Comparing and contrasting Queer Theory and Critical Feminist Theory

CJ Trowbridge


SOC 27: Sociology of Gender

Final Exam Assignment

Prompt: Compare and contrast the basic premises of any two sociological theories. How do these theories view the construction of gender? According to each of these theories, why does gender inequality exist and why is it maintained?

I am comparing and contrasting Queer Theory and Critical Feminist Theory. I will start with the fundamental ideas of each theory and then expand and analyze their perspectives on the social construction of gender and on gender inequality under each framework.

There are many forms and versions of Queer Theory. Foucault is one of its undisputed founding parents. (Downing 116) He famously based some of his ideas on Jeremy Bentham’s proposed “panopticon” prison design. (Giusti 91) The idea was for a circular jailhouse with a guard tower in the center. The guard may or may not be watching the prisoners at any given moment through mirrored windows. Additionally, the prisoners can see one another. This idea is part of a sociological theory which Foucault called Panopticism. (Foucault 208) This has the effect that the prisoners are constantly anxious about being observed by one another or by the guards, and they react by self-enforcing the rules of the prison. Foucault argued that this is how our labels work in society. If one identifies as a black lesbian woman, they become responsible for limiting themself to fit those roles, and for fulfilling all the expectations of those roles. They also become responsible for policing others to make sure they are filling their roles “correctly,” and not venturing outside of the norms to which they are socialized. All these ideas which people are expected to self-enforce and to impose on their peers came from many sources: bronze age religions, toxic masculinity, power and control dynamics, trauma, etc. and they feed into these systems of oppression, becoming self-sustaining and self-propagating. Hurt people hurt people. The trauma spreads through peer policing and the institutions and culture which are built on top of these systems.

Through the feminist lens, Queer Theory elucidates a major societal force which supports the oppression of women. People who have the label “woman” are in one of those jail cells. They are self-enforcing those roles and expectations to which they are socialized. They are pressured to police others and accept the policing of others. In this way, the social construction of gender is supported and enforced on the people by the people. Intrinsic to the American ideas around gender socialization is the idea of unequal value for people in different groups, or jail cells in Foucault’s panopticon. The idea of women working for less and being paid less are just another piece in the list of things people in these jail cells are enforcing on themselves and one another, according to Foucault’s ideas from Queer Theory.

Critical Feminist Theory applies critical theory to gender, examining the way pervasive systemic effects tend to impact gender groups. It recognizes that gender roles are a pervasive force in America which operate on the socio-cultural, institutional, and personal levels. Our culture broadly promotes and supports harmful ideas about the purported lower value of the work of women and the role they “should” fill in the family and the workplace. These ideas are enshrined in the many institutions which reinforce and support the oppression of women by imposing these ideas on them via their paychecks and internal power structures. These ideas are also personal and policed internally; both for women and for people of other non-male genders. Stereotype threat means that women who know they are being tested on the basis of gender will often perform worse than they would have, because on some level they believe they are supposed to. Interpersonally, microaggressions and domestic violence are excellent examples where out-group people are using violence and other tactics to oppress women because of the discourses they are socialized to by the American culture around them.

This has broad reaching implications for everyone who participates in American culture. This idea helps to explain how and why men are stealing resources and power at the expense of women. In the words of theorist Max Horkheimer, a theory is critical if it seeks, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” (Stanford) Critical Feminist Theory is generally seen as a framework for activism which seeks to elevate women to equal status with men by examining and exploring the systems and circumstances that conspire to maintain and reinforce the oppression of women. (Echols)

There are many areas where these theories overlap. For example, both theories embrace the idea of gender as socially constructed. Plants and other animals don’t have gender. Gender is a human invention. Gender is the roles and expectations associated with a gender group. Gender is fluid. Gender is dynamic. Gender is transient. It changes and resists definition. Those who prescribe roles and expectations associated with gender are many and they disagree on most of the details. The relationship we have with gender is always in flux. We may follow one set of ideas for a time, and set them down to pick up another. Likewise, we may identify with one gender for many years or just a few hours, and set that down to pick up another. Both of these theoretical frameworks offer ways of viewing gender as a constantly changing piece of our identity.

Both theories center the discussion on the people who are being oppressed. Queer Theory points out that in many cases, internalized oppression means many people are subconsciously complicit in their oppression and contributing to their problems because of their loyalty to their harmful labels. They may police their peers and reinforce the demands of the oppressor. Critical Feminist Theory highlights the tools of the master which are used to oppress women. A famous example from Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the a favorite line often recited which actually comes from Sarah Grimké, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Where Queer theory shines the light on the individual as the
source of a radical solution, Critical Feminist Theory shines that light on the larger culture and institutions.

Another point of agreement is the idea that gender is often harmful in American culture. American culture uses gender to limit a person’s sexual and emotional exploration. It uses gender to keep people in their boxes and their lanes. It uses gender to limit ambition and demand an affinity and interest for certain traits and talents. (Ie. Women are caretakers and homemakers. Men are breadwinners and warriors. Other genders are denied and erased.)

A point of disagreement is the implied solutions to many of these issues. Queer Theory advocates for the iconoclasm of all the harmful labels which are used to oppress people. It calls for a unified Queer Liberation where we all work together to radically liberate ourselves from the many systems of oppression which we can only face together. Critical Feminist Theory typically relies on institutional reform to incrementally address problems like the wage gap and the lack of gender diversity in many careers.

I have mentioned this before, but my favorite lesson from getting this degree in Social Justice has been the idea that all systems of oppression work the same way. These two theories do an excellent job of highlighting many of the problems with the oppression of women. They also illustrate another point. One could exchange “black people” or “poor people” or “fat
people” or any other marginalized group throughout this essay and all the arguments would essentially hold true. All systems of oppression work the same way. We could not have reached this point in the sociological journey where we can discuss queer liberation and liberation mindset without all the work done by Critical Theorists and Conflict Theorists and Queer Theorists and all the other sociological theorists. And now we know that only together can we interrupt these systems that oppress us and others and move forward to a freer and less oppressed future for all people.

Works Cited

Downing, Lisa. “The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault.” Cambridge University Press. 2008.

Echols, Alice. “Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1989.

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.” Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1985.

Giusti, Gordana. Foucault for Architects. Routledge 2013.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 2019-05-15.