“Ideology and the Cultural Production of Gender”

By Michele Barrett

The essay “Ideology and the Cultural Production of Gender” in Michele Barrett’s book “Women’s Oppression Today: The Marxist Feminist Encounter” (Revised Edition, 1988), is a seminal work of materialist second wave feminism. In the book and specifically the essay, Barrett writes of feminism’s challenge to Marxism and the Marxist development beyond economism, both yielding a new emphasis on the potency of ideology. She then articulates an ideology of gender.

To analyze and understand Barrett’s work, it is important to situate it within the discourse and debates on “The Unhappy Marriage Marxism and Feminism” (Heidi Hartmann, 2003). The historical links between Marxism and feminism were forged in the contradictory situation of first world women under monopoly capitalism and played out in the insights and oversights of nineteenth century socialists. Inspired my the historical materialism of Marx and Engels, first wave feminists – like Clara Zetkin, Isaac Bebel, and Alexandra Kollontai – promoted the struggle for women’s emancipation. These ideas were carried by feminist activists to the frontlines of labour organizing. Over the course of the next century, feminists found in the theory of historical materialism concepts that could be used to explain the social structures through which women are exploited and oppressed. At the same time, feminists have not approached Marxism uncritically. Indeed the history of feminist interest in Marxism has been punctuated by a great deal of critical exchange as feminists challenged Marxism’s limits and in the process expanded its explanatory power as a theoretical framework that might more adequately address the differential historical situation of women. This critical debate had been fundamental to what Marxist feminists call political praxis an Barrett’s work is an important contribution to this process. The names for the knowledge that have emerged from the ‘Encounter’ of Marxism an Feminism over the past forty years vary – Marxist feminism, socialist feminism or materialist feminism. These terms represent differences in emphasis an even concepts, but all signal feminist’s critical engagement with historical materialism. While socialist and Marxist feminist thinking was never the dominant voice of feminism in the industrialized world, during the early years of feminism’s second wave and throughout the 1970s, this work had a profound effect on feminist theory and practice.

During the early years of the second wave, socialist feminists, fortified by the burgeoning feminist movement exerted new pressures on Marxist theory and practice to reformulate the ‘women question’ by rethinking key categories of logic, including production, reproduction, class consciousness, labour and ideology. They asserted that classical Marxist insights into history were gender blind and ignored women’s contribution to social production, while feminist analysis – although strong regarding the systemic character of relations between the two sexes – was often ahistorical and insufficiently materialist. Socialist feminists typically argued that a fundamental relation exists between women’s struggle and the class struggle, and yet they also acknowledged that because capitalism is a social reality, this struggle is not just confined to the modes of production, but is also fought out in the sphere of culture and the battleground of hegemony. In this respect, an important debate that flourished during this period was that of gender ideology being an essential feature of capitalism’s gendered division of labour. Gender ideology consisted of all those knowledge systems, beliefs and values that constructed women’s oppression as natural. In the 1970s, many materialist feminists in Britain and United States especially drew upon the work of the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser to explain the ideological production of gender and sexuality. In fact, Ehrenreich argues that the distinguishing feature of socialist and materialist feminism is its focus on ideology and it is within this tradition that we are to situate Barrett (a member of the Marxist-Leninist Literature Collective) and her given essay, which was one of the first contributions in this respect.

Barrett starts the essay with the assertion that, “The concept of ideology is an intractable one for Marxist feminism.” However, the importance of ideology in women’s oppression has usually been taken as a granted, instead of being adequately explored. Barrett thinks that attempts to explain women’s oppression either in terms of capitalism or in terms of patriarchy both pay insufficient attention to the role of Ideology in shaping social relations — the way we think and feel and believe—our subjectivity, our identity, our personality structure, and our belief systems. Women’s oppression is not solely a function of ideology, Barrett argues; but neither can the ideological dimension neglected or thought of as merely a shadow of material conditions.  This approach has thus also been related to the inadequacy in feminist criticism in exploring the “material conditions that have historically structured” the ideology of women’s subjugation. By 1975, the systemic analysis of early radical and socialist feminism was soon getting displaced or recast as cultural feminism and Barrett expresses her dissatisfaction with these approaches. Cultural feminism begins with the assumption that men and women are basically different. It is grounds the ideology of oppression, to quote Barrett, “irrevocably in biology, to take procreation and its different consequences for men and women as the root cause” or regards it as an obvious self-sustaining ‘energy source’ (Kate Millet) not needing explanation. She is also critical of the classical Marxist perspectives that explain ideology as a mere reflection of the dominant mode of production establishing material conditions of male power and dominance. The ideology of oppression of women thus gets attributed to false consciousness. The social construction of gender difference did not begin with capitalism, but capitalist relations of production emerged from historical processes which included the reworking of socially constructed gender relations, such that they become interwoven with the social fabric of capitalism. It is this analysis of the historical oppression and exploitation of gender which even pre-dates capitalism, which classical Marxist theories tends to ignore.

