FEMINISM, DIFFERENCE AND IDENTITY


 

Butler defines post-feminism in two ways.  The first draws on Feminist, Simone de Beauvoir’s claims, that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” (Butler 1988, pg. 520).  Butler further explores the idea that various historical ‘acts’ that an individual performs throughout their life experience, builds our view of ourselves, reinforcing de Beauvoir assertion that one ‘becomes a woman’ through learned experiences and expectations of gendered behaviour.  Following feminist theory, that gender is a contrived identity and Butler suggests that in reality there can be no women’s movement, because, to take the theory to its extreme, there is no identity ‘woman”, as it is socially constructed gender.  Secondly, she uses the feminist theory that sexual difference underscores our  ‘naturalized conceptions of gender’ and that gender is contrived, learned and hence can be reconstructed and unlearned (Butler 1988, pg. 520).  In this paper, I will discuss the implications of Butler’s definitions in terms of the act of the recognition of difference.  It will further explore,  Butler’s idea that historical ‘acts’ that determine our view of gender identity and naturalisation can be ‘reconstituted’ to form new models of identity, or in fact, the ability to have no limits to identity, leaving open the possibility of developing an un contrived and more diverse society.

Throughout her paper, Butler uses the term ‘act’, meaning, the ‘conception’ of, or the performance of an idea either physically, or in thought, or in belief.  The act must be one that is shared socially and is historically accepted, and has a constituted and agreed meaning.  She likens ‘Phenomenological’[1] study to feminist theory as the ‘doing of’ or ‘living out’ of these lives in a performative state, much the same as individual feminists lives are different, where underlying belief’s and historical ‘acts’ have constructed a way of being that generally matches an accepted gender state.  She argues that if we view gender as a series of ‘acts’, even if seemingly unrelated, then the composition of these ‘acts’ gives an appearance of substance, ‘a constructed identity, and a performative accomplishment’.  No matter how ordinary or mundane, once we believe the act as performed, the substance of it becomes real, whether it is true or not.  We could therefore suggest that many feminist dilemmas become real merely by the act of exposing them.  By talking about them and by arguing against them we create the substance of the dilemma.  Would not a better way be to concentrate on the positive ‘acts’ that provide a new pathway rather than focusing on negatives?  In my view, this opens up the possibility that feminists (and women in general) are able to develop new ‘acts’ whilst in the safety of their own habitus.  They perform and practice these acts, perfecting them before taking them to the wider society, not as an alternative but by creating a new history.  This would mean that these feminist actors would first recognise and accept the difference in these acts, not merely tolerate or label them.  As Butler suggests, what is contrived can just as easily be uncontrived and then – re-contrived the into the performance of a new ‘act’, thereby changing the actors ‘history’ and providing new possibilities for the future.

In “My interesting condition”, Clausen, J. (1999), discusses her mixed feelings at losing her ‘identity’ as a Lesbian Feminist when she began a relationship with a man.  She had always thought herself as bisexual, but almost because she was also a feminist, the act of having a relationship with a man extricated her from her previous “Lesbian Feminist” friends.  To her friends it was as if she had betrayed them in some way by having a heterosexual relationship.  Although her sexuality and female gendered identity had not changed, where she was previously accepted as bisexual and lesbian within lesbian feminist circles, once she became bisexual in a heterosexual relationship, her behaviour was no longer accepted in these same lesbian feminist circles.  She became almost too different to be recognised, but in fact, she had not changed at all, she had merely changed the sex of the person whom she carried on an intimate relationship with, instead of a same sex relationship, it was now a heterosexual relationship.  Clausen found the resultant separation from her previous circle of friends upsetting and disturbing.  I think this highlighted the hypocrisy of some of her former friends that is was ok to be bisexual and lesbian but by taking up a relationship with a man somehow precluded her from being bisexual and instead made her heterosexual and even cast a doubt over her feminist sisterhood.

