Beyond the linguistic turn
‘Masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are not clear and fixed opposing identities based on biological sex but shifting categories, defined in relationship to each other, that order social relations. To think thus is to contemplate the possibilities and promise of causing ‘gender trouble’ (Butler, 1990). Sex/gender may bring us into being as individuals of whom others can make sense, but if our very embodiment is fashioned around social fictions about what it means to be feminine or masculine, then those embodied ways of being are open to change. However, there are problems in considering how such change is possible especially because the sex/gender divide is powerfully regulated by the idea that heteronorma – tivity is the ‘natural’ and necessary foundation of human societies. Butler (1993: x) does not wish to suggest that individuals can voluntarily select how they do their gender. In fact she does not want to think about people doing gender, but about how gender as a system of meanings constitutes us as feminine or masculine individuals. In order to not make
this seem overly deterministic, she conceives of gender as a masquerade involving the citation of gender norms in line with heterosexual imperatives. It is possible to think of this as a collective and relational exercise (see Connell, 1995; 2002), rather than a matter of individuals doing or performing gender.
Any collective or relational situation is basically constituted by individuals presenting themselves to and judging others in gendered ways (for example, Goffman, 1979; West and Zimmerman, 1987). The question is: where does gender come from? Symbolic interactionists tend to see gender as a pre-existing role, or set of scripts, that we perform, with slight variations. They note, but do not challenge, social prescriptions that those thought to be of the female sex will behave in a feminine manner and that ‘males’ will do masculinity. What Butler proposes is that it is possible to much more radically detach femininity from femaleness and masculinity from maleness. Other queer theorists (see Jagose, 1996) agree that it is possible to create much more fluid gender identities that challenge the very heterosexual distinction between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ and highlight that sex is constructed as a binary but does not always exist as either female or maleness. In theory this seems possible, but many examples of people who cause ‘gender trouble’, such as drag queens, transvestites, and some transsexuals, do not seem to radically call into question what it means to be feminine or masculine, instead reinforcing quite conservative ideas about how to do gender (Garfinkel, 1967; Kessler and McKenna, 1978; Jeffreys, 1996; Seidman, 1994). Perhaps theorists need to think of better examples, returning for instance to look further at intersex individuals (see Fausto – Sterling, 2002b; Hird, 2004) and to what extent it is possible for them to occupy a ‘no-man’s’ (sic) land between the gender categories. But intellectual and political challenges remain.
As an intellectual exercise much current thinking on gender continues to worry away at the key questions dealt with in this book. What relationship, if any, is there between bodies and gender? To what extent are individuals gendered by the economic and social structures within which they live and with what results? What level of control, or choice, do people have about how they express gender? And crucially, why does being feminine continue to mean being likely to share less in the rewards and recognition society offers?
As a political exercise the challenge of some of the new thinking on gender is that it questions the very relevance of gender as a category for organizing social life. On the one hand this offers extremely radical opportunities to abolish binary distinctions between feminine and masculine, and to live out our lives in a freer expression of ourselves and our desires for other human beings. On the other hand, there are concerns that to disregard gender dichotomy will merely institute ways of being in which the feminine might disappear (Braidotti, 2001).The concern is that insisting on the artificiality of gender dichotomies is important, but can mean that attention strays from the material and embodied effects those dichotomies have on women’s and men’s lives (Howson, 2005).
Gender is a product of material conditions but is also a sometimes habituated, sometimes reflexive practice in which people engage in relation with each other. Symbolic interactionism provides a relational account of how embodiment is formed and ‘done’ in relation to others. Feminist appropriations of Bourdieu offer explanation of the importance of both material (as in economic) as well as symbolic processes in the social distinction of some kinds of bodies as more worthy of recognition. Bodies signify a range of tastes and tastes are exercized around different types of bodies. A taste for particular types of feminine or masculine bodies is exercized in different social fields, according to hierarchies of taste that usually privilege middle class forms of masculinity. However, there are questions about whether it is possible or desirable to talk about different ‘tastes’ without considering some to be ‘better’ than others. Although dismantling sexist, racist and classist valuations of embodiment may be liberating, declaring all tastes equally good may have its problems. Where does this leave us if, for example, we want to criticize an older man’s ‘taste’ for young girls? Conceptualizing sex/gender/sexuality as a ‘taste’ might only be fruitful if we consider to what extent tastes for particular forms of embodiment are likely to challenge sedimented patterns of domination which reinforce patriarchy and make feminine embodiment fraught with difficulties.
Gendered bodies are not simply the object of others’‘tastes’, but the instrument via which individuals experience and practice tastes. Gendered embodiment is the ingrained material and symbolic expression of tastes. Gender is an embodied practice done in relation to others, and done to us by others. We constantly shift our embodied doing of gender in accordance not only with structural demands, but with our imaginings of what ‘others’ expect. Structures regulate individuals according to gender, pushing them into manly sports or womanly careers, domestic caring or goal-oriented success in the public world. Yet not all men play rugby and not all women aspire to be domestic goddesses. Individuals engage with structures and with social expectations as they are represented via linguistic and non-linguistic communication with others (see Martin, 2003). Decisions are made about how to do gender within the constraints of a particular situation. There are limits on our freedom to ‘do’ gender in any way that takes our fancy, and the less privilege we have in terms of class and age and ethnic origin, the more constrained our choices are likely to be. When faced with severe limits and with constant reminders that others do not value them, those less privileged within hierarchies of gender (and class, ethnicity and more) may feel humiliated, but they may also feel angry. And it is this emotional reaction — both a response to, and located within, gendered embodiment — that offers the possibility of change. It does not have to be like this. There is no natural order that must be maintained. We have made gender and the inequalities that attend it and therefore it can be remade. There is not some utopian endpoint in which women and men will no longer be unequal or no longer even exist as categories. There is simply an ongoing struggle to relate to each other in more respectful ways. But this is a struggle worth getting up for in the mornings.
uthorised distribution forbidden.