Simone de Beauvoir’s famous words “one is not born a woman; one becomes one” (qtd in Moi, Sexual/Texual… 92) formed the starting point for second-wave feminism (Selden 209) . Today, most feminists agree with Beauvoir that, while sex is determined by biology, gender is a social construct. However, even though numerous studies have proven that one, indeed, is not born a woman, the question whether or not one is born a man has largely been ignored. It is not until recently that the emphasis in feminist studies has shifted to include investigations of men and masculinity. Feminist studies have evolved into gender studies.
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
—Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing
One of the main objects of gender studies is to expose and question the patriarchal notion that men must be masculine and women feminine in order to be perceived as normal. Julia Kristeva challenges the patriarchal decree by claiming that femininity is a position rather than a quality linked exclusively to the female sex. According to Kristeva, both men and women can hold the feminine position since it is linked to gender rather than to sex. Those who inhabit the feminine position are marginalized by the patriarchal order because they deviate from the norm, which is “man” (Moi, Sexual/Textual… 166). While privileging masculine traits, such as power, strength, and robustness (The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary 519), patriarchal society excludes those who lack these qualities.
It is, then, crucial for men to establish identities in accordance with the patriarchal notion of how men should be. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, adheres to a long tradition when it depicts male struggle for manhood. The quest for a masculine identity is a common theme in literature and many fictional heroes, such as Hercules and Huckleberry Finn, have become icons through their struggle to become real men. However , while Hercules succeeds in his mission and Huck implies that the struggle to avoid the feminine is life-long, the ending of The Great Gatsby is ambiguous. At the end of the novel, all the male characters have failed to maintain masculine identities.
Fitzgerald’s novel shows that the quest for manhood is really a struggle to fit in, to be accepted. This suggests that patriarchal ideology, by demanding that men conform to certain rules, is an oppressive force in men’s lives. By pointing out the important role women play in the establishing and upholding of masculine identities, the novel implies that manhood and, as a consequence , patriarchy as a whole, is a fragile construction that relies on outside forces for its definition. Furthermore , the novel mirrors the tensions and ambiguities that exist within patriarchal ideology.