In my own view, Feminism is organic rather than something that needs to be defined or performed in a certain way.  Prior to my study of Sociology, I would not have recognised a feminist, and certainly did not realise that there were many different types of feminisms.  Many younger women do not class themselves as, or even identify with being a feminist.  Instead, historical female behavioural models are collected, compared and consolidated, recycled depending on which role the actor chooses to play.  These models come in different forms such as the ‘post feminist’, the post feminist lesbian, the black feminist, the old feminist or the young feminist, and many more.  There are established models for each different type of feminist category, easily recognised by other feminists; however, these models may are not so readily understood and recognised by the wider community.

In “Where is Feminism Now?”  (1997), Curthoys talks about feminism in the mid 1990’s, and she refers to feedback she had that seemed to indicate that women’s search for equality at that time had come a long way (her example being girls on surfboards) since the 1970’s.  Looking back to the 1970’s from where I sit now in 2013, I am not sure that the road travelled has been so positive, or so profound in its success.  Many young girls do not even know how to spell feminism let alone think of themselves as a feminist, and for many older women, this seems like a return to the inequalities of the past.  Curthoys suggests, “what distinguished women from one another is not their generation, but the timing of their exposure to feminist ideas” (Curthoys 1997. Pg 206).  Some women feel no need for feminism at all, or like me have no idea that they were living a life that paralleled feminist theory.  The timing for the need for feminism comes at different times and depends on a women’s country of birth, religion, economic and social status and age.  By this, I mean that in many western countries, women see themselves as already equal to men and with the same advantage of choice, so feel that they are in no need of activism, or knowledge of feminism and the ways that feminism has already helped their lives.  However, in other many other countries this is not the case and women are compelled to rise up and protest the inequalities and inequities that prevent them from having equal choice and the right for self-determination.

Curthoy decided to do a survey via email and one of her respondents (in ‘femailers’ pg199), named Carol, said she respects younger feminists because they openly demonstrate “extraordinarily outrages by forms of sexist behaviour”.  (Curthoys 1997, Pg 206).  As an older feminist, she was impressed as sexism was one of the behaviours she had learned to ‘work her way around’ using the ‘acceptable’ feminine behaviour of the day when she was younger.  Curthoy highlights a different approach by younger women to the same problem, a different way of ‘acting’ and responding to the same issue.  In the early 1970’s, sexism was difficult to explain in a male dominated working environment, and many older women like Carol needed to manoeuvre their way around the minefield of sexual discrimination and inequality as best they could.  We are all now clearer on the definitions of ‘difference’.  We understand the definitions of homosexuality or gays.  We understand the meaning of sex discrimination and inequality, and much of this understanding is as a direct result of work of early feminists.  In my own view, I think that we have regressed.  I see that many young women do not even seem to recognise sexist behaviour when it presents itself, let alone be ‘outraged’ by it.  I still see young boys ‘talking down’ to girls on school buses, repeating the girls questions back to them like they are stupid like they haven’t understood what was being said.  This is exactly the same behaviour I experienced from young men in the late 1970’s.  If you asked a male to repeat something, maybe because you didn’t hear them properly the first time, or you just wanted to make sure you knew what they meant, you were laughed at – and then a patronising response would come back, like “oh high ball”, meaning “you silly girl, over your head was it?”.  I still see this similar situation played out when the boys respond to the girls question by proceeding to give their ‘advice’ as a way of answering the question.  It is a almost invisible difference, but one that helps to promote a mode of behaviour in young girls that see’s them defer to the male, to be more accommodating instead of telling them that it is unacceptable to speak to them like they are stupid.  This becomes a learned behaviour and many girls become women who just don’t want to put themselves in those embarrassing positions where they might be perceived as stupid.  On the other hand, perhaps it is just a different way of handling an old situation.  Being less confrontational at the time could give many young women the opportunity to pick a time and place to make their feelings known later; and I hope that is the case and they are not just recoiling and subordinating themselves because they don’t recognise the implications.  I know from personal experience that this pack mentality of males putting down women is alive and well in many meeting rooms in organisations everywhere.  Instead of women “leaning in” (Sandberg 2013), they recoil into their seats and never correct the behaviour and so it becomes part of their learned identity.  This is a way that historical acts are changing and we as ‘older feminists’ just don’t recognise it yet as a new act and validate it.

