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Sex and Gender, Not The Same Thing

July 20, 2009

I have a friend that I went to school with that cannot comprehend the separation of sex and gender. I have tried to explain on numerous occasions. If I did not possess such a solid core of self-esteem, I may blame it on my inability to communicate effectively. Thus, every conversation ends with her saying something like “I am the one that cleans the house because I was born to be the one that cleans the house” and with me banging my head on the wall.

Following will be excerpts from Judith Butler’s article, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Now I know, or believe I heard it somewhere that Butler is considered a POMO. If so, that should not dismiss some of her more salient points on sex being separate from gender. Or perhaps she wrote this article before she became all POMOish (if she is POMOish). If you find my commentary some what lazy, it is because it is. I will tell you why, brace yourself to hear something cruel, vulgar, and mercenary. I simply refuse to write serious posts on academic type topics unless I am being paid. Yes, you heard right. To me, it is work. I understand that for many people, especially people who have been tracked academically their whole lives, it does not feel like work, but for me it feels like work. I compare it to something as trivial as using my personal cell phone for my job. Not going to happen. If the company I am working for is not going to pay for my cell phone, they don’t get to call me on it. However, my opinions and stories come freely and never feel like a chore, so, I am quite generous  in those areas.

Nevertheless, to me Butler’s article does a great job in demonstrating how gender and sex are separate. Granted, the excerpts I am about to quote are mostly her quoting other people, but, still the point is made. Well, it is in my opinion anyway. After reading this article some years ago, I have never since had an issue seeing the difference between sex and gender. And yes, I too, hate when a form asks me what gender I am. I usually cross it out and write an S or the word Sex in its place.

“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”

Feminist theory has often been critical of naturalistic explanations of sex and sexuality that assume that the meaning of women’s social existence can be derived from some fact of their physiology. In distinguishing sex from gender, feminist theorists have disputed causal explanations that assume that sex dictates or necessitates certain social meanings for women’s experience. Phenomenological theories of human embodiment have also been concerned to distinguish between the various physiological and biological causalities that structure bodily existence and the meanings that embodied existence assumes in the context of lived experience. In Merleau-Ponty’s reflections in The Phenomenolgy of Perception on “the body in its sexual being,” he takes issue with such accounts of bodily experience and claims that the body is “an historical idea” rather than “a natural species.”2 Significantly, it is this claim that Simone de Beauvoir cites in The Second Sex when she sets the stage for her claim that “woman,” and by extension, any gender, is an historical situation rather than a natural fact.3

When de Beauvoir claims that “woman” is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of “woman,” to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project. The notion of a “project,” however, suggests the originating force of a radical will, and because gender is a project which has cultural survival as its end, the term “strategy” better suggests the situation of duress under which gender performance always and variously occurs. Hence, as a strategy of survival, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences. Discrete genders are part of what “humanizes” individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished. Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.

In what senses, then, is gender an act? As anthropologist Victor Turner suggests in his studies of ritual social drama, social action requires a performance which is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.9 When this conception of social performance is applied to gender, it is clear that although there are individual bodies that enact these significations by becoming stylized into gendered modes, this “action” is immediately public as well. There are temporal and collective dimensions to these actions, and their public nature is not inconsequential; indeed, the performance is effected with the strategic aim of maintaining gender within its binary frame. Understood in pedagogical terms, the performance renders social laws explicit.

22 Comments
  1. July 20, 2009 8:04 pm

    I copied the excerpts from the pdf link. I am finding typos. If you have any typo questions, I do have a hard copy of this article and can correct. Obviously, the pdf is not a scan of the original, but a copy that someone transcribed.

  2. July 20, 2009 8:44 pm

    I appreciate this Kitty. I think it was polly (although others have said it as well) who talked about the fact that Judith Butler was actually not saying the things she’s been understood to say about gender. What you quote here would certainly bear that out. Although part of the reason no one understands Butler is her freaking language choices — I mean, is it really necessary to say “facticity” instead of just “fact”? I think it’s more the way she says things, rather than what she says, that makes her a postmodernist.

    I also appreciate your perspective on writing. I think you are right, that I have been trained to understand and use language, particularly written language, since such a young age — and also those skills came easily to me — so writing doesn’t seem like work. In fact, it’s such a great outlet for rage, sometimes, that it’s almost easier TO scream in writing, than to keep it all inside. But anyway, in both your case and Butler’s, I don’t think using language, concepts and experiences that more women can relate to is a bad thing, at all. I mean, take this:

    Phenomenological theories of human embodiment have also been concerned to distinguish between the various physiological and biological causalities that structure bodily existence and the meanings that embodied existence assumes in the context of lived experience.

