The influence of poststructuralism on feminist debates has made earlier debates around identity, sexuality and representation problematic. However, as Patton (1993:82) notes, the poststructuralist debate itself came under attack from gender theorists such as Judith Butler (1990a), Donna Haraway (1991) and Sandra Harding (1986), who ‘sought to take the anti-essentialist arguments all the way down’ (Patton 1993:82). As Patton comments, these theorists have ‘demonstrated that even the supposed biological referents of gender (“sex” in genotype) are themselves

socially constructed’ (ibid,). These two areas of debate—the feminist poststructuralist critique of identity and the subsequent debates emerging from the ‘gender theorists’ within feminism – need to be examined.

Second wave feminist theorising focused on the social construction of gender categories and drew a distinction between ‘sex’, which was taken to be universal and biological, and ‘gender’ which was understood as culturally variable but, as Bailey (1993:100) notes, still at some level, fundamental: ‘Because these gender differences between male and female roles are then seen as social rather than biological, they are changeable by human agency.’ This distinction between a conception of a biological ‘eternal nature’ and a socially constructed model of gender was increasingly challenged by ‘feminists, poststructuralists and philosophers and historians of science’ {bid,). As Bailey comments, the sociocultural and historical characteristics of both sex as a biological category as well as gender became a central issue in the debate.

The work of Michel Foucault, particularly his ‘genealogy of sexuality and sex’ as outlined in The History of Sexuality (198 la), has contributed to feminist debates in the area. There are a number of dimensions of Foucault’s work more generally which have been valuable in advancing feminist debates. These include: his disruption of fixed and stable categories of sexuality and sex; his conceptualisation of new forms of power; his relationship between power and pleasure; and his articulation of the link between resistance and identity.

Bailey (1993:102) claims that, while Foucault does not examine the relationship of gender to bodies and identity directly, his analysis lends itself to these debates. Foucault understands bodies as related ‘to the production, transmission, reception and legitimation of knowledge about sexuality and sex’. His rejection of ‘transhistorical’ categories undermines traditional conceptions of ‘the cultural relationship between women, bodies and sexuality’ (ibid,). This position challenges feminist essentialist positions around a conception of a ‘transhistorical female essence’, and his genealogical account of bodies renders incoherent a conception of ‘bodily vulnerability of women to men across time and culture’ (Bailey 1993:106).

Foucault’s genealogical critique has implications for conceptions of identity. Bailey (1993:105) contends that ‘by documenting the discontinuities of history, he dispels the shadow of a monolithic, transcendent culture from which marginalised groups and individuals must wrest the rights to their “identities”’. We will return to this point shortly.

Bardo (1993a) shows how Foucault’s History of Sexuality articulates Foucault’s theory of new forms of power, including ‘discipline’, ‘normalisation’ and ‘biopower’, which explain how power and identity are related. His conception of power in his later work (see Chapter 3) understood power as productive and plural. Bordo (1993a:192) maintains that this productive conception of power can be seen in ‘new forms of culture and subjectivity, new openings for potential resistance to emerge’. As Foucault (1983) claims, where there is power there is also resistance:

Jana Sawicki (1988:186) points out that Foucault’s notions of power are eminently compatible with feminist understandings of the personal as political’ (Bailey 1993:115).

Before going on to assess Foucault’s analysis of power, resistance and the proliferation of identities, his relationship between power and pleasure can also be seen as having also important implications for feminist politics. Bordo (1993a: 192) claims that a Foucauldian framework of power and pleasure do not cancel one another and that such a model facilitates an understanding of compliance as well as contestation and resistance. She argues that women may themselves contribute to ‘the perpetuation of female subordination…by participating in industries and cultural practices’ (ibid.) which contribute to their own lack of power. In this context Bordo draws on the Foucauldian concept of ‘docile bodies’; that is, women may experience an illusion of power, while being rendered ‘docile’. However, she shows that this ‘very “docility” can have consequences that are personally liberating and/or culturally transforming’ (ibid.). She provides two examples of such instances:

the woman who goes on a rigorous weight-training programme in order to achieve a currently stylish look may discover that her new muscles also enable her to assert herself more forcefully at work. Or…‘feminine’ decorativeness may function ‘subversively’ in professional contexts which are dominated by highly masculinist norms (such as academia).


Bordo thus confirms Foucault’s contention that power relations are ‘unstable’ and that ‘resistance is perpetual and hegemony precarious’.

Foucault’s theorisation of the relationship between bodies and power highlights the problematic nature of feminism’s earlier analysis of ‘pleasure’. As Bordo (1993a:193) observes, second wave feminist discourses which put a premium on the oppressiveness of femininity ‘could not be expected to give much due to the pleasures of shaping and decorating the body or their subversive potential’. Linked to this, she says, has been the implications of Foucault’s work for conceptualisations of representation: ‘Foucault has been attractive to feminists for his later insistence that cultural representation is ubiquitous and perpetual’ (ibid.). Bordo claims that Foucault has been of interest to two ‘waves’ of Foucauldian-inspired feminism: the first wave emphasised concepts such as ‘ “discipline”, “docility”, “normalisation” and “bio-power”’, while a second emphasised elements of deconstruction including ‘“intervention”, “contestation”, “subversion”’ (ibid.).

The relationship between power and resistance in Foucault’s work has implications for conceptualisations of identity. Bailey (1993:116), drawing on Foucault, claims that his contention that ‘all discourses give rise to resistance offers a more fluid, more partial “identity”.’1 Bailey drawing on Sawicki (1988:186­190) notes that Foucault’s conception of ‘identity as historically constructed’ is compatible with an analysis of identity by lesbian feminists. However, the reconstruction of identities which has emerged from lesbian feminism has been formulated as an ‘identity polities’, based on a ‘hierarchical distinction from other identities’, such as gay men. Sawicki claims that this model limits the potential for alliances between lesbians and gay men, which could reinforce and ‘strengthen local struggles’. Bailey (1993:116) highlights the way that Foucault’s conceptualisation of ‘“homosexuality” as an identity constructed through the hegemonic discourses on sexuality and sex has exploded the confines of this limited identity, constituted by, and enabling, a gay community which encompasses many other political identities and differences’.