Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 8

Postmodern femininities and masculinities

The meaning and understanding of gender has changed dramatically in the past four decades.
However, gender remains a politicized category describing social identity, which is contested
and changing. The conservatives have argued that feminist movements contributed to the
general social crisis and decay, while many feminists argued that there has not been enough
progress made towards gender justice and equality. Although, there are a variety of
movements which take gender as a primary or important element, in general it is agreed that
the highly-politicized, sometimes radical, feminist movement, broadly defined as a Second
Wave, has passed its peak. The third wave is less visible and more preoccupied with identity
and “micro-politics.” In part it can be attributed to a variety of historical formations,
enormous gains achieved by the feminists, conservative backlash, internal divisions within
the movements, as well as feminists turning towards academic knowledge production.

In this paper I will outline major debates in feminist theory in relation to the changing
understanding of gender through essentialist, modernist, and postmodernist lenses. I will
argue that although postmodern theories of gender are the most convincing, promising and
potentially transformative, in many ways they are the least political, because they are
typically confined within the boundaries of the university and academic language. However,
this might be attributed not to gender theories specifically, but to the “postmodern turn” in
general. The collapse of grand narratives rendered a radical remaking of society a naïve
proposition not worthy of academic attention.

The essentialist understanding of gender was a dominant paradigm up until the mid-1970s,
although Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed in the 1949 that “one is not born a woman, but
rather becomes one.” This marked a radical shift in understanding of gender, or rather sex,
although her ideas did not become very popular until much later. What is considered to be
first wave feminism was a late 19th and early 20th century women’s suffrage movement,
although there have been women suffragists much earlier as well. Women did not question
gender difference as such, but rather fought for equality with men. Sex was assumed to be a
biological reality which was natural and unquestionable. The suffragettes argued against sex
inequality and tried to convince men that sex difference should not be a basis for political
disenfranchisement. Women fought for a greater freedom as women. However, essentialist
understanding did not vanish with a new theoretical concepts or practices. Several feminist
movements, such as gynocentric feminism, argued that women were inherently more human,
virtuous, and superior to men. For example, certain eco-feminists argued that women are
inherently closer to nature, that femininity provide with better models and practices for
human coexistence, sustainability, and peace. Although there is, or might be, some merit in
such observations, they do not address crucial issues of gender as a social construction, what
purposes gender serves in the social organization, and in what ways gender is harmful for
both men and women (although to different degrees). So for example one could argue that
statistically women might be convicted less often then men for violent crimes, but it does not
prove biologically and essentially a women’s goodness, because it can be explained by
different socialization, expectations, and a variety of other factors, which social
constructionists would insist must be considered. Overall, gynocentric movements were
politically weak and ineffective, although there remains variety of gynocentric theories,
approaches, and practices. The model of femininity, which should only slightly be altered not
to reproduce patriarchal internalized aspects, is perceived as an ideal. Such an approach and
understanding of gender, of course, became widely criticized by the theorists moving in the
postmodern direction.

The break in gender understanding during the second feminist wave can be attributed to
Gayle Rubin, who came up with the term “gender/sex system.” The Gender/sex system,
according to Rubin, refers to equation that male=masculine, female=feminine, and the object
of desire is of opposite sex/gender, constituting a necessarily heterosexual relationship.
Gender, according to Rubin, should be seen as social construction which is designated to
reinforce heterosexuality and hierarchy. Gender becomes the social location, which typically
designates woman as lower on the social hierarchy. However, contrary to later postmodern
theories of gender, which sees gender and sex as socially and discursively produced, feminist
theories during the second wave maintained that sex is a biological essence and gender is a
social construction.

