Thinking Straight, Acting Bent: Heteronormativity and Homosexuality

Chrys Ingraham. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

Thinking straight—heteronormativity, the belief system underlying institutionalized heterosexuality—constitutes the dominant paradigm in Western society. It secures a division of labor and distribution of wealth and power that requires gender, racial categories, class, and sexual hierarchies as well as ideological struggles for meaning and value. In this chapter, I argue that the preoccupation with gender in feminist scholarship obscures the significance of heterosexuality as a primary institution complete with organizing rituals and disciplining practices that regulate acting bent. While gender is a central feature of heteronormativity, it is institutionalized heterosexuality that is served by dominant or conventional constructions of gender, not the other way around. Shifting the focus from gender to heteronormativity, theorizing what it means to think bent, holds enormous potential for feminist theory and research.


Media coverage in the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, was full of stories about heroes and families. Human interest journalists filled our imaginations with tales of young fathers leaving behind widows and children, young wives and daughters pleading with the public for any news about their loved ones, newlyweds whose dreams would no longer be realized, brave firemen who died being heroic, and mothers grieving for their lost children. In all these stories of lives changed forever, it was what the media left out that captured my attention. Where were the tales of women heroes, women in occupations historically held by men—firefighters, police officers, construction workers? Who did all those cars belong to that were abandoned in the commuter lots of regional train stations? What happened to the stories of those who did not have husbands, wives, children, mothers, but lost someone they loved, nevertheless? Where were the reports on grieving partners of homosexual couples who had also lost their families, their futures? Finally, the lack of coverage about people of color and immigrants—many of those killed were from other countries—was shocking. In the days following this (inter)national crisis, we had all we could do to think straight—except when it came to telling the stories. Thinking straight—foregrounding heteronormativity and the dominance of men—was the role of the news media. From this standpoint, the lives of people who do not fit the dominant paradigm—those who act bent—are marginalized, made invisible, or rendered irrelevant.

For gender and women’s studies scholars, reading the gaps, silences, and invisibilities in the popular narratives about the events and effects of September 11, 2001, provides a wealth of information about the state of gender and racial relations and the interests at stake in those relations. Judith Lorber’s presidential address to the Eastern Sociological Society in 2002, for example, provided a gender analysis of the ways The New York Times and The New Yorker, as sophisticated mainstream media outlets, relied on conventional gender depictions of heroes and of masculinity while simultaneously focusing on the complexity of women’s status in Islamic societies (Lorber, 2002). Lorber’s powerful ‘degendering’ of this historical conjuncture offers dramatic insight into the media’s use of ‘superficial social constructions of masculinity and femininity’ as well as of the gender politics of the event now commonly referred to as 9/11. Arguing that a degendering analytic undermines consequential ideologies and actions, Lorber explains how prevailing depictions of the male hero, the female widow, the traditional (White middle-class) family, as well as depictions of the oppressive lives of Islamic women, set the conditions for war, violence, and continued acts of terrorism.

Feminist philosopher Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence offers another valuable, if not unusual, feminist appraisal of 9/11. Theorizing the relationship between vulnerability and aggression, Butler critiques the use of violence as a response to loss and censorship as a necessity for war or patriotism. Disturbed by politicians’ appropriation of feminism’s demand for the liberation of women in Afghanistan as a justification for war, Butler cautions feminists to be more reflexive. Feminism, she argues, is ‘unequivocally identified with the imposition of values on cultural contexts’ and as such should be ever alert to its complicity with First World presumptions that can ‘use the resources of feminist theory, and activism, to rethink the meaning of the tie, the bond, the alliance, the relation, as they are imagined and lived in the horizon of a counterimperialist egalitarianism’ (2004: 42).

