I write about technology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek.


November 12, 2011

Qu'est-ce qu'une vraie femme? - Part 2

This post refers to ideas in Žižek’s essay From “Passionate Attachments” to Dis-Identification – the relevant portions are excerpted in part 1.

The SlutWalk movement was set into motion when a Toronto police officer claimed that women are at greater risk of being raped because they wear too-revealing clothing. It is clear that this idea is part of the patriarchal paranoid fantasy of a “sexually insatiable woman who simultaneously dominates us and enjoys in her suffering, provoking us violently to take her and to abuse her” that Žižek describes.

I wrote about this in my previous blog posts referencing the myth of Ulysses and the Sirens luring men to their destruction on the rocks. This description of patriarchy gives an interesting twist to the concept of normativity, which is usually understood as upholding a single ideal or standard, which is potentially oppressive to those who do not fit that standard. For example, the patriarchal ideal woman is chaste, so this is understood to be oppressive to women who enjoy sex, possibly with multiple partners and so on. The problem is that patriarchal society already assumes that women are sexually insatiable, that is why feminine chastity is idealized.

In a way, this is a side-effect of applying the liberal concept of choice to sexism, so that patriarchy is viewed as a stigmatization and prohibition on certain choices. This is often expressed in the observation that men are celebrated as studs for being promiscuous, while women are shamed for the same thing. Anti-sexism is about allowing women the same choices as men, which in this case primarily means fighting for the right of women to be promiscuous if they choose.

Women who don’t wish to be promiscuous don’t seem to have much of a stake here, because their choice is already morally acceptable. Ideally, this should be respected, but the liberal line of thinking cannot avoid a suspicion of “false consciousness” – is the woman who chooses chastity really choosing it? Or has she internalized patriarchal prohibitions and shame, and therefore not genuinely liberated? Even if out of solidarity, feminists decide not to press the issue, the question still seems to lurk. The only definitive way out of this ambiguity is for a woman to become promiscuous, which paradoxically reintroduces the same pressures, ideals and lack of choice that feminism fights.

But for Lacan, the prohibited choice is itself a product of the patriarchal system. As Žižek puts it, “the patriarchal erotic discourse creates the femme fatale as the inherent threat against which the male identity should assert itself.” Both what is allowed and what is prohibited is part of the patriarchal order.

This might explain why some feminist bloggers had ambiguous feelings about identifying themselves as “sluts” as the SlutWalk movement seemed to require. The presence of the male gaze in the form of obscene male gawkers on the sidelines of the protest, enjoying the spectable and taking photographs seems to confirm that things are quite complex here.

One possible solution is to apply the critique of binary male-female gender categories in queer theory to this problem. Feminist bloggers don’t feel fully comfortable identifying themselves as chaste or promiscuous, chosing one or the other in a polarized and polarizing system – this seems to have an analog with individuals who feel that they are neither fully male nor female.

We’re used to thinking of the term “queer” as a reference to sexuality, but in his essay Queer Ecology, Timothy Morton applies the concept in a more general sense to ecology. The sense is “blurring and confounding boundaries” – between life and non-life in queer ecology, between homo- and heterosexual, male and female in queer sexuality and so on. What if there was a blurring of boundaries between the binary of liberated promisuity and inhibited chastity?

When queer theorists discuss gender, tend to verge almost into poetry in an attempt to embrace ambiguity and fluidity, and avoid simplifying labels and categories. This makes sense in certain contexts, but how would this work in everyday life? When filling out a government form, in place of checking male or female, would there be a large text area where I could write precisely how and in what respects I identify with masculine or feminine cultural constructions, with the option to submit additional sheets or paper if more space is required?

If we were introduced at a party, would we immediately exchange psychological profiles and sexual histories to adequately convey the complexity of our sexual identities? These are wildly inefficient ways of communicating this information, so how would we do it practically?

Maybe we just wouldn’t. Maybe we simply need a code of discretion, so that these things are simply not talked about. Judith Butler tells us that gender is performative, and what that means is that if someone talks, walks, acts like a woman or a man or neither, we simply accept them as that. It would be obscene to demand that someone display their genitals to verify that they “really” are a man or a woman before treating them that way.

Queer theory, for all its radicality seems to coincide in certain respects with the old-fashioned idea of civility. Žižek relates the story of Gore Vidal, who is openly bisexual, when he was asked by an overly-intrusive journalist whether his first sexual experience was with a man or a woman. His response was “I was too polite to ask.”

There are some obvious limitations to this idea when it comes to certain issues like heteronormativity, but there may also be advantages. A ridiculous controversy erupted when some parents discovered that Sasha Grey, a former porn star who is now acting in mainstream Hollywood films and TV shows, was one of several celebrities invited to read to children as part of a program to promote reading with children.

The over-reaction by parents is no surprise, irrational though it may be. But the response on the internet against the parents is also predictable and ultimately ineffective, because it adopts a defensive stance, centering around issues like: the parents have no right to judge her; her sexual choices just as valid as anyone else’s; these stigmas reflect a puritanical culture that represses sexuality; the parents are hypocrites because they probably watch porn themselves (by itself, a bizarre charge that seems to imply that parents who watch porn should also let their young children to watch porn); and so on.

Missing from this defense is the crucial fact that if the children had somehow been exposed to explicit sexual content, it was only because the parents chose to broadcast the fact that Sasha Grey had once been a pornographic actress. In their enthusiasm to defend all perspectives on sexuality as valid, her defenders have missed the fact that it is the parents who are behaving in an extremely inappropriate and vulgar way, by dredging up someone’s sexual history and making it into a media spectacle and a topic for public debate.

They are the ones who are guilty of obscenity here, it is their actions that should be censored on the grounds that they are an outrage to public decency, not hers.


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