Queering up feminism
- Published: 13 February 2011
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Linking queer theory with feminism signals a direction for feminism to take at a time when it seems to be searching for direction. In particular, it directs contemporary feminism, particularly third-wave feminism, away from a less appealing position that some refer to as post-feminism, writes Mimi Marinucci.
13 February 2011
The intimate connection between queer and feminist theory
I am not the first to link queer theory and feminist theory. Even a cursory internet search will reveal various articles and pages dedicated to some variant of queer feminism.
I do not believe that what I refer to as queer feminism is wholly original, however, nor do I believe that the development of new ideas is ever wholly original given the social character of knowledge production. Instead, I conceive of my project as part of a larger emerging trend situated at the intersection of feminism and queer theory.
What I refer to as queer feminism is simply the application of queer notions of gender, sex, and sexuality to the subject matter of feminist theory, and the simultaneous application of feminist notions of gender, sex, and sexuality to the subject matter of queer theory.
Although the word queer is commonly associated with sex and sexuality, queer theory is a way of understanding, not just sex and sexuality, but also gender. Specifically, queer theory avoids the binary and hierarchical reasoning usually associated with these concepts.
Precisely what it is that constitutes the subject matter of feminism varies from one form of feminism to the next. Despite this diversity, however, most every form of feminism addresses at least gender and sex, and sometimes sexuality as well. There is thus an implicit connection between queer theory and feminist theory, and queer feminism makes this connection more explicit.
Queer feminism brings both a queer orientation to feminist theory, and a feminist orientation to queer theory. Part of what makes the union of queer and feminist theory so inviting is that they already have much in common.
As I have already noted, both address the intersecting issues of gender, sex, and sexuality. In the case of queer theory, however, the emphasis is on sex and sexuality. In the case of feminist theory, the emphasis is on gender and sex.
An obvious outcome of uniting queer and feminist theory, then, is that the addition of a queer perspective promises to direct increased attention toward sexuality in the context of feminist theory, while the addition of a feminist perspective promises to direct increased attention to gender in the context of queer theory.
There are other concerns and consequences connected with the queering of feminism, of course, because queer theory does much more than simply accentuate sexuality.
Because feminist theory does more than simply accentuate gender, there are likewise additional interests and issues associated with the explicit insertion of feminism into queer theory.
The significance of bringing a queer orientation to feminist theory is addressed in the first section below, and the significance of bringing a feminist orientation to queer theory is addressed in the second section below.
The queer in queer feminism
There is an unmistakable sense of solidarity linking concern about women's issues and concern about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. This solidarity seems to have more depth than the mere recognition that feminism must reflect the lives of women who identify as heterosexual as well as those who do not.
This solidarity also seems to have more depth than the mere recognition that all people are entitled to equality of rights and opportunities. Instead, this solidarity seems born of a deep understanding that the oppression of women and the suppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender existence are deeply intertwined.
Feminist identity, like LGBT identity, stretches the boundaries of established categories of gender, sex, and sexuality.
Despite the implicit connection they share, there is a history of tension between feminist studies and sexuality studies, both in general and in the more specific case of queer theory.
There is evidence of bias against lesbian women, gay men, bisexual people, and transgender people within the feminist canon. The explicit emphasis queer feminism places on sexuality can go a long way toward preventing such problems.
A related issue is that there is also a history of racism and classism within in the feminist canon. Queer theory's critique of binary and hierarchical reasoning recognizes and addresses all forms of oppression as part of a logic of domination.
The logic of domination is also a concern raised within ecofeminism. The logic of domination is a way of thinking about and interacting with the world and its inhabitants that is structured hierarchically in a manner that justifies the systematic subordination of those who lack power by those who possess it.
The critique of the logic of domination offered by both some forms of feminism and queer theory promises to keep a check on racism, classism, and other expressions forms of oppression.
It is worth noting, however, that queer theory, like feminist theory, also has a history of racism and classism. What this suggests is that bias is pervasive, and a theoretical orientation that promises or aims to address a particular form of bias is never immune from perpetuating it.
Not every critique that aims to attend to oppression will do so equally successfully. This realization can lead, especially initially, to a sense of despair regarding the possibility of avoiding or eliminating bias.
At the same time, however, it can also serve as a reminder of how important it is to filter ideas through multiple disciplinary and personal screens. This process offers what may be our best chance of catching and removing as much of the residual debris of unintentional bias as possible.
Indeed, the linking of queer and feminist perspectives layers yet another screen onto the filter. Because queer theory, and hence queer feminism, embraces multiplicity, there is no limit to this layering of screens in various combinations.
Just as I am eager to integrate and articulate queer feminism, others have integrated and articulated queer perspectives on other fields as well.
Another consequence of linking queer theory with feminism is that it signals a direction for feminism to take at a time when it seems to be searching for direction. In particular, it directs contemporary feminism, particularly third-wave feminism, away from a less appealing position that some, including Elizabeth Kissling, refer to as post-feminism.
Kissling's reference to post-feminism is not intended to signal the end of feminism, but instead identifies the disingenuous process of “taking feminism into account in order to dismiss it.”
