The Eternal Gap: A Myth

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Sex and Gender

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The Eternal Gap: A Myth

Lindsay Updegrove

"To write. An act that will not only "realize" the decensored relation of woman to her will tear her away from the superegoized structure in which she has always occupied the place reserved for the guilty."

For Hélène Cixous and other psychoanalytic thinkers, language is the gap-filler of the separation between mother and child. This is the very rift that brings about the superego, the "conscience" where the voices of my biological mother and grandmothers reproach and direct. In thinking back through my feminist foremother, however, it is not the superego that is at work—rather, she brings me to consciousness--

"The equivoice that affects you, fills your breast with an urge to come to language and launches your force; the rhythm that laughs you...that part of you that leaves a space between yourself and urges you to inscribe in language your woman's style."

--and I hail her logic of resistance into my conscious, where the language of my mothers and myself is always subject to revision.


For most of history, academia was strictly male territory; this point everyone cedes to painful reality. A lot of battles have been fought and won in the past century-and-a-half to give women equal footing on educational terrain. We can now read the post-traumatic stress of this lengthy conflict in the words of scholars who assert that educational frontiers for women mean that boys are left on the margins at school. One such critic, Christina Hoff Sommers, writes in The War Against Boys that

In 1996 there were 8.4 million women but only 6.7 million men enrolled in college...Girl partisans offer ingenious, self-serving arguments for why the higher enrollment of women in college should not count as an advantage for women...Someone should have noticed that the boys were lagging behind. The college gap was a genuine and dangerous trend. But at just the time the girls were surpassing the boys in this critical way, the gender activists...chose to announce the "short-changed-girl" crisis. For the next several years, the gender gap in college enrollment continued to widen, but the attention of the American public and government was focused on the nation's "underserved girls." (31)

According to Sommers, girls are now beating boys at their own game. There are statistical facts that prove the young men in the American educational system today do face obstacles: they are more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, to be distracted from their schoolwork by drugs and crime, to commit suicide (Sommers 26). These facts certainly warrant the attention of parents, teachers, and educational authorities. In no way, however, do they warrant the dissemination of blame onto their girl counterparts, or onto the feminists whose agenda is furthering women's education. Sommers criticizes such activists for the fact that

Boys are resented, being seen as both the unfairly privileged gender and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls. There is an understandable dialectic: the more girls are portrayed as diminished, the more boys are regarded as needing to be taken down a notch and reduced in importance. (23)

This argument is logical—and perhaps many teachers do share the sentiment that Sommers is condemning—which leads one to wonder why she would advocate and even express with her own words a simple reversal of this undesirable situation. For Sommers, it seems that boys and girls remain historically equidistant on a seesaw that might be teetering, for the first time, to a male disadvantage.


The view that we are stuck in a closed economy where the success of one sex is the other's failure is rooted in our adherence to the gender gap itself. Do not mistake the gap for a "no-man's land": it is positively charged with writing which Cixous characterizes as having "been run by a libidinal and cultural—hence political, typically masculine—economy." (2042) Using Freud's concept of the libidinal economy characterizes writing as a fetish: a prop to assuage male castration anxiety in the wake of maternal separation. Feminist theorists have made it clear that a masculine language would repress the expression of women. Perhaps by its very nature, dependence on such a system also constrains men.

Sexual opposition, which has always worked for man's profit to the point of reducing writing, too, to his laws, is only a historico-cultural limit...Now it happens that at present, for historico-cultural reasons, it is women who are opening up to and benefiting from this vatic bisexuality which doesn't annul differences but stirs them up, pursues them, increases their number. In a certain way, "woman is bisexual"; man—it's a secret to no one—being poised to keep glorious phallic monosexuality in view. By virtue of affirming the primacy of the phallus and of bringing it into play, phallocratic ideology has claimed more than one victim. (Cixous 2046-7)

Can we read the present maladies of boys in education as a result of their resistance to relinquish fetishized language? Perhaps Sommers is correct in that boys in general are resented, seen as limiting agents to the academic success of girls. This is the "big man" issue; the blame for a masculine system of oppression is transferred to men in general. I think if we tried to locate the actual men and boys, we would find many of them trapped under the same rock as women and girls.


In response to reading her sons' castration anxiety, Sommers strongly recommends single-sex education for boys as the best way to interest boys in topics of study without "risking their masculinity." (174) She condemns the tendency of American educators and gender activists to advance single-sex women's institutions while calling their male counterparts "discriminatory." I would posit that an all-male school under today's educational system is discriminatory, not against women but to its own students. This is due to the common assumption, which Sommers clearly falls prey to, of a single masculinity. What about the boys who would prefer not to be in an environment that strives to create a uniform, heterosexual ideal of man?

You can't talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogenous, classifiable into codes—any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another. Women's imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their stream of phantasms is incredible. (Cixous 2040)

Cixous is meditating on Lacan's notion that each individual interprets the world outside his or her body in a unique way. All-female schools are contiguous with this expression that highlights not the gender gap, but the gap between each individual woman. Meanwhile, single-sex male institutions under today's educational regime, inherently phallocentric, are not likely to celebrate much variance among their students. This type of education would foster competition which has been seen to motivate boys, but offering it as the solution denies the possibility of any real difference between men.

"In one another we will never be lacking"

So let us stop stressing The Gap and start talking about lots of them. The gender gap is paralyzing; our differences foster change and progress. Multiplicity is exciting, diversity is exciting. These things can help us move forward while reminding us that we do not all need to do it in the same way.

We need to be cautious about limiting the opportunities and ideals we give to children based on sex. I think that boys, like girls, should have the option of single-sex education without being criticized for marginalizing women. The more options we provide for young men and women, the better. Wherever we choose to learn or to live, whatever are reasons, we are not there because we are exactly the same as everyone else. We are there to see the empty spaces, where we end and where there is everything to discover.

Works Cited:

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." In Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Sommers, Christina Hoff. "The War Against Boys." New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

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