Gender and Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers
By Chris Beasley
Sage, viii + 293 pp, £65.00 (hbk)/£20.99(pbk)
ISBN 07619 6978 0 (hbk)/07618 6979 9 (pbk)
Published April 2005

Reviewed by Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library London [commissioned but never published]

The critical debates over gender and sexuality which have proliferated over the last few decades are many and complex. Chris Beasley has managed to steer the way through the labyrinth in ways that will surely help the novice in this area to find her or his feet, a metaphor which perhaps fits Beasley’s witty comparison of ‘a compendium like this’ to ‘a dance club’ offering a multiplicity of possible congenial partners, in the Conclusion (p.241).

While Beasley carefully situates diverse positions along various classificatory spectra (with visual mappings), demonstrating their differences and overlaps, these are never reified. In keeping with the critical spirit of this volume the various typologies deployed (while problematised) are argued to have value as a heuristic device to enable newcomers to the field to orientate themselves and get an initial grasp on its terms and significant figures, to make explicit assumed knowledge and general patterns, as a basis from which to proceed to a more nuanced picture.

Beasley covers a wide range of thinkers and theoretical standpoints in the fields of Gender/Feminist Studies, Sexuality Studies, and Gender/Masculinity Studies. The coverage is exemplary: even though Beasley points out relative lack of attention to ‘disability, class, environment, and international relations/globalisation’, race and post-colonial theory do feature. Time and space has been saved by engaging only tangentially with what might be designated non-critical approaches arguing from assumptions about gender and sexuality as biologically-inscribed natural norms. It would, however, have been nice to have seen some acknowledgement of the contributions that historical research has made to illuminating shifting understandings of the manifestations of gender and sexuality.

Theories and theorists are not set in stone, Beasley argues, drawing attention to the shifts not merely of the theories, but within the thinking of specific theorists over time. The attentiveness to the cultural background within which theories originated is also a strength: this is perhaps an outcome of Beasley’s own location in Australia, providing a critical perspective on the preoccupations of Europe and North America.

Key concepts are reiterated in different contexts as they recur in the course of the discussion of particular issues. There is a very thorough bibliography and a glossary of terms, as well as a brief consideration of methodological issues. Gender and Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers is not only a solid introduction to these fields of study, it embodies in its approach the critical stance it espouses.