A philosophical argument starts with premises. Here’s one:
Men rape women because women are women; existing as a woman is the common denominator between the vast majority of rapes in the world.
Do you disagree? I doubt you do.
Now let’s talk about traditional, radical, and queer understandings of what makes someone a woman.
The traditional understanding of gender is strongly essentialist. On traditional genderism, you are a woman because God, or nature, has made you one. Your existence as a member of the group “people called women” is based on your ontological status as one.
The radical understanding of gender is precisely the opposite. On radical feminism, you are a woman because the social system you exist in – male supremacist patriarchy – has placed you into a specific caste based on sex. Your existence as a member of the group “people called women” is based on your coercive designation as such by a brutal arrangement of power.
Now, hanging out somewhere in the middle – queering the essentialist/constructivist binary, you might say, if you’re annoying – is the queer understanding of gender. On queer theory, what makes someone a woman is self-identification mashed with performance. Keep that word in mind. After social construct, the word most often attached to gender is performance.
What that means, of course, is that what makes you a man or a woman is which you choose to be and the ways in which you express that choice. The most common channels through which we self-express would be presentation, speech, and behavior. With some pretty heft simplification of endless Butlerian doublespeak, it comes down to this: Gender is the interaction between what is felt inside and expressed outside in relation to a particular social discourse.
Do you disagree? I doubt you do.
So let’s go back to the earlier premise: Men rape women because women are women; existing as a woman is the common denominator between the vast majority of rapes in the world.
So what does this mean when the understandings of “being a woman” are plugged in?
When you plug in the traditional understanding of gender, you get: Men rape women because God made them as women; being made by God as a woman is the common denominator between the vast majority of rapes in the world. Hopefully we’d all agree that this fatalistic essentialism is profoundly misogynistic and obviously designed to block any challenge to the male supremacist structure.
When you plug in the radical understanding of gender, you get: Men rape women because a concrete system of social power has placed females into the sex-caste ‘woman’; being placed by a concrete system of social power into the sex-caste ‘woman’ is the common denominator between the vast majority of rapes in the world. This approach, the exact opposite of the traditional understanding, offers both a reasonable explanation for the existence of sexual terrorism and a clear method for challenging the structure of male supremacy; if placement into a sex-caste system facilitates rape, abolish the sex-caste system.
So what happens when you plug in the queer understanding of gender? As far as I can tell, you get this:
Men rape women because women feel a certain way about themselves and perform that feeling through specific culturally-mandated channels; feeling a certain way about yourself and performing that feeling through specific culturally-mandated channels is the common denominator between the vast majority of rapes in the world.
Do you disagree? I hope you do.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that individuals in the queer community would actually adhere to such an obviously misogynistic conclusion, but it’s hard to see how they could reject it. After all, when someone says that the designation woman is due to clothing, to mannerisms, to self-identification, they are in effect saying, “You are a woman because you do certain (internal or external) things.” I haven’t heard a good alternative representation of what gender performativity actually entails.
Take this premise – You are a woman because of your behavior or your feelings – and combine it with the far less controversial (I hope) premise Men rape women because women are women. These two interrelated concepts posit a cause for sexual violence and a criteria for womanhood. On queer theory, men rape women because women are women (the cause), and women are women because of women’s behavior or women’s feelings (the criteria). A because B, B because C. Drop the middle, and what do you have? Men rape women because of women’s behavior or women’s feelings. Uh oh.
There’s a term for this, of course: Victim blaming.
There is no way to avoid this disgusting conclusion once you start with the premise that gender is a performance or identity – unless, of course, you’re willing to argue that being a woman has nothing to do with rape and thus denying the first premise. But an honest look at the reality of women’s oppression makes that impossible. In fact, an honest look at the reality of women’s oppression makes any notion of “gender performance” completely absurd.
If gender was performance, then there would be a way to perform that didn’t result in rape for women. But men rape housewives. Men rape butch lesbians. Men rape quiet women in dresses and lipstick. Men rape snarling punks in leather jackets and safety pins. Men rape every type of woman. There is no way for a woman to be that doesn’t risk rape. There is no way to perform that lets women escape the confines of gender because gender is not performance; it’s the designator of who can rape – us, the people called men – and who can be raped – them, the people called women. Performance has nothing to do with it.
When gender is a violent, unnatural hierarchy we are born into, the abuse of females is understood as a brutal result of a power structure that subjugates one class of people to another. When gender is an internal, subjective choice we make, the abuse of females becomes a hazard of identification, a set of circumstances implicitly welcomed by anyone who puts on a particular performance – or even an “affirmation of femininity”, in the words of a particularly noxious figure in the trans community.
Conversely, linking the massive privilege bestowed on men to an internal state erases the structural and political institutions that give power to males at the expense of females – and, shockingly, the ideology that does this is being largely pushed by males with the hopes of gaining access to female spaces, female resources, and female identities. This should be troubling to anyone who seeks to challenge actual, real male supremacy – not male-identified supremacy, not cis-male supremacy, not person-with-this-certain-set-of-feelings supremacy. Male supremacy. You know, the violence men do, to women, because we can.
The heart of gender performativity as a concept is a twin project of blaming victims and excusing perpetrators. By obscuring the brutality of our sex-caste system in a postmodern mist that privileges the internal identifications of men – the oppressors – over the material conditions of women – the oppressed – any attempt to throw the strongholds of patriarchy into focus is immediately neutralized. On queer theory, men win, women lose. What a surprise.
“Gender Performativity” is Victim Blaming