    I read that, and my eyes start to cross. Why not just say, “Lots of people have talked about the different body experiences people have and how living in physical bodies impacts people’s lives.” It’s like the priests speaking Latin so the regular people don’t know what they’re talking about. Elitist, I guess.

    • July 20, 2009 9:03 pm

      That is so funny, Amy. It reminds me of my lit theory class. White middle class students were coming to me for translation. At first, it was a compliment, but then I realized how lazy they were. Because if I could get it, they most surely could. It became obvious that they didn’t want to do the work, but instead be spoon-fed (Just the sound-bites, madam). Still that does not excuse Butler’s elitist language. There was a time that such pretentious and stilted language would have been mocked.

  3. atheistwoman permalink
    July 20, 2009 9:13 pm

    I thought that Spongebob analysis was pretty academic ;-). I will come back and respond more, yanno with brains, but just now I am exhausted.

    • The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink*
      July 20, 2009 9:36 pm

      Speaking of Spongebob (don’t want to derail here, but cannot resist), today I saw an episode, Robot Spongebob

      Plankton cheats in a poker game with Mr. Krabs (however Mr.Krabs does not know Plankton cheated) and Mr. Krabs loses Spongebob to Plankton (I know!, can you believe they are gambling someone’s livelihood.). For people not in the know, Mr. Krabs has a greasy spoon called the Krusty Krab that serves the best krabby patties in all of Bikini Bottom. Plankton (he likes to remind people that he went to college and it is unfair that he has to compete with such a low-life as Mr. Krabs) also has a greasy spoon called the Chum Bucket. Plankton fails to compete successfully with Mr. Krabs, so instead of trying harder, he always tries to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula. So anyway, since Mr. Krabs loses Spongebob’s contract to Plankton, Spongebob has to go and work at the Chum Bucket. But, Spongebob is too sad to work because he misses the Krusty Krab. At one homoerotic point, Krabs is seen singing out a window to Spongbob who is also singing out a window to Mr. Krabs, about how much they miss each other. That scene is familiar, but I can’t place it, it is either from Grease, Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Bridget Jones Dairy.

      Okay, I just wrote all of that and found this:

      Robot SpongeBob is a robot built by Plankton to make a Krabby Patty, and is confirmed as Plan C. A few months after Plankton had failed to get the secret Krabby Patty formula, he had won the card game against Mr.Krabs, reluctantly Poker, and had then won SpongeBob to work at the Chum Bucket. SpongeBob did not have the proper ingredients to cook a Krabby Patty, but he was to be treated with compassion and understanding. Later, SpongeBob became less disciplined, and called Plankton a bad name. The tiny villain had took out his brain previlieges and programmed a brain into the Robot SpongeBob, calling him also RoboBob the SpongeChef Pants, he put the brain in the robot you know. Then, he programmed the robot to make a Krabby Patty, but then Robot SpongeBob said: “Why don’t you ask me later?” Then, Plankton yelled at him to follow his orders, but Robot SpongeBob said “I don’t wanna” and lazily drank gas soda while reading a comic book that had a comic strip of SpongeBob, Patrick, and Squidward.

      My point is, that Plankton threatened to remove/replace Spongebob’s brain into a robot body without thinking that DUH DUH DUH it is the same brain. And when he did, RobotSpongebob still would not make the krabby patty for him. Meaning, a MTF can get a new body but will have the same brain (a brain that was conditioned to feel entitled and expect women to serve him, new body or not!).

      LMAO!

      Yes, this is how my brain works when I am off for the summer and hang out with a 10 year old but still have an intellectual adult thought process.

    • atheistwoman permalink
      July 21, 2009 2:58 am

      That is a very good point, akshually ;-).

  4. July 20, 2009 10:12 pm

    What channel is this show on? I have only seen it maybe once and clearly did not give it its due.

    And the time for mocking elitist academic language is NOW. At the very least we could rewrite Butler or whoever in plain language which would show what prigs they are for using ten words where one will do.

    • The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink*
      July 21, 2009 2:05 am

      Spongebob shows on Nickelodeon. And it is not uncommon for them to hold Spongebob marathons.

      If you have DIRECTV, it should be channels 299 & 300. Most of the shows are crap, but Spongebob is great and True Jackson is not too bad.

      When I used to read people like Butler for school, I would take each sentence and write it out in layman’s terms. Well, maybe not each sentence, but the more supercilious (I could have used the word lofty, but I wanted to be like Butler) ones, such as the one you highlighted.

  5. atheistwoman permalink
    July 21, 2009 2:19 am

    brace yourself to hear something cruel, vulgar, and mercenary

    Are you being sarcastic?

