The Official Blog for ENGL 41416.

Less than a week ago, I wrote a frenzied post about obligatory, or compulsory, heterosexuality. “[Gender] entails that sexual desire be directed towards the other sex,” said Gayle Rubin in The Traffic in Women, and from readings like this week’s Judith Butler essay, Gender Trouble, it is clear that compulsory heterosexuality is an often discussed topic in Feminist Theory. Here, Butler analyzes text by Monique Wittig, who writes of a need to “makes the categories of sex obsolete in language.” (153) Butler shows that Wittig’s ideas clash with the very community she strives to protect.

Butler’s analysis of Wittig begins similarly to Rubin’s of Lévi-Strauss. Drawing from a quote from pioneer Simone de Beauvoir (“One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one”), Wittig asserts what Lévi-Stauss implies: “there is no reason to divide up human bodies into male and female sexes except that such a division suits the economic needs of heterosexuality and lends a naturalistic gloss to the institution of heterosexuality.” (141, 143). Further, Wittig states that one cannot apply the gender division to a homosexual, and that “a lesbian is not a woman. A woman…only exists as a term that stabilizes and consolidates a binary and oppositional relation to a man; that relation…is heterosexuality.” (143) Beyond the gap between gender and sexuality, Wittig believes that because sexuality is non-conforming, gender too cannot be so stringently divided.

If a lesbian is not a woman, then what is she? If not for gender, how then are we to “‘qualify bodies as human bodies?” After all, “the moment in which an infant becomes humanized is when the question, ‘is it a boy or girl?’ is answered.” (142) Following Wittig’s logic, “a lesbian has no sex; she is beyond the categories of sex.” Society, then, truly means for gender and sexuality to be intertwined such that a compulsory heterosexuality may exist. To exist outside this “heterosexual matrix” is to be “a third gender or…a category that radically problematizes both sex and gender as stable political categories of description.” (144)

How then do we as the minority come out (no pun intended) from under the heterosexist regime? They key, according to Wittig, is language: “Wittig argues that the linguistic discrimination of ‘sex’ secures the political and cultural operation of compulsory heterosexuality.” Language perpetuates “sex,” or more appropriately, the “female sex,” which lacks a parallel. The male exists instead “in the form of the universal person.” (144) Wittig calls to “overthrow the very grammar that institutes ‘gender’.” (145) Later, Butler describes Wittig’s attempt in Les Guérilleres to eliminate male pronouns that cause the gender division, instead “to offer elles [typically feminine plural] as standing for the general the universal.” In English as in French, it is banal to address mixed company as “the guys,” or employ the masculine plural ils, yet almost sacrilege to use the inverse. Wittig claims, “‘The goal of this approach is…to make the categories of sex obsolete in language.'” (153) Essentially, minorities are trapped within a culture, down to the words used to describe themselves. In making “categories of sex obsolete,” women and homosexuals may achieve gender transcendence, freeing themselves from both linguistic and literal bondage.

Butler sees problems with Wittig’s theory. Where Wittig writes of the homosexual “no longer [knowing] one’s sex, [engaging] in a confusion and proliferation of categories that make sex an impossible category of gender,” Butler points out that Wittig “overrides those discourses within gay and lesbian culture that proliferate…gay sexual identities by appropriating and redeploying the categories of sex. (156) Wittig sees language as the enemy of the homosexual, and yet the gay community, using words like “dyke, queer and fag redeploy and destabilize the categories of sex and the originally derogatory categories for homosexual identity.” (156)

Further, Butler claims, “Whereas Wittig…envisions lesbianism to be a full-scale refusal of heterosexuality, I would argue that even the refusal constitutes an engagement and, ultimately, a radical dependence on the very terms that lesbianism purports to transcend.” (158) When comparing Wittig’s text with Butler’s rebuttal, the reader begins to picture Wittig as an idealist born too late, that her “radical” ideas no longer fit within the framework of modern feminism.

Butler concludes that Wittig’s texts “cut off any kind of solidarity with heterosexual women and implicitly [assumes] that lesbianism is the logically or politically necessary consequence of feminism.” (162) It is as if Butler seeks to disqualify Wittig entirely, and while her ideas may be antiquated, they are not without some merit.


Comments on: "“Are All Feminists Lesbians?”: Challenging Gender Transcendence" (2)

  1. Jasmine Cruz said:

    I love you title David!

    As I read this piece I wasn’t sure on Butler’s view or the direction the piece was going. I think you presented the information very well and helped me better understand the overall concept. I also agree with Butler that Wittig’s ideas clash with the ver community she is trying to protect. By destroying the title of male and female I believe a stigma will result and confusion will arise. Although I see the point Wittig is trying to make that sex and gender are different and sexual preference is liberal I don’t think gender should be as liberal. If gender is culturally defined, in my understanding, then why can’t a lesbian be a woman? There are many lesbians who still maintain “female roles” and sexual preference doesn’t imply that she is less than at. Or a gay man is less of a man. It has a lot to do with culture which causes a lot of confusion, in my opinion, with the topic of gender. All these things overlap each other. Overal I do not believe that the destruction of gender terminology will fix the problem.

  2. Hi Jasmine!

    It’s true; sometimes when reading these essays, I forget who is speaking, because the author is almost immediately relinquishing control to another author whom they are analyzing. Butler throws in an opinion here or there, but for most of the first half of the excerpt, the reader only gets Wittig’s point of view. It is only after Butler has fully exhausted Wittig’s theory that she begins to pick it apart.

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