To achieve this objective, Butler argues, feminists need to embrace the value of feminist critique and use conjunctural moments such as 9/11 to ‘provide all kinds of responses.’ Like many feminists today, Butler and Lorber understand the historical necessity of feminist analyses for advancing the interests of democracy. Lorber’s analysis makes visible the potentiality conventional gender tales create for the social legitimation of violence and revenge as well as for advancing men’s dominance, while Butler cautions us to pursue a feminism that does not participate in its own demise or in the destruction of all forms of alterity. Implicit in their critiques are questions concerning the stakes in how events are depicted and in the responses they evoke. For example, who benefits from cultural dependencies on conventional gender, racial, and familial narratives and what ends do these depictions serve? To answer questions such as these requires a continuous and lively debate over the starting points for feminist theory and research.

Gender analysis of 9/11 gives us insight into the meanings and values attached to masculinity and femininity, hegemonic men’s dominance, and the hierarchical weighting embedded in those gendered constructions. When the meanings we attach to masculinity as a form of dominance incorporate a valuing of violence, militarism, and retribution as necessary for our survival in the face of terrorism, the most popular voices and images are those that mirror these values. A gender analytic gives us this insight and helps us to identify the points of intervention necessary to create social change. It leaves incomplete the explanation of the media’s attachment to stories of thwarted betrothals and ruined wedding plans. How do we analyze the heteronormative gaps, silences, and invisibilities present in media narratives of the events and effects of 9/11? Do we give primacy to a gender analytic? Is it applicable to such questions or does it limit our understanding and, worse, participate in the very conditions we seek to interrupt?

In the days following 9/11, the media made clear whose sadness was most valued, whose lives and work were most important, and whose relationships earned our attention. To provide a critique of this historical conjuncture requires an analytic capable of revealing the significance of heterosexuality, family, and Whiteness for relations of ruling in Western society. By shifting our locus of analysis from gender to the ends gender serves, our perspective alters and, along with that, the explanations and interventions we seek.

In this chapter I will argue that thinking straight—heteronormativity, the belief system underlying institutionalized heterosexuality—constitutes the dominant paradigm in Western society. It is the basis for the division of labor and hierarchies of wealth and power stratified by gender, racial categories, class, and sexualities. It also underlies ideological struggles for meaning and value. Gender is a central feature of heteronormativity, but it is institutionalized heterosexuality that is served by dominant or conventional constructions of gender, not the other way around. To critique the operation of gender as imbricated in racial, class, and sexual relations to the exclusion of institutionalized heterosexuality is to bracket off the ends served by prevailing and dominant gender constructions and practices. We need to revisit this question: Would gender exist were it not for its organizing relationship to institutionalized heterosexuality?

Current Assumptions about Gender

In current gender theory, there are several foundational assumptions that remain unexamined. First and foremost, most feminist and gender scholars provide definitions of gender as a relational concept, built on the presumption of relations between biological males and biological females. These sources typically refer to gender as based on ‘the sexes’ or one’s ‘sex’ or one’s ‘maleness or femaleness’ as the basis for gender. The taken-for-granted notion that gender is about males and females living in relation to one another implies that the most salient feature of male and female behavior has to do with relating across groups (male to female) not within groups (female-to-female; male-to-male). The presence of this assumption throughout gender theory and research suggests that gender’s purpose is primarily to organize relations between males and females—the process necessary for institutionalizing heterosexuality or, to minimize the role of sexuality here, institutionalizing hetero relationality.

The second but related assumption operating in these definitions is the notion that there are only two sexes, male and female, and that they are fixed and stable categories—beyond construction—operating naturally and without need for debate or discussion. Notions such as these have been challenged and debunked in recent years by researchers from across the disciplines.2 While it is true that the institution of science and its authority in relation to the production of biological knowledge has significant legitimating power, it is also true that biology—or any science—is also subject to cultural influences and bias.

The third assumption in definitions of gender is that of ‘oppositeness’: males vs. females, men vs. women, heterosexuals vs. homosexuals. It is not clear what constitutes an opposite and why we are so attached to binary categories rather than the idea that human physiology and anatomy, desire, and social behavior are all variable. Even with the high degree of sensitivity to these topics in gender theory and research, references to the ‘opposite’ sex (not the ‘other’ sex or sexes) permeate gender theory and research. We have come to rely on the category rather than the variability of human behavior as object of study. In other words, if we begin social inquiry from the standpoint of categories, it is the categories or what they reveal that we end up studying. If we start from the assumption of human behavior as variable, then it is the variability or reality in human behavior that we study. We may find it useful to conclude with categories, but they serve an explanatory purpose rather than a legitimizing function. Shifting our starting point and questioning the assumptions upon which we base our categories and concepts, we reduce the risk of reproducing the very conditions we seek to change. As Butler warns in Precarious Life, we must be ever alert to our complicity in presumptions that may unintentionally result in securing oppressive interests. The remedy, she argues, is to keep the debate open and continue to question our own assumptions.