    • The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink*
      July 21, 2009 3:14 am

      Yeah in a way. Like you know, how an academic would judge me for saying that I would not write academically unless I was paid. Although they may feel the same way, they would never admit it, because, the pretense of the academic must be maintained, and that pretense being that one writes for the love of writing, not for any other reason, and certainly not for a reason as vulgar as cashola. How lowbrow, and, and, and, and ——————-common. One must starve for their craft. LOL!

      Now, before the anti-intellectualism police come out, I am specifically targeting academics with my scorn, not intellectuals. But, only an academic would conflate the two. Finger to tongue and then to hip.

    • atheistwoman permalink
      July 21, 2009 3:23 am

      Geeze I am slow this week!

      You must know some very deluded people. What did they think writing for a grade was but deferred payment upon graduation when they found employment?

    • July 21, 2009 5:49 pm

      Well actually I think about this quite a bit with regard to freelance writing. I see so many bloggers aspiring to be “writers” and what would make them a “writer” in their opinion is if they were paid. They don’t seem to realize, or they don’t care, that if all that’s important is the money, they could end up writing about any stupid, gross, or exploitive thing out there, and not necessarily in a critical way. I flirt with the idea of trying to do more paid writing, but then I think about HAVING to write what someone else (The Man) wants, and HAVING to draw the conclusions I’m paid to draw, and I think, nah, may as well just keep typing someone else’s words. At least that way I’m honest that they aren’t mine, instead of being someone else’s mouthpiece in the guise of being a “real writer.”

      So, maybe that’s the flip side of writing feeling like work and hence wanting it to be remunerated. If it doesn’t feel like work to me, I don’t see why I should consider myself less a “writer” because I use my own voice and write my own truth (as much as I can) and don’t get paid for it.

    • The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink*
      July 22, 2009 12:06 am

      Yes, I consider myself a writer too. Nevertheless, since I am not paid it seems that I cannot say I am a writer.

      I do notice that I hierarchize my writing based on my attachment, association, or/and investment to it. Even saying it here, where I know people read, makes me feel like I am putting something at risk or at the very least influencing (some may call it manipulating) a future reaction to my writing based on what I am saying about it now.

      If I am asserting an opinion, I tend to digress. I understand there are loads of people who hate this type of writing. Since, I am not being paid nor need their approval that does not bother me so much. On the other hand, I do appreciate it when there is evidence that someone actually reads what I write. I can hardly expect my writing to be welcomed when I write in a way that I know is unwelcomed by many. Therefore, with each of my written assertions it becomes a matter of what makes me feel the best, —saying what I want to and risking no one reading it or saying something in a way that will encourage others to read it. I guess my decision is based on how much I want someone to read something vs. how much I simply need to say something.

      Then there is my story telling. I get the most enjoyment out of story telling because I like long around the way stories to make a point. And most of the time I realize the point is far too subtle for most people. I know many people want a writer to just get to the point already. But, story telling is emotional to me, empathy inducing, and grounding. There is nothing I can do about it when it comes to others but hope others will benefit from it as much as I do. Nevertheless, when my stories are not read (or there is no evidence they are read) it hurts more than when my opinions are not read. Well, hurt is an exaggerating feeling, and so is disappointed. I don’t know what word quite describes it, I just know the rejection of my stories affects me more than the rejection of my opinions. But looking at the big picture, the “hurt” is never big enough to sway me from writing in way that most people prefer.

      Then there is writing seriously, or grown up, or academically. I have done it. I can do it. I did graduate with honors with an English Literature degree. But unless there is a prize at the end, I just find it difficult to do. And it extends over to movie and book reviews as well. Which I find myself desiring to do all the time, but don’t, because I know there are people who get paid for reviewing movies and books.

      I seem to have debilitated myself in a way and cannot work myself out of it. Or, cannot find a reason to care or do it differently. And there is always my learning disability that is known to directly affect my speaking and writing. But, how I loathe to bring that old card to the front of the deck when I think of all the grand ideas that roll around in my head in a 24 hour period.

    • July 22, 2009 1:30 am

      Well, I did read that! I think sometimes people find it easier to respond to opinion pieces –“YOU’RE WRONG!” — than they do to storytelling, because what you’re saying in a story is, this is how I got to thinking what I do, and it’s hard for anyone else to say you SHOULDN’T have ended up there. You know? So, anyway, that might be why sometimes the storytelling gets crickets. But I have actually noticed my writing being influenced lately by your storytelling style, which I think is kinda neat.

