Feminism and the gender binary, by Laura Cole
‘I just don’t feel the need to transition’ my mum says to me, theatrically waving her hands as we race along the North Western motorway. ‘my feminism allowed women to simply be women in any way they wanted to! In the 80s, I didn’t have to wear high heels or dresses or makeup- I could cut my hair short, wear men’s clothes, and be me’. I exhale as my brain turns into an infected computer of feminist gender theory pop up ads. I’ve had many conversations with my mum about gender and sexuality, beginning at the ripe ol’ age of 12 when I came out as a rampaging lesbian, always with a sometimes overbearing acceptance. When I was sixteen, I nervously broached the topic of non-binary genders as mum drove me to a friends’ house who had recently come out.
I expected the worst.
“They’re non-binary, meaning-’
But before I could continue, mum says, ‘oh, I really get that’.
I sit, mildly stunned. Most people invest so much in the gender binary its difficult to comprehend anything outside pink and blue. She continued, ‘I feel that. I’ve always felt like I was in drag when I wore makeup or dresses- I’ve always kept my hair short and worn pants. Anything else made me feel deeply uncomfortable.’ A sentiment my friend recounted to me almost word-for-word a few months before, as one of the most intense forms of their gender dysphoria. Stunned, I said, “I thought you were just a pantsuit power feminist, you know, challenging your inner Hellen Clark some bullshit’. We laughed, but a strange feeling hung over us. For the first time, mum had put into words a feeling she’s felt all her life.
This is where my mum’s foray into exploring gender ends, however. That’s her choice. It’s not as if, just because she chooses to deal with her feelings differently, her self-defined womanhood is invalid. An anti-essentialist approach to gender allows anyone to perform gender in ways that make you happy, ways that give you ‘gender euphoria’. Yet, the idea that someone wants to exist outside the gender binary is still controversial. Some, like Jordan Peterson, passionate advocate for free speech, argued that the bill c-16, passed to protect the human rights of trans people, impacts upon his right to…. not… use preferred pronouns. The Bill, that really just extended Canada’s human rights act to trans people, was considered by Jordan Peterson to put power in the hands of the Ontario Human Rights commission, a ‘radically leftist’ group and ‘the most dangerous organisation in Canada’. This would make the refusal to use preferred pronouns a criminal offence, a hate crime. Never-mind that’s not what the legislation actually said. Peterson is perhaps most famous for his ‘lobster’ comments regarding gender essentialism, where he used sex dimorphism in lobsters to argue that the gender binary was a scientific fact. The arguments could be forgiven for ignorance, but it’s not like Judith Butler invented trans people in the 90s.
Simone De Beauvoir in ‘Second Sex’ argues “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” Meaning that the way society views female bodies moulds how women feel about them. Basically, until we hit puberty, our bodies are treated relatively equally. However, as women go through puberty, a woman’s body is stared at, objectified, and socially controlled in a way Beauvior defined as ‘becoming flesh’. For theory written in 1949, it’s still pretty on the nose. Two of my non-binary friends told me that it was their body being sexualised, policed, and observed as a young female body that gave them the most dysphoria. One even said “I felt comfortable with being a little girl, but I cannot become a woman’. As a person who had size 12 DD’s at age 11, I can confirm that there is a DRAMATIC difference in how a body is perceived as you complete puberty. Anyway, instead of doing what my mother did, which was modifying her body is ways that made her perceived as less feminine, these damned millennials are inventing new words and are generally ruining the good, pure and holy gender binary. Because, as we all know, neologisms, along with trans people, were invented by Judith Butler in the 90s.
Most people, I think, are familiar with the teal-haired, crochet-enthusiast Twitter feminist who screams ‘gender is a social construct!’ Social construction theory of gender, popularised by Judith Butler, is fucking hard to read. Butler loves rhetoric. The gist is that gender is performed in social situations and is a learned behaviour that we acquire in childhood as we grow our understanding of socially acceptable ways to conduct ourselves and live in our bodies. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of behaviours coded feminine and masculine. This extends to fashion and aesthetics, jobs and social roles, or expected sexual habits. These ‘social facts’ are unquestioned and often invisible as we conduct our lives, which is perhaps why “Lobster King” Peterson got so irate when his understanding of gender was questioned by a piece of legislation that didn’t even make it illegal in any way to not use preferred pronouns.
The question remains, if all of this is made up, and none of this is real, and if your mum did fine with bleached spikes for hair while she was at Elam in 1979, why do pronouns matter?
When feminists say ‘gender isn’t real’, what we mean is gender essentialist pseudoscience is fake. We are not denying ‘biology’, we know what gametes are. We just acknowledge that secondary sex characteristics shouldn’t control the way your body interacts with the world, or rather, the way the world interacts with your body. And that’s really what Lobster Peterson is arguing- because most people have XX or XY chromosomes, and thus have two different sets of gametes, science says we must put XX in pink and XY in blue. It’s science. Before you know it, you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of chaos into sex dimorphism in nonhuman animals and using it to justify being a prick.
If you came here for an argument about why you should respect people’s pronoun choices, this is it. It’s nice. It’s good for people’s mental health and alleviates gender dysphoria. The fact that new words are being used isn’t a threat to Western civilisation, but it might be a threat to the way so many of us have lived our lives until now. The fact that my mum felt gender dysphoria and chose not to transition in a more conventional sense is also not an argument for the gender binary, it’s just one way to live among many. I guess what I’m saying is that humans aren’t lobsters, and perhaps you should read some gender theory.