Major feminist advancements happened during the feminist second wave. Changes in law,
politics, culture, sports, and general consciousness had been altered enormously. Towards the
end of the second wave however a variety of conflicts occurred. Certain feminist theories of
oppression where challenged as white, heterosexual, and middle-class centered. The category
of gender, as the only and the most important category, was questioned. Combahee River
Collective, for example, issued a statement, which read: “we are actively committed to
struggling against, racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular
task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that major
systems of oppression are interlocking” (412). Much of the feminist theory took a turn
towards intersectionality approach, which did not analyze gender in isolation from other
markers. Women of color criticized feminist theories which had white, middle-class woman
as their primary subject. Postcolonial and transnational feminists criticized unexamined
feminist universalisms, claims for “global sisterhood,” and persistent women’s victimization.
These viewpoints greatly complicated the understanding of gender since many feminist
theories or political projects of “sisterhood,” which were previously presented as universal,
had to be revised. Audre Lorde states that “by and large within the women’s movement
today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race,
class, sexual preference, class, and age” (293).The feminist identity divisions should be seen
in the context of the rise of identity politics, which embraced various marginalized groups.

Although the sex and gender separation occurred and a variety of criticisms about the need to
recognize differences complicated what gender means, woman remained the primary concern
of feminist theory. Men where largely theorized in relation to oppression of women, and not
as gendered beings. Politically, liberal feminists also achieved the highest gains in social and
political transformations, although that often meant equality with men, not necessarily
transforming male dominated institutions and the premises they are built upon. Catharine
MacKinnon, for example, was critical of the equality approach which simply suggests that
equality needs to measure up to male standards. She argues that “to define the reality of sex
as difference and the warrant of equality as sameness is wrong on both counts” (251). Issues
of difference and equality have remained one of the central feminist concerns.

The turn to postmodern feminism brought enormous changes to the understanding of gender,
sex, and sexuality. While earlier sex was fixed category and gender was thought of as social
construction, postmodern theories proclaimed that both of them were changing and of
discursive construction. Sexuality, similarly was subsumed under gender oppression in the
early feminist theorizing, but queer theories claimed that sexuality was a category of
oppression in itself. However, at the time of these changes Women’s Studies departments
were increasingly professionalized and further away from social movements which were
emblematic of the 1970s. The turn towards Postmodernism meant more focus on discursive,
linguistic, or psychoanalytic theorizing. It also meant that earlier feminist theories and
activism, while having made enormous changes and improved situation of women, at the
same time reinforced and naturalizes binary gender system, which could be seen as ultimately
regressive. Focus on sexuality evolved into the queer theory, masculinity studies started to
emerge as a subfield in women studies. The Women’s Studies departments throughout the
1990s, and even more so recently, were changing their names to include gender and sexuality
in their tittles. Judith Butler became emblematic to postmodern gender and queer studies.
Butler argued that feminist theory on sexual difference “is at its most productive when it is
not taken as a ground, foundation, or methodology, but as question posed but not resolved”
(543). Gender should be seen as unstable, historically contingent, and fluid. For Butler there
is no interior, biological, or metaphysical essence. Both gender and sex are discursively
produced and materialize through endless performative acts. Gender is also deeply embedded
in the heterosexual matrix, which Butler describes as a “grid through which bodies, genders,
and desires are naturalized” (362). Butler also poses difficult challenges to feminist theory
and questions its subject. Drawing on Foucaultian notions of power, state, and discursive
subject formation, Butler asks what happens when “the feminist subject turns out to be
discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate its
emancipation [?]” (354). This is the important point, even if Foucault or Butler would argue
that there is no space outside the discourse, but at the same time, “obviously, the political task
is not to refuse representational politics – as if we could” (355). It is a necessary question for
feminists or anyone who is committed to dismantling the present gender and sexuality system
to engage in. The major difference between modern and postmodern feminists in
understanding how power operates is between power as sovereignty and power as a
discursive entity. Second wave feminists saw institutional, individual, and collective male
power and domination as exercised against all women collectively and individually. The
postmodern explanations of power treat power as a discursive formation which is not exterior
but works through the agency of individuals and disciplinary institutions. Individuals
simultaneously produce power and are produced by it. However, Sara Lee Bartky warns
against uncritical appropriation of discursive power theories since they treat their subject as a
generic human, meaning a man; such an approach has been a case throughout the history of
the Western philosophy. She states: “Foucault treats the body throughout as if it were one, as
if the bodily experiences of men and women did not differ and as if men and women bore the
same relationship to the characteristic institutions of modern life” (278). These insights create
new challenges, but also open new possibilities for reformulation and transformation of
masculinity and femininity.
Masculinity studies as a discipline also attempted to address some of these concerns. Some
of the major issues masculinities are preoccupied with is to “deconstruct static binaries in
gender studies between victims and oppressors, difference and dominance, and hegemonic
(or socially validated) and alternative masculinities” (Gardiner 2). Other areas include the
reversal of traditional public/private divide in which “men are analyzed in their most private
attributes: by considering embodiment, sexuality, and emotion” (10.) However, there is some
concern coming from feminist studies about incorporation of such subfield into women’s
studies, which potentially can distract and return the focus to men, which has been the case
all along. Others warn against field becoming white heterosexual masculinity studies.
Nevertheless, the political project most scholars in masculinity studies are interested in is to
make alliances with feminist studies and to demystify masculinity as natural, unchanging,
hegemonic, necessarily violent and dominating. Understanding the multiplicity of
masculinities in various contexts and across various axes of difference can potentially lead to
better understanding of how gender works and affects different bodies. Such insights can be
used to construct effective politics which challenge various fields from politics, law, and
media representations to behaviors and intimate relationships.

