week 9

Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was a dense reading, sometimes hard to parse through but full of interesting observations. This was my first time engaging with a more formal or academic piece on feminist or gender theory since my undergraduate class on gender and communication — which exposed me to a ton of concepts but left me maybe more confused than when I had first started. It seems really difficult to nail down exactly what gender is — it means different things, and is used/performed/present in different ways, depending on who you ask. When I was younger, I remember feeling like the idea that my gender expression was “performative” was condescending, borderline offensive (thinking “I don’t do XYZ for other people, I do it for myself” in the way teenagers are prone to reject any notion that they might be influenced or manipulated in any way). In a somewhat similar way in terms of defensiveness, I have heard certain groups criticizing trans women, for example, for “cosplaying womanhood” in the sense that being a woman does not boil down to wearing lipstick (and it doesn’t; but of course that’s not all there is to trans women’s womanhood). I left that class basically deciding that gender is just something you feel, and the more you think about it, the more complicated it’s going to get. The idea of a gender spectrum is useful here, and it reminds me of a color spectrum — you can’t exactly define where yellow ends and green begins; you could try to poll every person in the world and find the exact hue that matches the average answer, but how useful would that be? In this vein, Haraway’s quote that “Cyborg feminists have to argue that “we” do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole.” really resonated with me. There’s no universal woman, whether in appearance, tastes, perspectives, ideologies, desires, and so on — trying to encompass all women with a single, succinct definition is basically impossible. This is a challenge in taxonomy in general; I was randomly reminded of this while listening to a Dear Hank and John episode this week, where the two podcast hosts get into a conversation about eels and fish (starting at around 25min): 

Hank: “Electric eels are electric but not eels, it turns out.”

Katherine: “Are they fish?” 

Hank: “They’re a kind of fish, they’re just not related to eels. They look like eels, they’re long skinny fish. But yes they are fish. And eels are also fish. There’s a lot of kinds of fish.” 

Katherine: “I thought there was no such thing as a fish.” 

Hank: “[Pauses] This is the thing.”

Katherine: “Okay. [laughs] Yeah, yeah, saying something is something but not something else, or is that thing, but — yeah — like, who cares” 

Hank: “Taxonomy is a big ol’ mess. There are many things that are not actually in a box that makes sense.”

Katherine: “Do you know what I’m talking about when I say fish? That’s what I mean. That’s what matters.”

Looking back at it now, I can’t help but think the conversation could easily translate into a discussion about gender (“There are many people who are not actually in a box that makes sense” in particular, since the “box” metaphor is so common). I guess the crucial point is the last — “Do you know what I’m talking about when I say X?” With gender, this can easily be harmful if people’s expectations or desires regarding the same concept don’t align: if someone communicates their belief that being a woman requires a specific set of body parts, they’ll alienate any woman who doesn’t have all of them (whether they are trans, intersex, or cis women who have gone through procedures like histerectomies or mastectomies). In an even more concrete example, if a husband believes that his wife, as a woman, owes him her full sexual availability regardless of her own desires, that woman is at risk of marital rape and abuse. I feel like Haraway’s “no construction is whole” helps in these situations too — we can stop assuming that the category of “woman” comes along with these bodies and behaviors, and instead look at each specific characteristic when it becomes relevant (for example, when discussing menstruation, referring to “people who menstruate” instead of “women”, since a) not all people who menstruate are women and b) not all women menstruate, for a variety of reasons). Obviously, we have a long way to go until everyone can agree to do away with rigid taxonomies of gender, but I’m glad to see the discussion has been around and hopefully will continue to evolve.