and Bridesmaids indicate that the Hangover syndrome is crossing gender lines just as the male buddy duo crossed gender lines a few decades ago, with female protagonists being presented as raunchily irresponsible as the guys are: an equality of edgy goofiness. By pointing out the role that gender codes play in the popularity of such pop cultural phenomena, we can explain their significance, which is what popular cultural semiotics is all about.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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