Gardiner maps out four points of consensus which exist between feminist theory and feminist
studies: 1) that masculinity is gender; 2) masculinity is not monolithic; 3) there is a need for
cooperation in order to achieve meaningful changes; 4) poststructuralist skepticism about
gender essentialism. Some authors, such as Nancy Chodorow, examine masculinity and its
formation through the lenses of psychoanalysis. Chodorow challenges notion that aggression
is an expression of masculine essence, but it “emerge[s] from variety of situated
psychodynamics […] connected to self and other […] as a defense against an endangered self
(the sense of danger being physiological, a fantasied or perceived threat of physical or
emotional attack, punitive guilt, shame and humiliation, a threat of fragmentation – and
danger can be felt from within or without)” (243). Thomas agrees that there are potentially
dangerous directions masculinity studies can take, for example, equating injustices against
women and men as equal, without a consideration in dissymmetrical relations to power and
privilege. However, he also sees the potential of profeminist classrooms and politics in which
some “men learn from feminism in order to make subversive interventions into reproductions
of normative masculinity itself” (61). He also calls for politics and practices of typically
phallic and impenetrable male bodies for figural and literal penetration. Others argue for a
need to break away with an old idea gender/sex divide, which implies that gender is somehow
connected to or reflects sex. Judith Halberstam for example, analyses female masculinities.
She argues that female masculinity “disrupts contemporary cultural studies accounts of
masculinity within which masculinity always boils down to the social, cultural and political
effects of male embodiment and male privilege” (345). Halberstam provides with various
reasons why female masculinity can have an enormous potential: 1) it is able to dissociate
masculinity from male bodies; 2) provides non-misogynistic alternative model of
masculinity; 3) it can be used to disrupt regime of heterosexuality; and 4) provide new
insights into male femininities. However, femininities remain undertheorized and for the
most part absent from the discussion. The explanation for that can be found in feminist
theories’ desire to dismantle femininity altogether, since it was associated with submission
and powerlessness, false and destructive internalized ideals. Although Halberstam provides
with convincing arguments the potential remains to be determined. If female masculinity
takes certain signs, behaviors, norms from normative masculinity, but never fully enacts it, is
normative masculinity really challenged? Even if we recognize normative masculinity as
performance, as ideal never fully achieved, nevertheless the power it is able to generate and
exercise remains a reality. If gender proliferation is the ultimate goal, will binary gender
system will be destroyed completely or all other genders will be defined against male/female?
It is possible to envision proliferation of gender expressions, which would be a result of
various subversive tactics, but for the most part, so far, heteronormativity and male
dominance has been able to hold itself as a dominant paradigm. Proliferation of gender
expressions even if it appears as a desirable outcome of new gender and queer theory and
activism does not solve various other contradictions connected to power and difference.

