Friday, April 11, 2008
"Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer" by Riki Wilchins
This is the sort of book that I probably wouldn't have read had I not been required to. I've had bad experiences with academic identity politics in the past, and postmodern theory seemed to attack pretty much everything I stood for. However, this book was eye opening. Certainly to anyone with academic credentials in this field, it would be much too simplistic. However, for a layman like myself it was invaluable. In particular, it helped me see how the theory I had always detested supports conclusions I already agreed with. I imagine that everyone will read this book in different ways. Gender identity is at once intensely personal as well as political. This review will be more about me than most, but it should show some of the ways in which this short and easily readable book is thought-provoking. (I apologize in advance for the autobiographical bits here, but these are some things I'd been wanting to get off my chest for awhile, and this book is the perfect excuse.)
Let me start with a brief outline of the book: the author begins with the history of the feminist and gay movements, describing how they made their advances and what compromises they made to do so. She discusses how people with transgender and other queer identities, people who can't be easily shoehorned into "female" or "gay" boxes, got sidelined during this process. She discusses how postmodern theory supported attacks on the prevailing cultural constructions of gender. She discusses how cases out on the margins of our binary labels, such as hermaphroditic children, show the absurdities of our cultural constructions. She also mentions the problems that postmodernism cause for what we now think of as "traditional" identity politics: when we break down these constructions, why should we have a women's movement separate from men? Why have a black movement separate from other races? She then goes into some of the history of her own political efforts, through GenderPAC, to widen the discourse away from labels such as "woman" "gay" "transsexual" or "black" into a more encompassing discussion of the problems with gender.
By personalizing the discussion with anecdotes from her own life, and by using straight-forward language, Wilchins helps us understand the issues. She talks about confusing the heck out of sales people when she moves from men's shoes to women's underwear to men's socks in a department store. She talks about getting whistled at by guys when out rollerblading, being identified as "he" when playing basketball with some guys, and strolling down the street as one half of a lesbian couple when out on a date - all in one day. She watches people struggling to put her into one of the comfortable gender boxes (I finally decided I could use "she" to describe her because that's the pronoun the author bio on the back cover uses) when she simply doesn't fit either one. She also doesn't fit in either of the gay/straight binary categories either: as far as I can tell (and now I'm tempted to pick up her autobiography Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender) she's biologically male, but identifies herself as psychologically female, but is sexually attracted to women. So is she gay or straight? Well, neither.
This is the conclusion that I've always agreed with. The binary notion of gender, while good enough and convenient enough most of the time, never quite seemed adequate to me. This is largely due to my biography, I imagine. People generally have no problem identifying me as a female, thanks in part to my deliberate choice to have long hair. They more often have trouble identifying me as an adult, due to my "slim" (i.e. flat-chested) figure. However, in many ways everything I actually do is more "male." I'm a physicist and an an engineer. I play role-playing games, I read science fiction, I fence, I rock-climb, I ride a motorcycle. I dress in jeans, men's shirts, and boots 90% of the time. (Once upon a time I wondered if I were transvestite - who could tell?) Once I was having lunch with some co-workers (all male), and described kicking out a cabinet door when I was frustrated. They looked at each other, and one of them said "Dude, you're totally like a guy!" I find it very easy relate to guys, and I used to find women a bit scary to be friends with (thanks to my youthful incompetence at schoolgirl emotional blackmail tactics and some unstable early female acquaintances). On the other hand, I'm not exactly like my male engineering counterparts either: I'm more talkative, I describe things in terms of people and personalities, I enjoy writing and I'm proud of my communication skills. So while I never strongly identified as "female," I also couldn't really identify as "male" either, especially when I do clearly fit the biological "female" box and generally the sexual "straight" box.
I want to add that I never felt particularly victimized or oppressed by this state of affairs. Sure I got teased a lot in grade school, but I assumed that a) that was normal; and b) that it had more to do with being smart than being odd for a girl. Besides, through my elementary school years I had particularly good teachers who were thrilled to teach a girl who was into math and science. When I encountered teachers later who did not share their enthusiasm, that early grounding made it easier to bull through. Also, throughout school, I may have been often teased by my peers, but I could always find supportive adults around. Wilchins indicates in her book that the teasing queer kids go through is a horrible problem, and hopes that maybe one day it could stop. I agree it's a huge problem, especially given the suicide rate of queer teens, but I doubt that we can stop children from being mean to each other. What's needed is for all these kids to be able to find supportive adults - that's a goal that we could someday reach.