Gender and Heterosexuality

As it stands currently, most contemporary theory and research on gendered behavior participates in ‘thinking straight’ or what I have defined in earlier writings as the heterosexual imaginary:

[It is] that way of thinking that conceals the operation of heterosexuality in structuring gender and closes off any critical analysis of heterosexuality as an organizing institution. The effect of this depiction of reality is that heterosexuality circulates as taken for granted, naturally occurring, and unquestioned, while gender is understood as socially constructed and central to the organization of everyday life. (Ingraham, 1994: 203-4)

By treating heterosexuality as normative (heteronormative) or taken for granted, we participate in establishing heterosexuality—not sexual orientation or sexual behavior, but the way it is organized, secured, and ritualized—as the standard for legitimate and prescriptive socio-sexual behavior, as though it were fixed in time and space and universally occurring. Even given the recent emergence of critical heterosexual studies, gender and sexuality scholars from across the disciplines continue to pursue the study of heterosexuality as either a natural form of sexual or relationship behavior or as the default category for institutions such as marriage and family. In other words, they examine heterosexuality from the standpoint of heteronormativity. These approaches frequently obscure the ways in which ascribed or prescribed behaviors for women and men—gender—actually organize and serve the interests of institutionalized heterosexuality. The consequence is missed opportunities for understanding the material realities of institutionalized existence, for providing insights into the inconsistencies and incoherences of those lived realities, and for denaturalizing oppressive social practices.

Even within queer theory and contemporary feminist debates on sexuality throughout the 1990s, there was little agreement on how to understand the relationship of gender to heterosexuality. For example, feminist sociologist Stevi Jackson, most notable for her book Heterosexuality in Question (1999), has made an enormous contribution to critical heterosexual studies but consistently argues that while gender is indeed linked to heterosexuality, it exists prior to the institution of heterosexuality. She says:

While gender and heterosexuality are so closely entwined that it is not easy to unravel their intersections, we should retain the capacity to tease out the tangled web of connections between them. Hence it seems necessary to maintain an analytical distinction between gender, as the hierarchical relation between women and men, and heterosexuality, as a specific institutionalized form ofthat relation… [W]hile I remain convinced that gender is logically prior to sexuality (erotically significant desires, prac tices, relationships and identities) I am far more uncertain about how much weight it should be given in relation to institutionalized heterosexuality. (2005: 27)

Jackson’s thoughtful theoretical approach to critical heterosexual studies leaves room for gender as a starting point while holding open the possibility that gender is primarily a product of institutionalized heterosexuality.

Sociologists Diane Richardson (1996) and Steven Seidman (1995), as well as historian Jonathan Katz (1996), have also addressed the issue of heterosexuality as an organizing concept. For example, Richardson’s work focuses on the social construction of citizenship as grounded in heteronormative assumptions. Drawing on both feminist and gay/queer studies, Richardson argues:

The notion of the normative category citizen as heterosexual is not, however, limited to lesbian/feminist analysis. Some queer/gay male writers have also acknowledged the relationship between citizenship and the institutionalization of heterosexuality. This is, perhaps, hardly surprising given that the concept of ‘heteronormativity’ has been central to queer theory, which in common with feminist approaches has problematized the heterosexual/homosexual binary (Warner, 1993). Having said this, the importance of earlier feminist work on developing critical analyses of hetero sexuality, laying the foundations for later work, is not always acknowledged by queer theorists. (2005: 64)

To date, we have not adequately determined if what we consider gender or gendered behavior would even exist if not for its relationship to the institution of heterosexuality. Furthermore, we have not engaged a pubic debate on the merits (or lack thereof) of the ways we have organized heterosexuality, except for the indirect ways the current gay marriage question brings these issues into consideration.

