For my presentation and paper, I have decided to focus on the power gender norms, and roles have on influencing societal interpretations of sexuality and how these interpretations affected James Baldwin. Throughout Baldwin’s writing and his interpretations of other texts, such as the Bible, we have seen that he prioritized love and self-acceptance as the ultimate goal in life. Baldwin’s Biblical interpretations are inclusive, and he embraces Christs’ message of love as the greatest act of faith and fulfillment. Despite this, we have seen the toll gender roles and sexuality norms took on the characters of Giovanni’s Room and how they impacted Baldwin’s understanding of his sexuality. In attempting to understand Baldwin’s perception of gender norms and roles, I reread “The Male Prison,” which beautifully articulates the disastrous nature of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity. Baldwin rejects notions of naturalism associated with sexuality and instead argues that human impulses are far beyond the constraints set by normative behavior. He argues that norms are reinforced to protect people’s conceptions of what is natural and normal, “And one of the reasons for this is that it would rob the normal -who are simply the many – of their very necessary sense of security and order” ( The Male Prison, Collected Essays). Baldwin understands that norms are not inherent and can be abandoned but are not because the majority prefers to protect their sense of order.
Similarly, gender theorist Michel Foucault articulates rejections of norms as inherent and argues that this conception of gender and sexuality as science or fact is a strategy for state observation. Like Baldwin, Foucault acknowledges that human impulses exceed the norms and acknowledges that sexuality is about desire and pleasure and cannot be structured scientifically or generalized. Foucault takes Baldwin’s argument about norms only being in place to establish and protect order a step further by declaring that science was only ever associated with sexuality as a justification to promote heterosexuality which furthered state population reproduction goals. In essence, the state encourages society to perpetuate these gender norms to observe the population better and exert order and force. Baldwin is such a talented writer because of his ability to explain deep theoretical issues in a manner that illuminates the human perspective; he likens these restrictive forces to “The Male Prison” and arguably to “Giovanni’s Room.” In Giovanni’s Room, David and Giovanni are trapped, unable to go out and express their desire or true love for one another. Baldwin wants to show that the perpetuation of gender norms and roles is so pervasive that people struggle to accept themselves and ultimately have miserable fates as a result. It is evident that gender norms are constructed and intentionally restrictive. I believe that Baldwin rejected these norms so heavily not only because they limited his own sexual identity but because his faith calls for a message of love, acceptance, and understanding. Gender norms and roles do not prioritize the love and connection Baldwin repeatedly submits that all humans need.