A Short Review of Wilchins’ Queer Theory, Gender Theory

Riki Wilchins’ book Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer is an accessible introduction to Queer Theory, a discipline which seeks to disrupt the male/female gender binary by deconstructing gender, revealing it to be the product of culture and social conditioning, not a natural or essential category. QueerTheoryQueer theorists and many contemporary feminists believe that while ‘sex’ may (or may not) be a biological category, ‘gender’ is purely a social construct. Wilchins’ book balances a practical application of Queer Theory with an explanation of its ideological roots in postmodernism. Her conversational writing provides insight into her basic worldview and outlook on reality.

Wilchins’ first few chapters discuss the connection between the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the transgender rights movement. She argues that while the feminism achieved great success in terms of women’s rights, it did so at the cost of ignoring actual gender issues: “feminism had focused on winning for women the same rights as men… but not the right to masculinity itself… Women’s femininity was offered as the guarantor that feminism wouldn’t go too far. Too far, in this case, meaning going after gender.” (p. 12) As a result, while “it’s finally acceptable for women to have ‘masculine’ jobs, wield ‘masculine’ power, and achieve in ‘masculine sports,’ it is still totally unacceptable for women to be masculine” (p. 13). In a similar way, the gay liberation movement procured gay rights, but also avoided issues of gender: “The New Gay had to look more palatable and more gender-normative. Gay rights activists began backing away from issues of gender, and therefore from queerness” (p. 21).

According to Wilchins, both of these movements took a wrong turn in failing to realize that gender was the key problem facing women, gay men, and lesbians: “it never occurred to us that gender expression ought to be a civil right. Making gender a rights issue gives people permission to own how each of us is punished for not conforming to gender roles and stereotypes” (p. 24). However, the transgender movement in recent years has been energized by “the amazing conquest of academia by postmodernism, particularly queer theory” (p. 26). To understand how that happened, Wilchins turns next to the philosophy of Derrida and Foucault.

“The roots of postmodernism -and much or what has become ‘queer theory’- life in an obscure speech given…by Jacques Derrida” (p. 39). Derrida challenged the idea that language itself is innocent or neutral. Instead he believed that “Western thought has always over-valued or privileged language [so that] what is named is real, and what is not has no existence.” (p. 44) Derrida’s attack on language was actually an attack on Western culture: “Derrida is infuriated by the Western compulsion to create totalitarian forms of knowledge.. [it is] a kind of selfishness, a tyrannical desire to produce final Truths and to judge other cultures’ and other people’s ways of viewing things… For Derrida, the entire tradition of Western thought… is dominated by an essentially dishonest quest for what is universal and certain” (p. 48). To counter these ideas, “Derrida inaugurated a new practice, called deconstruction [which] reveals that a given Truth is not transcendent, that it is dependent upon other small-t truths, and that it is culturally constrained.” (p. 50)

Along with Derrida, Foucault also contributed to the foundations of Queer Theory: “If Derrida had deconstructed thought, it fell to another French philosopher, Michel Foucault, to deconstruct the thinker” (p. 53). “Just as Derrida considered how we think about the world as constructed, Foucault understood how we think of the Self as constructed” (p. 53-54). Particularly relevant to Queer Theory is Foucault’s (historically questionable) discussion in The History of Sex of how post-Enlightenment Christianity imbued sex with special meaning: “Sexuality had emerged, not as a pleasurable appetite… but as the central problem of living a moral life” (p. 56). Consequently, “Sexuality and gender have emerged as central foundations for social identity” (p. 58). By punishing and regulating sexual acts, society did not just change behavior, it produced new self-knowledge and a new form of identity: “[Foucault wrote that] Where ‘the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species‘… Where homosexual acts had been what one sometimes did, the homosexual person was something permanent, what one was…. For the first time it was possible… to identify one’s self as a homosexual” (p. 62).

How was the category of ‘homosexual’ produced? According to Foucault, through a “new form of power.. discourse” (p. 65). To Foucault a discourse is “a social dialog; a discussion society has with itself: a set of meaning-making practices. Discourse is a set of rules for producing knowledge that determines what kinds of intelligible statements can circulate” (p. 65). Discursive power is not the same as repressive power, the “potential of the state to abuse the individual” (p. 69). Instead, it “produces specific kinds of individuals, with specific bodies, pleasures, and sexes” (P. 69).

Queer Theory deploys these tools and ideas to deconstruct gender norms. For example, Wilchins applies Derrida’s critique of language to gender: “According to Derrida, [the reliance of language] on difference also leads to a tendency to see the world’s complexity in terms of simplistic binaries: strong or weak, black or white, fish or fowl, gay or straight. Western thought tends to cast any difference into opposing halves that between them exhaust all meaning… But with gender, it’s exactly this space in between – familiar binaries like masculine/feminine, man/woman, top/bottom, butch/femme, and real/artifical – that we want to explore, reclaim, uphold… In the end, binaries are not just a curious way we have of understanding the world. They are political. They are about power. They create hierarchies – male/female, white/black, colonial/native – that produce winners and losers” (p. 46-47). “Obviously, Derrida’s work is deeply subversive to our traditional ways of thinking and our notions of truth. It is not so much a set of truth claims itself as a tool for dismantling other forms of knowledge and truth claims. Of all the things we know about ourselves, first and most fundamental is our bodies: things like sex, sexuality, and gender. And of all forms of knowledge we have, among the most oppressive… are things like Sex, Patriarchy, and Heterosexism” (p. 51) “Objectivity is meaningless when it comes to gender and queerness because the very notion of queerness, the production of some genders as queer, and the search for their origin and meaning are already exertions of power” (p. 68).

