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Gender Subversion: A Cultural Reconsideration through a Fairy Tale
The following paper tries to socially understand gender norms and the possibility of subversion of the recommended roles. Judith Butler’s (1990) Performative theory of gender acts, discussed probability of gender subversion in various societal conceptualizations of gender. The undertaken study, through thematic analysis, investigated particular characters in a fairy tale, The land of stories: Beyond the kingdom (2015). It was found that gender was a social construct, and it existed due to repeated and accepted socially ascribed practices. The characters reconsidered gender through subversion by breaching the expected traditional societal gender norms. Though, for the intelligibility, these reconsidered gender roles needed recurrence. The findings also seemed to assert that the subversive acts could be shocking and unacceptable, but, they do not possess the potential to terminate the established gender norms, rather, just assist the characters to meet their ends, towards fresh identities and roles in the extensive societal dominion.
Gender, Gender Subversion, Societal and Cultural Norms, Fairy tale
Right from the birth time, the individuals are subjected to adhere, follow and nurture a particular gender group and its prescriptions for life time. Consequently, acceptability and recognition in any cultural setup is possible by true submission to the set norms.
The societal and cultural institutions had been producing and regulating the gender identities through definition, perception and legitimacy through actions and speech. Thus, cultural established gender rules proclaimed that certain identities were acceptable and others that trespassed premises could not exist. Certain power and hegemony structures maintained cultural conﬁgurations that could rebuild the reality of natural gender. Thence, the so-called gender truth that produced identities was rooted in coherent gender rules and cultural regulatory practices.
Gender is neither sex nor the biological differences amid men and women, rather, is evolved by culture, social relations and power relations. The societal rules or gender norms could not be altered, but somehow jilted, cracked, refuted and trespassed through individual endeavors (Badola & Hussain, 2003). However, contrary to the cultural gendered knowledge of the sexual variances in the political construction, the possibility of reverting the cultural dominance and oppressive gender rules that restrict the natural spirit of existence are re-considerable. Additionally, Ainsworth (2015) argued that gender was an unnatural reality that could be re-considered and gender subversion was a desire to cross the set boundaries. The concept of gender subversion of rules actually overthrew social roles, thus illuminating the fluidity and flexibility of human socio-cultural performance and roles.
Thence, the subverted gender roles highlighted peculiar restrictions imposed on individuals by culture for action and behavior (Giuliano, 2017). Consequently, gender reconsideration could break societal hegemony setup in art, literature and consequently, in life (Rahman, 2002; Bauwel, 2003). Additionally, Butler (1990) also challenged the cultural and conventional opinions of sex and gender through established heterosexual structure. This philosophical approach to gender opened new cultural comprehensions of gender in literature like fairy tales.
The 20th century fairy tales depicted the psychological reconsideration of human state through various social constructions (Yashkina, 2016; Marais, 2017; Mirsadjadi, 2012). Later, the fairy-tales of 21st century radically subverted in presentation from the classic fairy tale by altering gender roles (Schwabe, 2016). Similarly, in the current fairy tale the land of stories: Beyond the kingdom (2015), the identity is reconsidered against the cultural understanding of established and trusted norms through subversion of various expected gender roles.
Gender roles are the actions, thought and behavior according to cultural standards, believes of gender. The gender roles depict an interaction between individuals and their environments, with the appropriate behavior for either sex in a cultural setting (Blackstone, 2003). Thus, the human body had been the site of gender composition through cultural standards. Culture is a significant aspect in lives of human beings, their belief, life and conduct and is transferred generation to generation as part of knowledge (Naz et al., 2018). Thus, the body always performed emotional desires, identity construction, aspirations, morals and descriptions in accord to the cultural influence (Jagger, 2000; Jameson, 1995). Apart from basic dual gender division, multiple confinements of thought and action are imposed by the culture upon its members (Turner, 1996).
Though, the gender identities are preferred, but gender is just an inner psychological core without any reality. Besides, the culture imposed a variety of diverse restraints to the dual gender groups and granted a limited ability for a desire. Thence, the emotional acknowledgement of instability in routine performances directed subversion against the strict cultural concepts (Shilling, 1999; Buikema et al, 1995: Naz et al., 2018). Similarly, the apparent firmness of the gender identity could be disturbed, reconsidered and subverted by resisting gender practices through independent thought and autonomy (Brickell, 2005; Neculaesei, 2015).
