Anyone into Queer Theory- Explain this, I'm confused

(60 Posts)
dashoflime Sun 10-Mar-13 11:01:09

Right so,

someone has recently said to me that in Queer Theory you don't draw any distinction between someones biological sex and their gender identity and in fact, it would be threatening and offensive to Trans people to do so.

I'm lost. I thought the whole point of stuff like Butlers Femininity-as-Performance was that you DO draw that distinction confused ?

Someone come and explain in simple words what this person was on about would you.

I'm not a queer theorist, but I think I might understand what is going on?

For one thing, Butler is one queer theorist, and she is (IMHO) slightly strange on occasion.

Some people would say that it is offensive to transpeople to say there is any difference between being biologically male (or female), and identifying as 'male' or 'female'.

What Butler is saying (as I understand her) is that gender is something we all create, by living our lives. We all contribute to the concept of 'femininity' (or 'masculinity') by performing as feminine or masculine agents. Gender is not something that results from our physical bodies, it's something we act out. The positive side of this is that, if gender isn't innate and is something we perform, we do have a certain amount of power to subvert the cultural norms and to perform gender in new and innovative ways.

This isn't actually a million miles from the first position, because both Butler and the people who support the first position are trying to say that our physical bodies need not determine our gender. Butler is also keen on the idea that it's not helpful to talk about two biological sexes, but it's better to think about a spectrum of gendered performances, which construct (or deconstruct, or reconstruct) concepts of 'femininity' and 'masculinity'.

(NB: This is my understanding. I am not a queer theorist, and I am not very keen on Judith Butler, although I do recognize she has done some influential work.)

dashoflime Sun 10-Mar-13 12:53:15

Right, thanks LDR. That does make slightly more sense.

Would queer theorists completely negate biological sex as a subject worthy of inquiry at all then?

I only know a couple of queer theorists and they both work in English Lit departments, so it might be this isn't representative. But my understanding is that they interpret biological sex as being something that doesn't really exist in the way that people think it does - they look at the cultural and social assumptions that shape biology, for example. So it's not that they wouldn't study biological sex, but they would tend to disagree that the categories of 'biological male' and 'biological female' are useful ones to use.

People can do a lot of work on physical bodies, and on the cultural understanding of a gendered body (which obviously is something that involves a lot of reference to what you or I might call 'biological sex'), so when I read queer theory it often has a lot to say about biological sex. It just says it in what seems to me a slightly sideways way.

Trekkie Sun 10-Mar-13 13:07:56

Aren't the categories of biological sex useful in feminism though, to identify the group that is being oppressed?

When a baby is born there is a recognition of "it's a girl" or "it's a boy" and that moment has an enormous effect on their life (with the statement "it's a girl" meaning the ending of that life in some parts of the world) - this is irrespective of what gender / combination of gender roles the child may adopt as they grow up.

That's the bit that confuses me with this.

Trekkie Sun 10-Mar-13 13:11:50

Actually retract that - I don't know anything about queer theory and the chances are that it has a totally different focus to feminism and thus the points that it raises are not to be thought about from a feminist POV! eg may not pertain to babies.

Just got carried away as in the feminist section.

Yes, I think they are useful. This is one reason I'm not wild about Judith Butler or gender theory.

I think gender is a totally unhelpful and crappy concept that we should get rid of. I think talking about 'performing' gender attributes agency to people who do not have that agency.

I am aware Butler herself sees both similarities and differences between gender 'performance' and theatrical 'performance', but many people who use her work only focus on similarities. And this tends to lead to a really unpleasant situation in which 'gender performance' is seen as something comparable to theatrical entertainment, whereas for many women (and men, and perhaps especially homosexuals), it can be a matter of life and death and extremely stressful.

I think that claiming (eg) cross-dressing as an exciting subversive 'performance' of femininity, as Butler does, totally misses the point that much cross-dressing is pretty misogynistic. And it misses the point that these activities do not create a new and excitingly fluid concept of 'femininity', they further entrench the old, patriarchial, tradition ideas about what 'femininity' is.

I think it's a massive pile of toss.

There are some aspects of queer theory and of JB/JB's disciples' work that occasionally seem quite interesting and valid. None of them seem to me anything that we couldn't do from a radical feminist perspective, and do much better that way. So, for example, someone I know did a talk about how cultural assumptions about gender shape biological teaching in schools. Radical feminists know this is true. We've talked about the myth of the hymen on this forum loads of times. It'd be possible to discuss that either as a gender theorist ('ooh, look, it's all performativity cos the body isn't how biologists used to think it is!'), or it'd be possible to discuss that as a radical feminist ('look, the patriarchy lied about our bodies'). IMO the latter is simply more useful.

