What does a ‘gender critical’ feminist want?

As a person with blue hair, it’s been interesting to find myself becoming the symbol of wishy washy young people who don’t know we’re born and can’t possibly understand the struggles of our elders who had their heads kicked in so they could fight to keep trans women out of bathrooms. It’s telling that blue hair has become a symbol of everything so-called ‘gender critical’ feminists oppose; and I think it’s indicative of their inability to imagine gendered embodiment or bodily modification as sites of pleasure and desire as well as suffering and violation.

The disdain for aesthetic frivolity is as old as white feminism itself, going all the way back to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women draws on anti-black, Orientalist and homophobic tropes to condemn ‘luxury’ – by which she means any kind of physical experience which renders a person passive or which allows feeling to triumph over reason. Like many ‘gender critical’ feminists, Wollstonecraft experienced the sharp end of patriarchal and homophobic social structures, struggling to hold her family together in the face of her father’s dissolution, and abandoned by the father of her child to fend for herself in the face of a censorious society. But the rights which she longs for are organised around bourgeois notions of freedom, centred on ideals of hard work, private property and self-sufficiency, and in her eagerness to find a footing of equality with men, she cultivates a disdain – sometimes even a disgust – both for the women around her and for her own queer desire.

When capitalism divides the modern world into the masculine public sphere of work and politics and the feminine private sphere of home, family and religion, white women are offered the promise of power and significance if they take on the role of social reproduction, passing on norms of right behaviour and morality. When middle class white feminists enter the public sphere they do so by promising to carry their role of moral enforcers from the domestic to the public sphere, promising (like Wollstonecraft) to ensure that children are educated into their proper roles as citizens or (like Josephine Butler) to hold the British Empire to the moral standards it professes. A world built on property is a world built on propriety and the capitalist work ethic, a world built on self-denial and self-discipline. The ethics of propriety are the ethics of ressentiment – I am not allowed to do the things I want to do, and nor should you be. I work hard at my awful job so why should you get to swan around on unemployment benefits. I put up with my awful husband so why should you get to enjoy the freedom of single motherhood. I was shamed for being gay so why should you be able to dye your hair blue and play around with the signifiers of queerness.

If there’s one thing that Britain does better than America, it’s the politics of joylessness and resentment. For years I’ve been telling people that the best account of why Brexit happened is the story that Žižek likes to tell about a Slovenian peasant who, encountering a witch, is offered a choice, ‘I will give you whatever you want, but whatever you ask for I will give twice as much to your neighbour.’ After thinking for a moment, the peasant says, ‘Take one of my eyes!’ When ‘gender critical’ feminists persist in stoking the fires of a right wing moral panic around trans people despite being warned that feeding fears of bathroom invasion and too-easy access to hormones will harm cis women too, this same logic is at work. I have suffered because of my gender and sexuality, and so should you. Take one of my eyes!

Lee Edelman argues that one of the reasons queer people become figures of horror for Western societies is their proximity to sinthomosexuality, the Lacanian term for the desire or pleasure which exceeds any social structure put in place to contain and control it. Queerness isn’t inherently radical but, by being less easily assimilable to heteronormative ideals, it threatens to expose the truth that a world built on property and propriety isn’t what anyone wants. Maybe it’s not enough just to survive the violence of the world and to ensure that we are the ones with the power to inflict that violence rather than to bear it. Maybe (as Pamela Council and others have suggested) there are forms of liberatory adornment that we could actually enjoy; maybe (as Jennifer C Nash and Darieck Scott argue) there is pleasure and power to be found even in abjection. Maybe you could dye your hair blue, or experiment with your pronouns, or kiss someone of the opposite sex and not feel bad about it; maybe you could take drugs, blow up a pipeline, go to an orgy, or give away all of your money. What queerness offers is the same as what it threatens: the possibility of confronting the question, what do you actually want?

Featured image is of Pamela Council’s A Fountain for Survivors

5 thoughts on “What does a ‘gender critical’ feminist want?

  1. Interesting read down here in Sussex in the week when Kathleen Stock shifts over to Austin, Texas. It’s as though these folks didn’t assimilate the enormous body of work on homonormativity and see the ways in which those politics of joyless self righteousness perfectly align with mainstream values. I was also saddened, as a boomer myself, to see the degree of anger and lack of care or nuance which we elders are showing towards our youngsters. And some of us older folks have been grateful to escape the lesbian feminist fundamentalism we inhabited in the 1980s and be allowed the opening up of possibilities and the personal / political growth that the post 1990s and destabilised queer brought us. Keep messing with your hair. And whatever else you want to mess with!

  2. I don’t disagree with your sentiments, but I have never found “what I want” to be so straightforward, even apart from structural oppression. (I say this as a lifelong disabled person.)

    And it begs questions of change and importance. How do I order my desires and how do I critique, or reflect on, my desires?

  3. I’m not trying to suggest that it’s straightforward, or that our desires are stable. For Edelman, it’s precisely because the task of confronting the question of our own desire is such difficult one that we put so much effort into avoiding it.

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