Besides, subversive notion of gender seemed to be extending and guiding insurrection of cultural assigned roles to reconsider and re-contextualize new meanings and establish gender as an unsolidified form by exposing its unnaturalness (Abercrombie & Longhurst, 1998). Though, Rahman (2000) pointed to the negligence in analysis of social institutions and structures that constitute gender. Gender is a complex concept and norms that create gender variances needed to be disrupted for its effective articulation and manipulation (Jones, 2000; Cameron, 1997). However, the subject is suggested to possess agency and subversion bore the daring power to highlight the flaws in the established norms, thus, possessed the power of, “de-grounding” (Butler, 1996, p. 122).
Therefore, the subversive acts were the consequence of countless restrictions imposed by society, in a specific culture, beyond gender binary and underneath main social current (Brickell, 2002). Additionally, Hyde (2005) commented that though subversive attempts could be blocked by the hegemony, but subversion was only a minimum effort to rearrange or enhance the structures by promising new individuality and acts. However, subversion never suggested hostility, contest and modifications to everyday/life power, but, distorted supremacy through cultural confronts in ordinary societal relations (Pease, 2000). Gender subversion used different strategies, like simulation, which violated the registers to create new cultural symbols and, “fissured the de-stabilized sex identity” (Schwichtenberg, 1993, p. 141).
Multiple researchers explored dimensions of gender and its subversion, like Brickell (2000), Gutterman (2001), Schacht (2001) and Gerson (1993). Similarly, Neumeier (2013), Williams (2012) and Vinberg (2012), in their works argued about the presentation of gender subversion in modern fairy tales with more intensity than the mere customary happily ever after. Additionally, Zipes (2006a; 2006b) pleaded that gender roles in contemporary fairy tales depicted a cultural consciousness, changing times and human wisdom. Asal (2019) also argued a practical gender role transition in literature, with women protagonists, who were smarter and daring. Moreover, Stephens and McCallum (2017) asserted that gender was, “one of the more recalcitrant elements of folktale” (p. 201), that persisted in the literary tradition. Though, fairy tales have been a male domain realm, however, Warner (1995) suggested that fairy tale retellings offered new social constraint and power dynamics in gender. Although, gender is not the only contending subject, it was, and still is, by far the most prominent, and the fairy tales have a large impact on the development of gender identity (Koning, 2017). Thus, gender is not innate, but prone to alterations under need and requirement, when one’s respect, existence, or protection, are at stake. The subversion does not turn the tables, but provide a space to struggle, even if not accepted.
Thence, keeping this in mind, it is important to present the synopsis of Colfer’s the land of stories: Beyond the kingdoms (2015). A rogue, named Masked Man is spreading horror, fear and dismay in the fairy land, and the twins Alex and Conner Bailey, are determined to stop him. But the disaster befell as Alex was terminated from the Fairy Council. Thus, the group, which included: Goldilocks, Jack, Red Riding Hood, Mother Goose, Lester, and the Bailey twins, discovered that the Masked Man was turning every story book into a portal to recruit an army of literature’s utmost scoundrels! Thence, the rescue work begun from the Land of Oz, Neverland, Wonderland, and beyond. The twins, in endeavor to catch the Masked Man, travel beyond the kingdoms!
Thus, undertaken study, ventured to investigate that how and under what conditions and circumstances the selected characters subverted gender and challenged the assigned identities, against set norms through thought, words and actions. The inquiry is guided by the Performative theory of gender acts by Judith Butler (1990). The theory reconsidered subversion of culturally enforced and accepted gender roles, to re-order and re-establish gender as a fluid concept by disrupting dichotomy and beyond. The investigation of subversion would help to discuss that gender could be reconsidered as a fluid notion. It would also help to explore the response, gender subverted roles receive, among set gender roles.
Methodology and Theoretical Framework
The commenced is a qualitative study, which dealt with a person’s existence, involvements, tactics, approaches and viewpoints, besides activities, social administrations and cultural events (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Besides, the findings of qualitative research are not statistically reached. Furthermore, the research design was thematic analysis, about which McLeod (2011) elucidated that thematic analysis is fluid, direct and reachable. The text analysis method was adapted from Alholjailan (2012), and Miles & Huberman (1994), who explained the analytical procedure as planned, compact, and collecting evidences that allow implication and final decision. Thus, gender subversion was investigated in specific characters, in Beyond the kingdom (2015).