Post-feminism seems to suggest that the necessary conditions are already in place to achieve such feminist ideals as social and economic equality between women and men. Women simply need to take advantage of the opportunities already available.
This is reminiscent of the attitude prevalent in the US following the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, which is often regarded as the culmination of the first wave of feminism.
It was widely assumed that allowing women to vote put the necessary conditions in place to achieve such feminist ideals as social and economic equality. Women simply needed to exercise the elective franchise. They simply needed to make their choices.
Similarly, post-feminism upholds the ability to make choices as emblematic of feminism. This is prevalent in popular western culture, and especially pronounced in the makeover genre of television programming and magazine copy where, freedom of expression among women is often reduced to the “freedom,” provided they have sufficient financial resources, for women to “choose” a range of risky cosmetic surgeries.
Casting this as an issue of free choice means missing the opportunity to critique the cultural conditions under which women are socialized to believe that our otherwise healthy bodies will never be sufficiently thin, curvy, tan, pale, tall, short, curly, straight, or whatever.
Post-feminism and third-wave feminism have some similarities, at least on the surface. This is not altogether surprising since both exist in response to, indeed as an alternative to, second wave feminism.
Recall, after all, that Rebecca Walker helped to popularize the expression, third wave, in response to declaration in the New York Times that the feminist era was over and the post-feminist era had begun.
Indeed, both post-feminism and third-wave feminism take for granted that second-wave feminism has outlived its usefulness. For post-feminism, this is because it has already accomplished its mission, thus providing contemporary women with a wide range of options from which to make our precious choices.
For the third wave, it is simply because second-wave feminism is outdated when compared with more contemporary approaches to dismantling patriarchy, such as those featured in the final section of this article.
An important feature of post-feminism is that, whereas queer theory, third-wave feminism, and hence, queer feminism provide a critical perspective on mainstream culture, post-feminism reinforces it by promoting choice, often consumer choice, masquerading under a facade of feminist expression.
Queer feminism thus presents a welcome path toward the ongoing development of feminism as a critical perspective.
The feminism in queer feminism
Just as there has been a history of bias against lesbian women, gay men, bisexual people, and transgender people within feminism, there also has been a history of bias against women within sexuality studies, including queer theory.
The explicit emphasis queer feminism places on gender is an obvious strategy toward preventing such problems. In addition, just as there has been a history of racism and classism in the feminist canon, there is likewise a history of racism and classism in the queer canon.
Once again, I suggest that the addition of another critical perspective, or the layering of additional screens can be useful in filtering out such biases as they occur.
Despite its value in addressing forms of oppression within queer theory, the pairing of the term feminism with the term queer is not at all unproblematic.
One consequence of the radical critique of binary thinking that queer theory offers is that it seems to deny the reality of any categories, including not just categories of gender, such as feminine, but also categories of sex, such as female.
If there are not really any females, if there is nothing that really is feminine, if there are no women, indeed not even any men, then there would seem to be little value in a theoretical perspective organized around sex and gender identity.
Insofar as the term “feminism” is referential of the existing sex and gender binaries, it might seem to be at odds with the rejection of binary forms of categorization.
Despite this apparent contradiction, I have chosen the problematic label “queer feminism” intentionally, in full knowledge of the irony it exhibits. For one thing, I have learned enough from poststructuralism, and especially from Derrida, to understand that, while meaning cannot be fixed permanently, it can be, indeed it must be, constantly negotiated for reference in particular contexts.
This is how sexism, racism, and many other forms of oppression are able to function. Expectations and ideals are constantly revisited and revised, and this is part of what makes them so hard to achieve.
Nevertheless, these expectations and ideals form the standards against which we are judged. In the response to sexism and racism, it is also necessary to recognize how the relevant meanings have been fixed relative to the oppressive contexts in which they are deployed.
This is reminiscent of what Gayatri Spivak referred to in 1985 as “strategic essentialism”. Strategic essentialism is a strategy whereby groups with toward mutual goals and interests temporarily present themselves publicly as essentially the same for the sake of expediency and presenting a united front, while simultaneously engaging in ongoing and less public disagreement and debate.
Additionally, by using the term, I hope to draw attention to the problems inherent in the very notion of “feminism.”
Consistent with ideas from queer theory, it seems that present and past oppression of women, or any group, is ultimately attributable to binary thinking, which inevitably grants priority to the privileged side of the relevant binary.
Thus, the concept of feminism is itself queer, in the sense of “questionable” or “suspicious,” in that it reinforces the very problem it aims to resolve.
Retaining “feminism”, however, reminds readers that, despite intentions to the contrary, the world just so happens to be structured in binary terms, and people assigned as female or feminine are often disadvantaged as a result.
Until or unless the “feminism” in “queer feminism” is rendered meaningless through major linguistic and conceptual transformation, the “feminism” in “queer feminism” will remain relevant.
Mimi Marinucci completed a PhD in philosophy and a graduate certificate in women's studies from Temple University in 2000. Currently serving as associate professor of philosophy and women's & gender studies at Eastern Washington University, Mimi teaches courses on feminism, philosophy, and feminist philosophy.