Gender performativity for science geeks (aka: Let them wear drag)

September 8, 2010

In keeping with my self-appointed role as couples counselor for science and postmodernism, I’d like to say a few words about gender. Science geeks and other hard-nosed types don’t like the postmodern take on gender, according to which the behaviors that distinguish women from men are socially imposed, or constructed. Where’s the biology? Mo Costandi the science blogger wants to know. Steven Pinker, too, has argued at length that biological sex differences put the lie to the social construction of gender.

I think people like Costandi and Pinker have misunderstood the postmodern position, which also goes by the name queer theory, and which is easy to misunderstand. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes Judith Butler, the seminal (and utterly unreadable) UC Berkeley queer theorist, on gender’s “performativity”:

Butler characterizes gender as the effect of reiterated acting, one that produces the effect of a static or normal gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person’s gender act. This effect produces what we can consider to be ‘true gender’, a narrative that is sustained by “the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them.”

Perfectly transparent, right? Well don’t check out just yet, because I think I’ve cracked Butler’s code.

Kate Bornstein’s book Gender Outlaw was my Rosetta stone. As I was reading it, I kept flagging these great rhetorical passages, like this one:

A particularly insidious aspect about gender — our gender system in the West, and perhaps for the planet as a whole — is that it is an oppressive class system made all the more dangerous by the belief that it is an entirely natural state of affairs. In this sense, gender is no different a form of class oppression than the caste system in India or apartheid in South Africa. Those systems have long been held to be “natural,” and the way of the world in their respective cultures, based as they are on the concept of the possibility of a pure identity. (105)

And this one:

By focusing on so-called “inherent differences” between men and women, we ignore and deny the existence of the gender system itself, and so in fact we hold it in place. But it’s the gender system itself — the idea of gender itself — that needs to be done away with. The differences will then fall aside of their own accord. (114)

But I still couldn’t understand what the deal was. What is this gender system that’s so bad?

Then I started focusing on Bornstein’s personal experiences of passing for a woman. (She used to be a man.) She says one of the first things she learned was to avoid eye contact when walking down the street. Looking people in the eye was a man thing. So was having an opinion.

Finally it clicked. Think about it this way: As is so easy to forget, biological sex differences reflect group averages. You can’t use somebody’s SAT math score to distinguish whether they’re biologically male or female, right? But gender behaviors are meant to apply to all women and all men, precisely for the purpose of distinguishing one from the other. That’s their social function.

What are some of these behaviors? The obvious ones have to do with dress and appearance. Women wear makeup; men don’t. Women wear high heels; men wear flats. Women wear dresses; men wear slacks. Women have long hair, long nails, carry purses, etc. Sure, women have some latitude to dress like men, but men have very little latitude to dress like women.

These socially imposed gender differences are not benign. Ask Brnadon Teena. Or the guy I went to high school with who got beat up for wearing a skirt to class. The message is clear: If you threaten to take away those gender dividing lines, if you threaten to dismantle the male-female pecking order, then you will get stomped. Fear of the Other will see to it.

I don’t see a lot of room for science in this discussion. Biologists do have a point that sexual orientation probably has a strong developmental component. But I’m not sure how much that has to do with gender. After all, you can’t predict whether someone is biologically male or female based on who they’re sexually attracted to, except maybe in the case of bisexuals. And even if you could, to collapse the two — to argue that gender is equivalent to sexual orientation — would be to ignore all the other behaviors that serve to separate the genders.

At any rate, if biologists are so bent on queer theorists accepting a biological component to gender (in the limited sense of sexual orientation), then maybe the biologists could start by acknowledging the other side’s point.

See my subject line for advice on how to get started.


8 Responses to “Gender performativity for science geeks (aka: Let them wear drag)”

  1. Mo Costandi Says:

    I’m still not convinced.

    I accept that gender roles are in large part cultural constructs, and that transvestitism is mostly performativity. But gender roles, gender identity and sex are distinct phenomena that should not be confused with one another. Butler must know this, and yet she claims that both gender and sex are cultural constructs.

    If gender identity and sex are purely cultural constructs, then why do transsexuals feel compelled to alter their bodies in the way they do, when they could learn to perform as members of the sex that they were born as? The tragic case of David Reimer is, in my opinion, strong evidence for a biological component of gender identity and sex.

    Nothing is purely nature or purely nurture. Yes, biologists should acknowledge that culture influences our behaviour, but by the same token, social constructivists need to acknowledge the role of biology. We are all influenced by our biology and our environment, and I’m inclined to think that the influence of each differs between individuals, with the gender identity of some having a far stronger biological component than others, which cannot be swayed by cultural influences.

    I highly recommend the book ‘Whipping Girl’ by Julia Serano (a transwoman and a biologist) for insight into the influence of hormones and the brain on gender identity.

  2. Mo Costandi Says:

    …and by the way, sexual orientation is also completely independent of gender identity and biological sex.

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Mo. I can understand why you’re not convinced. We’re talking about two different things! I’m not talking about gender roles or gender identity, which (in the latter case) may well have a biological component. I’m talking about gender performativity — the behavioral cues that signal to others our maleness or femaleness. Imagine if you wanted to pass for a woman. What would you have to do differently? That’s performativity. Without it, there would be no genders with which to identify, and nothing to assign gender roles to. Biological maleness and femaleness would still exist, but we wouldn’t distinguish them in the same way. Bornstein recommends a book called Gender: An Ethnomedological Approach by Kessler and McKenna.

  4. […] Posted on September 10, 2010 by Karalyssa| Leave a comment A Fistful of Science has an interesting post on gender performativity that includes the, in my opinion, accurate […]

  5. Alex SL Says:

    I remain unconvinced that you can actually suppress gender roles without a 1984-like level of totalitarian suppression. It sure seems as if the vast majority – not all, but the vast majority – of people want to advertise what sex they are, and they want to exaggerate whatever it is that is considered their gender role in their specific society, especially during puberty, in order to be more attractive to the opposite sex.

    Trying to completely abolish that is probably not any more hopeful an enterprise than trying to eradicate addictions, egoism, nepotism or lying. Sure, you want to minimize the negative consequences of these things, and you want to discourage them as far as realistically possible, but you will never have a 100% success because it is just too much part of what we are. Should we not be happy enough once everybody has equal rights instead of twisting our own nature beyond breaking point? Equality is already an enormous accomplishment that many cultures in the world still would have to achieve; me not being able to wear a skirt and makeup without being ostracized seems like a “luxury problem” in comparison.

  6. JR Minkel Says:

    Men hold cultural power, as does science. Steven Pinker is a male scientist who reaches a wide audience. For him to give a talk on sex differences while wearing drag would make a big statement. But that would require that he a) recognize the real issue and b) have the courage to take action. I think he’s capable of it. He just needs a little encouragement. 🙂

  7. JR Minkel Says:

    P.S.: If he did that, I would gladly swear up and down to any post-structuralist who would listen that sex difference are real and worth caring about.

  8. […] luxury is another man’s radical performance art September 27, 2010 My post on gender performativity elicited an interesting comment from a reader named Alex […]

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