This is something I read several months ago, but it’s been popping up in my mind again recently.
It comes from a post on Feministing by a site editor bidding farewell. She shares some thoughts on her idea for the future of feminism:
My vision? A feminist movement that works toward a world where no one is limited or defined by their gender identity. This movement takes on a wide range of social justice issues and brings a gender lens to all of them. I think we’re headed in the right direction, but we need to continue to interrogate how gender stereotyping and gender essentialism holds us back from this goal.
Sounds great, right?
But then, in response to this comment:
I’m a bit worried that the abandonment of gendered identity may also mean the abandonment of trans people, but I couldn’t agree more that feminis-m/ting needs to take a more nuanced view of gender as a whole.
The author writes this:
Definitely not advocating for a non-gendered or gender-less world. Gender is fun, and sexy, but a lot of the biological & essentialist ideas about gender (both positive and negative) keep feminism from achieving its full potential. Maybe it’s utopian, but I want everyone to be able to freely choose and express their gender identity, and not have those choices or expressions limit or over-determine their lives.
Gender is not fun. Gender is not sexy. Gender is a patriarchy imposed repression of who people actually are.
People often say that they are being really progressive by breaking “out of the gender binary.” Somehow, having a penis and wearing a skirt and calling oneself queer is an act of smashing the patriarchy.
No, it’s not.
A man who does things that society deems “feminine” is undermining patriarchy (not necessarily with intention) by engaging in activities that society sees as beneath him (by virtue of being feminine) and calling into question the claim that men are people who do X and not Y. A man who does these things and calls himself “genderqueer” is not challenging the system. He is vigorously nodding that men are people who do one set of things and not another (and women are people who do a different set of things and don’t do another). Rather than broaden the definition of what it means to be a man, he preserves the male category (which men work so hard to do) and instead makes up a new one. That doesn’t smash the patriarchy. It doesn’t question male domination. It doesn’t present any new challenge. Society already knows how to deal with gender nonconformity, through violence, alienation, and correction (see also: transgenderism).
But what is really perplexing is that the same people who claim to be progressive by existing “outside” the gender binary simultaneously say that gender is a thing and it should exist, and even that is a great thing that it does.
Gender is inherently oppressive and restrictive. When I say inherent, I mean that there is no manifestation of gender, in no period of time, no matter how progressive, that can be conceived of as liberal and unconfining. Because gender is, by definition, a socially defined construct of what men and women are “like.”
All people have a wide variety of personality traits. Let’s say we have a person named Ginny:
Ginny is described as warm, friendly, helpful, independent, and analytical. The traits “independent” and “analytical” are viewed as “masculine” because (not “and”) they are traits associated with males and not females. The traits “warm” and “helpful” are “feminine” because they are associated with females and not males. “Femininity” and “Masculinity” are not Real things; they are beliefs society has about the ways men and women are. Theoretically speaking, a culture could have as the set of “feminine” traits aggressiveness, control, dominating, independent. Another theoretical culture could define “femininity” as helpful and understanding, but also aggressive and forceful.
A gendered society is one that says women (females) are like a certain way and men (males) are like a different way. These groups cannot overlap 100%, otherwise they are no longer categories. Having categories outside the binary doesn’t in any way challenge that. It uses the restrictive, narrow definitions of what men and women are as anchors, these alternative categories being defined in relation to the restrictive, narrowly defined categories.
Gender cannot be defined in a way that doesn’t make declarations about what people in sex-based categories are “like.” Even people “outside” the gender binary are still defining themselves in relation to attributes assigned to people in sex-based categories.
A genderless society is one where nobody makes any inferences about a person on the basis of their genitals/physiological sex. There is no association between mannerisms and style of dress, and there is no association between style of dress or mannerisms with genitals/physiological sex.
And for some reason, people “outside the gender binary” or those demanding to be recognized as a member of a different category, really, really don’t like the idea of that. Neither, coincidentally, does patriarchy. Failing to make a distinction between a man and a woman is a severe offense, both to transgender people and to sexist society.