Dropping the Categories

Our attachment to categories, with their implied discrete and rigidified boundaries, has limited our explanations of gender and sexuality as fluid and complex forms of human behavior. Categories such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual, transsexual, transgendered, and transvestite provide us with the illusion of belonging (comfortably or uncomfortably) to a particular identity or of describing various social practices, but they actually restrict our understanding of either gender or sexuality as variable behaviors. For example, how do we categorize the woman who has lived to mid-life as a married heterosexual with an active (and enjoyable) extra-marital sex life with men who falls in love with a woman and commits herself to a same-sex relationship, but still finds men attractive? Or, the married transvestite (cross-dresser) who has five children and a very feminine partner—is he really a lesbian? There are numerous variations in the lived realities of people’s experiences with gender and sexuality.

As we move more fully into the twenty-first century, the historically variable regulative forces controlling gender and sexuality continue to shift and change. Behaviors that were previously underground—acting bent—have become more visible—e.g., transsexual, transgender—while those that have been taken for granted are continually challenged—e.g., heterosexuality, lesbian, gay. Thinking straight positions us to see all things as grounded in heterosexuality and prevents us from seeing the widely variant social/sexual world. By shifting away from the heterosexual imaginary and not thinking straight, we are able to see that gender and sexuality are historically variable and constantly changing over the lifespan. The variation and flexibility permitted in gender and sexuality are in direct proportion to applied or challenged regulative forces.


Before we can understand the implications of thinking straight for gender and women’s studies, it is important to trace the evolution of the concept of heteronormativity. In the 1970s, second-wave feminists began to theorize and examine heterosexuality as normative and as a primary source of women’s oppression. One of the earliest examples is an essay authored by a Dutch group, Purple September, entitled ‘The Normative Status of Heterosexuality’ (1975). Breaking from traditional notions of heterosexuality as biological, they argued that heterosexuality is a normalized power arrangement that limits options, privileges men over women, and reinforces and naturalizes men’s dominance. Ti-Grace Atkinson (1974), The Furies Collective, Redstockings (1975), Rita Mae Brown (1976), and Charlotte Bunch (1975) all contributed to these debates, arguing that heterosexuality is a highly organized social institution rife with multiple forms of domination and ideological control. In a representative statement of this idea, Bunch said:

Heterosexuality—as an ideology and an institution—upholds all those aspects of female oppression… For example, heterosexuality is basic to our oppression in the workplace. When we look at how women are defined and exploited as secondary, marginal workers, we recognize that this definition assumes that all women are tied to men… It is obvious that heterosexuality upholds the home, housework, the family as both a personal and economic unit. (1975: 34)

Considered by many to be the most pivotal contribution to early debates regarding normative heterosexuality is Adrienne Rich’s essay on compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence (1980). Rich confronts the institution of heterosexuality head on, asserting that heterosexuality is neither natural nor inevitable but is instead a compulsory, contrived, constructed, and taken-for-granted institution that serves the interests of men’s dominance. She said:

Historians need to ask at every point how heterosexuality as institution has been organized and maintained through the female wage scale, the enforcement of middle-class women’s leisure, the glamorization of so-called sexual liberation, the withholding of education from women, the imagery of high art and popular culture, the mystification of personal sphere, and much else. We need an economics which comprehends the institution of heterosexuality, with its doubled workload for women and its sexual divisions of labor, as the most idealized of economic relations. (1980: 27)

Understanding heterosexuality as compulsory and as a standardized institution with processes and effects is what makes Rich’s contribution ground-breaking.