Cross posted with you, trekkie - I don't know, I think it is interesting to discuss one theory from the POV of another. We often end up discussing socialism from the POV of feminism here, so why not queer theory?

Hopefully someone who's a committed queer theorist will come along and set us to rights soon! grin

dashoflime Sun 10-Mar-13 17:49:27

"Aren't the categories of biological sex useful in feminism though, to identify the group that is being oppressed?"

This was my initial reaction as well. In fact I actually asked the person "how would you name the oppression of women by men then?" and they said: "I wouldn't" I was shock

They did then retract a little and say that they would recognise biological male and female but only for the purposes of talking about oppression of women by men.

But I was still hmm at that. What about medical issues? Would it be illegitimate to say that biologically female people tend to experience different heart attack symptoms to biologically male people for example?

Trekkie Sun 10-Mar-13 17:56:24

Further than that things like prostate / ovarian cancers, pregnancy and childbirth and so on.

FloraFox Sun 10-Mar-13 18:00:35

dash I think that's a good illustration of why it's a massive pile of tosh. I agree with LRD's post.

Hmm. That is really telling and a bit shit that they said they wouldn't, dash!

I like the 'only' for the purposes of talking about oppression of women .... not exactly an 'only' subject IMO!

The heart attack thing is a good example, isn't it? Because women die as a result of people not knowing that the symtoms are different, don't they? And I'm sure there must be examples the other way around, too.

I do find Queer Theory really interesting and often useful, but I think some versions of it have a really difficult conflict with radical feminism that seems to be getting more and more fraught.

Thanks, flora. smile

Something I have a really big problem with - which isn't entirely Butler's fault, I guess, but which her theories seem to be used to back up quite a lot - is the way that the idea of performing gender leads to a kind of tourism within the oppressed class.

What I mean is, you get (for example) straight men who cross-dress for stag parties set out as an example of men performing a subversive (and therefore anti-establishment) kind of gender role. It's men dressing up as women and pretending this makes them daringly similar to an oppressed class of people. But, in order to get away with cross-dressing, they have to be incredibly privileged already, and they have to be part of a social convention that upholds privilege. Cross-dressing for a stag party is socially sanctioned, it's not something that is likely to get the rugby boys beating you up in a dark alley, because if you're cross-dressing on a stag night, chances are you are the rugby boys. It's not the same as if you were a man who cross-dresses in his daily life, who does run a risk of being beaten up. And it's not the same as being an actual woman, it fact it makes comedy out of women (look, how funny, boobs!).

I have enough of an issue about this kind of scenario (straight men getting comedy value out of pretending to be women), but when someone comes along and adds a 'theory' to the mix, and says this is subversive, that gives it a kind of pseudo-academic importance. It lets people wank on about how cutting-edge they're being and it makes it that much harder for women to stand up and say 'um, actually, I find it quite offensive that it's my body that they're parodying here'. So the end result is actually to reinforce the same old gender binaries and the same old power structure, while pretending to be all subversive. I really dislike it.

dashoflime Sun 10-Mar-13 18:30:42

I agree.

In the circles I move in there seems to be a real fashion amongst younger people for defining themselves as genderqueer. I think its similar in some ways.

These are people who are at university and they have the privilege to experiment with their identity and define themselves any way they like. I mean if they don't have to, they don't even have to mix with anyone who knew them two years ago.

If they want to thread pink laces through 18 hole DM's and get everyone to refer to them as "zie" there's absolutely no social repercussions on them for doing that.

I don't begrudge them but I think its a bit rich to ascribe "cis-privilege" to me because I feel obliged to wear women's clothes to the office.

(Bit of a mean spirited rant there- I'm sure I was as arrogant and annoying when I was young!)

Yes, I know of the same fashion, or a version of it anyway. When I was an undergrad I was very lucky, because I had a mate who was pretty patient about these things and who took the time to explain some of how he felt to me, and it stayed with me. He's gay, but he's also (as he put it), an Irish boy who likes football and pints. He found it quite alienating that there was such a big trend towards people who weren't gay telling him that they really sympathized with his 'lifestyle' ... and he'd be saying, erm, yes, but my 'lifestyle' is that I like doing what plenty of straight blokes like doing, it's just I also happen to be attracted to men.

