Judith Butler’s work on the discursive construction of gender has been a mainstay of cultural studies for a long time, and she has lately argued for the relevance of her gender politics within a wider geopolitical frame. In a recent piece in the Guardian Butler connects right-wing authoritarian states, politicians and religious movements directly to the opposition to gender diversity—as both symbolic (suppression of LGBTQI ideas in schools and higher education) and and real (physical violence against gender diverse people). Butler points out that the culture war on gender is linked to a broader politics of reaction and a creeping authoritarianism—even fascism—in countries such as Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Denmark. By contrast, Butler links a pro–gender diversity position to anti-authoritarianism, claiming that ‘[t]o ask questions about gender…is to engage in a form of open inquiry and investigation’—thus posing a choice between authoritarian or fascist politics that close down possibility and an openness contained within left/progressive politics, of which gender studies forms a now inseparable part.
Undoubtedly, leaders like Orban and Putin are more than happy to encourage discrimination against LGBTQI groups in order to entrench their political power. Consequently, LGBTQI people have profoundly suffered, and continue to suffer, in ways that anyone interested in social justice must oppose. Leaving this line of critique, Butler concludes her article, however, by taking a swipe at gender-critical feminists in democratic societies, aligning them with the authoritarian forces she has just described. She claims that ‘anti-gender movements are not just reactionary but fascist trends, the kind that support increasingly authoritarian governments’ and links ‘gender-critical’ feminists—who broadly believe that women’s lives are shaped by their embodied differences from males as well as the socio-cultural meanings derived from such differences—with the forces of reaction and authoritarianism, seeing gender-critical feminist beliefs as examples of a fascist mindset.
Is this final move a legitimate argument?
There is a false equivalence in assuming that because Putin and Orban and their ilk are anti-‘genderism’ anyone who questions anything in the field of gender studies, or even suggests a tension between the claims of some LGBTQI activists and other broadly aligned groups, is automatically in the anti-gender camp. Butler’s ‘genderism’ versus ‘authoritarianism’ opposition implies a homogenisation of thought and politics that belies the actual situation in gender-diverse communities. Is it possible to disagree with, be critical of, or at least want to debate some aspects of gender studies while agreeing with other aspects? Butler herself notes that gender studies ‘contains various methodologies and debates, …[has] the complexity of scholarship, and [forms] a dynamic field of study throughout the world’. Surely the diversity and mutability of gender studies suggests that there will inevitably be divisions and disagreement as new possibilities arise, new claims to identity are made and so on. One only has to think (to take just one example) of the debate around same-sex marriage and the opposition of some queer groups who saw marriage as a regressive institution and wanted no part of it, or who regarded the politics of same-sex marriage as a problematic fusion of gay politics with neoliberal capitalism. It matters not whether you agree with this position, but it is essential to understand that it exists. In other words, while Butler wants (rightly) to emphasise a diversity of possibility within gender studies, she also wants (problematically) to construct opposition to gender studies and gender-fluid politics as part of a monolithic ‘outside’—an outside inexorably slouching towards ‘fascism’. This might be regarded as a rhetorical shortcut, necessary to the imperatives of journalism. But I don’t think so.
Butler’s description of authoritarian politicians and their anti-gender, anti-LBGTQI stance asks us to assume that oppressive state power and anti-‘genderism’ are a neat fit. However, it does not follow that to be pro-‘genderism’ is to somehow escape authoritarianism, repression or violence. Butler fails to mention the many examples of ‘intersectional imperialism’ where institutions of state and corporate power in the democratic West have actively promoted a pro-‘genderism’ stance while continuing to carry out violent and oppressive campaigns against marginalised groups, governments or individuals who might resist the policies of Western governments.
Remember the ‘woke’ CIA recruiting ad from earlier his year that showed a CIA agent walking down a corridor declaring: ‘I am a woman of colour’, ‘I am a cisgender millennial’, ‘I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder’, ‘I am intersectional’, and concluding ‘I refuse to internalise misguided patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be’? Do we need to be reminded that the CIA has been actively involved for over half a decade in supporting death squads and dictatorships throughout Latin America—from Nicaragua and Guatemala to Chile and Argentina, or that it is right now operating lethal drones above multiple Muslim-majority countries?
Another pinkwashing CIA ad shows a gay recruit saying, ‘I always struggled with the idea that I may not be able to discuss my personal life at work… Imagine my surprise when I was taking my oath at the CIA and I noticed a rainbow on then-Director [John] Brennan’s lanyard’. The recruit concludes that ‘[o]fficers from the top down work hard to ensure that every single person, whatever their gender, gender identity, race, disability or sexual orientation, can bring their entire self to work every day’.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for regimes elsewhere that the CIA supports.