Monique Wittig’s ‘The Category of Sex,’ originally published in 1976, takes the argument to a different level, declaring heterosexuality a political regime. The category of sex, she claims, is the political category that founds society as heterosexual:

As such it does not concern being but relationship…The category of sex is the one that rules as natural the relation that is at the base of (heterosexual) society and through which half of the population, women, are heterosexualized…and submitted to a heterosexual economy…The category of sex is the product of a heterosexual society in which men appropriate for themselves the reproduction and production of women, and also their physical persons by means of a contract called the marriage contract. (1992: 7)

According to Wittig, the heterosexual regime depends upon the belief that women are sexual beings, unable to escape or live outside of men’s rule. Wittig’s theory claims that the categories of sex and gender would not exist were it not for the regime of heterosexuality. Arguing that the very notion of ‘woman’ is a product of heterosexual society, Wittig links the regime of heterosexuality to the social production of both sex and gender. In so doing, she opens up the possibility that the meaning given to such categories as woman and man is not self-evident but the product of patriarchal heterosexual dominance. The theoretical opening Wittig provides for feminist theory foregrounds the dependency of sex and gender on the regime of heterosexuality. Wittig’s ‘The Straight Mind,’ published in 1980, challenged feminist theories of gender to examine the interests served by the social constructions of sex/ gender and prepared the field for the further development of critical heterosexual studies.

As if to answer this need, another generation of feminist theorists emerged. These new works produced an epistemological break with earlier notions of biologically based heterosexuality. They challenged the centrality of a naturalized body-based heterosexuality in favor of an institutionalized and normative model, opening the way for a systematic analysis of heterosexuality—critical heterosexual studies. In their view, the relevance of naturally occurring or biologically based sexual orientation became less urgent than understanding how heterosexuality is organized, how we give it meaning, and what interests are served by these processes. Joining in these efforts, the simultaneous and sometimes overlapping emergence of queer theory in the 1990s pressured and invigorated this new wave of critical analyses of heterosexuality. Jonathan Katz’s book The Invention of Heterosexuality (1996) provided a substantial catalyst for continuing development of this field. His historical genealogy of the term and his revealing finding that as a concept heterosexual is only about a hundred years old make a powerful case against sexuality as some form of immutable nature. His history of the development of the terms heterosexual and homosexual outlines the path by which heterosexuality attained the status of norm.

In 1923 Webster’s defined ‘heterosexuality’ as a ‘Med.’ term meaning ‘morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.’ Not until 1934 does the definition of ‘heterosexuality’ first appear in Webster’s Second Edition Unabridged as a ‘manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality’ (Katz, 1996: 92). According to Katz, there was substantial historical evidence to support the argument that what we think of as natural heterosexuality had, in fact, been invented, socially produced. Katz’s history gave further weight to the argument that normative heterosexuality must be studied as a phenomenon that is socially produced not naturally occurring.

Concurrent with the emergence of these works arose a host of new concepts. Among the first were ideas that could be used to identify the structured inequality and discrimination embedded within the institution of heterosexuality, concepts such as heteronormativity, heterosexism, hetero-gender, or the heterosexual imaginary. Of these, ‘heteronormativity’ became the most useful as shorthand for countering notions of a naturalized sexuality. Credited with creating the term, Michael Warner, in his anthology Fear of a Queer Planet, argues:

So much privilege lies in heterosexual culture’s exclusive ability to interpret itself as society. The culture thinks of itself as the elemental form of human association, as the very model of inter-gender relations, as the indivisible basis of all community, and as the means of reproduction without which society wouldn’t exist… Western political thought has taken the heterosexual couple to represent the principle of social union itself. (1993: xxi)

In this passage Warner rearticulates Wittig’s notion of heterosexuality as a social contract: ‘To live in society is to live in heterosexuality… Heterosexuality is always there within all mental categories’ (1992: 40). Like Whiteness in a White supremacist society, Warner argued, heterosexuality is socially produced as dominant, systemic, taken for granted, and universalized. This is so much the lived reality that society itself becomes viewed as inseparable from heterosexuality.

In sum, heteronormativity can be defined as the view that institutionalized heterosexuality constitutes the standard for legitimate and expected social and sexual relations. Heteronormativity insures that the organization of heterosexuality in everything from gender to weddings to marital status is held up both as a model and as ‘normal.’ Thinking straight means employing ways of thinking that assume the centrality and universality of heteronormativity. In other words, to think straight is to apply the prevailing meanings and ideological messages that organize heterosexuality. It is to view the world according to the social, economic, cultural, and political codes of institutionalized heterosexuality as normative.

