Radical media, politics and culture.


StephNJ writes
Feminism and gender binaries

Feminists have often been accused of reinforcing gender binaries. When women-exclusive events take place, when an emphasis is placed on women’s issues, or even when the word “woman” is used, people from all over the political spectrum, including some feminists, denounce the event as holding us back by reinforcing the idea that women and men are inherently different. I have heard this argument from feminists a lot lately and find some basic problems with it, so I’d like to address this claim that an event exclusive to women reinforces gender stereotypes and is thus counterproductive.

First of all, it indeed can be said that naming something does in fact legitimize and reinforce it. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is noted for deconstructing and exploring language and gender theory. Her theories are grounded in poststructuralism, which basically say that our words and behaviors create the reality we know. It is true that by simply saying the word woman reinforces the idea of gender binaries and that by my writing this, by my using the term “binary,” even by my merely existing as a so-called woman, I am perpetuating binaries. Unfortunately, though, I am bound by my language and culture to some extent. I need language to communicate with others. The most that I can do is realize that every time I open my mouth I am contributing to a language that is male centered and heterosexist.

The thing is, we still exist in a context, in a specific time and place. For the time being, in order to overcome the gross inequalities that exist in this context in which we live, we need to temporarily use labels as a way of identifying these problems and making them intelligible. For example, by using the term “patriarchy,” we are in a sense creating it. However, if there is such a clear trend of male domination, it is helpful, for the time being, to name it. Thus, we call it patriarchy so that we can make it concrete, expose it, and conquer it.

It is important to make the distinction between what is natural and what is constructed. According to the poststructuarlists, nothing is natural. After all, how can we claim to know what is and isn’t natural when we are all existing within this society? We need to realize that gender, sexuality, and race are all social constructs. Once this is done, we need to deal with them within this context.

Thus, if I decide that a distinction needs to be made between men and women, it is a distinction based on social constructs, not biology or anything natural. As Pendleton Vandiver writes in “Feminism: A Male Anarchist's Perspective,” (http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?sid=04/0 3/04/0653210&mode=nested&tid=6) “Feminism can perhaps be best defined as the attempt to get beyond the state of affairs where people are oppressed because of gender. Thus, it is not possible to go beyond gender without feminism; the charge that feminism itself perpetuates gender categories is patently absurd.”

It is a catch 22. Society clearly segregates us into different groups, of which some are oppressors and some are oppressed. Then if we name these differences we are accused of perpetuating them. Perhaps the best way of reconciling this problem is what theorist Gayatri Spivak calls “strategic essentialism.” For the time being, we must acknowledge that women, as a group, is an oppressed class, and is treated differently from the class of men. We must acknowledge that, temporarily, women are different from men, not in any totalizing or universal sense, but in how they are constructed, viewed, and treated by our society. In this sense, then, we are not reinforcing binaries but doing quite the contrary – trying to show that, for no reason at all, society has grossly divided us into arbitrary categories of gender, race, sexuality, etc.

Thus, harping on difference is a political tactic that must be utilized until things are more equal. So when we separate women and characterize their experiences as different, it is imperative to remember that difference is reliant completely on societal constructs. Any oppressed class, which in this case is the oppressed gender, needs to separate themselves from the oppressor’s class at some point in order to fight the inequalities that exist. Women exclusive events are obviously not the end all be all, nor should they be the majority of events that occur, but they are both useful for the time being. Until equality is achieved, there is something to be said for the occasional exclusive event.

Though this should go without saying, let me stress that I in no way believe that all men are bad or that they should not be involved in this movement. On the contrary, it is vividly clear to me that not all women are pro-woman and that many men are. My point is to guard against this tendency to define many feminist tactics as ounterproductive or “reverse sexist” and to recognize the difference between reinforcing gender binaries and attempting to deal with them by pointing them out."