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.


Cheryl said...

OK, another book I obviously need to read. Thank you!

Karen Burnham said...

I have to give credit to Wendy Pearson for recommending this: it was part of her reading list for the SF Masterclass in June.

Marianne said...

Interesting review. I like the way you personalized the review with some insights into your own gender experience. I not much of a "girly girl" myself, and that's always been a bit funny to me too.

Anonymous said...

Karen, I'm definitely looking forward to getting to know you at the SF master class. We have a lot in common, even though we're a generation apart.

My experience has been in law rather than the hard sciences, but it has been very similar. I've always been very bookish (and very smart), and ostracized accordingly. I was a debater throughout high school and college, which was a male dominated activity (to say the least). I got used to being the only woman in the room -- so much so that I didn't even notice the one night, after a day of college debate, when we wound up in a gay bar for a drink afterwards (a bar chosen in error, obviously).

I never wanted children, and I've always hated being female. Not in the sense of feeling like I was born in the wrong body, but in the sense that my whole life would have been a lot easier had I been born male: success would have come to me much more easily, I'm convinced. I got very tired of passes from male lawyers, condescending comments from other male lawyers, and so on. Having a very female body has never helped.

I've yet to start my reading (bad Terry!), but you've given me a kick in the pants with this post. Thanks!

Karen Burnham said...

Terry- thanks for your comments! It's nice to know this sort of thing isn't terribly unique. Probably, it's pretty common. Speaking of the generation gap, I think my mother got caught by the stricter social expectations of yesteryear. She's a lot like me - really smart, kind of introverted, really competent and impatient with inefficiency. She always wanted to be a serious historian or archaeologist, but because of the gender expectations of the time, she ended up a housewife. It's really sad, because she's a deeply unhappy woman, and if she'd been born now I think she wouldn't be.

Although you've had one problem I never have: getting hit on. I think that between being petite and androgynous and being an engineer, I fall into everyone's "asexual" category, and it's never been an issue for me. It helps that most engineers wouldn't know how to make a pass at a woman if you gave them an instruction manual. I can imagine it being a much bigger problem with other professionals, and getting old *really* fast.

I've read two more of Wendy's recommendations: "Hopeful Monsters" and "A Real Girl." Neither of them were as resonant with me, although they're both fine. BTW: the "Cognitive Agenesis" story is not in a book called "Render Unto Chaos." It's in an anthology titled "The James Tiptree Jr. Awards Anthology Vol. II" by the same editors.

I think we're staying in the same hotel in London. Will you be staying around after the Masterclass? My husband and I will be there for another week and a half or so to see the sights. I'm really looking forward to this!

Anonymous said...

Yes, Karen, we're getting there a few days early and staying a few days after. We'd love to spend some extra time with you and your husband and get to know you. Gary Wolfe tells me that you and I are the only two Americans in the class, by the way, so between your Texas accent and my Chicago one, we'll definitely be noticeable.

I'm pretty darned excited myself!

Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,

Thanks for the thoughtful review. I love that it generated all those comments. "-) I agree with you that I did not really offer a path forward on "what to do about it," except what I myself am doing about it. Partly, this is my natural postmodern shyness about telling everyone what the new TRUTH is that we all must acknowledge. Probably there are many things that must be done. Partly, it's that I think we (or at least I) don't know entirely what to do yet. While postmodernism may be a great toolkit for analyzing and deconstructing gender, it lacks any tools for constructing something new. Intentionally, since it sees new answers and wholes as oppressive. This has left gender rights with a lot of questions and not too many answers. I think we are still in a proces of discovery, in which and the destination is still hidden. But my, what an interesting (and necessary!) journey.

Riki Wilchins

PS. I really do hope you try "Read My Lips." "Queer Theory" was my serious textbook-like effort. I was able to have a lot more fun with RML -- much more sarcastic - humourous - personal. BTW: There are also a lot of great new voices the "GenderQueer" anthology.

Karen Burnham said...

Riki - Thanks so much for reading my review! I'm glad that you got to see how much your book impacted me.

I will absolutely try to get my hands on a copy of "Read My Lips." Since I've become more aware of these issues, I've been looking for memoirs as a way to understand them more deeply and personally, and I'm looking forward to reading yours.

Mindy Goorchenko said...

I really enjoyed your review! I thought you might find this article interesting:

I, too, enjoyed reading more about your personal experiences. It took me many years to let go of the nagging voices inside my head from my high-powered female relatives telling me I needed to be more and do more than "just" be a mother and wife. I still have to do that in regards to adopting or fostering children in the future, because most of our family think we have more than enough children.

Seeing them grow has been very interesting. One of my boys has always been extremely feminine. He used to love to wear his sister's dresses and princess sandals and had a very effeminate nature. It has since subsided a lot and now he's just exceptionally sweet.

He reminded me that girls don't monopolize the sweetness market. He has a place in the family and different siblings to relate to, and as time goes on, he continues to establish his individuality. Thankfully I'm married to a man who does not buy into clearly defined gender identities. A boy like ours would have trouble with a parent who did.

Karen Burnham said...

Mindy- Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this review. I saw that Atlantic article as well. I think it did a great job of capturing the confusion surrounding this issue, and the difficulty of making life-altering choices so early.

I'm glad that you & your kids are doing well, and making the lives that you want to live, and not those forced on you by others. That's worth a lot.