Random Writings on Gender

26/08/2022

The following collection of miniature essays is partially random in that they are answers to short answer exam questions I wrote this week for university. Given the stunted word limit of 330 words, I thought I’d elaborate on some points, and add thoughts and content I couldn’t include in the assessment. The particular unit this was for is Gender and Global Politics, a political science unit from the perspective of those much derided, but incredibly useful and fascinating, gender studies. As a straight cis man, studying such topics and applying a feminist lens to global politics is insightful, in much the same way studying Indigenous politics last semester was as a white person.

Each section will start with the question, followed by the exam response then any additional points at the end with references.

Question 1

“Explain the ways in which sex and gender are differentiated in feminist scholarship?”

The questions of what the differences between sex and gender are have become important and, unfortunately, quite controversial over the past few decades. Among the feminist discourse, there are many debates and theories, some arguably more valid than others. Shepherd (2015: 28) briefly details three views of gender – the constructivist, the essentialist, and the performative theory of gender put forward by Judith Butler. The constructivist view explains the difference between sex and gender as one being biological and the other being cultural. That is, sex is based on physical biology whereas gender, entailing certain gendered behaviours and expectations, is constructed through a process of socialisation and will vary from culture to culture and across historical periods.

The essentialist view is that gendered behaviours and characteristics are rooted in biological sex and are not, or at least only slightly, affected by the process of socialisation. Examples given are the binaries of more aggressive men/more peaceful women, and the more “natural” instinct for mothering that women have. While this may be questionable on its own terms (essentialist views have been used to fuel transphobic arguments that deny the experiences and realities of trans men and women), the notion of sex itself being a binary has been strongly contested in biology for many years now (Valkai, 2021).

The last one is the performative view of gender, which Shepherd (2015: 28) draws from Butler as how “the sexed body is as much a product of discourses about gender as discourses about gender are a product of the sexed body.” That is, rather than one informing the other, they both act in tandem to produce each other. Combined with the constructivist perspective, these discourses will also be shaped by the cultural and historical contexts they reside in.

Extra

Basically, gender doesn’t really exist and is entirely constructed within specific societal, cultural, and historical contexts. While in an abstract (and admittedly quite a privileged) sense I would merely consider myself a human, one of billions of a single species of ape among countless other species on our Earth, in the cultural context I have grown up and exist in, I am a cis man. That is the group I “identify” with, both subconsciously through socialisation and consciously through introspection and my studies, and it is how I have been perceived by (and the lens through which I perceive) the world.

Understanding this is, in my opinion, extremely important, and being able to honestly confront and ask these questions is as well. The vast majority of people will come to the same conclusions as me – dependent on cultural and societal differences, your gender identity will likely match the gendered expectations of your biological sex in a broad sense. Some, however, will challenge these expectations – and that is not only a good thing, but it is absolutely to be expected given the wild world of biology.

One of my passing sources for this is a video entitled Sex and Sensibility by a bioanthropologist, evolutionary biologist, science educator, and online content creator called Forrest Valkai. It is about thirty minutes long, but it is absolutely worth watching and does much better than I’d ever hope to in explaining how weird and cool real biology is. The category of sex, particularly as a binary as we apply it to humans, is simply arbitrary and those “basic rules” are constantly broken in numerous ways in nature because it doesn’t care what we think. There aren’t enough boxes to fit everything into, let alone trying to cram everything into two boxes and causing immeasurable harm in the process (hence my objection to the essentialist view of feminism). You can find it here:

Question 2

“Connell writes that “[d]ifferent masculinities do not sit side-by-side like dishes on a smorgasbord. There are definite social relations between them.” Why is this idea significant for the way we study masculinities and gendered relations of power?”

Gender, and characteristics applied to it like feminine and masculine, is not a static concept. As Connell (2000) explains, gender has been constructed differently throughout history and across the world. Masculinity, as described in The Men and the Boys, has been expressed in multiple different and even contradictory ways, across and even within cultures. Hence she uses the plural, masculinities, to emphasise that there is no one static definition or “correct way” to be masculine. The example of homosexuality is referenced, noting that in some cultures homosexual acts were a natural and regular aspect of masculinity, whereas in others it is an incompatible and effeminate practice.

Beyond comparisons between civilisations and historical periods, Connell highlights that there are multiple masculinities within individual societies as well. This entails a hierarchy of masculinities with a dominant and “acceptable” hegemonic view of masculinity taking precedence. One example Connell gives is sportsmen, but other forms could be successful political or business leaders, or blue-collar workers and tradesmen. Others still can be subdued and marginalised, such as the case of heterosexual masculinity being accepted while, historically and still today in some cultural groups, homosexuality is rejected and oppressed.

This is important for the study of masculinities not merely to understand the historical and cultural contexts of a particular society, but also to how these masculinities relate (or even “compete”) with one another and how that shapes perceptions and actions. Homophobic abuse, a lack of education and healthcare, and the hostile approach to the AIDs epidemic (and now monkeypox) were and are all real-world effects with damaging consequences based on this hierarchy of masculinities. Recognising and acknowledging their constructed nature can help us tackle issues of power relations among groups of men and beyond.

Extra

There’s not a whole lot to elaborate on this one, other than noting that the of the hierarchy of masculinities is a useful tool in analysing how different forms of masculinity interact and relate to one another. While in the above response I used homosexuality as my example (because it was a focus in parts of Raewyn Connell’s book), another angle is the colonial aspect of masculinities, which is actually covered in a slightly different context by Mohanty (cited below). Here, race also plays a vital role, with the hegemonic white masculinity becoming synonymous with rule while non-white subjects are viewed in an almost infantile manner, unable to govern for themselves and requiring a civilising hand to guide them.

