Gender and Culture in American Society

Are you male or female? How do you know? When you were a baby, did your parents dress you in pink or blue? Who dressed you, fed you, changed your diapers – your mother or father? Who is(are) the wage-earner(s) in your family? And do you live with your mother and father or is your family structured another way? Do you know how to behave in a typically masculine/feminine way? Why do we have stereotypes about girls who play football and guys who do gymnastics? Is Belle a bad role model? Is Anakin a good role model? What are the advantages to these gender roles? What are the disadvantages?

Gender theorists point to the variations in gender roles observed among different cultures in arguing that gender – our masculinity or femininity – is a social construct rather than an innate biological characteristic. Because there is no universal “right” way to be a man or a woman, they argue that our ways of “doing gender” are shaped by social cues and influences. As we explore questions like the ones I posed above, questions of family structures, of social cues about what is masculine and what is feminine, of wages and leisure activities, we will analyze cultural norms that dictate appropriate behavior – in other words, we will do “gender studies.”

Gender Studies is an interdisciplinary academic field that explores questions like those above – and many more! Drawing on scholarship from fields as diverse as literature and sociology, psychology and anthropology, theology and biology, history and political science, business/marketing and philosophy, among others, gender theorists explore the ways that we live as gendered, embodied people. Gendered research considers how we understand gender and how society enforces, supports, or impedes this understanding.

In this seminar, we will explore some contemporary gender issues. While our case studies will primarily focus on American society, I will follow students’ interests in exploring international issues as well, to the extent possible given the timeframe of the course. Topics to be discussed might include: the Disney Princess phenomenon, media activism like the #antifeminist or Bring Back Our Girls campaigns, cyber-bullying, treatment of female candidates in election seasons, the gendering of toys, domestic violence in dating relationships, body image expectations, gender nonconforming youth, and gendered roles within family structures. We will address the questions of how “woman”/“the feminine” and “man”/“the masculine” have been known, represented, created, and understood in our cultural system. In the process, we will explore the relationship between popular culture and gender, as well as how the media constructs gender and how those constructions become cultural norms and mores.

Class time will consist of a mix of lectures, discussion sessions, visits from Notre Dame professors working on gender-related research, and media analysis (i.e., television/movie/magazine/advertisements).

Learning outcomes

  • Students will develop a deeper awareness of the gendered society in which we live, including the norms and values associated with each gender and how these affect personal life choices and social status.
  • Students will develop a basic understanding of current theoretical explanations of gender, including femininity, masculinity, sexualities, patriarchy, and feminism.
  • Students will learn and practice the methodological tools of social science inquiry, including ethnographic research, participant observation, close reading skills, and interview techniques.
  • Students will develop and apply critical reading and analysis skills to media and literature. The media that saturate our society provide excellent examples of gender norms and stereotypes, and function as important socialization agents; we will frequently draw on examples from the media for our discussions about contemporary gender issues. In investigating how gender is defined and replicated by the media, students also critically analyze the effect of popular culture on their own lives.

Academic Director

Abby Palko

Dr. Abby Palko received her Ph.D. in Literature (with a minor in Gender Studies) from the University of Notre Dame and is currently the director of Undergraduate Studies in the Gender Studies Program. She teaches Introduction to Gender Studies and electives that explore gender issues in literature. Her primary research interest examines representations of motherhood in Irish, Caribbean, and American women’s novels. Prior to entering Notre Dame, she taught at Florence Twp. Middle School, Chapin School, and Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth. Dr. Palko received an M.A. in English literature from Rutgers University and a B.A. in English and French from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.