Barrett arguing along the lines of Parveen Adame, “A Note on the Distinction between Sexual Division and Sexual Difference (1979)” says that it is a reductionist approach to attribute the reality of the generation of sexual difference in diverse “discursive and social practices” to a pre-determined or always existent sexual division. This can be related to the example in the Introduction to the revised edition of the book, which Barrett uses to agree with the criticism that the book does not adequately address issues of race and ethnicity and is ethnocentric in some respect in its formulations. This example also stands in question to the approach of explaining sexual difference only through the sexual division of labour ignoring the complexities in various groups and cultures. The example taken is that of the “male bread-winner dependent-wife system” not being applicable to the Black British population of West Indian Origin to the same extent as it does to the dominant white ethnic group (Hazel V. Carby “White Woman Listen!: Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood”, 1982). Black British women of West Indian origin actually earn more than white women on average, going completely against the same comparison for men. The explanation lays in the different household and family organization of the ethnic group and in particular the tradition for women to be bread-winners with responsibility for dependents.

Barrett also critiques post-structuralist and post-Marxist feminist formulations of ‘social and discursive practices’ which suggest that sexual difference ‘cannot be known in advance’. She sees in this approach a denial of the theoretical paradigm of ideology; a rejection of any accessibility to the relationship between the mode of                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                representation and the represented; and a rigid belief on the unreliability of functionalist formulations. She argues that these theories of ideology wherein it gets absorbed into discourse produced by relations of power (as theorized by Foucault) – are derived from the Althusserian attempt to demonstrate that “ideology exists in (material) apparatuses”. Barrett however critiques the tendencies of some of these post Althusserian feminists to posit ideology as autonomous from class and or to make it the materiality of social life. She sees it as extending Althusser’s theory too far. Barrett stresses that the location of a certain ideology in material practices does not render it material itself and the incorporation of so many elements into the net of ideology makes it so wide that we are left with “no means, no tools for distinguishing anything.” Also this is not an enabling approach as it escapes and leaves uninvestigated crucial questions of the relationship of ideological processes to the historical conditions of production and reproduction of material life.

She instead argues, like Margaret Benston (The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation, 1969), that it is a product of the material relations of production in society. Barrett adds that these ‘relations of production’ do not simply refer to class relations, but comprises divisions of gender, or race, of ethnicity, definitions of different forms of labour etc. Taking a step away from Benston, Barrett suggests that once produced ideology becomes necessary to maintain the economic conditions which produced them in the first place. Her article is an important evolutionary point in the development of the materialist feminism since it emphasizes ideology more than economic conditions in the reproduction of unequal gender relations. Barrett emphasizes on a reciprocal and dialectical relationship between ideology and material reality. She gives the example of how it is impossible to understand the division of labour, with its differential definitions of ‘skill’ without taking into account the material effects of gender ideology, but the examination of the this material effect does not essentially materialize ideology itself. Thus, the process by which women’s oppression became embedded in capitalism should be seen as historically contingent whose ideological processes need to be explored in its material context, and not seen as a logical necessity for capitalist production relations.

Barrett argues that it is imperative to explain the connection between the materiality of ideology and the materiality outside representation. She contends that representation in itself does not affect change, but it does bear a relationship to things that we know exist outside language. Barrett rejects the position of post-structuralist theorists like Paul Hirst who have challenged the concept that representation is a reflection of specific historical conditions, and that emphasis should be laid only on the ‘conceptual framework of signification’, the means of representation. Such a view claiming to facilitate a break in the constrains of classical theory remains unjustified in its assertion as its stress on the non-existence of the signified prior to signification, does not manage provide an adequate explanation for the existence of a material referent of the sign as a whole. Barrett acknowledges that the means of representation are instrumental in the production of ideology, but stresses that they do not independently account for what is represented. She applies this concept to the production of gender ideology, using Griselda Pollock’s argument that cultural representation of gender and its images should not be the sole referent for understanding gender dynamics and the hegemonic normalization of the oppression of women.

