It’s easy to see conflict between people of certain genders as a problem, but what if I told you that gender itself is the root problem and that conflict between gender groups is actually a design feature? Gender says it is a set of discrete categories based on nature which imparts a series of roles and expectations onto members of these categories. Gender affects everyone whether or not we believe in it or accept its dictates about how we are supposed to live our lives. All of us should reject gender in its entirety in furtherance of justice for all.
Gender says it is a set of discrete categories based on nature which imparts a series of roles and expectations onto members. Consider the following bizarre interaction in Stone Butch Blues. A group of people is working hard to develop identities based on rejecting assigned gender roles. One older member of the group dies, and the younger members are expected to ritualistically embrace their assigned gender roles at a funeral in honor of another person who spent their life working to reject those assigned gender roles. It’s a strange and dissonant moment where a group of people who are working tirelessly for decades to develop and expand their right to exist outside the dictates of heterosexist culture suddenly choose to reject all that and do as the patriarchy tells them. In fact, several members of the group don’t even have the “proper” patriarchy-sanctioned clothes to wear, so they end up shunned by others in the group afterwards. This bizarre and contradictory conflict can only exist within patriarchy. This is a good example of internalized heterosexism. People who are steeped in decades of experiences where the heteropatriarchy is trying to force them to conform may choose to reject that conformity, but also internalize deep self-loathing related to their choice to be at odds with what the culture is trying to force them to do. In this example, the group pressures some of its members to conform to patriarchal expectations. This small act of submission to the patriarchy provides a cathartic release while also executing a down-girl move on everyone who has worked so hard to develop an identity of rejecting the heterosexist culture.
The idea that gender is based on nature or some objective measure of reality is called gender essentialism. Academic critiques of gender essentialism abound. If you haven’t read them, you should. In reality, human sexual diversity is enormously complex. There are at least six possible combinations of human sex chromosomes, and dozens of other intersex conditions. By existing in nature, these examples refute the argument that gender is based on nature. There are also many purely philosophical arguments against gender essentialism which we don’t have time in this essay to expound on. Gender was invented by humans as a tool which facilitates the collective theft of power and resources by one group; men. We see many interesting examples corroborating these points in gay male culture. As David points out in Giovanni’s Room, it doesn’t make any sense for Giovanni to expect him to act like a housewife. David chooses to reject the roles and expectations associated with being a woman. It is common for men in all-male situations and environments from locker rooms to gay relationships to weaponize gender and use down-girl moves to demand subordination from one another. This bizarre behavior demonstrates two things which I have already stated; gender is not real, and gender has nothing to do with the sex characteristics of a person.
Gender is a socially constructed set of arbitrary and made-up categories. Gender classifies people into these categories which each have sets of roles and expectations. Until recently women were considered property of men and without free agency, the capability of being self-actualized individuals, voting rights, and the right to own property. This has very recently changed in some liberal and post-liberal cultures, but it remains the law of the land throughout much of the modern world and throughout almost all of the pre-modern world. Systems of identity which are created to facilitate the theft of power and resources from one group by another are called systems of oppression. Gender is part of a system of oppression called sexism where men form a privileged group called the patriarchy which has the power and resources. Other examples of systems of oppression are racism, classism, casteism, ruralism, ageism, ableism, etc. All of these are different but all of them work in the same way; one group is elevated and another is subordinated, one group receives stolen power and resources while one group has them stolen. The pervasive culture which develops to embrace and enforce gender is called heterosexism or the idea that there are some real set of genders based on sex. Gender is the idea that some people should be doing certain things while others should be doing other things, based on their genitals or on fantasies about what chromosomes are. This belief is fundamentally, necessarily, and inextricably rooted in oppression of one group by another.
The work of enforcing systems of oppression comes from small acts called microaggressions which add up to form the larger system. I like the Kate Mann perspective which is that these can be thought of as “down-moves.” In the case of sexism, they are often down-girl moves which are designed to subordinate women and show them their place is beneath men. We will come back to this.
One good example from the readings comes from David of Giovanni’s Room and his relationship with his father. David’s father has no woman around and therefore the roles and expectations assigned to women parents are simply not conducted. Elements of maternity such as closeness, empathy, nurturing, and care are simply denied to David. His father acts out only the roles assigned to a patriarch; distance, emotionlessness, drunken chauvinism, etc. David’s upbringing and emotional development are harmed by receiving only a portion of the parenting skills which form the complete picture of a healthy relationship between a parent and child; precisely because his father chooses to limit his actions to fit the roles and expectations assigned to his gender while choosing to actively deny David the healthy and important roles and expectations which are instead assigned to the absent mother.
