How do you make an unjust system of power disappear? Easy! Just claim the system of power that exists to benefit the oppressor class is “natural.” You can’t fault or question nature — it simply is what it is. The end. This is patriarchy’s favorite disappearing trick.
Patriarchy tells us that, although it may seem like the world has been set up to privilege men at the expense of women, this is, in fact, not the case. Women are “naturally” subservient, caring, emotionally supportive, bad at leadership, and sexually submissive. Men, on the other hand, are inherently dominant, violent, rational, and ambitious — the superior sex. So, naturally, they run the world.
“Biological determinism” refers to the idea that men and women’s respective social positions are encoded in (and literally determined by) our sexual difference. For example, women’s role of domestic servitude is said to be inherent to being female. “You’re just better than I am at doing the dishes and caring for children, dear — must be your maternal instinct!” Never mind all those systemic barriers, like laws (created by men) that, for centuries, explicitly prohibited women from doing much else…
Feminism calls bullshit on this idea. Feminism views male supremacy, not as natural, but as an unjust system of power, which, like any purposefully constructed regime of exploitation, can be challenged and abolished. Feminist theory asserts that women are not naturally subordinate, but are socialized/educated to be so.
Mary Wollstonecraft proposed in 1792, for example, that women “are made to take on an artificial character before their faculties have acquired any strength,” and taught from infancy that being beautiful and pleasing to men is their most important pursuit. Simone De Beauvoir similarly theorized women’s subordination as a social achievement, a result of thorough restrictions imposed on the female sex:
“Woman is shut up in a kitchen or in a boudoir, and astonishment is expressed that her horizon is limited. Her wings are clipped, and it is found deplorable that she cannot fly.”
Feminism argues that “feminine” practices, like leg-shaving, applying makeup, and wearing high heels are not essential to or determinative of womanhood. A woman who refuses to comply with feminine beauty practices is no less a woman. Femininity is nothing more than a male invention to begin with.
Feminists have long argued that biology is not destiny in order to resist the claim that women’s oppression is essential to our femaleness, and to highlight that standards and stereotypes of “femininity” are externally imposed and socially constructed.
This is feminism’s revolutionary challenge to male supremacy: We weren’t born to be your slaves, your caretakers, or your sexual property. We are more than that, and we will remake this twisted world to reflect the truth of our being.
This challenge has paved the way for numerous successes in the fight for the liberation of women and girls. In recent decades, however, queer theory has turned this basic feminist critique on its head.
Queer theorists like Judith Butler claim that sex (maleness and femaleness) is socially constructed, just like gender (masculinity and femininity). Despite the fact that babies must come from somewhere, Butler suggests sex is only a “regulatory fiction.” Furthermore, she argues that femaleness can not exist prior to or separate from the norms of femininity, that sex is always already a gendered category and that it can and must be “deconstructed.”
While feminist theory argues that male supremacy is not an inevitable result of sexual difference, queer theory takes the exact opposite stance. According to Butler and others, the very existence of sexed biology is oppressive because it is “binary.” In this way, biology is indeed destiny, as sexual difference (due to being a binary) presents an inevitable hierarchy of oppression.
That the regressive idea of biological determinism has made a comeback through the mainstreaming of queer theory is an impressive feat. Now, well-meaning people who are opposed to sexism think they should just pretend that sexed biology doesn’t matter or even exist.
Sexual difference itself has been positioned as oppressive, but because we can’t actually do away with it, the next best thing, according to misguided progressives, is simply to not acknowledge it. As a result, we have reproductive rights organizations like Planned Parenthood using awkward euphemisms like “menstruators” and “folks who have abortions” in place of “women.” An absolutely bonkers infographic Planned Parenthood Ottawa recently shared on its Facebook page read:
“Anatomy isn’t male or female. It just is. That’s why we teach elementary students about sexual reproduction without using the words ‘male’ or ‘female.’”
Feminists defied patriarchal ideology by declaring that we do not have “wandering uteruses” that make us prone to “hysteria” and inherently inferior to men. Feminists also argued that men are not biologically destined to be a bunch of rapist cavemen, and that we should therefore hold them to higher standards, in terms of their treatment of women. We showed that these ideas were were social constructions artificially imposed on males and females.
Queer theory flipped that whole framework upside-down.
In a textbook example of what is known as “patriarchal reversal,” queer theory embraced the idea that womanhood is defined by femininity (described as gender “performance”). In other words, the things feminists worked so hard to show were not essential to women — makeup, skirts, and coquettish mannerisms, for example — are now said to be the things that make a person a woman. This implies that if a woman rejects her oppressive gendered role, it probably means that she was never really a woman at all.
Queer theory claims to have an interest in the feminist project, which has confused discourse on women’s issues. Recently, an email conversation I had with a male philosopher who has published on feminist theory revealed he didn’t actually understand the difference between sex and gender.
He wrote to me:
“I’m not a macho man. I don’t like violent sports, and I’ve undergone a lot of self-reflection and critique from feminist friends to get to a place where I don’t treat women in the brutish heteronormative way that patriarchy prescribes. So, in many ways, I’ve come to have an identity that reflects my gender and not my sex.”
He seemed to be referring to his “sex” as synonymous with masculinity and using “gender” to mean “personality.” I replied:
“Your sex (male) doesn’t automatically make you a rapey, macho asshole. That is actually the gender role you’ve been assigned under patriarchy. You rejecting the norms of masculinity is you rejecting gender — not identifying with it.”
You know we’re in desperate times when a young scholar has to explain basic feminist theory to someone who’s supposedly been studying it for decades.
Right now, it’s crucial that we remember the feminist critique of biological determinism. We don’t need to pretend as though biological sex doesn’t exist or isn’t important, because sexual difference doesn’t naturally cause male supremacy or female subordination. Acknowledging biological difference is, in fact, very important — we need to know who and what we are talking about, in order to address and remedy the unjust power relationship between males and females.
Patriarchy claims that male supremacy is encoded in the sexed biology of maleness and femaleness. And perhaps it’s an indication of something significant when queer theory says exactly the same.