Butler’s (1990) theory of Performativity and gender acts provided the theoretical framework of the undertaken work. Though, Butler’s philosophical understanding to gender has many dimensions, and therefore, this paper restricted to the conceptualizations of gender subversion in the contextualized socio-cultural world. Bulter (1990) recommended gender trouble to disrupt the Western binary assessment of sex and gender. She discussed that gender act is produced and strengthened by cultural norms. It is a construct, an idea, with no originality. Gender was a performance, ideal structures that constrained the behaviour and needed to be repeated for physical effect. Words, norms and speeches control the actions, bodies and notions. Butler’s (1990) work is more general, theoretical and political. It questioned and denaturalized the interiorized norms and subverted their limits. She asserted that power constrained and permitted action. She supported the notion of subversion that contested the oppressing structures of honor, diversity, dignity and worth of each person in society. Butler (1990) clearly asserted that gender subversion was not a prescription to subvert gender to make life good. Thus, gender is not ascribed, solidified rules, rather, changeable and transformative. It is up to one to choose to subvert, challenge or overthrow rigid expectations, through performances that could increase ostracism, pain and violence towards acceptance of subversion.
The analysis of the land of stories: Beyond the kingdoms (2015) focused on some characters who, in
thought, action or words, seemed to divert, challenge or rebel, against the set societal mode of gender restricted thought, action and behavior at particular situation.
The situation was meeting of the world-famous writer, Hans Anderson and Fairy God mother. The analysis detected gender subversion in the character of Hans Anderson, who affirmed that subversion was encouraged in him by fairy Godmother, whose stories stimulated him and altered him from a dreadful young man at school, to a story teller. Thus, the context was the typical young school boy, neglected and raw, who needed some guidance and mentoring to transform him. Otherwise, he would have been brought up as some untamed lad. Thus, subverted his gender from the set societal norms and emerged as a great writer with proper guidance and motivation. Thus, transformation emerges with societal links, thus, altering identities.
Moreover, it is traditionally acceptable that a person boosts the achievement and takes too much credit for anything. The situation is the same meeting, and contrarily to the traditional acceptation, Fairy Godmother subverted gender, as she expressed that Hans gave her, “…too much credit” (Colfer, 2015, p. 4) for his achievements. This action explained Butler’s (1990) assertion that gender was not instinctive, but a schematic replication that is socially and culturally taught in body gestures, actions and descriptions. But these are changeable and could distract from what is conventionally believed in a definite situation. Thus, the fairy Godmother subverted gender too, from the conventional fairy to a different one. Thence, subversion could be seen in the after effects when both Godmother and Hans, “enjoyed the soothing sights and sounds of promenade” (Colfer, 2015, p. 5).
The context is the fairy land, where live Fairy Godmother’s twin sons, who are quite opposite in temperament. One twin, Lloyd is pessimistic and always reserved to his self, pondering over things about which nobody knew. Thus, he subverted gender from the assigned role of a lively young boy to the one who kept him to his self only. Thus, even as a baby, he didn’t smile, and seemed, “miserable and …it may last forever” (p. 7), thus, this made the Fairy Godmother cry with sorrow, distress and grief. Socially, young boys are expected to be vital, adventurous, exquisite and nimble. Contrarily, unlike other boys, the context which motivated subversion of Lloyd was the death of his father, as, “something broke inside” (p. 7). Lloyd inner subversion externally exposed itself in his sojourn, as the room which was given to him was darker than any other room in Fairy Palace. Moreover, he did not like any company and thus, lived in a room like an isolated tent (p. 11). The contrary example to his gender subversion was provided by John, who, “loves this world” (p. 8). Though, the behavior was unlikely for a child, but, gender subversion, though strange, is not unacceptable to Butler (1990), who explained that gender was not a fact, but the acts created gender, and without them there was no gender at all. Thus, it is subversive, as actions are changeable.
