Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Them rural folk: Heterosexuality down on the farm

When it comes to legal articles discussing sexual identities and gender construction that differ from the heterosexual "norm," one can find an ample amount of studies and articles exploring such gender issues. However, when it comes to deconstructing heterosexuality as an evolving phenomenon that is contingent upon space, geography, upbringing, and myriad other external factors, the dearth of scholarly material on the matter comes as a surprise. In her article, "'Riding the Rural Love Train': Heterosexuality and the Rural Community" author Jo Little addresses the heterosexual paradigm in rural communities that reinforces traditional gender stereotypes. According to Little, this "normalization of heterosexuality" subsumes any opportunity for rural men or women to deviate from the heterosexual norm and defines the sexual lives that these countrymen (and women) will lead.

Although I am a novice in gender studies, from my relatively limited exposure to gender issues I have yet to come across an article that embraces an argument similar to Little. Fortunately, reading Little's article is something akin to an epiphany- all of a sudden I realized that heterosexuality, when viewed as it's own category of sexuality among an array of other sexual choices, may not be any more "natural" for people then the choice to cross dress. Once one is able to acknowledge that the heterosexual norm is not an organic conception, but a gendered construction, the veil is lifted. When ensconced in the myth that heterosexuality is the center of sexuality, from which all other sexualities diverge, one is blind to the idea that heterosexuality codes our day to day to life. In her article, Little effectively uses a rural sample to show how heterosexual norms control life in the countryside. However, the bigger picture is not limited to rural life styles, but is indicative of a larger scheme in which “normal” sexuality is the standard upon which all other forms of sexuality are compared against.

Little uses two dating campaigns conducted in the UK and New Zealand to demonstrate the manifestation of heterosexual spaces in the rural community. The first example is from a campaign entitled “Farmer Wants a Wife,” in which several farmers place an advertisement for the ideal farmer’s wife. The terms the farmers use to describe themselves run the gamut of masculine terms, including “desirable” characteristics often associated with masculinity, such as “action men” “workaholics”, and “traditional.” The qualifications sought after in the perfect farmer’s wife adhere to conventional gender stereotypes. Women are to be “good cooks,” “need to understand that farming is not a 9-5 job,” and “feminine.” While these qualifications are not exhaustive of the desired female traits sought by these bachelor farmers, Little notes that a common theme runs throughout each of these personal ads- women are expected to conform with the expectations of rural living and accept that their husband’s work comes first. Furthermore, Little explains that the notion men need wives to fulfill everyday living is an example of how heterosexual norms control the nuances of the social structure in rural spaces.

The second campaign Little utilizes to show the effect of spaces on heterosexuality is an advertisement in New Zealand for a “Batchelor’s Ball.” The most critical part of this piece is Little’s depiction of a scene when the unsuspecting bachelors see attractive female staffers organizing for the Ball. One of the other staffers had to inform the men that these women were not for them. This precipitated a conversation with the men that the women they wanted were not good-looking or conventionally attractive, because women reared as wives possess different traits. Little explains that this distinction between “urban” career women with personal professional lives and traditional, “genuine” wives who may not be as aesthetically pleasing is an example of the effects of space on heterosexual norms. The urban is exchanged for the obsequious housewife who will neatly fit into the rural landscape without any disruption.

The effects of a patriarchal society in the countryside, whether in America or foreign countries, could mean that women are confined to their traditional gender roles. Since heterosexuality is not an option for rural farmers, any type of deviation from this norm can serve as a setback for women.

As we discussed in our last class, women may be marginalized and loose their voice in rural communities where the traditional family retains a stronghold. Services for women that stray from this archetype are inaccessible to women, such as abortion, screening for diseases, jobs, and education. When women operate under this restrictive structure where heterosexual life is the hidden foundation upon which all aspects of life are to be built, how can women be expected to improve their situation? It becomes impossible to rise out of poverty when the opportunity doesn’t exist, or when such opportunities aren’t even on one’s radar.

I would be interested in reading other scholarly publications that discuss the heterosexual paradigm on a larger scale. Particularly, I am curious to see the machinations of heterosexual space in other settings, such as suburban, metropolitan, and urban areas. On a micro scale, I would like to evaluate the effect of other more intimate spaces, such as small subsets of communities and see how spatial aspects affect manifestations of heterosexuality in these places.


tomindavis said...

I liked this article, "Ringo." The article you read seems to highlight the same kinds of problems that stereotyping of gender normal plays on women balancing the private and public spheres. It is indeed very interesting to see how those spheres collide and interact out in more rural, working-class spaces and places. The observations of the farming men and their "ads" for wives were both whimsical and deeply disturbing. It seems as if, in that locale, and others like it, the pressure for women to conform to more expected roles is deeply ingrained. The farmer's work must come first, and a the wife must act sufficiently feminine while she cooks her tired husband's meal. Ouch. I also wonder whether poverty conditiions actually allow these norms to be perpetuated. In real, honest-to-god poor rural conditions, the man's dream of such a gendered household may be impossible to fulfill. Both will have to bust their hump to get by --if they get by-- and the ability for the woman to fulfill will be heavily constrained by the severe pinch of financial realities.

Girl Talk said...

I found the portion of your article relating to the attractiveness of wives particularly interesting. It suggests that men separate "wife" quality and physical attractiveness, because there is the expectation that a woman who possesses the traits a rural man seeks in a wife (good cook, submissive, takes care of the household because farming isn't a 9-5 job) will not be physically attractive. Of course, we know that attractiveness and these so-called "wife qualities" are not mutually exclusive; there are plenty of hot housewives. I think it rather has to do with what you mentioned, that rural men probably want their wives to "fit in" with the rural landscape. What does this mean? Does it mean that rural women are generally uglier than urban women? Probably, if you go by urban and pop culture standards.

I also started thinking about "trophy wives," which is entirely antithetical to the type of wife the rural man wants. I suppose it makes sense that trophy wives are generally associated with urban males.