Wilchins’ most controversial chapter is “Can Sex Have Opposites?” in which she argues that not only gender, but biological sex is -in some sense- a social construct. She recognizes just how radical this thesis is: “a number of people have warned me about including this chapter, anxious that any attempt to deconstruct Sex itself would be so far-fetched that it would undercut the book’s credibility and alienate readers” (p. 78).

Wilchins’ argument is not that biological sex does not exist “out there”; she recognizes that two sexes are required for humans to reproduce. Rather, the meanings we impart to biological sex are a social construct: “the facts of sexual reproduction have resonance only if we imbue them within a meaningful narrative, a context. In this case it’s the cultural narrative of power and gender, as we understand it in a sexist, hetero-centric culture” (p. 83-84). On Wilchins’ view, we have used small anatomical differences to justify the creation of a wholly illusory binary: “Sex is not necessarily inevitable and essential… [it need not have been] this infinite quality pervading every aspect of our bodies and separating humanity into two, distinct, binary halves” (p. 91). In other words, sex might have been just as unremarkable as hair color, eye color, or height; it need not have divided humanity into two distinct ‘halves.’

Finally, Wilchins devotes several sections of her book to Critical Race Theory (CRT), drawing some fascinating connections between Queer Theory and CRT, which both emerged from the broad tradition of ‘critical theory.’ “Proponents of Critical Race Theorist [sic] (CRT) are reimagining race, racial identity, and its intersection with homosexuality and even queerness. Motivating their work is the assertion that racialist -and even racist- behavior is not simply a cultural aberration, but an important cultural norm.” (p. 116) “Critical race theorists question core concepts of race by asking why race stratification exists, how it is applies, and how the institutions most charge with remedying its effects -law, religion, philosophy, and science- have contributed to its consolidation. Many of these writers constitute a second wave of progressive thought, wielding postmodernism to deconstruct yet another facet of bodies while correcting some of the omissions of the first…. [CRTs like Richard Delgado and Kimberle Crenshaw] want to show that what the law regards as color-blind and normal in fact reflects a deep sense of white culture and implicitly mirrors white normality… Race-critical scholars see law and legislation as a series of stories the dominant culture tells itself to reflect and extend its own values and needs, but which maintains its power precisely by presenting itself as universal” (p. 117). 

To put it another way, both CRT and QT are different aspects of the same basic project. Both seek to identify and deconstruct social categories (race and sex/gender, respectively), showing how the ruling class manufactures these categories to attempt to justify its dominance: “As with gender and sexual orientation, the struggle against discrimination begins with asking how the dominant culture produces, enables, and demands a particular kind of person with a specific racial self-awareness.” (p. 118-119). Indeed, Wilchins sees these two enterprises as inseparable: “If there is no single basis for race, and if race is at least in part discursively constructed, then it must be inseparable from other dimensions like age, sex, class, sexual orientation, and gender” (p. 110).

What should Christians think about the ideas presented in Wilchins’ book?

First, Christians have to reject the fundamental assumptions of postmodernism. In contrast to Derrida’s desire to dethrone language and the written word as reflections of objective reality, Christians believe in “the Word made flesh” and the God-breathed words of the Bible. Language must remain central to our faith because it is through language that God has revealed his truth to us.

Second, Christians should have a healthy skepticism towards ‘deconstruction.’ Even Wilchins recognizes that deconstruction has its limits and cannot possibly be applied to everything without becoming self-refuting: “Postmodernism’s own truth claims are about the nature of truth claims… it pretends that it escapes promoting universal Truths and normative assumptions – the very problem it attacks. Of course it does not escape this at all” (p. 94). To put it another way, when postmodernism says that all universal truth claims are really bids for power that should be disregarded, it is also making a universal truth claim. Thus, on its own terms, we should reject postmodernism’s claims as a bid for power that should be disregarded.

In keeping with the previous point, Christians should recognize that race, gender, sexuality, and all other social categories cannot all be treated on the same footing. While our modern understanding of race and even some of our norms of gender expression are socially constructed, gender itself is not. For example, the Bible does not specify that pink is for girls and that blue is for boys. Yet recognizing that this assignment is a cultural artifact in no way commits us to the belief that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are likewise cultural artifacts, rather than essential categories created and ordained by God as ‘very good.’

Finally, I had very mixed emotions reading Wilchins’ book. On the one hand, her avowed project of deliberately attempting to destroy and dismantle the gender binary is deep rebellion again the created order and against God himself. On the other hand, I felt a true sorrow for Wilchins as I read the book. To use the biblical metaphor, she is lost. Lost in an unreality of her own making. Lost in a perpetual state of hand-wringing over her identity. Lost in a world where every gesture, every word, every piece of clothing literally makes and remakes her identity through her ‘performance’ of gender.

Seeing this lostness, Christians should be moved to compassion, just as Jesus was. We should not deny her moral culpability, but should hold out to her the hope that we have a sure and firm foundation in God’s word, a God-given identity in Christ that will never be shaken, and a good shepherd who came to seek and save the lost. Amazing grace found us. May it find her. 

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