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Postmodern Femininities and Masculinities

Postmodern Femininities and Masculinities

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02/14/2013

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Postmodern femininities and masculinities
The meaning and understanding of gender has changed dramatically in the past four decades.However, gender remains a politicized category describing social identity, which is contestedand changing. The conservatives have argued that feminist movements contributed to thegeneral social crisis and decay, while many feminists argued that there has not been enough progress made towards gender justice and equality. Although, there are a variety of movements which take gender as a primary or important element, in general it is agreed thatthe highly-politicized, sometimes radical, feminist movement, broadly defined as a SecondWave, has passed its peak. The third wave is less visible and more preoccupied with identityand “micro-politics.” In part it can be attributed to a variety of historical formations,enormous gains achieved by the feminists, conservative backlash, internal divisions withinthe movements, as well as feminists turning towards academic knowledge production.In this paper I will outline major debates in feminist theory in relation to the changingunderstanding of gender through essentialist, modernist, and postmodernist lenses. I willargue that although postmodern theories of gender are the most convincing, promising and potentially transformative, in many ways they are the least political, because they aretypically confined within the boundaries of the university and academic language. However,this might be attributed not to gender theories specifically, but to the “postmodern turn” ingeneral. The collapse of grand narratives rendered a radical remaking of society a naïve proposition not worthy of academic attention.The essentialist understanding of gender was a dominant paradigm up until the mid-1970s,although Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed in the 1949 that “one is not born a woman, butrather becomes one.” This marked a radical shift in understanding of gender, or rather sex,although her ideas did not become very popular until much later. What is considered to befirst wave feminism was a late 19
th
and early 20
th
century women’s suffrage movement,although there have been women suffragists much earlier as well. Women did not questiongender difference as such, but rather fought for equality with men. Sex was assumed to be a biological reality which was natural and unquestionable. The suffragettes argued against sexinequality and tried to convince men that sex difference should not be a basis for politicaldisenfranchisement. Women fought for a greater freedom
as women
. However, essentialistunderstanding did not vanish with a new theoretical concepts or practices. Several feminist
 
movements, such as gynocentric feminism, argued that women were inherently more human,virtuous, and superior to men. For example, certain eco-feminists argued that women areinherently closer to nature, that femininity provide with better models and practices for human coexistence, sustainability, and peace. Although there is, or might be, some merit insuch observations, they do not address crucial issues of gender as a social construction, what purposes gender serves in the social organization, and in what ways gender is harmful for  both men and women (although to different degrees). So for example one could argue thatstatistically women might be convicted less often then men for violent crimes, but it does not prove biologically and essentially a women’s goodness, because it can be explained bydifferent socialization, expectations, and a variety of other factors, which socialconstructionists would insist must be considered. Overall, gynocentric movements were politically weak and ineffective, although there remains variety of gynocentric theories,approaches, and practices. The model of femininity, which should only slightly be altered notto reproduce patriarchal internalized aspects, is perceived as an ideal. Such an approach andunderstanding of gender, of course, became widely criticized by the theorists moving in the postmodern direction.The break in gender understanding during the second feminist wave can be attributed toGayle Rubin, who came up with the term “gender/sex system.” The Gender/sex system,according to Rubin, refers to equation that male=masculine, female=feminine, and the objectof desire is of opposite sex/gender, constituting a necessarily heterosexual relationship.Gender, according to Rubin, should be seen as social construction which is designated toreinforce heterosexuality and hierarchy. Gender becomes the social location, which typicallydesignates woman as lower on the social hierarchy. However, contrary to later postmoderntheories of gender, which sees gender 
and 
sex as socially and discursively produced, feministtheories during the second wave maintained that sex is a biological essence and gender is asocial construction.Major feminist advancements happened during the feminist second wave. Changes in law, politics, culture, sports, and general consciousness had been altered enormously. Towards theend of the second wave however a variety of conflicts occurred. Certain feminist theories of oppression where challenged as white, heterosexual, and middle-class centered. The categoryof gender, as the only and the most important category, was questioned. Combahee River Collective, for example, issued a statement, which read: “we are actively committed to
 
struggling against, racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that major systems of oppression are interlocking” (412). Much of the feminist theory took a turntowards intersectionality approach, which did not analyze gender in isolation from other markers. Women of color criticized feminist theories which had white, middle-class womanas their primary subject. Postcolonial and transnational feminists criticized unexaminedfeminist universalisms, claims for “global sisterhood,” and persistent women’s victimization.These viewpoints greatly complicated the understanding of gender since many feministtheories or political projects of “sisterhood,” which were previously presented as universal,had to be revised. Audre Lorde states that “by and large within the women’s movementtoday, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race,class, sexual preference, class, and age” (293).The feminist identity divisions should be seenin the context of the rise of identity politics, which embraced various marginalized groups.Although the sex and gender separation occurred and a variety of criticisms about the need torecognize differences complicated what gender means, woman remained the primary concernof feminist theory. Men where largely theorized in relation to oppression of women, and notas gendered beings. Politically, liberal feminists also achieved the highest gains in social and political transformations, although that often meant equality with men, not necessarilytransforming male dominated institutions and the premises they are built upon. CatharineMacKinnon, for example, was critical of the equality approach which simply suggests thatequality needs to measure up to male standards. She argues that “to define the reality of sexas difference and the warrant of equality as sameness is wrong on both counts” (251). Issuesof difference and equality have remained one of the central feminist concerns.The turn to postmodern feminism brought enormous changes to the understanding of gender,sex, and sexuality. While earlier sex was fixed category and gender was thought of as socialconstruction, postmodern theories proclaimed that both of them were changing and of discursive construction. Sexuality, similarly was subsumed under gender oppression in theearly feminist theorizing, but queer theories claimed that sexuality was a category of oppression in itself. However, at the time of these changes Women’s Studies departmentswere increasingly professionalized and further away from social movements which wereemblematic of the 1970s. The turn towards Postmodernism meant more focus on discursive,linguistic, or psychoanalytic theorizing. It also meant that earlier feminist theories and

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