If gender is naturalised and learned, then we can unlearn it.  We can change our responses to the way we recognise differences based on gender models.  That is, the way that society has built up an image of heterosexual gender stereotypes, deviant and ‘other’ gendered stereotypes, could be changed by reconstruct new gendered models.  A more radical thought would be to disband current gendered models completely and instead look at each person as an individual, recognising and accepting their existing difference in our society, and drastically enhance possibilities for everyone.  Butler says, “By dramatic I mean only that the body is not merely matter but a continual and incessant materializing of possibilities” (Butler 1988, pg. 521).  For Butler, we have an endless ability to shape our own identity, and that the ‘gendered body’ is merely sedimentation of various acts.  It follows then that by changing the ‘acts’ and the environmental structures that the acts exist in, we must be able to change entire views of gender and through this process uncover a way to completely accept and recognise difference.

She draws a comparison between her own phenomenological studies and the way that feminists analyse personal situations in order to clarify issues shared by others more broadly such as culturally or ethically.  The political solidarity of feminists’ risks ‘making visible’ previously unnoticed acts of oppression and discrimination against women, into something visible.  Highlighting a potentially ‘new’ gender stereotype that will provide the ‘actors’ with new roles, but not necessarily improving the status of women of different culture and race.  This has the effect of further marginalising those that are ‘different’ as they fail to conform to the new gendered role.  Some in Postmodern feminism failed to recognise the different and unique circumstances that specific individuals experienced due to various cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds and were labelled as “white feminists’, promoting feminist theories under the frame of white privilege.  Feminist assumptions based on the experiences of white western feminists, fail to recognise the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity and often failed to serve the needs of global ‘sisters’.  By categorising these individuals into groups where race ethnicity and gender intersected, it only served to further marginalise and disenfranchise these individuals.

Butler points out that each of us is capable of ‘acts’ that contribute to feminism, or more broadly, gender equality by choosing whether to play out the historical version of what our physical body should look like, how we should behave, and what we should believe based on accepted norms.  We have the power to change both ourselves, and our society in two ways.  Firstly, we can create different models of how we look, behave and what we believe, but this takes an understanding of the historical events that have led us to our current view of ourselves.  Secondly, we can recognise and truly value the difference in others, not merely tolerating difference, but embracing and accepting it as intrinsically valuable.  Many contemporary young women do not associate themselves with any form of feminism, but they still experience freedoms not afforded to women a hundred years ago, and indeed even 50 years ago.  ‘Girl Power’, the ‘new traditionalist’, stay at home mum, and the increasing ‘mummy power’ groups are reshaping ‘acts’ of the past in a new way.  They are able to differentiate themselves from their mothers before them but require the recognition, acceptance and respect of older feminists in order for change to happen naturally.

Butler (1988. Pg 525) says, “The transformation of social relations becomes a matter, then, of transforming hegemonic social conditions rather than the individual acts that are spawned by those conditions”.  Butler asserts that you cannot just change the individual and their ‘acts’, but effective transformational change means that feminists need to change the ‘conditions’ under which the acts are ‘spawned’.  We can see examples of this in family environments where little girls wear pink and are rewarded for behaving a certain way by being ‘nice’, yet boys are rewarded for modelling the accepted male gender model, meaning we are still gender differencing when our children are babies.  Even though many parents are aware that dressing children in colours that are associated with their gender is not mandatory, most parents still ‘act’ in the same way that their own parents did, and sustain, in most cases unwittingly, the recognised gender models within families.  The child’s gendered behaviour is reinforced through reward for ‘good’ behaviour when it subscribes to the accepted model and punishment for ‘bad’ behaviour that does not subscribe to the accepted model.  A failure to recognise and validate different ‘acts’ by the child continues to enforce a naturalised behaviour and in my view, limits individuality and ultimately limits economic growth because it can stifle creativity.  A recent study by Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons (2012) of UQ Business School, “Women at the Top” highlights the attributes that high achieving women demonstrate showed clear patterns each female leader had in common.  Fitzsimmons believes that these patterns helped form the attributes that pushed them to the top of the corporate ladder.  There were strong similarities in their childhoods.  Firstly, nearly all the women had suffered a traumatic event in their childhood, something significant enough to interrupt the family flow.  Secondly, almost all the women interviewed were from small business families, so were familiar with the workings of business.  This research is interesting because it shows that these women were in families where individuality and difference to naturalised gender behaviour was recognised and accepted.  Perhaps, many of the historical gendered acts that normally defined the accepted historical ‘acts’ were not present due to the early experience of trauma and thus the protraction of the historical stereotype was dissolved.  The study compared the experience of these women to that of male leaders.  They cited a common ‘habitius’, which in most cases gave them a strong knowledge of the business world and helped to nurture commonly accepted male attributes such as competitiveness, individuality, assertiveness and drive in an environment where they were recognised as a group member – they fitted in and were accepted giving them the confidence to succeed.

