Amabsolutely afabulous: again with the gender binary

Jane Clare Jones recently published a reply to my comments on her analysis of the gender binary. A further review of the points of disagreement, to see if we can clear anything up*:

One of the points I made was that her analysis seemed to skate over the way that the gender binary has to mutilate pretty much everyone in order to get them to fit into restrictive categories of “masculinity” or “femininity”: “Binaries are bad not just because they’re hierarchical, but because they deny everything outside those hierarchical categories.”

Jones seems to interpret the “not just” here as saying that the hierarchical part isn’t that important, which certainly wasn’t my intention. I can see why it might come across as dismissive, but I really can’t think of many ways of saying “you have described part of the problem, but not the whole of the problem” that can’t potentially be interpreted as minimising one part or another.

Anyway, tucked away in a footnote, Jones acknowledges that she actually agrees with the broad point I was making:

“let’s just scrap the analogy and take the claim as, ‘the gender binary is bad not only because it is a hierarchy but because it erases multiple gender presentations.’ In that case I’m going to agree.”

But, while apparently in agreement with my actual argument, Jones seems keen to dismiss it, paraphrasing it as “not granting existence to female people isn’t really very important. What is far more important is that binaries don’t represent multiplicity correctly.” Which seems a bit daft, because, if we can agree that “female people” do not represent a single homogenous lump, surely “granting existence” and recognition to them requires an ability to represent multiplicity correctly. I stand by my claim that winning a world where people assigned female or male at birth aren’t expected to live up to some rigid, restrictive ideal of femininity or masculinity would be a greater victory than just rebalancing the amount of social status connected to those respective ideals.

Jones objects that her strategy of insisting on “natural differences” to undermine binaries doesn’t actually mean that she endorses race science, because “the gender binary and racial binaries don’t map exactly onto each other”. Which is fair enough, but I’m not the one who introduced that equivalence; it was Jones who defined the binary as “a process by which the white male subject defines his others – women, and the non-white – as an inferior negation of himself”.

Jones insists the gender binary is different because it “is laid on top of the biological difference between male and female people” – so, a cultural construct based around the observance of physical features. Jones wants to say that these make it entirely different to race, which is a social construct – but where things fall apart is that both are social constructs which seem natural because they can point to observable physical features. After all, it really is true that some people have more melanin and some people have less, some people have blue eyes and others don’t, things like sickle cell anemia and high blood pressure are much more common among certain ethnic groups than others, and so on. Of course, the particular form of politics Jones follows wants to stress the biological differences that gender is built on as important, while not seeing blonde hair and blue eyes as having inherent political significance in the same way; but that’s a political choice to stress the importance of some physical features over others, it’s not because one set is biological and the other isn’t.

In a footnote on this point, Jones acknowledges that “You could, at a push, argue that the ‘real’ problem with the racial binary is that it flattens the differences between various types of ‘non-whiteness’… What this would amount to then is something like the claim that the ‘real’ problem with the negative construction of ‘Blackness’ is that is doesn’t include Latino/as.” Again, this is missing the point of what erasure actually involves, and why the recognition of multiplicity is important – talking about the erasure of “various types of ‘non-whiteness’” isn’t just about comparing “Black” and “Latinx” people, but about highlighting the way that the colonial processes that made it possible to understand people as “Black”, “Latinx”, “Native” and so on were incredibly violent efforts that aimed at the annihilation of a whole variety of ways of being, and of understanding oneself, outside of colonial categories. I would’ve thought this was obvious, but perhaps not.

Trying to summarise my critique, Jones says that it’s based on “the claim that the ‘real’ harm of the gender binary is that it erases the other ‘natural’ differences it’s laid on top of – i.e. that it erases the people who are neither male or female, which would be, actually, nobody.”

Which is wrong twice over – it’s Jones who thinks that all politics needs to be based around “natural differences”, my whole position is that such ahistorical categories are suspicious at best. And, to the extent that I’m making a claim about “natural differences”, it’s much more about the difference between human beings in all their variety and the restrictive, limiting expectations based around the gender roles of “man” and “woman” – so, my problem is more that the patriarchal binary is harmful to people who don’t live up to the role of either Real Men or Real Women, which would be, actually, pretty much everybody.

Following on from this, Jones claims that the big problem is the removal of “female people’s cultural power to define themselves for themselves”. Here, I think, we’re getting on to one of the crucial problems with Jones’ argument. I wouldn’t use the term “female people” myself, I think a term like “people assigned female at birth”, while clunkier, is better at respecting the fact that not all people who are labelled female would describe themselves as such. And here is the big question: do such people – trans men, non-binary/genderqueer people and so on – have the right, or should they have the cultural power, to define themselves for themselves? Because insisting on lumping them into the category of “female people” seems to be precisely a denial of that.

Anyway, Jones claims that, to defeat the patriarchal gender binary, we have to realise that “the greatest challenge to that narcissistic structure comes from the irreducibility of sexual difference”. At this point, I have to admit to being completely lost as to what this actually means in practical terms. I think that the most important thing to happen in the UK recently, in terms of challenging patriarchal power structures, was the massive women’s strike in Glasgow where thousands of predominantly female workers exercised their collective power and caused a huge amount of disruption across the city in pursuit of their equal pay claim. I’d hope that their significance of their action should be self-explanatory, but if I need to translate it into academicese, then I guess that you could say they disrupted the chain of signification linking “women’s work”, care and femininity to being underpaid and undervalued, or something like that.

Anyway, the point is that I really cannot for the life of me imagine what “the irreducibility of sexual difference” has to offer in a situation like Glasgow, where, to the extent that people were mobilising around a shared identity as “women”, it was very clearly a social/cultural – and indeed economic – category linked to social roles, not some physical/biological category.

