While feminism has historically been a framework for questioning the legal and societal expectations of women and men, it has often done so without fully questioning the gender binary. Feminism has addressed bio-essentialism — the idea that someone’s biology defines their abilities — but has left the man/woman binary unchallenged. This has led a lot of feminist theory to describe most contemporary distinctions between men and women as societally constructed, while still holding a nebulous yet absolute distinction between them.
The result has been rights-based solutions for gender-based discrimination — but while granting rights and protections may solve particular problems of gender-based discrimination, it doesn’t prevent such discrimination outright. For example, laws requiring equal pay haven’t prevented gender-discriminatory hiring practices. As such, the barrier feminism has run up against is a failure of imagination.
Emerging in the 1990s, queer theory has proven to be a solution to this problem. Rooted in questioning assumptions about sexual orientation and gender identity, queer theory focuses on breaking down identity categories we take for granted, challenging their often rigid, box-based thinking. Central to queer theory is the undefining of things, accepting the oft-blurred lines between what we are and aren’t. It creates a push to undefine gender, opening up the possibility that the categories of man and woman are less definite than we think. This, in turn, helps prevent gender discrimination by both reducing societal focus on gender and making it harder to mark groups to discriminate against.
Interestingly enough, queer feminism’s approach to gender is more in line with the actual science. Physical presentation of sex-based phenotypic qualities — the physical distinctions between male and female — is actually distributed on a bimodal curve, rather than in two discrete bins. Seeing this distribution as discrete categories of “male” and “female” leaves out intersex folk, people whose genetic makeup and/or phenotypic presentation don’t match binary understandings of sex. There’s no clear-cut distinction between male and female, and even assuming there is, that distinction is essentially meaningless, given how morphable the human body is. Given the right hormones, a “male” will present as “female” and vice-versa.
Even more damning for sex and gender distinctions, however, is how sex isn’t a determining factor for gender identity or expression. Not everyone’s gender identity matches their sex, and that shouldn’t be surprising, considering gender identity is more of a feeling than a narrow, unchangeable set of values. That there are men born without penises is a documented fact, and as such, men being born with vaginas shouldn’t be controversial.
Moreover, gender identity and expression aren’t linked either. There are women who present and behave “masculinely,” and there are men who present and behave “femininely,” even though these ways of looking and behaving “masculine” or “feminine” are merely a result of socialization.
Some of what we consider feminine, like make-up, high heels, and the colour pink, used to be considered unisex or masculine. Some things we consider masculine, like computer programming or the colour blue, used to be considered feminine. The gender association of these activities is dependent on our current social narrative and shouldn’t be considered absolute.
Queer theory helps explain why we shouldn’t see specific behaviours as being feminine or masculine. There’s no inherent masculinity to strength or bravery, just like there’s no inherent femininity to softness or vulnerability. There are women who are amazingly strong and brave and no less feminine for that, and there are men who are soft and vulnerable who are no less masculine. We think these things because society has trained us to do so; the project of gendering everything about our lives is pervasive from before birth to after death.
Through queer theory, feminism has begun moving beyond rejecting the outcomes of gendering to rejecting the process itself. Feminism now has the framework not just to criticise and reject the systems at the core of sexism and gender discrimination, but show how they interplay with other systems of oppression and produce answers that are truly responsive to the reality people are living. It’s a sorely needed change. If feminism wants to stay relevant as we head into the 2020s, it must begin to deconstruct the boxes we live in rather than just moving or expanding them.