Butler argues that ‘hegemonic social conditions’ must change and in a perfect world each person would be able to construct their own view of their identity, instead of having a ‘gendered body’ that is culturally restricted by society.  If the Post Feminist movement is to be transformative, it needs to encourage individuals to construct their own view of their ‘gendered body’ that is unrestricted by culture.  It must encourage individuals to refrain from constructing a view of the ‘gendered body’ that does not recognise the difference and diversity of others as this will only lead to a contrived view of themself.

In summary, Butler’s definitions provide us both enormous possibility for positive change and an equal possibility for stagnation if we don’t look to deconstruct the amalgam of historical acts that still so clearly define us as women.  Without a recognition and respect for an individual’s points of difference, we cannot hope to develop new pathways, and models for gender balance that will sustain us into the future.  We need to constantly question and reassess what makes us think we need to act and be a certain way and ask if it is my identity or is it one that projected onto me by external forces.  The modern world, constantly subjects us to external factors that try to influence our identity.  Not only are we subjected to images from the media that portray women and men in a certain way, we are also bombarded with language that suggests that ‘we want’ this or ‘must have’ and these suggestions can be powerful.  When faced with the external suggestions that degrade our view of ourselves, we can look back at the history of acts that have created this view and reconstruct it to form positive views that enhance us, and revitalise our gendered self rather than those that detract and have us questioning if we measure up and belong.

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Bibliography;

Ang, Ien. (1995), “I’m a feminist but . . . ‘Other’ women and postnational feminism” in Transitions: New Australian Feminisms , Caine, Barbara; Pringle, Rosemary , pgs; 57-73

Butler, Judith.  (1988) “Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory” Theatre Journal , 40:4 pgs; 519-531

Clips from a French TV documentary on Judith Butler, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q50nQUGiI3s&feature=channel_page

Clausen, J. (1999) “My interesting condition’, in Storr, M. (1999), Bisexuality: A Critical Reader.  Routledge. London. Chapter 11, pgs; 107-111.  (Extract)

Curthoys, Ann (1997), “Where is Feminism Now?” in Bodyjamming , Mead, Jenna (1997) pgs; 189-212

Fitzsimmons, T (2012) “Women at the Top” in The Business Magazine of the UQ Business School, Issue One 2012, The University of Queensland Business School, Brisbane pgs; 9-11. (Extract)

Honneth, Axel (1995), “Personal identity and disrespect: The violation of the body, the denial of rights, and the denigration of ways of life” in The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, pgs; 131-139

James, Susan (2000), “Feminism in philosophy of mind: The question of personal identity” in The Cambridge companion to feminism in philosophy , Hornsby, Jennifer; Fricker, Miranda , 2000 , pgs; 29-48

Sandberg, Sheryl (2013), “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”, W. H. Allen , United Kingdom


[1] 1. A philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness.

2. A movement based on this, originated about 1905 by Edmund Husserl. Source http://www.thefreedictionary.com/phenomenological

 

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