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Have you ever read gender theory?

sweet mother of


oh god make it stop

Now, this is not exactly “gender theory”; this is feminism in a raw, elementally academic form.  This is not just any feminist theory: this is Judith Butler.

Judith Butler, whose Wikipedia picture stares out at you with the piercing gaze of Galadriel, has written extensively about gender theory–and identity at large–including Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex.  She has produced many brilliant pieces, which are just as easy to read as other writing we have previously discussed, like the Outline of a Theory of Practice:

oh please not again

oh please not again

Why is that? It’s not just Butler (who, I stress again, is brilliant).  Gender theory at large is permeated, saturated with big words.   I’ve discussed this before.   If you haven’t read Bodies that Matter, you should. Butler’s writing is fantastic, and mind-blowing, and meshes well not only with gender theory but with contemporary phenomenology.

Unfortunately, Butler is also somewhat impenetrable.  No worse than Bourdieu or Foucault or Husserl or any number of other academic writers, but then the purpose of feminism is not “merely” academic, is it? It should not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that feminism is concerned with theory only as it relates to the achievement of certain stated goals; I.E. the advancement of a political perspective which co-opts the affectations of academic discourse to further its own propagation.  Thus, authors like Butler infiltrate the larger ongoing discussion of identity by using the regular linguistic patterns of “academia”; a subversive approach to feminist writing.

Partly that’s because it’s JUST SO EASY to slip into jargon.  We (and by “we” I am broadly generalizing about anyone who has been taught to talk about gender) have learned certain words, and we have trouble thinking about the topic in other words, let alone speaking about it.

But “the academic discourse” is not the only conversation.  And for every person who finds Butler’s work illuminating, there are lots more who find it inhospitable.  The language which feminism has learned can integrate it into academic discourse quite effectively, and more’s the pity; many promising fields and causes have failed as a result of being entirely integrated with academic discourse.

For feminism to succeed, it needs a voice that can be understood by everyone, not just by academics. For a broad cultural change to take place, feminism must permeate to every level of this big Marxian layer cake called “society.”

When I say “feminism must do x to succeed,” of course, I am drawing on actual stated feminist goals, which tend to exist either in the short term (I intend to use this paper to show the production of gender in interaction, I intend to challenge the perception of the body as a single entity, etc.) and also in the longer term (reshaping society, dismantling the patriarchy, creating cultural change).  To both of these types of goals, the academic voice is, of course, crucial.  We learn from the academic voice.

But we also need feminists who speak plain English.  Who can explain that gender is not quite as solid as it seems.  It isn’t an impossible task, but it is a challenging one.

For example, we can explain that (although we use it to define ourselves, identify ourselves, give ourselves shape and solidity), gender is like a handshake.  A handshake takes place between two people.  The handshake exists only in the interaction between the two people, and everyone involved in the handshake thinks about the others based on what they observe in the gesture.  Let’s slow that down and repeat: The handshake exists in the interaction between two people.  The handshake does not have an independent existence above and beyond two people.  It is not a “thing” you can point to.  It is the product of interaction, and it is created each time two people grab each other’s fingers and squeeze.

Now, no one identifies themselves by their handshake (except perhaps used car salesmen from the 1950s), but you could. You could define yourselves as a soft shaker or a hard shaker (shut up).  And you judge other people based on what you learn from that quick interaction: Do they have a strong handshake? Do they have a good grip? How are they holding their fingers?

Gender is the same way—we make decisions about ourselves and other people based on what we see, and what we do.

Are they wearing a dress? Makeup? What’s their body language like? And we can define ourselves as a dress-wearer, or a feminine-body-language-have-er—or, to use shorthand, a woman.  True, there are more moving parts in gender than there are in a handshake.  Handshaking involves how you hold yourself, your shoulder, and your hand.  Gender involves how you hold yourself, how you use your body, how you talk, how you think, what you wear, what you say, when you say it, whether or not you are comfortable saying it–and more.

Have you ever found yourself being more of a “dude” when surrounded by dudes? More “womanly” when surrounded by women?  Have you ever “dialed back” your gender (or heck, any other identity) in order to fit in?Have you squeezed harder on someone’s hand because their handshake was firm? Did you begin to make nerd culture references because you were talking to nerds? Have you changed what you do, to change what people think of you? Yes you have. What we do changes when we talk to different people. We’re human.  We calibrate.

shut up, Garrus

“Hey! That’s my job!”

In turn, when we have figured out who we are, when we make that apparent in our gender “handshake,” other people take that and interpret it in their own way.  You do that too.  It’s how we understand people.  Is someone wearing an Attack On Titan hoodie? Are they whistling a song by Fleetwood Mac? What other people are doing changes who and what we think they are.

Slowing it down; what does this mean? Gender is like a handshake.  A handshake consists of things we do (sometimes unconsciously–have you ever given a handshake without really thinking about it?) in interaction with other people.  It doesn’t exist outside of human context.  A huffy anthropologist once said “Human thought is consummately social.”

What does that mean? Gender exists only in human interaction and in human minds, not as a thing unto itself.  Does that mean gender isn’t important?

Not in the slightest.  Some other time, I’ll address the idea that just because something exists only in the human mind, it isn’t real, but for now we’ll bracket that issue and set it aside with the comment that it’s dumb.

Gender exists only in the interaction and performance of people.  Gender isn’t important?

Then why do we still shake hands?*

*You can replace “handshake” with any other reflexive, person-to-person cultural gesture, like bowing, high-fiving, greetings, language, the NHL…)


Gender is fundamentally important to us all.  The history of the world agrees.  But what is it? I am beginning to discover that it is much more than it seems.  And it is only by understanding that, that we can begin to talk about gender in any productive way.  Only by realizing that gender perpetuates itself in what we do, consciously and unconsciously, every second of every day.  Gender is something we do, and something we have done since childhood.  It is habit many times over.

That is what feminism is up against.  “Patriarchy” merely refers to billions upon billions of habits across billions of people, all placed below the level of consciousness, which have the final, practical, real-world result of destroying, oppressing, and handicapping human development. 

That’s a big job.  It’s not one you’ll finish just by controlling academia.  It needs to be the groundwater.  Feminism needs to be ubiquitous.  So if you’re still reading, and you’re a feminist, I would say this:

Take feminism everywhere. Not even in your overt actions, but in your thoughts.  Feminist theory can be at its most potent and most subversive when it is behind the scenes, when it is upsetting the foundations of the world and pretending to be business as usual.  When it seems to be the most natural thing in the world, feminism has the upper hand.

We have a big task.

Time to get cracking.


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