gender theory seems misguided and harmful

Lately it seems fashionable to acknowledge or embrace or espouse alternative theories of gender. The more extreme liberal contingent of social network users whose activity I follow have been frequently posting content about gender and sexual identity. These essays seek at a minimum to establish that the so-called gender binary is variously a myth, a remnant of former times, an unjust impediment to progressive modes of self-expression; and in extreme cases, a pox on our houses, an obnoxiously privileged slight, a pernicious evil that purveyors grow increasingly exasperated of explaining to their less enlightened friends and acquaintances. From what I’ve read and seen though, this neo-gender movement seems itself to be a poorly conceived tempest in a semantic teacup which has been so badly articulated that it has been basically impossible to proceed to its logical conclusion. Taken together with the self-congratulatory tone of much of the literature, this suggests to me that gender theory is more about self-aggrandizing liberality than serious science or activism.

That’s obviously quite a claim, and some of it is derived from a holistic analysis over years of the bits and pieces of the field to which I’ve been exposed. For the moment, and with a renewed sense of significance given the recent news from India, I’m inspired by just a few serious attempts to explain the phenomenon that I’ve seen. A friend of mine shared this article about ‘queer parenting’, and another shared this cartoon about gender identity. They are both interesting reads that I recommend, but I believe they both suffer to greater or lesser degree from a general disorganized vagueness about the critical details and a grating refusal to clearly define terms.

The article begins strongly (emphasis mine):

A lot has been said and written about queer parenting in recent years, but most of this commentary ignores the opportunity to actually engage queer theory and instead simply equates queer parenting with LGBT people raising children… At the very least, we can conceptualize queer parenting as a way of relating to children centered on [at least] two possible interventions… 1) first, delinking “mother” and “father” subjectivity from female and male bodies; and 2) second, cultivating children’s genderqueerness.

With the motivating example of the author’s partner taking the role of a “female dad”, the primary function of this terminological re-imagining is explained: “a queer approach to parenting recognizes differences that have long been associated with biological sex and detaches them from male and female bodies.” I think this is the right approach: a parent should be able to perform any parenting task in any style he or she wishes regardless of what body type that parent happens to be. But why hold onto the gendered terminology at all then?

The central issue is the meaning of the terms “mother” and “father.” The author seems to think that these words are more closely associated with parenting tasks and styles than with the body type of the parent. This appears to be at odds with currently accepted definition and etymology which suggest that mother primarily means “female parent.” As a result, I think the author’s departure from common usage is at best deeply confusing, but at worst easily mistaken as obnoxious countercultural agitation. Even in the best case, so much is lost in translation that I question whether there is any utility in trying to redefine the terms under this body-delinked approach.

In defense of the author, she does state that “our ultimate goal may be to imagine parenting models that transcend the mother/father binary altogether”. But she seems to believe for reasons unstated that this isn’t achievable now. Even if she’s right about that, reusing existing binary terminology in an unintuitive way doesn’t seem like the best move in the direction of transcending the binary outright. Actually, it seems counterproductive to that goal through preserving inherently binary associations, and phrases like “female dad” are more likely to elicit eye-rolling than support.

This segues well to the cartoon I referenced earlier, which makes the interesting claim that gender is solely a social construct that has nothing to do with genitals. The cartoon’s conversational tone even explicitly anticipates the subsequent conclusion that it seems unclear why anyone would bother to use the term at all. This question isn’t answered; instead we get a circular assertion that social constructs are inherently valuable and hence so is gender. Amusingly, the examples offered of other useful social constructs are rock-solid conventions like marriage and college graduation status.

The cartoon’s main goal is to convince us that not having a gender is a “valid” or acceptable state and that there are actually many genders to choose from. But what are these additional or alternative genders? “Boy, girl, genderfluid, nutrois, agender, and many more” seems like an impressive supporting list until these terms are explored.

Based on this and this, “genderfluid” implies an optionally dynamic mix between “boy” and “girl.” But then any such mix isn’t a distinct gender; rather it exemplifies the notion that gender assignment exists as a continuum between the two established genders. This notion seems obvious enough to me in the age of sexual liberation that it might not even need to be said, but the important point is that it isn’t a distinct state worthy of a name or a peer relationship with the established genders. At best, it is firm but vague refusal to engage with gender identification.