Consider the following examples:

  • Thinking straight means understanding heterosexuality as naturally occurring, not as an extensively organized social arrangement or means for distributing power and wealth.
  • Thinking straight is confusing institutionalized heterosexuality with something that is naturally occurring.
  • Thinking straight means believing that the world is only and has always been heterosexual—the way we think about this category—not historically or regionally variant or as a cultural invention (Katz, 1996).
  • Thinking straight means believing that institutionalized heterosexuality is universal, practiced the same way in all societies as well as in the animal world, when there is substantial evidence to the contrary (Lorber, 1994; Roughgarden, 2004)
  • Thinking straight is embracing a sense of entitlement, social and economic, just by virtue of participating in the dominant form of heterosexual life-marriage—regardless of the ways that entitlement denies non-participants access to equal opportunity and citizenship.
  • Thinking straight is living in romance or the illusion of well-being that the ideology of institutionalized heterosexuality promises, not in its varied realities.
  • Thinking straight means believing that sexuality can be categorized, e.g., that a man and a woman in a relationship are heterosexual or that two women in a same-gender relationship are lesbian.
  • Thinking straight means relying on authorized prescriptive notions of relational behaviors.

Thinking straight can include everything from boy/girl seating at a party or asking for marital status on institutional forms to global economic assumptions about the division of labor. Using the earlier example of media coverage of 9/11, covering only those stories that mirror institutionalized and normative heterosexuality is a prime example of thinking straight.

But what if we shift our standpoint away from one that embraces heteronormativity? Would that have changed the media coverage of 9/11, for example? What happens to the scholarship on gender and women’s studies?

Researching Heteronormativity

Shifting the starting point of feminist inquiry from gender (as independent of heterosexuality) to gender as an organizing concept for institutionalized heterosexuality (heteronormativity) could potentially provide us with significantly enhanced insights into the organization of male and female behavior and the gendered categories of men and women. Some recent examples include research on proms (Best, 2000), weddings (Ingraham, 1999; 2005), citizenship (Richardson, 2005), and poverty (Walsh, 2005). In each of these studies, the focus is on the operation and consequences of institutionalized heterosexuality, shifting the paradigm beyond the boundaries of traditional gender analysis.

Since the publication of White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture (Ingraham, 1999), several new works have emerged exploring this highly utilized and commodified ritual. Most notable among them are Cinderella Dreams: The Lavish Wedding by Cele Otnes and Elizabeth Pleck (2003), and The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture by Elizabeth Freeman (2002). While these works are very different from each other, combined with Amy Best’s sociological study, Prom Night (2000), they represent a developing body of research into established heterosexual practices.

Prior to the mid-1990s, very little investigation had been conducted into the taken-for-granted ritual of the wedding, a pervasive tradition long considered women’s domain. Starting with White Weddings (1999), studies of weddings and wedding culture have proliferated. This growing body of research offers a revealing and valuable contribution to our understanding of the heterosexual imaginary and its organizing effect on gender. Viewing this tradition for how it is integral to institutionalized heterosexuality brings to light the myriad ways the wedding-industrial complex and the vast wedding market relynot on notions of gender so much as on constructions of gender in relation to heterosexuality—heterogender. Both White Weddings and Cinderella Dreams make visible the pervasive effect wedding marketers have on what counts as wedding traditions. For example, white wedding gowns and diamond rings have a relatively short history as so-called wedding traditions but are perceived by many to be long-standing heterosexual (and sacred) traditions. In reality, they are not traditions but the outcome of very effective marketing campaigns (Ingraham, 1999; Otnes and Pleck, 2003).