The next context was the secret meeting of the witches in tavern, where they discussed the prospects of attacking fairy land with the masked man. Witches from all over fairy land assembled there to discuss the future plans against fairies. In fact, the meeting was summoned by the Masked Man. The analysis seemed to show that gender was subverted by which, Hagetta. As compared to other witches, who carried the typical symptoms that identified witches as a class, and carried warts, possessed the atypical large noses, with hanging eyeballs, and looked like other creepy and dreadful species, that had hooves, horns, tails and feathers, thus, all the mixed repelling features, Hagetta seemed to be a totally ordinary, mid aged woman, who was a pretty one too (Colfer, 2015, p. 19). However, her standing apart from rest of the witches in form of subverting gender, and negating and not fulfilling the accepted characteristics, was unacceptable and abnormal for other witches, who gave her, “a dirty gaze”, and considered her an, “embarrassment to all the real witches” (p. 19). Moreover, another issue that segregated and differentiated her from rest of the group was that she broke the rule and identity mark of the witches by practicing white magic. Hagetta herself understood the hazard of subverting gender, but still tired her best to make eye contact with confidence to as many witches as thinkable. The group of witches was a perplexing audience, who required be influencing and persuading. Here, Butler (1990) seemed to explain the situation that the limits of the body never rested on physical limits and material, but, on a social inspired ground of taboos and projected violations, that are not allowed to be trespassed. Thence, gender trouble created genders that fall outside binary visibility that disrupted the hetero-normative opinions of gender in and outside the psychological and societal set rules. In this case, being the traditional and non-traditional witch image.
Additionally, Butler (1990) argued that certain identities exposed that gender was a communal and traditional edifice. Thus, against their presumed behavior of being wretched and fierce, the gender subversion of the witches, showed itself in turning fearful and turning rebellious against the fairies. The whole set up of gender subversion was manipulated by the Masked Man, and he tamed them for his purpose to attain his ends, just the same way as he had desired. It was the same instant that a witch, with a nose like a carrot, started to cry with passion and in an emotional outburst, in the middle of the meeting. This action was a strange one and attracted attention from the entire assembly. It was a strange unexpected gender subversive action which made everyone turned towards her and ended with a stare. She further subverted gender with more unexpected action by yelling out that she was innocent and the multiple crimes she was accused of were not committed by her. However, the uncommon and unaccepted behavior, after all, was met with a critical remark from the homogeneous group member, who sarcastically exclaimed that, “there’s no such thing as an innocent witch” (Colfer, 2015, p. 20). This is explained by Butler (1990) that the typical genders humanized individuals in the existing culture; and the ones who did not do their gender right are frequently penalized. The punishment could involve subjugation, stigmatization and relegation for violating, disrupting or challenging the system.
One could subvert gender by going against the grain too. Thus, when the witches agreed to the plan, one witch subverted gender by not agreeing to the plan. She stood apart the crowd and created a new identity for herself as the mismatched and misfit. It was Gargoylia, who, in order to show her dissimilarity, shook her head strongly that depicted that she had her own reasons to disagree. She had the courage to speak out the mind that the masked man’s army already failed and that he was not trustworthy. This remark of her shocked everyone and the magic of trust through deception lost its charm because the rebellious witch just touched on a painful topic. Thus, the subversion though attracted attention due to its novelty and unmatched, unreasoned action, it also shocked the audience with the power of words too, and shook masked man’s confidence, with sweat beads on his forehead, deep breathing and trembling legs.
Alex, disguised, attended the secret meeting in the witch tavern, with her crew, to arrest the masked man, who, however, jilted them and escaped. Alex, at this moment subverted gender, from a benign and composed girl, a true defined cultured damsel until she, “daze her emotions” off (p. 28). Her subversion, strange and unusual, was powerful enough to catch the attention of the spectators, who seemed nervous and perplexed. Actually, subversion brings a change, shocks with the novelty and always brought out something, to be witnessed, that was one of a kind and never existed before. Thus, it was natural to give an unaccepted and unexpected reaction to an occurrence that was entirely out of the box. However, another point to ponder was that Alex, herself, didn’t care if her conversion was mindful or unintentional. However, during emotional subversion, physical changes appeared as her eyes glow, her hair begun to soar, and rising vines emerged from the ground seizing everybody. The gender subversion, thus, subverted her identity. It was about this that Butler (1990) argued that gender was not something one was, rather what one acted and performed. Thus, gender identity was not an inner truth, but result of repeated gender performance. Thus, this made identities fluid and open to re-signification and reconsideration.