The cultural symbolism and depiction of gender ideology, its gendered stereotypes are to be thus situated on just in the immediate means of representation, but analyzed with respect to a larger context of historical processes and relations. This explains why an inversion of stereotypes through the means of representation cannot bring about immediate social change and its effect would depend significantly on the social location of the group in question. Scantily clad female models advertizing for male products like razor blades is bound to be more persuasive to male costumers than bare chested male models advertising for sanitary pads for women. This is as not only because women’s bodies are have become commodities themselves, but that a relation has been established historically between the women’s body and consumerism through the process of fetisization of her physical self. The role of social location and historical positionality can be explained with the example of the advertisement of young women riding in their three-wheelers singing “Why should boys have all the fun?” becoming a huge success. This role inversion and challenge to status quo received a positive response owing to the changing status and role of middle class women in urban India, at a historical point when mobility of women is no longer a stigma and is acceptable. Thus, Barrett insists that at any given historical juncture, we can explore the historical construction of masculinity and femininity “prior to any particular representation in which they may be reproduced or subverted”.

Barrett next deals critically with the school of functionalist approach in feminist theorization. Various forms of oppression are explained uncritically in terms of their “supposed self-evident functions of perpetuating patriarchal dominance”, while Marxist accounts explain women’s oppression as a functionality of enabling capitalist exploitation. Such a functionalist approach runs the risk of simplifying and neglecting “contradictions, conflicts and political struggle”. Barrett promotes Richard Johnson’s opinion that it is Gramsci’s theory of ideology and hegemony of capitalist reproduction which stands appropriate. She then moves on to feminist application of Foucault’s discourse theory. Barrett problematizes Foucault’s rejection of ideology. She argues that this entails a rejection of knowledge of real social relations, as everything is reduced to discourse and hence, the Gramscian notion of the struggle of hegemony now needs to be envisioned at the level of discourse instead of in the material and tangible aspects of culture. Barrett recognizes the importance of discourse arising of a variety of complex and polymorphous power relations in society, but what she finds it highly limiting is the strait-jacketing of all struggles into “the struggle of discourses”“a difference must be retained”, she believes, “between this form or struggle and the more terrestrial kind”. This emphasis laid on discursive practice has for instance led to an excessive analysis and deconstruction, which might prove detrimental to the feminist cause. Although Barrett concedes that “the language in which feminist demands are expressed must be constructed with care and integrity”, the discursive domain of analysis most often ignores the historical material realities and groundings of movement politics which aim at mass mobilization and campaigning and have to sometimes do so at the expense of “over-simplification or compromise”. Barrett also criticizes Foucault’s idea of revolutionary struggle and resistance politics. She problematizes his position of according resistances at various levels of power relations the status of revolutionary struggle, citing Richard Coward’s interrogative example of there being then no difference between reformist and revolutionary politics.  Barrett finds Foucault’s theorization of power as productive and non-repressive and the post-structuralist deconstruction of the category of ‘women’ as a theoretical project that fails to fulfill its stated political motive of feminism — “if there are no ‘women’ to be oppressed then on what criteria do we struggle and against what?”. An envisioning of power relations for an effective political and social project of mobilization and change becomes extremely difficult under such an approach.

One of the main contributions of the essay has been Barrett’s work on the ways in which “the ideology of gender is produced and reproduced in cultural practice”.  She identifies literature as one of the key genres for the study of production of ideology. She argues that three important tenants need to be kept in mind as necessary elements in an analysis of the gender ideology in cultural production. First, Barrett rejects the post-structuralist deconstructionist proclamation that “the text speaks for itself” and stresses that the text itself should not be the only basis of analysis. This draws from her earlier discussion on representation which argues that cultural production of ideology is not be gauged only through a framework of signification comprising of the modes of representation, but have to be historically placed in its relations of production. She does not have much sympathy with the subjective reader response theory either as it does not serve any political purpose nor does it assist in anyway is exploring historical and materialist processes. This brings us to her second point wherein she propagates for a theoretical framework wherein these “broader questions are built into the method” and identifies such an approach in Terry Eagleton’s “categories for a materialist criticism” (Criticism and Ideology, London, 1976) which asks for the text to be understood as a product of ‘complex historical articulations’ of various structures. Third, Barrett derives from Eagleton and argues that a text should not be taken to transcend its dominant mode of production – “Any given period may have residual features of earlier literary modes of production, or may contain forms pre-figuring later modes, but will be characterized by a dominant mode which exerts specific determinations on the text to be produced.” This approach thus allows for an opportunity to explore the different complexities and restrains under which a literary text is historically produced.