Another example is David’s toxic relationship with Hella. He tries to make it work in order to meet the expectations of people in general and his father specifically. In the end, he destroys that relationship too. This relationship is built on lying about accepting gender roles and expectations while secretly rejecting them. When she finds out the truth, she leaves him.
A third example is Giovanni’s open and vociferous misogyny. He thinks of them as objects, treats them like objects, abuses them physically and emotionally. This is very common for men who have multiple dimensions of privilege. For example, when someone is white, cisgender, affluent, able-bodied, etc, all of those things can combine and amplify one another to provide that person with the perspective that lots of different kinds of people are beneath them, and any one of them may be treated as an object. It becomes more than just a down-girl move. It becomes down-black, down-disabled, down-poor, etc. People performing acts of subjugation will often seek to expand beyond the directly related distinctions. Giovanni frequently includes other things with his misogyny such as adultism. He will call an adult woman a “little girl.” In order to leverage other areas where he has privilege in order to amplify the impact of his down-girl moves. In order to perform his role as a man, he feels compelled to subjugate, belittle, and objectify women.
Gender is not necessary. At some point in the past, people existed as australopithecines. At some point before that, we were shrews. At some point before that, we were microorganisms. The idea that people should live a certain way because of their genitals was invented by people and before that moment we didn’t have gender. Therefore gender is not necessary. We got along just fine without it, and we will get along just fine without it.
Take for example Hella’s contradictory views about gender progressivism and a desire to submit and be a housewife. If she chose to truly embrace gender progress and base her life on these core principles, then the tension and conflict around wanting to submit and be a housewife would be much easier to deliberately reject rather than living a life of quiet desperation and internal logical inconsistency. Why submit to the pressure to embrace the patriarchy and its plans for you when you could instead spend your life dismantling the patriarchy and being liberated from its demands for you? This character’s internal conflict seems to be closely connected with David’s conflict at the door knob. He knows that if he doesn’t leave now then he never will. He knows he has a choice between living an honest life or climbing back into the comfortable lie. He chooses to go back to living a lie, and it costs Giovanni’s life as well as costing the marriage he goes on to try to force with Hella.
In the Stone Butch Blues funeral example, everyone who rejected calls to submit to the patriarchy miraculously survived the experience. Social tension arises as a result, and that’s the cost of living an honest life. Everything from using the locker rooms at the factory to doing the work at the factory which corresponds to specific assigned genders, somehow miraculously continues to function when the people involved reject their assigned genders and do whatever they want to be doing instead of what they are “supposed” to be doing.
There is no case where requiring certain roles and behaviors for one group versus another does not result in a system of oppression. Every action has a cost and potentially a benefit. Costs accrue. Benefits accrue. And systems of oppression make sure that the costs accumulate with one group while the benefits accrue with another group. There is no balanced system; the genders can not be equal if the roles and expectations placed on them are not equal. The people with power and resources will gain more power and resources. The people without power and resources will continue to lose power and resources until the system is dismantled. There is no fix for systems of oppression.
Take for example the case of Molly who entered New York City sleeping in an abandoned car with Calvin. If they had chosen to give up their liberated identities and conform to patriarchal expectations, maybe they would have been a happy straight couple raising children in the back seat of the abandoned car, but they certainly would not have moved into the upper echelons of the city in the next few weeks.
Just imagine then what David and Giovanni might have found together if David had made a different choice at the door knob. Probably Giovanni would not have died and maybe they would have been able to find happiness together. It seems likely that Hella could have pursued the life she really wanted, working on progressive women’s issues instead of submitting to be the housewife of a self-loathing homosexual.
A theme emerges from all of these examples; if we choose to base our lives on trying to fulfill the expectations of our assigned gender roles and expectations, we will have a bad time. If instead, we choose to live honestly and do what we actually want to do instead of what out gender roles and expectations dictate we should want to do, we will have a better time and live happier lives.
Finally, consider Ruth’s painting of the sky in Jess’ room in Stone Butch Blues. Jess can’t tell if it’s day or night. Ruth says that’s the point and asks if it unnerves Jess. Jess says yes it does. Ruth goes on to explain that this represents the internal conflict and the part of oneself that one needs to accept. It doesn’t matter whether it’s night or day. It’s not night or day. It’s something else, it’s twilight. Twilight is not night or day. It is its own thing which exists in its own time and space outside of night and day. The idea that we must choose between whether it’s night or day is a false choice. These are reductive and incomplete categories which people made up. These categories do not include all potential cases. When we feel this tension around which category fits, we should interpret that tension as evidence that neither category fits because both are made up. This is a major theme throughout all queer film and literature including the examples given from this class. This is also the point of this essay. I hope I’ve showed that this point is larger than these stories, and while it certainly disproves gender and makes the case that we should reject gender, the argument is much larger than gender.