Furthermore, Butler (1990) elaborated that in gender performance, existence of the subversive possibility occurred by failing the repetition towards its deformation to expose the delusion of enduring identity. Thus, at the same tavern of which meeting, Goldilocks swayed her sword and chopped up enemies and due to hormonals uproar in her body, she bitterly and severely cried, after chopping a witch’s arm. The conditions brought her to a dreadful state, where being pregnant, she often vomited, and her camouflage was revealed as she by cried, which was very improbable of her and protested that plunging was much tougher to perform under pregnancy (Colfer, 2015). Thus, the gender subverted from the repute of a ruthless fighter to an oversensitive pregnant woman who cried after killing enemies.
Though, Red, never subverted gender and stayed the same self-obsessed and self-loved queen, who unconcerned about the prevailing situation at the witch Traven, only focused to plan the wedding details with Froggy and moreover, she taunted Froggy to pay attention to wedding plan, even when he was pinned against the fence.
Sometimes, gender subversion occurred collectively too, in a group. Though, a common identity was not required for collective action, but anyone could engage and disrupt through gender subversion. So, in another situation that existed in human world, where the four girls at school, spied upon Bree, Conner’s school fellow. The gender subversion was collectively seen in Mindy, Cindy, Lindy and Wendy, who behaved contrary to their usual disposition, and deviously trailed Bree and caught her chatting on phone during a long-distance call. Thus, the girls of thirteen, acted dubious to their selves, but more likely like commanding figures who crossed their arms and blocked the way of escape for Bree. Moreover, the, “malicious grin” made Bree produced a long-suffering sigh (p. 48). This collective action is elucidated by Butler (1990) that identity was constructed, not random and free, nor determined, but always possessed space to re-structure, subvert, and unsettle the status quo.
However, in the similar context, Bree, after sometime, retrieved herself and composed herself not to fall into the emotional trap of the four girls. She, thus, subverted gender and faced them bravely. She, instead counter offered them to let her go in interchange of receiving information related to twins (who were in fairy land). Bree’s gender subversion from a head strong to a cooperative girl shocked the Book Huggers with speedy conversion in Bree’s approach. However, the invading group fell in for the trick and was so excited to be revealed the truth that their heads bobbed with unease.
The undertaken study drew on the precise ideas of Butler (1990), which aided to investigate the reconsideration through subversive gender performances of selected characters from the fairy tale. The selected fairy tale is found to present a non-traditional tendency of stories in the society, thus by providing the space where the characters received the chance to accomplish the novelty in gender performance and acts that in regular social interaction are banned, unaccepted and undesired by the loyal, intimidated or ignorant members. The usual members do not allow themselves to think out of the box, and contemplate over the reason that why they were obligated to act in a particular mode of behavior, and what they were afraid of, if they disobeyed to act thus. So, the characters were found to react under specific cultural contexts and conditions with reliable reasons that motivated the emergence of subversive acts. The reasons are found to be passion, discontentment with orthodox identity, irritation, anger, etc. that are individual, conditional, and contextual. The analysis depicted the fluidity of gender and sexual identity by highlighting the ground that gender was not static within the binary as usually accepted in mainstream culture.
The findings elucidated that conventional gender idea, dealt strictly with male and female groups, and imparted limitations and restrictions of thought and action within these two categories only. But, actually, multiple boundaries underneath the apparently dual group restricted thought and action. These subdivisions are imposed by contextual culture and societies. Thus, the findings revealed that the further split of male and female gender are made through age, status (economic and financial), position (domestic and societal rank), profession, caste, color and creed, etc. These subdivisions of main gender categories are as hard to trespass, ignore, break, revolted or transformed, as the main division itself is; but, never impossible. Butler’s theory of gender could be expanded to explain the subdivisions of individual level. These boundaries are not considered to be broken, destroyed, politically rebelled or revolted against, or uprooted, but individual discontentment could shake, modify, or alter them to an extent that is not always necessarily perceivable too. But the subversions are enough to break or shake the routine acceptability and consent to conform and submit.