As I moved through school and work, I appreciated the feminist movement: I'm glad I can be a physicist and an engineer and not feel like a failure for not having babies. However, in college I worked for three years as the web designer of the Women's Studies Dept., and I learned that academic feminists and I don't see eye-to-eye. To me, it seemed that they felt all science was patriarchal, and thus evil, and thus women should never be scientists. This did not seem helpful to me at all, struggling as I was with my physics degree and one misogynist adviser (an anomaly in an otherwise generally wonderful department, I hasten to add). What I read about postmodernists seemed to reinforce that opinion: Science is evil, there is no truth, there is no objective reality, etc. Also, I got to experience the joy of the rhetorical tactic: "You don't agree with me? Well, you must just be a tool of the patriarchy, you assimilated woman!" Bleah. So I took advantage of the political advances of feminism, and tried to ignore all the self-identified "feminists" who seemed to want me out of the engineering firm and back in the kitchen, being nurturing and feeling and stuff, to really be a "woman."
So, this book finally helped me see how postmodern theory (pomo) can work without rejecting everything I believe in. As Wilchins describes it, pomo does not reject facts, and does not reject an objective reality. What it does reject is the privileged position that Science used to claim in arguments. To put it another way: there are facts about the universe that we can ascertain, and both modernism and pomo agree with that. However, modernism often took whatever scientists said about the world and said "Well, you can't argue with that. It's SCIENCE!" Pomo reminds us that after we get the facts, everything we do with them is human-determined, not reality-determined. We organize, we interpret, we theorize, we pass laws, we write grant proposals. All of that relates to the facts in some way, but may not be determined by the facts. Most of those post-fact activities are influenced by our culture, and can be critiqued in the same way as other cultural constructions. To give some examples: no one is interested in arguing about a thermometer reading; "Water boils at 212 degrees Farenheit" is a basically factual statement (although awareness of the history of such things can be interesting). At the other extreme, while it is an indisputable fact that we can make nuclear weapons, the decisions to make them and use them are undeniably political. Less obviously, the need to classify people into binary genders, either male or female, is also cultural/political. To the majority of us who are solidly in one category or the other, it doesn't seem that way. But for intersex people who are on the margins between the two, it absolutely matters. Doctors who perform surgery on intersex ("hermaphrodite") children, while acting with the best of intentions, aren't performing some objective act of SCIENCE, they're enforcing the cultural norms of gender identity on children for whom that may not be appropriate. So while I used to feel that postmodernism was rejecting any factual understanding about the universe, which I feel would be totally useless, the way Wilchins describes it makes sense. It's not facts that are under dispute, it's what we humans do with those facts that can and should be argued with.
Aside from brevity and readability, another strength of Wilchins' style is that her writing feels descriptive, not prescriptive. When she talks about cultural enforcement of gender norms, it doesn't sound like she's blaming us for doing it and insisting we do something else (while not defining what "something else" would be). I've encountered that tone before and it always gets my hackles up. Instead, she is describing how many people perceive the world, what people do in reality, and how it affects people. She's saying "here's how it is and these are the consequences" instead of shrieking "how could all you stupid sheep do this!" That tone makes it much easier to listen to what she's really saying, instead of reacting emotionally and defensively.
So, this book was completely eye-opening to me. It also gave me more understanding of some things I'd heard from friends: for instance that transsexual people have had real trouble with both the traditional feminist and gay communities. And it defines some things as gender related that I wouldn't have thought of before: like male-on-male workplace harassment, usually because some guy decides to pick on another man who isn't "macho" enough. I'll certainly be evaluating news stories a little differently after reading this. Wilchins' core argument is that even traditional identity rights advocates have ended up reinforcing the prevailing binary definition of gender, and that's too constricting. It breaks down at the margins when we examine people like herself, intersex individuals, and transsexuals, or even just people like me who don't fit neatly in our otherwise straight-forward gender categories. Individuals are way too complex to be hemmed in by overly simplistic categorizations of gender, race, sexual orientation, or anything else. I already agreed with that, but now I understand it better both intellectually and emotionally.
Now, I'm sure that there are some issues here. For instance, given how much more practical her view of postmodern theory is than any I'd previously read, I'm not sure that an academic philosopher would agree with her presentation. That's OK by me, it's something I can live with. But it may not be "correct." (Although how a pomo philosopher would make that argument is beyond me.) Also, when describing some of the schisms and conflicts within the early incarnation of GenderPAC, Wilchins' is telling her side of the story. It may be that people on the other side would tell a very different story. And traditional feminist and gay rights advocates might have a different take on the history. And one thing isn't completely clear: what should we do about it? What's the course of action going forward? Can any collective action actually mitigate the problems she defines? So this isn't a complete study. However, it's not meant to be. It's an introduction for people who aren't well versed in these issues, and as such, for me at least, it was a huge success.