Among the most powerful insights offered by wedding research is the way in which the wedding industry both produces and relies upon the fantasy of the fairy tale romance. From toys targeted at young girls to the marketing of everything from prom dresses to wedding gowns, this research shows the overdetermined consequence of what Otnes and Pleck call ‘Cinderella dreams.’ From childhood to adulthood, the potential bride is socialized to prepare for the day when her handsome prince will sweep her away into a happily-ever-after life, free from class and sex oppression and away from the abuses of the workplace. They offer many examples of the way this story is woven throughout the history of the lavish wedding and offer insights into how it gives meaning to everything from the wedding gown to the Barbie doll. The consequence of this pervasive and far-reaching socialization and marketing process is the solidification of what is valued and acceptable as women’s work. This modern-day Cinderella story is played over and over again in movies and popular culture, securing the illusion that the lavish wedding is necessary for guaranteeing the happy ending and the heterosexual imaginary.

Amy Best’s ground-breaking study Prom Night explores the meaning-making processes embedded in representations of proms in popular films and in the real-life enactment of the high school prom. In a passage illustrative of her examination of heteronormativity, Best explains:

Normative heterosexuality is actively reinscribed through the film’s prom scene in two distinct, though interrelated ways. While erasing the fact of queerness from the historical landscape, this scene also works to naturalize heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is presumed to be enduring and timeless. In this way, this film, like so many other popular cultural images targeting teen audiences, reproduces heterosexuality as a normative feature of American cultural life of both past and present, and at the same time embeds heterosexual ideology within American mainstream youth culture. (2005: 193-4)

Again, what Best explores is another significant instance of socialization that constructs gender to meet the needs of institutionalized heterosexuality.

Diane Richardson’s work is a particularly powerful example of this paradigm shift because she mines the core of one of the most essential features of social existence—what it means to be a citizen and how citizenship functions as a form of heterosexual regulation. In her essay ‘Claiming Citizenship,’ Richardson demonstrates how our notions of citizenship are based upon assumptions about sexuality, specifically ‘hegemonic heterosexuality.’ She asserts:

The main focus of such work is to demonstrate how citizens are normatively constructed as (hetero)sexual subjects and, related to this, offer a way of analyzing the resultant inequalities faced by ‘excluded’ citizens in terms of the institutionalization of heterosexuality… what we have conventionally understood as ‘citizenship’ is itself a hegemonic form of sexual citizenship. (2005: 65)

In each of these areas of inquiry, the shift in standpoint from gender studies to critical heterosexual studies opens up dynamic and expansive insights into the ways in which institutionalized heterosexuality and its ideological framework, heteronormativity, organize most of our social, political, and economic lives. At the very least, these new works raise profound new questions for continued debate and investigation.

Thinking Bent: The Future of Feminist Scholarship

Feminist scholarship has a long tradition of pushing the boundaries of accepted and traditional fields of inquiry, challenging their foundational assumptions and opening up new knowledge about the lives and practices of people previously overlooked. Thinking bent, theorizing and studying the lives and practices of non-dominant groups and pressuring the ways of thinking that keep them invisible, is the foundation of feminist thinking and scholarship. In other words, thinking bent is another way to queer all knowledge, reducing the risk of merely reproducing the status quo and embracing a standpoint that enables further investigation by attending to the lives and practices of the Other.

As we move into the twenty-first century, we find more and more evidence that a body-based model of gender is slippery. We understand more fully how gender and sexuality operate flexibly and variably over the lifespan. We are living in an historical moment where this reality is increasingly more visible. Culturally, we are giving more permission and acceptance to peoples and behaviors that appear ‘bent’—operate outside the dominant gender and sexuality paradigms. As this variability becomes more apparent, so does our awareness that very little is actually about the body. We can study the prevalence of eating disorders or sexual or domestic violence only to discover that they are not about the body but about how we give meaning to the body. In these instances, the body functions as metaphor, as symbolic of such things as gender and sexuality, not as the thing itself. The materiality of the body is instead about power, the division of labor, and the distribution of economic resources—not the body itself.

The future of feminist scholarship resides in keeping the debates open, in exploring those areas of social life that are typically considered ‘bent,’ and in finding new ways to expand our thinking and our methods. More important, the promise of feminism resides in questioning our own foundational assumptions and maintaining our critical edge. By doing so we keep open the greatest possibility for the continued relevance of feminism in all its aspects.