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


Dr. Darlene Hampton is an academic advisor in the First Year of Studies (FYS) program and holds the rank of visiting assistant professional specialist. She primarily advises students who intend to pursue majors in the College of Engineering, the College of Science, the College of Arts and Letters, and the Mendoza College of Business. 

Darlene Hampton

Hampton received Bachelor's degrees in both Theatre Arts and English Literature from the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR where she went on to earn both Master's and Doctoral degrees in English with a concentration in Film and Media Studies. Her scholarly work is focused on the study of gender and the representation, practices, and cultures of media fans. Using largely discourse analysis and theories of performance, she explores the significant role that mass media texts

Hampton joined First Year Studies in the summer of 2015. In addition to her work as an academic advisor, she holds concurrent faculty appointments in American Studies and Film, Television, and Theatre where she enjoys teaching courses on gender, media, and fan cultures. Her current research focuses on both the significance of gendered representations of media fans and the role of social networking technologies such as Tumblr on the evolution of fan practices and in both American culture and our own lives as individuals and members of communities. She examines media fan practices as sites of cultural work and identity performance and is particularly interested in the relationship between patriarchal and post-feminist ideologies of gender and the valuing and policing of fan practices in the public sphere.