What We’re Talking About When We’re Talking About Gender

A post on the intersection between feminism and rationality. How novel. And yet, there are really interesting things to talk about. In particular, while in a past post I discussed the need for rationality to address how it is feminists discuss their theories and ideas with non-feminists or with non-academic feminists (meant in both ways), in this post I would like to point out the ways in which academic feminism has been utilizing a rationalist approach for some time now, even while the rationalists accuse them of playing with words and being nonempirical, and some feminists have criticized even the need for rationality, pointing out that its supreme importance in epistemology is heavily gendered masculine, historically and sociologically. I think both of these critiques have some merit, but of course I feel that both ‘movements’, or sets of theories, paradigms and practices, are valuable, and so I’d like to demonstrate these long-forgotten points of overlap.

1. Tabooing. Remember Tabooing? I talked about it here. I discussed the paradox of the deep importance of language in shaping our thinking and discourse (though I’m by no means a post-structuralist) juxtaposed with the vastly more relevant ideas behind the language we use (told you I wasn’t a post-structuralist). What that paradox of importance and non-importance of language tells us is that the words we use are at once irrelevant, because it’s what we’re referring to that’s important, and if words aren’t facilitating the exchange of ideas about the world, they’re not doing their job in the context of a conversation, and ridiculously important, because they mean different things to different people, and are imbued with baggage and meaning. Because some people might just throw around ‘performing gender’ because they heard it on a blog once, and some people react negatively to the term because they had an intense Butler phase in their second year of college which completely petered out when they read Catherine MacKinnon and they think that anything that gets women out of politics is evil, and some people just think it sounds stupid. Like, what does that even mean?

And do you know intellectual movement has discussed this in immense detail over several decades? Which set of paradigms pointed out that the language we use is imperfect and shaped by our society, that it both affirms and reifies power structures, that it can be useful or alienating, descriptive or normative, and can bring into being identities without action and action without identity? That’s right, feminism.

I mean, Judith Butler basically wants us to Taboo ‘gender.’ Right? What is it she’s saying when she says that there is no such thing as woman, that there is no room for the female sex in the gender binary, that women are a multiplicity, defined only in contrast to men, that the very word circumscribes the possible activities and identities of those people called women, denying the diversity of possible ways of being? What she’s saying is that ‘woman’ is a cluster concept, a word used to refer to a million different things, from having two X chromosomes, to wearing makeup, to having long hair, to having sex with men, to having a vagina, to liking pink. There might very well be a cluster in space of people who are on one side of these million different axes. But the point is that there is no one thing that makes someone a woman, and we all recognize that every time we call a little girl who likes sports a tomboy, every time we use the correct feminine pronouns to refer to a transwoman, every time we see someone androgynous and awkwardly stumble over ourselves, asking questions geared towards answering that singular, burningly insistent need to know: are you a woman, when there is no answer to that question except the answers to all of the other questions. When you ask, is that a girl? What are you really asking? You want to know if ze’ll be interested in getting Cosmo’s on Saturday, or joining an all-girls’ league of soccer, or having sex with you, or whether ze is wearing a skirt because ze is normal or because ze is making a political statement through fashion. Those are the relevant questions, the relevant points. And to condense all of that information into a single word, description, identity, is not only to do a disservice to the complicated nature of people, but also to get a lot of things wrong.

Judith Butler understands that labels can be useful. She calls them a ‘necessary evil.’ But she wants us to recognize that until we know the questions we’re really asking, we are going to use labels as a substitute for thought, and we are going to hurt people and create a society, political and nonpolitical that has no room for non-normative variants of our cherished binaries. And the woman has a point. What if you met someone who was tall, muscular, un-curvaceous through the hips and buttocks, with a full chest, who liked green and blue, had long, shiny hair, painted their nails a dark metallic gray, almost black, who liked basketball and volleyball but not tennis, and wanted to go by masculine pronouns when they were at work and at the barber, and feminine ones in the salon and on the court. What is it you would want to ask this person? What gender they are? What sex they are? Don’t you already have all of the information you could possibly want, about their gender (think of the Latin root here), about their sex, and more importantly, about them as a person? What more do you need, except to satisfy your need to put people into categories that don’t fit them.

And even more than making room for variant people (whether by getting pronouns right, giving them an option on the internet (thanks G+!), having a genderqueer community, whatever), we should be making it easier to be variant in the first place.

[Sidenote: I understand evolutionary psychology and biology; I have no doubt that many, probably most, of our preferences and intuitions are modulated and affected by our evolutionary past. But here’s the thing. Actually, three things (this should probably be a post unto itself) 1. Yes, but not always. 2. The biology can affect our preferences for proxies for things like youth and beauty, but what those proxies are are heavily affected by culture and 3. We are living in an age in which we are moving past our biology in many ways. Use your imagination. ]

Right, so variance is awesome, generally speaking. Obviously there are exceptions, but if by variance, we just mean diversity in the things people do, from folk dancing to wearing zoot suits to cup stacking, and letting people be weird in those ways, and also in dressing in drag or going by different pronouns some days of the week, or sleeping with whomever they damn well please, then that is only for the good. Not only is it pretty marvelous in and of itself all the things that people have chosen to do, but it also makes it all the more likely that every person will be able to find something excellent and fulfilling for their own life, and hopefully a community that wants to do it with them. And that’s exactly what poor use of labels halts. We call things gay, or effeminate, or just weird, and people stop doing them. That’s a shame. Let people be wherever they are on (almost all of) the axes of their choice, because there aren’t just two ways to be.

In light of that, let’s talk about what we’re really talking about.

Rational people will tell you to only use categories if they work. And the feminists are telling you that they don’t work.

Relevant Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_Trouble

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One thought on “What We’re Talking About When We’re Talking About Gender

  1. chortlevork says:

    I fully and enthusiastically agree that the point of gender theory should be to create possibilities that are not tied to an identity. In light of that, isn’t it kind of counterproductive, or at least unproductive, to make pronouns part of this project? We all agree that pronouns reflect social expectations based on gender, and that these expectations shouldn’t govern our tastes and behaviors. But these expectations are deeply culturally held, and reversing or altering the pronoun to reflect an individual preference will not neutralize the expectations. On the contrary, they are likely to become entrenched because any variance in pronoun usage is bound to be deeply associated with variance in gender performance. Unless we’re going to stop using language to express gendered concepts altogether, nonconventional pronoun usage is likely to make no difference or make the situation worse.

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