This is a transcript, for text readers, of my Feminism 101 lecture (De)constructing Gender.
This is gender: (picture of Donald Trump with his comments about women)
‘I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married. I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.’
This is gender: (picture of female garment workers in India, bearing placards reading ‘I made your clothes’).
This is gender: quote from Boris Johnson in 2018:
‘If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran. I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes; and I thoroughly dislike any attempt by any – invariably male – government to encourage such demonstrations of “modesty”, notably the extraordinary exhortations of President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, who has told the men of his country to splat their women with paintballs if they fail to cover their heads.’
This is gender: (cartoon from the Star Tribune showing a female law enforcement officer stationed outside a women’s toilet, at a desk that says ‘Halt! Hoohoo Inspector.’ The toilet also has signs on the door reading ‘Birth certificate required’ and ‘Present Photo ID’).
What is gender (or, can we have several thoughts at once)?
1. Gender as a binary
Gender is an economic, social and cultural binary which sorts us into one of two groups (men and women). It is constructed through bodies and their relative capacities, economic structures, institutions, language and behaviour. It is often maintained through violence.
How is gender created?
- Gender is generally thought to follow biological sex, which is also seen as a binary attribute (male and female)
- In practice, gender is often learned based on the assignment of sex at birth, but also assumed based on factors such as giving birth to children (or the potential to do so) and other physical attributes (such as height), as well as how people dress, talk and behave
- This occurs regardless of what an individual’s actual gender identity might be
Self and Other
- In a binary, one pole is ascribed with powerful and positive characteristics, with the other its negative
- Men have been seen as active (while women are passive), rational (while women are emotional), strong (while women are weak), independent (while women are dependent) and so on
- The ‘superior’ half of the binary also comes to stand for the universal or neutral – so in fact what we are often working with is ‘men/not-men’, where the latter includes gender-nonconforming people as well
- The same applies to ‘white/not-white’ where the latter denotes all people of colour, ‘straight/not-straight’ where the latter encompasses all non-heterosexual people, etc)
The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. ‘The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is symbolised in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called ‘a supernumerary bone’ of Adam.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
- A 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health identified a ‘dominant myth’ internationally that men are strong and independent, while women are not
- This had different effects in different countries: in India girls’ education is restricted, in Belgium girls are told to select their clothing carefully to avoid sexual violence, in China and Egypt girls and boys are discouraged from being friends
My male colleague was depressed, quit his job and couldn’t take it anymore. Female colleague: ‘Can’t believe he cried. Boys don’t cry.’ – Russell, from Everyday Sexism
Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry. – Tim Hunt, Nobel Laureate
I’m telling you there isn’t an exception — whenever I’m up for a role, really no matter how big or small, the answer that I always get from anyone who’s casting me, it’s, ‘We have to cast the guy first.’ Every single one. – Kate Bosworth, actress
I was moved from the department that I launched and built for three years because a new General Manager felt that ‘young men’ or ‘young bucks’ would be more energetic. By the way, the performance of the department dropped. – TR, from Bustle
The role of capitalism
- Capitalism entrenched the gender binary through a separation of the spheres of production and reproduction (and the model of the nuclear, rather than extended, family)- a configuration then exported by colonialism and globalisation
- The ideological association of men with production and women with reproduction did not correspond to economic or social realities, but became an underlying principle in the organisation of work
- Although the majority of women now work, the economic gender binary continues to be reflected in horizontal and vertical labour market segregation, the gender pay gap, and unequal divisions of domestic and caring labour
Neoliberalism and gender
- Although the growth of service sector capitalism has offered opportunities to some Western women, neoliberalism has entrenched the gender binary in other ways
- Cuts to welfare systems place disproportionate pressure on women
- Liberalisation of the market has meant that (already minimal) corporate responsibility for care (e.g. childcare, medical expenses) has diminished further
- Women are over-represented in the global precariat of casual workers, domestic workers and outsourced manufacturing/clerical workers, who have few to no employment protections
The role of violence
- Silvia Federici documents how global capitalist expansion has relied on the violent dispossession of women – of work, land and community roles – through the witch-hunts of early modern Europe and in contemporary low-income countries
- Violence (and the threat of it) is also key to maintaining the gender binary through men’s domestic power over women, and through sexual harassment in workplaces and public spaces which makes women feel unwelcome and puts them in their place
- Federici identifies a new ‘war on women’ constituted by rising violence/femicide and attacks on reproductive rights, especially in countries being recolonised through globalisation (but also a backlash against increased equality in the West)
2. Exploring the intersections
Gender intersects with other binaries and social categories (such as race, class, sexual orientation, disability), and although gender inequality is consistent across cultures and time, some women are privileged in relation to others. This is known as ‘intersectionality’, a concept created by black feminists and associated primarily with Kimberlé Crenshaw. It produces inequalities between women, as well as meaning that constructions of masculinity and femininity vary between different groups.
Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things. Some people look to intersectionality as a grand theory of everything, but that’s not my intention. If someone is trying to think about how to explain to the courts why they should not dismiss a case made by black women, just because the employer did hire blacks who were men and women who were white, well, that’s what the tool was designed to do.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, 2017
The coloniality of gender
- Race and gender were co-constructed by colonialism and colonisation
- For Lugones, the colonial/modern gender system has a ‘light’ and a ‘dark’ side in which both the gender binary and meanings of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are constructed by white bourgeois society, while men and women of colour (as well as those occupying ‘third’ genders) become less than human
- This intersects with the racialised binary which assigns negative characteristics to colonised/non-white populations – and legitimates their violent oppression
Race, gender, violence
- Sexual violence has been key to the construction of colonial gender – acts and allegations of have supported the oppression of indigenous and enslaved communities
- Rape of indigenous/enslaved women has been used to uphold colonial power, while allegations of rape made by white women have justified lynchings and other acts of violence
- This has shaped ideas of black masculinity and femininity – producing what Davis calls the ‘myth of the black (male) rapist’ and the Jezebel stereotype through which black women are blamed for their own victimisation
The fictional image of the Black man as rapist has always strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the Black woman as chronically promiscuous. For once the notion is accepted that Black men harbor irresistible and animal-like sexual urges, the entire race is invested with bestiality. If Black men have their eyes on white women as sexual objects, then Black women must certainly welcome the sexual attentions of white men. Viewed as ‘loose women’ and whores, Black women’s cries of rape would necessarily lack legitimacy.
Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (1981)
Angry Black Women
- Moya Bailey calls the intersection of racism and sexism ‘misogynoir’
- The ‘angry black woman’ stereotype is another example of this – rooted in colonial constructions of black people especially as more aggressive, that bump up against gendered expectations that women will be ‘nice’
- It can be seen in the recent disciplining of tennis star Serena Williams in the US Open, as well as attitudes to prominent black women such as Diane Abbott and Michelle Obama
(picture: Mark Knight’s cartoon of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open, in the Australian Herald Sun. There were a number of complaints about the depiction of Williams: ‘Specifically, concern was expressed that the cartoon depicted Ms Williams with large lips, a broad flat nose, a wild afro-styled ponytail hairstyle different to that worn by Ms Williams during the match, and positioned in an ape-like pose,’ the Australian Press Council said in a statement. Osaka, who is also a woman of colour, was depicted as white – and the umpire is saying to Osaka: ‘can’t you just let her win?’)
3. Gender as a spectrum
Although economically and socially gender tends to operate as a binary, this is not the case when it comes to individual identities. A variety of gender identifications exist, and it is also understood now that biological sex is less binary than was previously thought. This is not new – as Lugones argues, colonialism imposed binary gender where it was not necessarily the norm. She gives examples of a number of culures which historically recognised gender diverse members, and/or had more egalitarian gender systems, prior to colonisation (although it is also important not to romanticise this too much).
Gender as performance
- Our understanding of gender nonconformity has been expanded by Butler’s theories of gender performativity, which trouble the neat line between sex, gender and sexual orientation
- For Butler, all gender is performative – it is constructed (and even compelled) by social norms, and through performing (or resisting) these we construct our sense of ourselves
- This does not mean that gender identities are not important, or not deeply felt – however, it positions gender as less a state of being and more a constant process of becoming (which creates space to become something else)
Video of Butler explaining how ‘your behaviour creates your gender’, which can be watched or listened to here.
However, theories of gender performativity do not necessarily do justice to the many ways gender identities are experienced: and trans theorists especially have produced strong critiques of Butler’s work.
I also find the notion of femininity as performance to be somewhat disingenuous and oversimplistic. I mean, I can “perform” femininity. I can put on makeup, skirts, and heels. I can curtsy, throw like a girl, or bat my eyelashes if I want to. But performance does not explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. The idea that femininity is just a construct or merely a performance is incompatible with the countless young feminine boys who are not self-conscious about their gender expressions, who become confused regarding why their parents become outraged at their behavior, or who do not understand why other children relentlessly tease them for being who they are. Many such children find their gender expression to be irrepressible, and they remain outwardly feminine throughout their lives despite all the stigmatization and male socialization to the contrary. Other femininely oriented male children learn to hide their feminine gender expressions to survive, but at a great cost.
