At the Well blog


Challenging the male norm

  • “Free women”, said Anna, wryly. She added, with an anger new to Molly, so that she earned another quick scrutinising glance from her friend: “They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them”.
  • “Well, we do, don’t we?” said Molly, rather tartly. “Well, it’s awfully hard not to”, she amended hastily, because of the look of surprise Anna gave her.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, 1962, Finnish trans. Kultainen muistikirja, 1968 WSOY, Eva Siikarla, Finnish translation edited by Heta Rundgren.

In my doctoral thesis, I examine the literary world of realism where masculinity represents normality and femininity is seen as exceptional or secondary in relation to the male norm. In French, I use the neologism le normâle, which combines the words normale (normal) and mâle (male). I examined the experiences of sexism (the view that people are either male or female) as described in four European “bestsellers”, and highlighted their connections with feminist thinking.

I first started working on my doctoral thesis in a literature research group at the University of Paris 8, in France, without much knowledge about how the French university world works. My topic and approach were shaped by small comments that my research sparked among literary scientists from the get-go. From the beginning, my material included Virginie Despentes, Stieg Larsson and Doris Lessing, and when I decided to add Märta Tikkanen’s novel Män kan inte våldtas/Manrape, I was asked whether it was “good literature”. It was debatable whether Lessing’s The Golden Notebook with its status as a classic was enough to save the “quality” of my material. Furthermore, since Stieg Larsson was the only male author in the bunch, someone wondered whether the same number of male and female writers should be included in my material. That person felt that it was a perfectly logical question, even though a large number of the researchers I know focus exclusively on male authors.

Through the juxtaposition of the male/female genders, sexism has an even stronger presence in the French language than it does in Finnish. I realised that, when writing in French, I must also write and read against the grain of the concepts and narratives of literary science where Othering metaphors and hierarchies are almost inadvertently present. In the theoretical texts I studied, the subject was usually represented as a male (l’homme, il) whose objective it was to verbalise and control (feminine) reality, or to teach it. Some concepts were feminised once they were found to have minor and more modest tasks subordinate to major concepts. Description, for example, was ascribed mainly feminine or racialized characteristics: It was said to always occur in conjunction with the narrative, totally dependent on it; after all, it was the narrative’s “natural and eternal oppressed slave that will never be freed, a maidservant, the narrative’s little helper”. The same concept could sometimes change from feminine to masculine, nevertheless, the same dual and “pairing” metaphors remained: One was strong, dominant, normal, and the other was weak, submissive or exceptional.

The feminist approach requires that the researcher pay attention to his/her own place and actions as both a critic of the male norm and an actor participating in its world. Consequently, the most challenging part is always to consider the extent to which it is possible to stop repeating models of the male norm in your own performance, or to repeat them in other ways, to change everyday practices and, thus, the world in which you live. Over the years, I noticed how the choices of many of my colleagues who had grown up in the French system were guided by a constant worry about complying with hierarchies and conventional forms; a fear of doing something that is not taken seriously, something that is not “real” research. I also recognised that fear in myself; the fear of making a mistake and being revealed a fool that is quite common in academic life. As the years went by, I found colleagues from France and Finland who became friends and with whom I carried out events and performances that questioned the barriers between not only disciplines, but also science, art and activism. At first, it was particularly difficult to risk being considered “crazy;” that is, as those whose actions fall entirely outside the understanding defined by the male norm. We wondered whether we were courageous or just plain foolhardy. However, we discovered that making the male norm and sexist practices visible was so vital to us that we had to risk that not everyone would take us seriously. By only using conventional academic approaches, we were unable to criticise the power of the male norm that is reinforced through, and crystallised in, precisely such practices.

As a researcher, I placed myself in the French-speaking sector; however, I decided that Finnish ways also have a place there. Because the masculine form of “we” is often used in academic French, I decided to begin my doctoral thesis by addressing the reader as a singular “you” instead. I wrote “to you” in the feminine form (à la lectrice), for those uncertain and ambiguous experiences of Otherness that you are too shy to place at the core of your reading. My intention was that the person usually at the centre of research (le lecteur), for once, would feel like an outsider and have the courage to learn from that feeling of Otherness that to you – a little bit naive and silly, but refreshingly different (coincidentally, this was the way I was addressed at the public defence by the only male member of the jury) – is part of everyday life with male as the norm.


Heta Rundgren

Heta Rundgren defended her doctoral thesis at the University of Paris 8 in December 2016, and graduated from there and the University of Helsinki with a double degree. Kone Foundation funded her doctoral thesis for three years. Heta also writes for the Feminist Readings Network.