Today I tried to explain my understanding of gender as an attempt to create categories of human bodies that are themselves quite complex and difficult things to negotiate.
One student in the lecture very pithily described the difference between sex and gender as “gender is about who is wearing the pants: sex is about who’s pants you want to get into”.
Meanwhile I introduced the concept of intersectionality: claiming that the course is approached from an intersectional approach to bodies and social categories and power. that the effects of difference in power and identity are almost never experienced according to a single axis alone (ie sexism, or homophobia or class difference or racism) – and that the experience of sexism is always affected by our position in relation to racial privilege and racism, and class privilege and whether we identify as or are read as ‘queer’.
So that is intersectionality. It’s a tricky thing to negotiate, and Elizabeth Grosz has spoken quite eloquently how the fixation on identity politics in US gender studies departments means that intersectional studies can be quite bogged down in specifying the intersections of fixed or essentialised identities – whereas identity and power are often much more protean – power is slippery, and identities are constantly contested and negotiated – even at the bare life stage of those most marginalised by the brutality of race relations in Australia – because life – any life – is like that – bodies are complex and desires are complex and playful and generally quite marvellous….
I also showed a clip from this awesome film which is showing in Melbourne on Sunday week. Intersex activism has had an increasing profile lately with the submission from Organisation Intersex International to the senate inquiry examining consolidation of the Anti Discrimination and Human rights legislation.
We’ll be studying the latter later in the course, however I wanted to show the clip because of it’s emotive appeal, and it’s demonstration of how intersex voices generate a critical imperative for gender scholars. The ground under which we study gender has and is shifting – largely through the work of intersex, transexual and transgender activists and academics.
There is something in the intensity of bodily materiality – of stories of childrens’ genitals being operated on surgically without their choice or agency that offers a visceral challenge to ‘gender binaries’. Suddenly it’s no longer an abstract concept, but a fairly brutal medical/legal regime that causes real pain. Also the matter of bodily excess – that many bodies are born with ambiguous genitalia, somehow evokes a factoid challenge to the gender binary, as if fleshy deviation makes the exception more ‘real’ or ‘innate’ than psychological or cultural exceptions to the gender binaries. Of course I don’t entirely agree with this. I’m interested in how bodies are interpreted as cultural and social concerns, and how power works through and with the bodies we have to create the strange gender systems we live in.