Anyone speak Spanish?
I was interviewed by a London-based Spanish journalist called Maruxa Ruiz del Arbol earlier this week on the subjects of poststructuralism and the inclusion of men in feminist/gender debate; she got in touch with me after seeing me talk at BBC 100 Women. Much as I can’t speak Spanish I ran the article through Google Translate and it seems to be a very nice article. I was particularly happy with doing this because it is not often I am interviewed on general gender subjects (which is the subject of my research PhD), usually I am interviewed about porn, which is fine but I can talk about other subjects too. Also, although poststructuralism is highly influencial (since 1990) in the gender studies academy, it is almost unknown outside of it, which is a shame because I think it offers the greatest toolkit for defeating gender inequality, due to its focus on similarities between men and women, whilst simultaneously underlining the arbitrary nature of our socialised gendered selves. The ‘structure’ in ‘poststructuralism’ can be thought of as the gender binary, male-female, so this theory is ‘post’ that binary, in other words it goes beyond it seeing gender as something we all do, as though it was ‘between’ men, women and trans people (have I lost you yet?!)
I was interested to see how Maruxa would reflect upon the notoriously difficult to understand poststructuralist gender philosophy, (I think she did very well, especially for someone using a second language) particularly that of queer theorist Judith Butler, who is a huge influence on my own gender theories and of whom I spoke of at length. Butler’s writing style leaves many perplexed (as it did me when I first discovered it), indeed she once won the World’s Worst Sentence award.
Briefly, Butler argues that instead of thinking of gender as the social part of us that makes us male/female/trans, which is opposed to the physical body/hormones, which is known as our ‘sex’, we should see all of our self – body and all – as gender (the social part), because we cannot know the body except through gender. For instance I always give the example of how developed our knowledge of women’s reproductive capabilities (fertility treatment) has become since the 1960’s in comparison to how inept the medical profession is at helping women who suffer from orgasmic dysfunction. Women have been of greater use to men as mothers than satisfied lovers, in other words.
Butler argues that we focus on gender differences such as primary and secondary sexual attributes (penis/vagina/breasts), rather than the far greater number of physical similarities we share (most internal organs, skin, bones, etc). This choice to focus on differences is a political one, she argues because it allows for a hierarchy where men are favoured.
Butler uses the term ‘performativity’, a portmanteau of ‘performance’ and ‘activity’ to describe how we ‘do’ gender. We unconsciously perform our gender as per sets of norms that existed before we were born and into which we are thrown. Our sexuality and our gender are conveyor belts along which we travel, often without question. she asks us to imagine a situation where a parent (especially a lesbian parent) holds aloft their newborn child and says “it’s a lesbian!”. The common response (Daily Mail anyone?) would be anger at the parent’s choice of the child’s sexuality on their behalf, but Butler argues this is exactly what we do when we assume a child to be heterosexual. As non-heterosexual people know, it takes a lot of guts to buck the trend and deny the policing of their sexuality to fit society’s norms. The second point Butler makes is that we do the same thing when we declare “it’s a girl!/boy!”. We don’t just describe a biological fact, we simultaneously ascribe an appropriate conveyor belt; female: socially focused, emotionally aware, discouraged from ambition, fearing of attack, etc, or, male: singularly focussed, encouraged to be ambitious, and discouraged to express emotions other than anger, etc.
That gender norms need to be constantly policed in society (calling a woman a slag, discouraging ‘softer’ tastes in men, etc) is proof of it’s arbitrariness, for if gender were as set in stone as we are led to believe, it wouldn’t need constant reinforcement…