Nancy Fraser describes radical democracy as “the view that democracy today requires both
economic redistribution and multicultural recognition” (460). She argues that there has been
shift in identity and cultural politics which focused almost exclusively on recognition, rather
than redistribution and political economy. Such a shift has been theorized by other theorists
such as Lisa Duggan, who argued that social movements of the 1960s - 70s had much broader
transformative goals of the whole system, rather then recognition and inclusion in the existing
structures. Can rigid gender and heteronormotive structures be dismantled, if they are
intimately interconnected with existing juridical, political, and economic institutions of
power? Postructuralist and postmodern theories which emphasize individual identities and
cultural expressions without seriously engaging or proposing how power structures can be
altered or replaced seem to be missing important piece of the puzzle.
Another drawback which has been widely criticized by feminists, such as bell hooks, is
exclusive nature of academic language. The theoretical discourses and academic jargon is not
a problem in itself, if it is productively utilized within academia. However, it becomes
problematic when it does not travel outside the walls of academy. The difference between
second wave feminism and their politics rooted in mass politics and today’s feminist
academic producers is that they have completely different audiences and effects. Of course, it
is a gross overgeneralization that academic theories do not “travel,” but it is quite evident by
skepticism about radical transformation of the state, politics, and economy that is not an
academic priority. Politics or recognition and inclusion typically do not challenge existing
reconfiguration. Fraser argues that “affirming some identities […] requires transforming
others” and that “we should develop an alternative version of antiessentialism, one that
permits us to link an antiessentialist cultural politics with an egalitarian social politics of
redistribution” (467-68). That is the challenge for postmodernist project of gender
destabilization and transformation.

Another challenge is commodification of difference and illusion of real diversity, while in

reality normative structures remain in place. bell hooks writes: “the commodification of
Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more
satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling” (21). The difference can no longer be
always assumed to be a positive and progressive expression, since differences work on
various axes of power; some are accepted or commodified while others are made abject.
Without addressing capitalist reliance to maintain poor and marginalized in order to extract
surplus value and have excess labor pool, we cannot realize just society, which will be simply
paved through culture politics and multiculturalism. Neoliberal reliance on self-policing of
docile citizens produced variety of previously marginalized people, who have compromised
ideals of social transformation in order to gain recognition. Progressive, transgressive, or
radical masculinities and femininities (and endless other –ninities we will come up with) will
need to be aware of these dynamics if they are really meant to have a radical potential.
Without a focus on radical democracy we will continue to rely on “a body on which inferior
status has been inscribed” (Bartky 283). Postmodern theories of gender provide important
insights but we need effective politics which goes beyond postmodern theory and skepticism
confined within the walls of academia.
Works cited:

Bartky, Sara Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Theorizing Feminisms: A
Reader. Eds. Elizabeth Hackett and Sally Hasslinger.New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

Butler, Judith. “Against Proper Objects.” Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader. Eds. Elizabeth Hackett and Sally
Hasslinger.New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Butler, Judith. “From Gender Trouble.” Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader. Eds. Elizabeth Hackett and Sally
Hasslinger.New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Combahee River Collective “A Black Feminist Statement.” Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader. Eds. Elizabeth
Hackett and Sally Hasslinger.New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Chodorow, Nancy J. “The Enemy Outside: Thoughts on the Psychodynamics of Extreme Violence with Special
Attention to Men and Masculinity.” Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions. New
York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy.
Boston: Beacon Press, 2004

Gardiner, Judith. Introduction. Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2000.

Halberstam, Judith. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory:
New Directions. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 2002.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader.
Eds. Elizabeth Hackett and Sally Hasslinger.New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Nancy Fraser “Multiculturalism, Antiessentialism, and Radical Democracy.” Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader.
Eds. Elizabeth Hackett and Sally Hasslinger.New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Thomas, Calvin. “Reenfleshing the Bright Boys; Or, How Male Bodies Matter to Feminist Theory.”
Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions. New York: Columbia University
Press, 2000.