Recently, there has been much talk about Caitlyn Jenner and her transition from a male body to life as a woman. Amidst all of this conversation, I have come across the occasional misuse of pronouns assigned to Caitlyn. While I am inclined to argue for the correct use of pronouns regarding Caitlyn’s gender preference and performance, I am also inclined to discuss the issue of gender categorization. So please excuse me for a moment while I blow apart the social fabric…
This topic is a loaded gun because there is a lot of content in here and I tried to splay it out as fast as my fingers could catch up with my thoughts (a bullet right through the pages):
To start you off, Judith Butler (“Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire”) argues that the political, dominant ideology of gender creates a set of restrictions on what it is to be a woman. The political structure only extends so far as one specific definition of “woman”. Conversely, there is very little agreement on what constitutes the category of women. Due to the nature of protection by the state, “juridical power inevitably ‘produces’ what it claims merely to represent” (Butler 2). So then the law defines women according to a set number of characteristics, while excluding those others who may occupy masculine characteristics or be born of the male sex. “[T]he political problem that feminism encounters [is] the assumption that the term women denotes a common identity” (Butler 3). This assumes that there is one universal femininity, with a universal set of assumptions about oppression as experienced by women. While women in Western culture may feel oppressed by the lack of equality within the patriarchal structure, women in other cultures may see some sort of foundational functionalism set within the structure. Our perceptions of a category are unique to the context in which it is found. The practice of giving a set of definitions and characteristics to both masculinities and femininities creates an exclusive hegemony of ideals. Representation of a gender then equates to misrepresentation.
So how can we find stability in defining each gender? It is important not to have these preconceived notions of how gender is to be categorized. When we draw social (gender) and biological (sex) apart, it becomes entirely possible for a female to become a man and a male to become a woman. Thus, disrupting the representation of gender. However, with the continuation to refer to sex and gender as interchangeable terms, it is entirely possible for “sex” to be “as culturally constructed as gender… perhaps it was always already gender” (Butler 7). Bodies adopt significance once they are categorized into a gender, which is often based on their sex. Sex, then, is just as socially constructed as gender. For the majority of people, the cultural ascription of gender upon a body makes sex synonymous to gender.
Additionally, the ability to alter one’s sex (via hormone treatment and genital surgery) adds the ‘social’ to the biological (see trans* bodies and, loosely related, the concept of the cyborg – has anyone ever read “He, She, and It” by Marge Piercy?). Some, if not most, of the genetic material that comes along with sex are socially confined. i.e.:
– Bras are social conventions made to cover up “sexual” body parts.
– Penis enlargement = hyper-masculinity, Labia reduction surgery = hyper-femininity
– Gendering babies based on sex, leading to social phenomena such as baby showers, gendered clothing, and specified expectations in accordance with gender.
From the moment you are born, a whole world of possibilities opens up. But from the moment your sex is identified and you are gendered in accordance, half of that whole world of possibilities is set upon with restrictions based upon social norms of gender. “Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time” (Butler 16).
Arguably then, “gender is performance in the sense of a copy for which there is no original” (Marcus 197). Drawing on Butler’s theory, gender is merely a performance. There is no original man or woman that we draw upon in regards to our behaviour. Gender is always fluid and how we adopt our gender (or not) is often imposed upon us by a system of institutional relations, from government to market actors to media to family to schools and so on. Gender is a performance based off of continuous copies over time. Butler offers an interesting insight into heterosexuality: Rather than it being an essentialist notion, it is a part of a heterosexual matrix which presupposes that same-sex identification is neatly tied into opposite-sex desire. “Heterosexuality [is] the melancholic mimicry of a lost but unmourned homosexuality: a heterosexual woman becomes the woman she cannot have, a heterosexual man seeks to embody the man he is barred from desiring” (Marcus 197). This makes it entirely possible for bodies to take shape out of the norms of what constitutes sex. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are thus shown to mutually exist, not be on the opposite ends of a sexuality spectrum.
Thus, we come to a problem with categorization: The Identity Crisis
Queer theorists criticize the multitude of categories and classifications that emerge to define people’s sexuality. Such categories are too restrictive on sexual expression. Defining one’s self as homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, and so on limits the scope of one’s sexual possibilities. To identify as homosexual and experience attraction to the opposite sex or the non-binary creates an identity crisis. Being “straight” and experiencing attraction to the same sex or non-binary creates the same identity crisis. “Most human beings are not exclusively straight or gay; nor does bisexuality, which connotes an even split between two orientations, adequately describe most people’s experiences” (Marcus 204). When people limit themselves to these categories and classifications, it impacts our minds and our bodies when we are confronted with challenges to these identifications. “[S]exuality can mean affect, kinship, social reproduction, the transmission of property, the division between public and private, and the construction of race and nationality” (Marcus 205). Society is so rigidly bound to the dominant conception of heterosexuality, biological reproduction, and the nuclear family that queerness has merely becomes its opposite. Yet, queerness occupies so much more than homosexuality, nonprocreative reproduction, and non-nuclear families. By creating and abiding by such rigid categories, limitations are enacted by the individual who adopts them and by the dominant society that imposes them. Thus, creating an identity crisis for those who fall out of the norm (which is A LOT of people).
So the ability to categorize is a double-edged sword, assigning meaning to our lives, but also excluding those who do not fit into that definition. As my college professor always said, “society does not exist inside a vacuum,” meaning we cannot ascribe one set of meanings / categories/ definitions to an entire population of people. It is important to keep a loose grip on these categories because they are not definitive. They are simply located in this time and in this place.