      About the “writer” label — anyone who writes is a “writer” in my book. The term has just unfortunately been tainted by the people who think that there are criteria for being a “real writer” — that you have to be paid, you have to write about cutting edge topics, you have to get gigs on a BIG blog, whatever. I’d much rather read the work of someone who writes than of some pretentious latte liberal making thousands in ad revenue by saying what other people want to hear.

      There can never ever be enough feminist book and movie reviews in the world, in my opinion. And in fact there are hardly any. Just saying.

  6. July 21, 2009 2:31 am

    I DO have DirectTV!!!! How did you know????? Are you spying on me??????

    • July 21, 2009 3:20 am

      Forgive my presumptuousness, you are American, are you not?

    • July 21, 2009 3:20 am

      Okay, okay, just kidding. The joke is (and yes on the net one must always explain the joke or risk it being misconstrue, not that I need to explain the joke to my dear Amy) that the fact that I know about DIRECTV says something without saying anything. It says that I am an American sucked up into my television as well, so of course I can recognize my own people.

    • atheistwoman permalink
      July 21, 2009 3:28 am

      New Hampshire and Vermont must be the only states in the union where it is still considered gauche in some circles to have/watch television. Oh how adorable. I am holding out judgment.

    • July 21, 2009 3:55 am

      I think watching television is horrid, yet, I still do it (mostly just Spongebob and a few other shows. It has been years since I have anticipated a weekly series. Why should I, now that I can get an entire season from the library). And I know many many people who cannot even bother to think it horrid. Back in 1986, my brother and his then wife (R.I.P) used to visit me on Thursday afternoons. They had a weekly card game at their friend’s house about a mile from my apartment. To beat the rush-hour traffic they arrived an hour before their game and spent it at my house. Of course, I did not have a television. Not having a television was the least of my worries at the time. My daughter and I spent the evening reading or playing with her toys or I would talk to someone on the telephone. I did not know I was supposed to feel insufficient for not having a television set until they kept telling me, and by the third week they declared my inadequacy by buying me a 13”. When I was thanking them, they admitted it was more for them than us. So for that one hour a week they paid for a television, and that was before Wal-Mart and Target flooded the market with affordable electronics.

      Do you know it is now a standard question for a pediatrician to ask a child how many hours they spend in front of a television/computer screen each day. A standard question! I know because my daughter’s doctor showed me the form right before I was about to accuse her of stereotyping by asking my daughter that question.

  7. atheistwoman permalink
    July 21, 2009 3:35 am

    Oops. I meant to say I am holding out judgment on its value. I know it is one of the few things that actually make me feel better about anything…but it can also have the lovely effect of time-sucking and brain-killing. LOL.

  8. July 21, 2009 4:31 am

    I hate TV too. I lived without it for years, happily. (Must be the influence of those New England hippies.) Actually it was kinda fun to shock people by telling them I didn’t have one. Plus, in recent years I could watch everything I wanted pretty much on the internet or my computer’s DVD player.

    Then, we were gifted by similarly pitying relatives last summer. And then the GF wanted cable. Actually a very personable man from Qwest came by and talked us into “bundling” (the telecommunications kind, not the colonial US kind). So now we are glued to HGTV way, way too often. But I am willing to branch out to SpongeBob, since I think I have seen every episode of “Property Virgins” three or four times, and I just want to slap all of them upside the head. “But we NEED two/three/five bathrooms!” “Oh I really wanted a soaker/jetted tub in the master bathroom, not just a regular tub.” “Oh I have to have granite countertops/stainless steel appliances/an island kitchen/no island in the kitchen!” Man stands in kitchen and says to woman, “Oh, with this open layout you can still talk to our guests while you are cooking the dinner!” “Well I will keep my clothes in here (woman to man, indicating master bedroom walk-in closet the size of our bedroom). I don’t know where you will keep your stuff.” It’s just appalling how those shows, because they revolve around the home, so often highlight the materialism of the woman while keeping that of the man neatly hidden. Although the rate of male “need” for garages, finished basements, shops, media rooms, and “man caves” is also high on those shows. Though I am sure everyone is too busy going “look at that greedy golddigging b*tch!” to notice.

    Anyway, ugh. If I ever live alone again I am not having TV, because as AW said, it is a huge time suck and very stupor inducing, besides reinforcing mainstream thought patterns that I am trying to banish, and I would rather spend my time surfing the internet, because that doesn’t induce a stupor or eat up hours without me noticing, no, not at all.

    Did this turn into an Open Thread when I wasn’t looking?

    • atheistwoman permalink
      July 21, 2009 4:36 am

      It was all my fault. I was supposed to come back with something worthwhile to say and all I did was start talking about cartoons ;-).

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