Question 3

“What is meant by the term intersectionality and why is it important for gender studies?”

Intersectionality is a relatively recent yet ubiquitous term with a number of different definitions and uses across numerous fields of study and theoretical frameworks. At its most basic level, intersectionality maps out multiple systems of power in relation to one another, positing that any individual system of power cannot really exist in isolation and therefore cannot be feasibly analysed in isolation. Viewing these overlapping systems of power allows us to see how they intersect, interact and relate with each other in particular social, cultural, and historical contexts. A more nuanced picture of axes of power, privilege and oppression can be created through this process.

While there is no complete list, some of the most common systems of power included are: race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, age, religion, geographic region, citizenship status, etc. Studying how these systems intersect and interact is important, not only to get a fuller picture of a particular societal structure, but also to critique flaws in existing methods of analysis. Angela Davis in Women, Race & Class (1981), for instance, discussed the history and concerns in mainstream white feminist struggles since the 1700s in the United States, tying in the struggles of black men, black women, and working-class women (both white and black). There were multiple clashes across gendered, racial and class lines, with oppression in each case being different, and interests were not always aligned.

The importance of intersectionality to gender studies cannot be overstated – it is a vital lens to understand power relations and to inform and critique past and contemporary discourses. For gender studies in the West, this would include the challenging of the hegemonic gender and sex binaries, the decolonisation of studies of “Third World” women as discussed by Mohanty (2003), and much more.

Extra

Intersectionality was actually a concept I stumbled across a few years ago and it has been a favourite concept of mine ever since. My first major introduction to it was actually a YouTube video by Zoe Baker, a disabled trans woman who recently received a PhD on historical anarchist theory and practice. In her video (linked below), she actually explains intersectionality by refuting a complete (and entirely intentional) misunderstanding and bastardisation of it by Ben Shapiro.

There are so many ways intersectionality can be applied, and the more you aim to increase your knowledge and understanding of the world and different perspectives of it, the fuller the picture you can create with it.

Question 4

“Explain Mohanty’s arguments about the way Third World women are represented in the Western feminist scholarship. Why do these portraits frustrate her?”

Mohanty takes a very nuanced approach to how “Third World” women are represented in Western feminist scholarship. She acknowledges that there are some good informative and descriptive elements in works by Western feminists, and that not all of them “fall into the analytical traps” that she tackles within her book Feminism Without Borders (2003). She does, however, focus on a number of important criticisms about how women are portrayed and generalised in the literature with detrimental consequences in how such issues are approached by the West.

The core concern across many of the works discussed is the presentation of women in a particular country, region, or even across the entire non-Western world, as a monolithic group that can be generalised and characterised “by common dependencies or powerlessness (or even strengths).” One example was the book by Cutrufelli entitled Women of Africa: Roots of Oppression, where the phrase “women of Africa” makes sense as a descriptor for women in Africa, but is impossible as a coherent and worthwhile subject of analysis. Given the distance from Egypt to South Africa is almost 6500km (with a population at the time it was published of over half a billion), there are numerous cultural and historical factors and differences that are ignored. In contrast, Mohanty cites Mies’ study of lace-makers in India, which details the industrial and societal structure these housewives are embedded in, as a carefully and brilliantly constructed work taking into account the relevant cultural and historical contexts.

The binary of Western and “Third World” is also problematic as, when written about by Western scholars, it takes on an (ironically) paternalistic and imperialistic view. Whereas the Western woman is educated, free and modern, the “other” is ignorant and poor, bound and victimised by the traditions and societies they live in. Good intentions aside, this not only again removes context, but also the agency of these women and other differences between them within their societies, such as class.

Extra

Mohanty’s book Feminism Without Borders is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I’m only slogging through the second chapter now (I have taken a break from it to collate this because it’s just so dense). I will certainly be writing more on the book as a whole and using it as a reference in the future, but here the focus was on the question of representation of “Third World” women by Western scholarship. The criticisms and arguments Mohanty puts forward are the sort where, once you read them (even if you already had a vague tendency towards them as I did) it just seems so obvious and enlightening.

Some other examples of taking into account historical and cultural contexts is the use of the veil in Iran during the revolution in 1979 being a sign of solidarity rather than oppression, and one a lecturer brought up from her experience was her (I believe Filipino) mother’s approach to mothering, with a culture and upbringing where the role and status of mothers is much more celebrated and rewarding than in some Western contexts. That isn’t to say that liberation – the ability to be able to freely choose and express oneself how one sees fit – shouldn’t be something to strive for, but that the agency of these women should not be overridden in the process if their cultural values favour a particular path that, in a different context, might seem undesirable.

References

Collins, P. H., & Chepp, V. (2013). Intersectionality. In G. Waylen, K. Celis, J. Kantola & S. L. Weldon (Eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics (pp. 57-87). Oxford University Press.

Connell, R. W. (2000). The Men and the Boys. Polity Press.

Davis, A. Y. (1981). Women, Race & Class. Penguin Classics.

Mohanty, C. T. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonising Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University Press.

Shepherd, L. J. (2015). Sex or gender? Bodies in global politics and why gender matters. In L. J. Shepherd (Ed.), Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations (pp. 24-35). Routledge.

Valkai, F. [Forrest Valkai]. (2021, January 11). Sex and Sensibility. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szf4hzQ5ztg.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s