Thus, gender subversive practices possessed the power to shake the hegemonic gender discourse. Subversion was a confrontation to re-order and reconsider gender, as a fluid notion. The analyzed characters depicted that they deconstructed gender for social modification. Marginality and being common, was a suitable subversive field that resisted and contested the existing social order. Besides, the findings represented that the mode of reconsideration and subversion of the gender boundaries changed with time and space. Thus, subversion ironically presented a tabooed knowledge, reconsideration, reforming and granted capabilities to challenge the worn-out gender performances. Thus, Alex and her subversive transformation, were considered irregular and abnormal across social conditions, but also granted authority to suppressed. Though, cultural structures determined gender stereotypes by influencing gendered behavior with script of gender performance, and also negative consequences for the failures of script followers.
The findings also seemed to delineate that gender is reconsidered through replication, displacement, and trouble. It is important to refer to Raby’s (2006) assertion that strengthens the findings that gender subversion could be concealed and obscured. Thus, a refusal to main gender descriptions, the characters misidentified and worked against the primary ideas. For example, the characters took chief scripts, cryptograms, roles or discourses and then re-used them in unusual means to interrupt the dominant connotation. Like, the witches fulfilled the descriptions of the witches look, weird and strange, rather disgusting, but with a diversion in particular looks, conduct or behavior, they subverted gender.
Consequently, the analysis seemed to delineate that the characters experienced a continuous course of subversion. But, before next subversion, they reverted back to the socially identified, gender aligned elf, before subverting again. Thus, subversion aligned with needs, demands, and the requirements. The inquiry also depicted that subversion could be mindful or un-aware, but was impulsive, sudden and swift, like the subversion of Alex, Fairy Godmother and Bree. Though, subversion did not suggest a steady place, rather altered, owing to the fluid gender nature. Thus, it seemed that the characters might or might not perceive what they had been through. Alex, after normalizing from the gender subversion state, did not remember anything about her change. But, Hans Anderson, however, knew well the reason of the gender subversion that also did him good for lifetime. Remarkably, the subversion consequences appeared more in actions and physical features, like Alex turning into a ball of fire with rage, or Fairy God mother, who is the embodiment of dream fulfillment for everybody, cried in distress for her son’s weird state.
Thus, gender subversion was so intense that it influenced others on the scene too, like Bree’s subversion was observed by the Book Huggers, who were also overwhelmed by her change; similarly, Alex’s subversion was witnessed and influenced everybody. However, subversion of script suggested a backlash and penalty. This despite done from incongruent behavior and unaccepted acts. Hagetta, for instance, knew the consequences of acting contrary to other witches and also knew that the consequences would be worse.
The findings also suggested that the accepted gendered behavior is stereotyped, schematic, and rested on the expectations of the society. Actually, every subversive act is a binary notion of gender. Thus, decrease in performance of gender and social roles, would decreases the gender stereotyping. The collective social action could disrupt gender performance too, like in case of group of witches or the girls from school. Usually, for activity and practicality, the collective action needed ideas that are identity-based. However, the findings seem to second Butler’s (1990) assertion that claimed that group-based identities were not necessarily essential for transformations. Hence, the collective action ignored the gender type essentially needed to disrupt notions of gender. Like, the different four school girls, tied up into one purpose. On the other hand, the findings also confirmed Butler’s assertion that identities were inappropriate and artificial consequence of social forces. Thus, gender was an identity, a self-stereotyping and self-categorization, which was the result of social and psychological forces. The subversion in Hans transformed him from a shy boy to a world fame author. As a contrast, Lloyd gender subversion led him into misery and isolation only. Thence, the context influenced behavior and gender self-stereotyping, when contrarily gender was measured as a stable, discrete construct. It is thus found that as a performance, gender was an act, a conduct that altered with context.
Thus, the study replied to the questions that firstly, societal gender norms were subverted under peculiar circumstances like individual contentment, sorrow, dread, intimidation, possession, insecurity or else. Thence, the characters subverted the set gender norms, which extended beyond the duality. They did not intend to break the established rules, rather momentarily, non-politically, amend and modify, only for their selves. Thus, an expansion and diversity of gender roles by disrupting cultural norms, granted space to the marginalized non-binary gender categories to be seen, noticed or at least, achieve purpose and contentment. They were successful to add a new meaning to the established forms by proving that the set norms were fluid and changeable.
So, the study explained the limitations of gender prescribed roles, and how the subversion of gender roles provide space, though, not so quick acceptability and possibilities of subversion in set cultural gender roles.