Based on the principles discussed above, Barrett draws out a ‘systemic approach’ for articulation of the ideology of gender, which consists of the following three elements: production, consumption and representation. Production of literature is most definitely a gendered process as the conditions under which men and women produce literature are materially very different. Barrett says that this aspect has been ‘curiously neglected’ by feminist criticism. She analyses Virginia Wolf’s famous work “A Room of One’s Own” which she says provides us ‘a starting point’ in spite of its various limitations. Wolf argues that historically women have been at a position of disadvantage with respect to access to education and resources and the production of literature by women writers of the 17th and 18th century has to be accordingly located. For women it was indeed a momentous decision in that period to enter the fiercely competitive world of professional theatre and to write or act for the public. Nothing could have flouted more openly the prevailing ideology about the role of women in society based as it was on the assumption that women are inferior to men in every respect. For a woman to write for or appear on the public stage or publish her work was to move outside the ‘appropriate sphere of activity’ in two ways: first because knowledge was the prerogative of man and secondly, because by doing so she would be violating feminine ‘modesty’ in that she would be moving from the private ‘domestic’ sphere into public, masculine world. The women professional writer hence became the prototype of a “newfangled whore”.  In quote from one of the conduct manuals of that age, “to publish one’s works….was to make oneself ‘public’, to expose oneself to the world.” Women’s writing was equated with uncontrolled sexuality and reproduction, working through the familiar troupe of the pen as the male instrument of both writing and sexual reproduction as Henry Fielding alludes in Rape upon Rape, “A Pen in the Hand of a Woman…… is an Instrument of Propagation”. Women thereby were forced to use pseudonyms, found it extremely difficult to find publishers and were poor and heavily underpaid in comparison to her male counterparts. The harsh response received by women writers from literary critics in their ‘gender criticism’ and the prevailing social norms greatly conditioned or affected the works of women writers. They responded in various ways – some displayed greater defense in their writing, while other played conventional roles, some were apologetic and humble about their writing while others took pseudonyms to have their work neutrally appreciated and also to avoid public stigma. Wolf argues that women are to be seen more in the field of writing than in any other artistic field like music and visual art as these forms required more financial investment and access to more resources. Barrett appreciates Woolf’s position on the ground that her discussion of representation by women writers in their works of literature is located “in an analysis of both the historical production and distribution of literature and its social consumption and reception.” Barrett however, argues that there has not yet been satisfactory account of consumption and reception of texts from the view of the ideology of gender, as it leads to the tricky problematic of material aesthetics that of value. She rejects as redundant the two positions in this debate – the Virginia Woolf view which says women have been unable to reach the same value of achievements as male writers because of their disadvantaged subjugated societal status on one hand and on the other, the view that women’s writings is of the same level as men’s, its our prejudiced gendered perceptions and conditioning that does not allow us to see that aesthetic value. Barrett argues that both these positions are flawed as they take for granted some transcendental standard of aesthetic judgment, which on the other hand is dependent on highly specific social and historical contexts, with variations across place, class, culture and ethnicity even during the same period. It is thereby integral in the discussion of literary production and distribution, consumption and reception to address the question of how men and women have historically been situated as authors.

Barrett however theorizes that this differential historical experience of male and female writers is not equally relevant with respect to an approach that analysis the representation of gender in cultural production as such an approach might lead to many wrong analyses. The issue in this respect that she elaborates is the fact that “the question of representation is beset by the problem of interpretation, and this is why I have been arguing that we cannot rely on subjective reading.” Our readings of texts are often determined by the initial inferences we draw of it from its presentation. Barrett uses this point to challenge, Foucault’s assertion that “ideology is transparent” – no meaning is intrinsic to a text, but dependent on subjective perspectives. The use of the concept of gendered experience of male and female authors in the analysis of representation raises the question of authorial intent which has led to many disastrous consequences in feminist criticism. A common trend has been observed wherein feminist critics have attributed to female authors the essentialist character of trying to raise issues of women which arise from her gendered experience, while male writers have necessarily been almost all the time accused of sexism. Here lies the danger of constructing a novelist as what Barrett calls a ‘sociologist manqué’, a position adopted by Rachael Harrison, ignoring the fictional nature of their work. Cora Kaplan (Radical Feminism and Literature: Rethinking Millet’s Sexual Politics, 1979), in her assessment of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics says that she refuses to see the ambivalence in her author’s work as her criticism of their sexism is based on an “unproblematic identification of author, protagonist and point of view, the unspoken assumption that literature is always a conscious rendering of authorial ideology” Hence, representation in literary text should not be regarded as a direct reflection of the contemporary historical moment – imagery is a notoriously misleading indicator. It should be hence used rather as an indication for understanding the complexity of how and what particular meanings are constructed, formed, spread and negotiated in a given social formation.

