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Changing Gender Roles and Dick and Jane, Essay Example

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The series of Dick and Jane readers, which were the most pervasive reading books for American children during the 1950s, reflect a certain social discourse, in which gender roles are clearly delineated according to largely patriarchal views of the male and the female. Accordingly, these readers continually emphasize that the younger female member of the family, Jane, should follow the gender role established by the mother, and all that is included within this gender role, such as forms of labor traditionally conferred to the female like sewing, whereas Dick, as the male child in the family, follows the gender role of the father, taking part, for example, in activities such as physical labor and sport. However, such gender roles have radically changed in American society, as this same society has grown increasingly conscious of the patriarchal foundation of these roles. Namely, these gender roles follow traditional social normativities, normativities which have radically changed since the America of the 1950s, thus suggesting that such readers are inadequate for the more dynamic and fluid image of the family that now exists in the American consciousness. Accordingly, perhaps such gender roles could be found in contemporary books, yet this is most unlikely, since our perspective on gender and family has radically changed since the 1950s.

The reason why such representations are less likely to be found is tied to a problem with a reader such as Dick and Jane which, from the contemporary American perspective, is twofold. On the one hand, the values reflected in Dick and Jane, according to the sociological theory of the last half of the twentieth-century and the beginning of the twenty-first century are increasingly recognized to be examples of a fundamentally patriarchal society. Namely, the gender roles expressed in these texts are symptoms of male-dominated discourses as to what a man and a woman should do. The error of such readers, from the perspective of sociological theory, is that they present such gender roles as indisputable facts of nature: i.e., members of the male sex should act in a certain manner, whereas members of the female sex should act in another manner. This includes, more specifically, in Dick and Jane the notion that females should be concerned with domestic work, while males embark on activities exterior to the domestic realm. However, the critique of such an organization of gender roles is not based upon the fact that such gender roles do not exist in reality, in so far as this would be the very denial of the hegemony of patriarchy throughout Western social history. Instead, the critique is based on the notion that such gender roles are immutable: a book such as Dick and Jane by addressing an audience of children tries to convince the latter that such an organization of gender roles is the “natural” state of affairs. Accordingly, such readers are inadequate from a contemporary perspective precisely because such a “natural” state of affairs is better understood as the perpetuation of particular biases and presuppositions, in this case, the biases and presuppositions that the patriarchal order of society is the only possible order for society.

This last point ties in with the second reason why a reader such as Dick and Jane is problematic in the second decade of the twenty-first century: namely, there is an increasing realization that gender roles are heterogeneous, not only on a theoretical level, but on a very real and empirical level. The appearance in American society of all different forms of families, and the understanding that all these different forms are in themselves legitimate, makes the narrow conception of what a family means inadequate. Divorced families, same-sex families, single parents, inter-racial couples are all examples of forms of family that conflict with the world view presented in Dick and Jane. In other words, a reader such as Dick and Jane fails to account for the heterogeneity of the family, clinging to an archaic patriarchal view of the latter.

Hence, on a theoretical level which realizes the hegemony of patriarchy behind texts such as Dick and Jane, and the every-day level that demonstrates continually more heterogeneous forms of family, such a reader is simply out of touch with contemporary viewpoints. Accordingly, if such representations of the family may be found today, they should be minimized, since they fail to reflect the dynamic organization of society. Whereas such representations may be found, depending upon the particular readers in question, these representations are inadequate to expressing the contemporary heterogeneity of the family.

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