Similarly, the US State department publicly celebrates ‘international pronouns day’ while continuing to support murderous regimes like Saudi Arabia’s—a regime about as far away from ‘genderism’ and pronoun activism as it is possible to be. To this list could be added virtually every intelligence service in the West, multinational corporations, merchant banks and the like. None of them seem to have altered their more substantive extractive and exploitative practices that operate on a global scale, but nonetheless they have managed to pivot to a gender-diverse brand without cost.
Given the ease with which Western state and corporate power has welcomed gender inclusiveness (while hypocritically propping up forces that actively suppress gender diversity elsewhere), it follows that while anti-genderism and authoritarianism are linked there is little evidence that a pro-genderism stance necessarily disrupts entrenched forms of power—except perhaps at the level of human resources and recruitment. Butler must know this. After all, she has written on the Middle East, particularly on the Israel/Palestine conflict, and on post-9/11 culture and politics, so she knows about the use and abuse of state power. So why make such a crude opposition, where pro- and anti-LGBTQI positions line up with either fascism or anti-fascism?
The answer, possibly, is that Butler does not want to engage in the ‘open inquiry and investigation’ she associates with the pro-genderism position. Indeed, at the end of the Guardian piece, after linking oppressive, anti-gender practices with the extreme Right and fascism, Butler claims ‘[t]hat is why it makes no sense for ”gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people’. Butler provides no evidence for any link between gender-critical feminists and reactionary powers. And even if she could, this hardly applies to the majority of gender-critical feminists who have campaigned for years against women’s oppression across the globe, often connecting this with abuses of political power.
For someone whose intellectual career has been predicated on the undermining of entrenched binaries, Butler seems happy with her own stark oppositions between pro-genderism/anti-fascism and gender-critical feminism/authoritarianism. Yet these binaries are unsustainable. What, for instance, is the politics of lesbian groups who question the conclusion made by some therapists that a teenager’s same-sex attraction means they must be ‘trans’ rather than lesbian and who say that through such a diagnosis the progressive therapist enacts a contemporary form of ‘gay conversion therapy’?
However you see the politics here, it isn’t Putin’s.
Is Butler seriously suggesting that gender-critical feminists such as Kathleen Stock, Julie Bindel and now Margaret Atwood(!) are on the side of fascism? Does she think that attempts at ‘cancellation’ such as petitions calling for the sacking of gender-critical feminists are in the spirit of open inquiry that she apparently believes in? By linking gender-critical feminists with authoritarian or fascist politicians, and by suggesting that they simply ‘target’ trans and nonbinary people, Butler ends up with a position closer to that of a social-media activist who shouts ‘transphobic’ at every point of difference than to the nuanced take we might expect of someone known for their complex theory.
In this piece at least Butler provides a caricature of feminist positions that lie outside a free-for-all endorsement of gender fluidity. She avoids theoretical and practical political questions that arise over the tensions between established feminisms that ground some notion of identity and experience in the body and an unbounded understanding of gender and identity. In Butler’s theoretical heyday (the 1990s), the broader social consequences of a gender identity entirely constructed through discourse remained some way off. Two decades later, as we begin to debate dosing children with hormones for their entire lifespan, early-teenage mastectomies and other radical interventions for ‘diagnosed’ gender dysphoria, and start to remove women from the language (‘chestfeeding’, ‘pregnant people’ etc.), it’s perhaps not surprising that Butler would choose the low-hanging fruit of reactionary politicians in which to situate her politics.
Outside the messiness of practical politics (women’s spaces, trans women in female prisons, the medicalisation of adolescents etc.) that she is so keen to avoid, the question remains: if we were to take Butler at her word and argue that gender is entirely a construction, what would this mean? Where does the category of ‘woman’ fit into this new feminism? Does it mean that the only way to liberty is to remove any grounding in the body altogether, and make identity a techno-chemical construct via hormones, surgery, artificial wombs and so on? Given that the technological and pharmaceutical de- and re-materialisation of bodies is increasingly possible, that the radical choice of identity requires a technological regime of its own, is this the kind of future we desire? Is there not the possibility of a new kind of authoritarianism or fascism in subjecting our identities, and the possibility of liberation, to techno-pharmaceutical processes overseen by multinational corporations? Does Judith Butler have anything to say about this?
Richard King, Sep 2021
The idea that there is no significant relationship between sex and gender carries with it an assumption about human beings that should strike those on the material Left as a challenge to an idea of freedom without which ‘the Left’ as a political entity would never have come into being at all…