Despite these limitations, Barrett develops a detailed account of what she identified as the four key mechanisms by which textual representation reproduced gender ideology: stereotyping; compensation by the discourse of the supposed moral value of femininity, collusion i.e. manipulation of consent; and recuperation – the negation of challenges to the dominant gender ideology. Stereotyping is an essential element for the maintenance and perpetuation of hegemonic notions of femininity. Barrett refers to Trevor Millium’s work (Images of Women, Advertising in Women’s Magazines, London, 1975) analyzing the limited images of women presented in advertisements playing rigidly to the dominant notions of the domestic role of women, commodification of her body and sexuality,  and ‘feminine’ attributes of care, love, duty and  sacrifice. Children books abound in these same stereotypes of sexual division of labour far more intensively that it may actually exist in contemporary society.

Compensatory representation refers to practice of the presentation, imagery and symbolism that elevates and celebrates women as the apostles of moral strength and courage. This generates a romanticism about women that structures the consciousness of both men and women and plays a very important role in the process of social conditioning and internalization. It is an attempt at compensating for the systemic injustices on women and thereby intentional for the maintenance of hegemony. So the Orthodox Church juxtaposes images of Madonna and whore or pregnant women are flooded with romantic imagery of child and childbirth in contradiction with the “patronizing and curt clinical treatment” (Hilary Graham, ‘Images of Pregnancy in Ante-Natal Literature, 1977).  This is also true of the exaltation of women as the symbol of the greatness and beauty of the nation state, in countries like India.

Collusion is the notion which attempts to represent an idea of women’s willing consent and complicity to her own subjugation and exploitation. Qualities of pride, vanity, excessive emotionality, lower rationality etc are attributed to women as their inalienable traits which thereby make them responsible for their own exploitation and prove their willing consent and internalization of this oppression. For instance, Barrett draws on the example of the female nude painting tradition, where the blatant voyeurism of this art form was covered up by the portrayal of a nude woman admiring herself in a mirror.

Barrett sees the representation of recuperation, which attempts at questioning dominant notions of femininity, as the most interesting and challenging in the analysis of gender ideology. We can take the example of the advertisement were a bunch of young women ask a man travelling in the car, which is advertised, where they could find a “sizzling hotty”, to which he points to the beach. The track in the background sings “Dumb Dumb Dumb!” which is a scathing critique of how women pro-actively expressing desire becomes incomprehensible to men. The ideological reproduction of gender subversive notions she argues is a highly difficult process, and there is always a movement to counter-pose its impact and success. Barrett talks about various representations where in the woman protagonist is initially very subversively and convincingly depicted, but eventually subsumed into dominant ideology by the narrative — be it Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Benet, the heroine of the popular film ‘Coma’ or the women characters in our Ekta Kapoor serials. This Barrett argues can be read as a response to “changes in the position of women”, which may be generated at various times.

This essay is thus a highly influential text not just in terms of its theorization of the alliance between Marxism and feminism and its criticism of contemporary modes of feminist criticism; but also in its commitment to ‘politicized art’. It calls for a revolutionary praxis that recognizes the immense importance of engaging in a cultural counter-hegemonic practice of the ideology of gender not just as difference but as located in a long and complex process of historical production of relations, changes and transformations of “labour division, oppression, inequality, internalized inferiority for women.”


  1. ‘Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women’s lives’ by Rosemary Hennessy, Chrys Ingraham, 1997
  2. ‘Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct’ by Sneja Marina Gunew, 1990
  3. ‘Contemporary Cultural Theory: An Introduction’ by Andrew Milner, Jeff Browitt, 1991
  4. ‘Gender’ by Harriet Bradley, 2007

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