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Gender Constructions in The Hours (Daldry. S, 2002)


To illustrate gender as being a social construction rather than a biologically determined entity and to evaluate how heteronormativity influences the several layers of identity.


Drawing upon the evolution of gender construction in The Hours, I intend to use feminist theory and the social construction on gender to obtain a preview of a society devoid of the restrictions in terms of heteronormativity.


Judith Butler’s (1988) ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’ asserts that “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo”. Butler (1988) argues that gender is constituted through a series of “acts” that have been actualized by individuals in repetition over time. She further argues that gender is something that is not a concrete “social fiction” but is constantly being reproduced, shifted and moved. In short, she theorizes that gender is not a set of concrete identities, but it is always reproduced over and over by the body.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This emblematic quote of Simone de Beauvoir in ‘The Second Sex’ (1949) demonstrates that “no biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society…” Gender must be understood as a process of taking on or realizing possibilities, a process of interpreting the body and giving it a cultural form. In other words, to be a woman is to become a woman through an active practice of appropriating, interpreting and reinterpreting received cultural possibilities. In so doing, women are relegated to the category ‘the other’ through cultural construction, which Butler identifies as being the key to women’s oppression. Gender identity, advocates Simone de Beauvoir, “rests on unstable bedrock of human invention.”

Drawing on Laura Mulvey’s work ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Anneke Smelik’s ‘Feminist Film Theory’ (1999) indicates a prolific diversity which echoes the multitude of voices, manifold points of view, and cinematic styles and genres that indicate women’s triumphant endeavor for self-representation on the silver screen. However, a restriction such as the reproduction of a male/female dichotomy is questioned and the need for a deconstruction is expressed. The renewed interest in the sex/gender distinction that Gayle Rubin had introduced in 1975 is given much importance. The term gender usually seemed to point to a more lucid distinction between anatomy (sex) and social construction (gender), and equally between sexual practice and gender identity. This distinction contributes to the critical appreciation of movies where gender constructions are depicted as being unusual.


Society has been, most of the time, portrayed as being a patriarchal one. One representation that can be recurrently seen in texts is that man is the norm, and woman is ‘the other’, or as stated by Culler (2007), “Men have aligned the opposition male/female with rational/emotional, serious/frivolous, or reflective/spontaneous”. In such a scenario, the woman feels restricted to particular roles dictated by men and at some point, she feels stifled by the various impositions levied upon her.

This research topic gives a discerning stance of the struggle of women of the 20th century who have been constantly seeking for more meaningful lives. In order to question the whole issue of gender construction as well as the hierarchy of the opposing attributes, this tale of women will be considered. These heroines of everyday lives will be analysed in terms of the construction of a patriarchal society as they make heart breaking and defining choices that eventually influence their whole life.


The Hours is a 2002 drama film – a screenplay by David Hare based on the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title by Michael Cunningham. Starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, the movie relates the life of women of three different generations, who are interconnected by Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The character of Virginia Woolf, magnificently portrayed by Nicole Kidman, lives against her will in Richmond, England, 1922. Laura Brown is a pregnant housewife living in 1951 in Los Angeles. Played by Julianne Moore, she feels suffocated in her so-called “perfect life”. Lastly, Clarissa Vaughan, expertly acted by Meryl Streep, is a contemporary version of Mrs. Dalloway and leads a somewhat happy life with her homosexual partner, Sally, in New York City, 2001.


In The Hours, Virginia Woolf is seen to be delving into her imagination to create Mrs. Dalloway – a woman who, like herself, embodies liberal thoughts, but nonetheless, enjoys a more expansive freedom in her lifestyle. Through her creation, she craftily plays on the notion of what gender identity should represent. This idea is once again explored through Mrs. Brown, who engages herself in reading the novel Mrs. Dalloway in her moments of solitude and depression. Virginia Woolf thus gives birth to Mrs. Dalloway, who in turn, becomes a source of inspiration to Laura Brown. Woolf turns many cultural gender stereotypes and generalizations on their heads, and seems to do so more in an effort to expose how gender is a socially constructed concept rather than promoting an exclusively feminist agenda.

  • The character of Clarissa is yet another portrayal of construction related to gender identity. The contrast between Mrs. Dalloway in the novel and Clarissa Vaughan in the movie shows how the process of deconstruction occurred over time. The fact that Mrs. Dalloway could only be allowed to reminisce about her love for Sally shows that there are some limitations for her to live her femininity and sexuality as compared to Clarissa who is in a committed relationship with her homosexual lover. The construction of identity as portrayed in Clarissa goes beyond sexual orientation and constricted roles for women. It focuses on how the concept of the self develops in a society defined by social norms.


With each upcoming generation, the characters demonstrate that they are given license to broaden their horizons. This evolving pattern shows a deconstruction of heteronormativity and at the same time does not restrict women to being portrayed as the other.


Ahmed, S. (2010). ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’. The University of Chicago Press. Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 571-594

Beauvior, S. D. (1949). ‘The Second Sex’, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knoph.

Butler, J. (1986). Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex .Witness to a century. 72 (3), 40-42.

Butler, J. (1988). ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’. The John Hopkins University Press: Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 519-531

Butler, J. (1988). ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’. The John Hopkins University Press: Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 519-531

Butler, J. (1990) ‘Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity’. London and New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1993). ‘Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. London and New York: Routledge.

Cott, F. N. (1987). ‘The Grounding of Modern Feminism.’ Yale University Press

Culler, J. D. (2007). ‘On Deconstruction‬: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism‬’. Cornell University Press.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Daldry. S (Director).The Hours[Motion picture]. Miramax Films, 2002.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). ‘Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality’. New York: Basic Books.