Even looking at the Irish abortion campaign, which might seem to be an example of mobilisation much more closely linked to “sexual difference”, it’s notable that many people involved, both in the Irish campaign itself and in overseas solidarity, were basing their politics less on sweeping biological claims and more on a perspective that genuinely respects the right of people to define the meaning of their own bodies.

Moving on to the question of essentialism**, Jones says that what she’s actually talking about is “the importance of female people producing their own definitions, and their own cultural significations, for themselves. It should be obvious that this isn’t an assertion of ‘eternal feminine essence,’ but it seems it’s really not.” But surely the confusion here comes precisely from the fact that Jones doesn’t consistently talk about people producing their own cultural significations, but continually attempts to muddy the waters by insisting that it’s actually about “the existence of sexual difference”, “the irreducibility of sexual difference”, and so on, which would appear to be something completely different – making claims about “sexual difference” is a conversation about essentialist, ahistorical categories, talking about “cultural significations” is to talk about social-historical categories. If you want people to stop calling you essentialist because you just want to talk about culture, then maybe just stick to talking about culture and stop telling everyone you’re talking about biology.

Another point of contention comes up when Jones says “The place where I depart from a straight-forward gender-abolitionist account is that I think we are cultural creatures, and I don’t think the abolition of patriarchal gender would consist of there being no cultural meaning attached to sexed-bodies. I think rather it would consist of a culture in which the meaning of female bodies – and the forms of social life occupied by female bodies – was defined by female people.”

There’s a lot to say about this, but I think the crucial point is whether we’re talking about “the meaning of female bodies”, or whether it’s actually about “meanings”, plural – which Jones seems to lean more towards earlier in the essay, when she says “Which is not to say that there would be a singular definition of what ‘being female’ means to female people”.

And that’s the thing – if we’re talking about a singular, fixed meaning that all “female people” are expected to participate in, then what’s being discussed is another system of oppression, erasure and all the rest of it; perhaps a nicer system than the current set-up, but certainly not freedom or self-determination in any meaningful sense. But then, if there’s isn’t a singular definition, if we’re talking about a multitude of freely-chosen roles that people are able to opt into or out of as they see fit – if no-one is insisting that the people who are currently assigned female at birth have to go on being described as female if that’s not how they see themselves – then that sounds far more compatible with genuine self-determination, but at the point that such a role becomes freely chosen, rather than imposed on everyone with a certain body type, then it’s no longer meaningfully possible to talk about “the meaning of female bodies”, “the irreducibility of sexual difference” and so on.

And, by the way, this question of whether there’s more than one correct way to be female is certainly not just some abstraction to be settled after the feminist revolution, but a live issue here and now – consider the various cases of butch or androgynous cis women being harrassed in toilets for not appearing “female enough”.  The “irreducibility of sexual difference” doesn’t seem to have done much for these women, any more than it helped save Caster Semenya from her public humiliation a few years ago – or from ongoing attempts by athletics bodies to regulate who exactly is female enough to count. Contrary to the ideology that claims “natural sex differences” are always so obvious and self-evident that stricter policing of these borders can only be a good thing for cis women – let alone “female people” – in reality calls to insist upon sexual difference are always used as cudgels against those women whose bodies are too black, or too fat, or too muscular, or too tall, or who just present in ways that doesn’t make it clear what side of the sex distinction they fall upon.

Jones claims that the unpopularity of her position, among “both allies and critics, is evidence, I think, of the absolute dominance of masculine signification.” Obviously, the fact that me and Jones disagree strongly has already been established; what’s more interesting here is the contempt she seems to hold for other trans-exclusionary feminists who are closer to “a straight-forward gender-abolitionist account”. By Jones’ own account, many of her allies actually have their perspectives fatally compromised by “masculine signification.” Of course, anti-trans politics contains many strange bedfellows already, but it’s still interesting to notice how low Jones’ opinion of other trans-exclusionary feminists is.

Still claiming not to be an essentialist, Jones points out that “We recognise that an assertion of ‘Blackness’ by a Black artist isn’t an assertion of ‘eternal Black essence’ because we recognise that there is Black culture.” But again, this is an example of Jones refusing to own the full weird implications of her own claims – the real equivalent to Jones’ politics would be a Black artist claiming that their Blackness was rooted in “the irreducibility of racial difference”, and that these differences existed outside of and prior to white supremacy. Which I think probably would raise a few eyebrows, and could be not unfairly described as essentialist.

In closing, Jones asserts again that her whole project is about how liberation must consist of “female people… signifying their own being”. At which point, it must be asked once again: do trans men and non-binary people have the power to decide what their own bodies mean, or are they to be corralled and shoehorned back into the category of “female people”? And if trans men and afab non-binary people can be trusted with signifying their own being, then on what possible grounds would you deny the same right to trans women and amab non-binary people?


*another writer, Izabe Clare, has also written a reply to Jones’ comments, although I have to admit that I didn’t find it particularly easy to follow myself.

** As a side-note, when approaching the question of essentialism, Jones asserts that “it’s not a matter of simply stating that some humans are of the sex-class capable of bearing young (I’m not going with ‘having wombs’ (or vaginas even…))” This is interesting as an example of how shaky the category of “female people” can be, as there are many cis women who, while they may possess wombs, are not “capable of bearing young” for whatever reason. Of course, I’m sure that Jones would object that she’s not actually talking about the ability to give birth, but rather about people who belong to “the sex-class capable of…”, but, if this is a category that consists of some people who can give birth and some people who can’t, then that just underlines the fact that we’re talking about human-created categories imposed on reality to make sense of it, categories that involve paying attention to some differences while passing over others, not just neutrally recording natural biological facts.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Bit more thinky, Debate, Gender, Stuff that I don't think is very useful and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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