Gender and genre: students, researchers, and the OED

Gender and genre: students, researchers, and the OED

As a Professor of English Literature, who specializes in women’s writing, the Oxford English Dictionary has always been key to my work as an academic: a writer and researcher as well as a lecturer. On many occasions I’ve encouraged students to use the OED as part of their own research and essay writing. Here I reflect on just one of the times we have made use of it as an important way of reflecting on the history of gender and sexuality in relation to women’s writing.

My final-year option on Twentieth-Century Women Novelists: Genre and Gender builds on research I initially published in my 2001 book Twentieth-Century Women Novelists: Feminist Theory into Practice. The module focuses on the different ways in which twentieth-century women’s fiction rewrites and transforms the conventions of romantic fiction. From Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) and Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976), to Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985), Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998) and Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973), women novelists have been keen to rework the conventions of the romantic fiction in order to raise questions of difference, whether that difference manifests in terms of sexuality, race and ethnicity, or simply in the prominence in these works of the mother-daughter relation and same-sex connection instead of the heterosexual couple.

Some of the words I found important to spend time defining in the process of researching and teaching this subject include gender, genre, romance, romantic, lesbian, and queer.

The entry on gender in the OED contains 3 full entries (one noun and two verb forms). Considering just the first noun form, once two grammatical and linguistic meanings have been discussed (these are not in themselves irrelevant since they concern classes of nouns and pronouns in European languages), the second meaning is: ‘A class of things or beings distinguished by having certain characteristics in common; (as a mass noun) these regarded collectively; kind, sort’. Although this meaning is now obsolete, with the last use recorded in 1847, I think it is just as important as two of the more familiar meanings: ‘Males or females viewed as a group; = sex. Also: the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups’, or ‘the state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex. Also: a (male or female) group characterized in this way’. The first meaning is as important because it points to the similarity between the impulse towards classification involved in defining people in (usually binary) terms in regard to their gender and sexuality and the need to classify literary texts within particular genres. The word genre is defined as ‘Kind; sort; style’ and ‘A particular style or category of works of art; esp. a type of literary work characterized by a particular form, style, or purpose’. Both the words gender and genre come from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French, and if you search the etymology for the word genre the OED links to the etymology for the word gender.

So is a text like Rebecca a romantic fiction, a gothic novel, a sensation fiction or a crime novel? If it is all those things and more, then we can say that the text resists classification in the same way as Rebecca, the dead first wife of the hero, resists attempts to classify her in relation to the gender and sexual conventions of the day. This refusal to conform is what explains the appeal of the novel and show us how its form is intimately related to its construction of gender and sexuality. In conclusion, it’s worth noting that the adjective non-binary with the specific meaning of ‘Designating a person who does not acknowledge or fit the conventional notions of male and female gender, and instead identifies as being of another or no gender, or a combination of genders; (also) of or relating to such a person’, dates from 1995 and was added to the OED in 2018. It is one of the most recent 7% of entries recorded in the OED.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.