More irritatingly, neutrois apparently means not having a gender, so then definitionally it is not a gender. Agender means what you’d expect: not having a gender. How this differs from neutrois isn’t clear to me, but either way, it still isn’t a gender. And all this analysis is possible without even having established what, if anything, gender actually means! It would seem that this cartoon is using ambiguous or duplicate terms, along with a sloppy “and many more”, to hide the fact that it isn’t making a case for any additional genders at all. Instead of entreaties to respect or embrace these hazy notions for the sake of validation, the question should become figuring out what, if anything, it all means. At best, there’s a good argument that one should be able to meaningfully claim that they are neither a boy nor a girl.

Once again we seem to have a basic terminological problem: what does it mean to be a “boy”? Maybe this simple question isn’t being posed because everyone knows what boys and girls are, but that’s a terrible position to take if you’re trying to convince a sometimes surly majority of how backward they are about an evidently nuanced theory that you’ve just invented. If there actually is some third (or fourth or fifth) distinct gender, it will be a lot easier to recognize it if it were to be compared in explicit terms with the existing two. In fact, it seems imperative to the process of establishing new genders to be explicit about how they differ from existing genders.

It’s maybe no wonder then that there is a bit of a backlash against this half-assed embrace of “genderqueerness.” Kirsten Dunst recently pulled off the unchallenging task of making an ass of herself with an interview for the British tabloid Harpers Bazaar:

And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armour. I’m sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s how relationships work.

The predictably enraged response from the left was swift. Writing for Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan concludes “Kirsten Dunst Thinks Ladies In Relationships Should Wife the Fuck Out” and notes that Dunst “is not paid to write gender theory so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she’s kind of dumb about it.” Yes, Dunst is kind of dumb, and Jezebel isn’t known for constructive criticism or well-meaning analysis, but that response is telling. Who is paid to “write gender theory”? Apparently not Ryan either since this would have been a lovely opportunity to at least have hyperlinked to something worthwhile on the topic. Instead, it becomes the most off-putting example yet of self-congratulatory elitism.

Dunst’s comments also underscore the severity of the semantic confusion which seemingly besets every attempt to rigorously explore gender theory and has been the theme of this analysis. Unless we accept that she’s keen to defend the truth of a tautological statement, the first instance of “man” must have a different meaning than the second. I think I have enough context to assume what she’s getting at though, which is that one time she means “biological male” and one time she means “individual with a traditionally masculine personality”. Even this clarification is ambiguous since reasonable people will almost certainly disagree on what is implied by traditionally masculine, but for our purposes I think we can grudgingly agree that we know what she means.

I further believe I know exactly how she intends that substitution to be inferred: a biological male needs to be an individual with a traditionally masculine personality. This follows from the grammar: a metaphor under this construction subordinately describes an objective condition with a subjective one and, as we’ve seen, “man” more closely means “biological male”. Also it strikes me that this is simply the likelier intent. But consider the alternative negative sense: an individual with a traditionally masculine personality needs to be a biological male. In other words, when assigning masculine gender roles, women need not apply. Both formulations cry out for justification in the context of universal suffrage and civil rights equality, but Dunst’s simplistic rhetorical remark will no doubt resonate with gender conservatives.

It seems there are three ways to proceed here: maintain a tight coupling between the sex of bodies and established gender roles; preserve the gender roles but dissolve the tight coupling of sex to role; or dissolve both the roles and the coupling. Gender activists appear to be embracing the second option, either through overloading existing terminology or amending a flawed gender partitioning through a disorganized redistricting. Isn’t it apparent that the third option represents a goal which is simultaneously superior and attainable? Roles are just prescriptions for behaviour, and in a free society those prescriptions ought to be kept to a minimum. Much work has been done to decouple sex from behavioural expectations or limitations: women can vote and be professional breadwinners; men can nurture children and cry at films. The path forward is to continue to break apart the gender binary wholesale so that individuals have increased access to choice. Attempting to salvage antiquated notions of gender roles can only serve to block that path.

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