I don't think it's mean-spirited to wonder about the implications of a stereotyped version of something becoming trendy.

JuliaScurr Sun 10-Mar-13 18:44:08

Gender isn't a performance we choose - it's a heirarchy of oppression - sexual/domestic violence, low pay, political power, unequal access to leisure, etc

I am a woman, not a person performing femininity.

MooncupGoddess Sun 10-Mar-13 18:47:16

Good idea for a thread.

Do you think cross-dressing is inherently problematic, LRD, or is it just the 'tee hee, let's pretend to have tits' thing you dislike? What about lesbians who wear traditional male clothing? I find it quite hard to unpick all these issues (and am now paranoid that my cross-dressing murder mystery party was a crime against feminism).

I agree.

I think the people who have the illusion that gender is a performance we choose, are the people who are already near the top of that hierarchy. But I can't think of many examples of gender 'performance' that people at the top of the hierarchy perform, that don't very rapidly become part of the sanctioned hierarchy anyway. If women want to 'perform' as men, they're kicked down. But if men want to cross dress on a stag party - fine.

If I were being polemical, I'd say - look at the hassle women have been getting for centuries for wanting to 'perform' as men, to get into male-dominated job fields. Then look at how fast the law has changed to allow MtoF (and, yes, the smaller and less visible numbers of FtoM) transsexuals to perform their designated gender.

I'm not trying to judge which (if either) type of performance is the more desperate or painful, but it is really telling which has been most quickly accepted and given legal protection within the hierarchy.

MooncupGoddess Sun 10-Mar-13 18:50:39

But we do choose to perform gender to an extent, Julia, don't we - e.g. when I shave my armpits and put make-up on I am performing femininity. I don't have to do those things (although of course women in some jobs don't have much choice).

I thought that things like that were about gender (masculine/feminine) while the oppression issue is about sex (male/female) which is not easily (or at all, depending on your view of the trans issue) changeable.

If we lived in an ungendered world we'd still have male and female, but not masculine/feminine.

Oops, sorry, that was to Julia.

moon - I don't think cross-dressing is inherently problematic, in that in a feminist utopia, it wouldn't matter what we wore. In our distinctly non-utopian society, I think cross-dressing gives us just one more variation on the usual ways we can tell who has the power and who doesn't. Lesbians who dress in traditional male clothing can still get a heck of a lot of flack. In fact, it's quite hard to know how women should dress - we're teetering on a tiny wedge, IMO. OTOH it is actually pretty much completely acceptable for a straight man to cross dress, so long as he does so in such a way as to make clear he's parodying women and putting them down.

I'm sure your party was fine! grin

I'm not being 'down' on cross dressing, I just think that it's not an activity that magically makes the hierarchy of power disappear. It's simply one more activity that happens within that hierarchy. It might also be fun or sexy or whatever you like, so by all means, go for it! Just don't tell me men cross dressing are necessarily breaking down gender binaries.

(I am wondering if there's a difference between 'cross dressing' - which I think has to have some reference to the 'proper' clothes each gender wears - and simply wearing clothes you choose. I think there maybe is.)

kim147 Sun 10-Mar-13 18:58:40

I think there's also different ways of cross dressing - if you go to a cross dressing night, it's all little black dresses, blonde wigs, heels.

Then you've got cross dressing like you see on lads nights out. Or on TV. Which is taking the piss.

Then of course - you've got drag queens. Commonly associated with the gay scene.

MooncupGoddess Sun 10-Mar-13 18:59:47

Thanks LRD, that is helpful. Totally agree that cross-dressing per se doesn't change the hierarchy of power - indeed, it reinforces rather than breaks down gender divisions. If we all dressed in jeans and T-shirts cross-dressing would be impossible.

Yes, I agree kim. And I think drag queens are interesting because I think often that is a way of doing a giant 'fuck you' to society's expectations, and it can be genuinely very subversive. But it's also problematic if, like my mate, you're a gay man who isn't remotely 'feminine', because you get people assuming that if you fancy men, you must in some sort of way be part of the 'feminine' group of people. That's reinforcing the gender binary in a way that is putting both women and a lot of gay men into a box they don't feel comfortable in, even while it's allowing other gay men a lot of freedom. Obviously I am waaaay outside of all of this so it's not my business to comment really. It just seems so sad that the patriarchy has twisted everything up like this.

MooncupGoddess Sun 10-Mar-13 19:07:40

Oh yes, or my lesbian friends getting asked which of them is the man in the relationship hmm

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now