#FTF: One is not born, but rather becomes, a pretty pink princess

Feminist Theory Friday returns to set the record straight: Biology is not destiny.

Image from “The Paper Bag Princess,” by Robert Munsch, art by Michael Martchenko

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.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • oneclickboedicea

    God, so wish judith butler stfu

  • Topazthecat

    This is just ludicrous,no one was born in clothes,high heel shoes or any shoes or make up and they don’t fall from the sky or grow on trees and obviously aren’t natural ,and there were no clothes in the beginning of time so girls and boys,women and men were nude and obviously not wearing gender stereotyped clothes,and in Scotland men wear kilt skirts,and there was a time when women weren’t even allowed to wear pants.

    And before world war two,people used to dress baby girls in blue because it was described as a delicate ”feminine” color,and boys were dressed in pink because it was described as a light red strong ”masculine” color and then they totally reversed this,which just further demonstrates how totally artificially socially constructed all of this gender bullsh*t really is!

    Here is my important blog with a lot of great strong psychological research and other important information,Debunking Common Sexist myths of Gender


  • Topazthecat

    Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability … – Science

    Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests


  • Hekate Jayne

    Here’s something that has been irritating me, lately.

    Transdudes love to talk about how they are really women. They are ladies, they want to use the ladies restroom. They are ladies because they feel like ladies. We can all see by their dresses and their make up that they are the ladiest of all the ladies! They talk about the realities of their ladiness. About shaving their legs, their surgery to create a fuckhole, of how us cisladies just refuse to capitulate to their lady penis.

    But we can’t talk about womanhood at all. If we talk about our born experiences, our bodies, anything at all related to ourselves as women, it’s a HATE CRIME. We are the evilest of all the evils.

    The only things that we are allowed to say are “go, girl!” or “but of COURSE, your penis is a lady penis! Nothing says female like a dick!”

    And that’s it. Agree or be silent or else BIGOT.

    • Alienigena

      What gets me is that we are supposed to accept MtTs at face value (and not all shave their legs, let alone their faces) but women are reviled and almost physically attacked if they are not hair-free, and perfectly porn ready (re: shape of genitals, etc.). I mean I have seen pictures of MtTs in dresses but with beards. MtTs have to be completely self-obsessed to not notice the contradictions between how they treat other people and what they expect in terms of treatment from the world. Most activist MtTs demand complete deference if not capitulation to the trans insistence that men’s penises are just extra-large clitorises, so men should be allowed to invade women’s spaces just because they feel like women. I thought that extra large clitorises were a bad thing (on women), given that more and more young women are getting plastic surgery to reduce the size of their clitorises and labia. Talk about a double standard.

  • Alienigena

    Couldn’t agree more with the title of this blog posting. A recent news article on CBC frames the issue of cosmetic gynecology as morally neutral and harmless. According to the CBC article, only critics (framing logical, sensible, ‘do no harm’ types in a negative way as critics) believe that the science does not support surgeons’ claims that the surgery (labia reduction, etc.) helps with sexual dysfunction. Ordinary people without MDs aren’t even allowed to question the reasoning behind cutting off bits of yourself to satisfy a warped society’s Barbie aesthetic.

    Services offered by one clinic in Toronto
    “The Toronto clinic offers a range of cosmetic gynecology procedures that also include vaginoplasty to tighten the vaginal muscles, labia puffing to increase the outer labia, and hymenoplasty to repair broken hymens.”

    Radical feminists were described by the authors of a few recent CBC opinion pieces as misguided at best and just evil people at worst because they reject the delusions of autogynephiles (I like that term) who want access women’s facilities. Unless you are mindlessly positive about everything in society your views are discounted. The whole mantra of positivity has become a mantra for idiots. I don’t care what kind of positivity it is (sex, or health based (e.g. breast cancer)), it really is a mode of thinking only suitable for the willfully ignorant, i.e. idiots.


  • Men and women have different reproductive rights, but gay marriage has forced people to reject that fact and reject sex entirely.

  • Alienigena

    I have a colleague (PhD, Humanities) who insists that plants have feelings. From my understanding (undergrad degree in plant biology and several years of lab research as well) of plants, they do not feel, because they do not have a nervous system. They respond to light (proportion of daylight hours to darkness is important trigger for flowering), gravity (geotropism), and water but not in the way a vertebrate (assume homeotherm) or human does. So it makes no sense to say they have feelings, sensations. I don’t know if she says this to be a contrarian or if she actually believes it, on some level. One of my childhood friends had an academic for a father (economics professor) and he was a member of the flat earth society, I think just to be contrarian.

  • ChoderlosdeLaclos

    I guess I think that anyone who says that nothing is ultimately true (except cultural relativism itself, which of course must be true since this is the position I as a post-structuralist am advancing) is of necessity incoherent. Anyway, there’s a book by Ted Benton about post-structuralism that I have found helpful. It’s called (with premature optimism): “The rise and fall of structural Marxism.” Post-structuralists and postmodernists are in my view deliberately opaque because they associate features of modernism with fascism. A part of this goes back to Althusser who was relying a great deal on a guy named Gaston Bachelard for his creation of a Marxist ‘science.’ Bachelard wrote books like the “Psychoanalysis of Fire” in which he described how our experience of fire, for example, if we put our hand in it, is 100 percent cultural. It’s a lot like Quines’s notion of a paradigm shift which has little to do with the object of science (the reality underneath). That is, science doesn’t advance through discovery of things in the world, but rather it advances through changes in social conventions. If you are a scientist, this should seem very dangerous as a world view. Personally, I am a realist when it comes to the objects of science. I do think there are political trends in science, but those are not science. They’re what I would call bad science, or science mixed with non-science. I can’t see how you can explain actual scientific advances like cures for diseases any other way. Anyway, there is a link to Foucault speaking very affectionately about Bachelard below (he
    says: “you know what I love about Bachelard is that he is playing
    against his own culture, *with* his own culture etc. etc.” he talks about the hierarchies of received wisdom that we get handed down to us etc.). . I’m sorry I can’t find a translated link. The reason I know about this lineage is that I wrote a Master’s thesis that touched on it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OH26YV1krFA

    • Wow.

    • radwonka

      “epistemological relativism”

      so you are pro relativism? lol, ok… I always knew that post structuralism was no better than postmodernism with all that relativism crap.

  • Meghan Murphy

    You’ve never heard of Butler? She’s kinda the OG of queer theory…

  • ChoderlosdeLaclos

    I made the mistake of editing my reply to this question and it seems to have disappeared. I’ll try reposting later.

  • Meghan Murphy

    How so?

    • Chris

      Because nothing in this article bears any relation to anything I know about queer theory. Particularly the quote I pasted above, I literally have no idea where she got the idea that advocates of queer theory believe that

      • Meghan Murphy

        Ok. Well I suppose you’ll have to take that up with her. Just curious about what it was you took issue with.

      • radwonka

        “nothing in this article bears any relation to anything I know about queer theory.”
        “zero connection to any kind of queer theory I’ve encountered”
        ” no relation to any queer theory I’ve ever heard of”

        We GOT it dude. No need to repeat yourself. Now give examples or something ffs.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Queer theory has always been supportive of the idea of transgenderism, though. Feminists who criticize transgenderism/discourse surrounding transgenderism do so because they believe women are oppressed as a sex class, not because of gender identity or expression — ideas that were invented through queer theory.

  • radwonka

    Simone de BEAUVOIR* ffs

  • ChoderlosdeLaclos
    • Meghan Murphy

      Shared this one online recently. VERY good imo.

  • Meghan Murphy

    If you continue to manipulate people’s arguments, you will lose your commenting privileges, Rachel.