Serano, ‘Reclaiming Femininity’ (2012)
Gender can be seen as one of a number of structures through which we understand/express our individual identities – we may feel more comfortable with one pole of the binary or another, or at any number of different points in between. We may reject the binary altogether. Gender identity may be more important to some of us than others, and whether we conform to the binary or not it can be very deeply felt.
Acceptance and backlash
- Gender diverse people are a major threat to the binary status quo, daring to live outside its strictures or (in the case of those who transition) challenging the assignment of sex at birth and the assumption that this should determine one’s gender
- We are currently witnessing a backlash in which binary gender is violently being reasserted through attacks on those who do not conform: for instance, through trans-exclusionary ‘bathroom bills’ in the US, crackdowns on ‘gender ideology’ in countries such as Hungary and Brazil and opposition to trans rights in the UK
- This is related to the ‘war on women’, which is also an attempt to reassert binary gender by putting women in their place
4. Gender as a political device
Current attacks on ‘gender ideology’ and gender diverse people show how gender can become a political flashpoint or device. This is not new – ‘moral regulation’ focused on sexuality and gender tends to emerge during times of economic and social crisis (for instance, debates about homosexuality triggered by Section 28 in 1980s Britain). Concerns about ‘women’s safety’ have also long been used in the service of conservative political agendas, rooted in colonial rhetoric.
- The gender dynamics of colonialism (white men saving white women from black and brown men) continue in a variety of forms, not least through Western criminal justice systems and political rhetoric (for example, Donald Trump’s comments about Mexicans during his Presidential campaign, or Nigel Farage’s comments about migrant men in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum)
- An Orientalist construction of Muslim women as uniquely oppressed and victimised has also been a justification for a variety of colonial and neo-colonial projects, including the War on Terror (this idea has also been propagated by some feminist groups)
(pictures: a woman in a hijab sporting a t-shirt reading: ‘this is what a radical Muslim feminist looks like’; a Femen activist, presumably topless, bearing a placard reading: ‘Muslim women – let’s get naked)
Dangerous Brown Men
- In Dangerous Brown Men, Bhattacharyya argues that rhetorical framings of the War on Terror were based on a conception of the West as uniquely progressive, set against the idea of Muslim-majority communities (and particularly the men in them) as inherently misogynistic and homophobic
- It is in this context that Boris Johnson’s comments about the burka should be understood (white men saving brown women from brown men) – he has not suddenly become a feminist
The transsexual menace
- Recently in the US and the UK, cis women’s safety has been used a political device by right and far-right groups who oppose transgender equality
- Trans women’s access to women’s spaces such as toilets, changing rooms and prisons has been positioned by conservatives as a potential sexual violence risk to cis women
- This is rhetoric echoed by some feminists, who see a conflict between trans rights and women’s rights in this area
(picture: 1990s activist group Transsexual Menace)
Policing the boundaries
- Trans-exclusionary narratives are biologically essentialist, focusing especially on the penis as a predictor of violence
- In contrast, sociological understandings of gender would see violence as intrinsic to masculinity as a structure (as well as to white supremacy and other structures) rather than inherent in particular bodies
- The current ‘panic’ over trans women’s access to toilets and changing rooms has led to renewed policing of normative gender, with masculine cis women also exposed to suspicion and violence
Back to the initial question: What is gender (or, can we have several thoughts at once)?
Gender is structural and social, personal and political
- It operates as a man/woman binary which situates men/masculinity as superior (and allocates resources and opportunities accordingly), and also allows no space for identifications outside that binary
- The gender binary is one of the structures through which we understand/express our individual identities, whether we identify within or outside it
- Gender intersects with other categories, which means there are differentiations within gender groupings
- It is a political device, with attacks on women and gender-nonconforming people a major part of the swing to the right across the globe, and with the idea of protecting white and privileged women an important part of conservative rhetoric
5. Further reading
Acker, J.2004. ‘Gender, capitalism and globalisation’. Critical Sociology 30(1)
Ahmed, S. 2016. ‘Interview with Judith Butler’. Sexualities 19(4)
Crenshaw, K. 1991. ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of color.’ Stanford Law Review 43(6)
Federici, S. 2018. Witches, witch-hunting and women (excerpted in New Frame October 1)
Koyama, E. 2003. ‘The transfeminist manifesto.’ In: Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the Twenty-First Century
Lugones, M. 2008. ‘The coloniality of gender.’ Worlds & Knowledges Otherwise (Spring)