By Frank Miller
Butler opens with a critical approach to a claim made in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.” As Butler poses several questions directed toward the distinctions between gender and sex in humans, her readers begin to question Beauvoir’s claim as well, attempting to deconstruct the distinctions within one’s own mind. Butler then offers her interpretation of Beauvoir’s claim, “gender [is] acquired…whereas sex cannot be changed…gender is the variable cultural construction of sex” (142). However, Beauvoir is simply used as a stepping stool to introduce the more controversial Monique Wittig.
The passage transitions to a claim made by Wittig in Feminist Issues (1:1), “one is not born a woman.” Wittig views sex as a distinction that already contains a gender (which culture has grown to accept as “the norm,” though it is far from normal), a belief supported by her proposal that “sex is neither invariant nor natural, but is a specifically political use of the category of nature that serves the purposes of reproductive sexuality” (143). Wittig’s second, and perhaps more provocative claim lies in her belief that “a lesbian is not a woman” (143) and that she argues that the term “woman” is dependent upon the existence of the institution of heterosexuality (serving as the binary opposite term to “man”). A lesbian is much different from a “woman” because she rejects the conventions of heterosexuality, no longer allowing her to be defined as a term that exists as a byproduct of a tradition she opposes. In Butler’s analysis she concludes that a lesbian is “sexless,” and that Wittig too would believe that “one is not a female, one becomes female” (144) referencing Beauvoir’s claim. Butler brings up a particularly interesting concept stating that “one can, if one chooses, become neither female nor male, woman nor man” and that “the lesbian appears to be a third gender…a category that radically problematizes both sex and gender as stable political categories of description” (144).
Wittig writes that it is a “linguistic discrimination of ‘sex’ secur[ing] the political and cultural operation of compulsory heterosexuality,” speaking of how “sex” has been dubbed female, while males “within this system participate in the form of the universal person” (144). She calls for females to escape from the title that “female sex” itself suggests within the political and cultural borders of heterosexuality. She proposes language as the power to signify the structures of “sex” in a heterosexual and compulsive manner, and that this power has “distribut[ed] the rights of full and authoritative speech to males and deny them to females” (147). Wittig states that women must be much more assertive and take an authoritative role, which is “in some sense their ontological grounded ‘right’ — and to overthrow both the category of sex and the system of compulsory heterosexuality that is its origin” (147). She labels the “the ‘naming’ of sex an act of domination” and that “‘men’ and ‘women’ are political categories, and not natural facts” (147). This seems as if it opposes what was said earlier to radically reorganize the description of bodies and sexualities without recourse to sex” (145).
At the end of the excerpt, Butler poses a question for her audience, “what criteria would be used to decide the question of sexual “identity”?” (162) which seems to be where the heart of the problem exists, and raises multiple questions. Is becoming a lesbian really breaking the ties of “female sex” or taking an authoritative stance against heterosexuality or is it just a “third category” that can be used to side-step the real issue of women’s oppression or add more chaos to the mix of labeling gender and sex? Additionally, can any fourth or alternative categories arise from this mode of thinking? In regards to language serving as the liberator of women within a male implemented and dominated system, wouldn’t women participating in the “naming” of sex as an act to free themselves that has been considered a “dominant” act be just as wrong? Wittig’s statement on 145 regarding radical reorganization seems the most reasonable to me.