4×4 Feminist Features: Theories

Features Editor Sophie Perry is pursuing a Masters in Contemporary Literature, Culture & Theory and has a special interest in Intersectional Feminism, Queer theory, gender performativity and postcolonial identities.

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1. Intersectionality Theory

The theory of intersectionality can be looked at as a framework which we can use to examine how interconnecting forms of power effect those who are marginalized or oppressed in a society. Intersectionality theory proposes that various forms of social ‘difference’, such as gender, race, sexuality, religion, class, disability and nationality, do not exist separately but are inherently interconnected together within a person’s existence. Certain combinations of these criteria are what constructs a person or group as more, or less, oppressed/marginalised in a society because certain criteria holds more power than others. For example, in Western society a person who is female, black and lesbian would be considered more marginalised than a person who is male, white and heterosexual. The hierarchy of what is considered more or less marginalised is accounted on levels of privilege, whereby individuals benefit from certain criteria they possess, one prime example being white privilege where white individuals will not be stopped-and-searched by the police near enough as black individuals.

Intersectionality theory is an important one in relation to feminist theory, in so much that the latest ‘wave’ of feminism from 2010-onwards has come to be called Intersectional Feminism. When we think of feminist movements of the past, particularly the first and second waves, one of the most noted critiques of these movements is that they focused on the emancipation of a very particular group of people: white, cis-gendered, middle-class, heterosexual women. By taking an intersectional approach in feminism the struggles of groups of women who are more marginalised than others are brought to the forefront public discourse. In this way feminism can become a far more inclusive movement whereby all struggles are addressed in equal measure. 

2. Compulsory Heterosexuality

The theory of compulsory heterosexuality is one that postulates that heterosexuality is the true and enduring sexuality in society: effectively the ‘default’ that all people are inclined towards. Anything that differs or deviates from this is considered wrong and deviant. If this is assumed and enacted in a society then that society is what is called ‘heteronormative’ for enforcing such ideas and ideals. There are many ways in which compulsory heterosexuality is enacted in a society, with many of these being so naturalised through social and cultural means that they are almost impossible to spot. One example, being when barely sentient male babies are described as being ‘ladies men’ for gazing their still-developing eyes across a female person. However, some are more obvious than others, whereby heterosexual marriage is both the standard and expected, sex-education classes in schools solely discuss heterosexual relations, children are encouraged to have same-sex friends and queer people must ‘come out’. Compulsory heterosexuality contributes to the continued marginalisation of queer and non-heterosexual people. 

It is important to acknowledge the pervasive nature of compulsory heterosexuality and how this theory is fundamental to feminist thought. It is an area that is in itself deeply interconnected with intersectionality, whereby understanding how heterosexuality is constructed as superior helps to thereby deconstruct its superiority. This is central to helping marginalised groups, such as queer women, fight the societal systems that seek to oppress them.

3. Gender Performance Theory

This theory discusses the ways in which gender is socially constructed as opposed to biologically innate. According to this viewpoint gender and gender roles are culturally and socially created, thereby denoting what behaviours and actions are most appropriate for a particular sex group to express. The idea of ‘performance’ or ‘performing’ gender was first theorised by Judith Butler in her work Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. In simple terms, the notion of gender performance encompasses the ways in which a person chooses to present themselves in order to align with their gender identity. The ways in which we perform our gender is a complex and complicated social act, which can be exhibited through various verbal and non-verbal gestures. This can range from the clothes you wear, to the way you walk, to what type of drink you like to have in the pub. For example, if someone identifies as female then they may, unconsciously, choose to drink a G&T in the pub rather than a pint of Carling, as it looks less ‘masculine’. They may also choose to wear dolly shoes over trainers, wear makeup everyday and cross their legs when they sit. 

The notion of gender as a performance is an area of thought that is vitally important in feminist theory, as it challenges the very idea of gender as an innate and enduring concept. By discussing the ways in which gender identity is constructed we can dismantle these constructions at there very core. This in turn allows for groups of people to more freely express their gender in a variety of ways, free of stigma and oppression.

4. Gender Neutral Language

This theory denotes the use of gender-neutral language in order to the remove the inherent biases towards a particular sex that systems of sexism in a society may construct. This theory works in two ways: 1) by removing gender-specific job titles and 2) the avoidance of using male pronouns (he, him, his) as a standard when a person’s gender is unknown. Examples in terms of 1) can be observed in the use of the professions ‘fireman’ and ‘waitress’, where they can be replaced with ‘firefighter’, ‘waiting staff’/‘server’. This thereby begins to remove the inherent stigmas associated with what is a male occupation and a female occupation. By avoiding using masculine pronouns as mentioned in 2) a person is able to disable the idea that masculinity is standard that all gendered things can be measured in.

In terms of feminist theory, the use of gender-neutral language is important in constructing non-sexist and inclusive dialogues. Within this all genders and gender-identities can be included in debates and discussions without being unconsciously excluded. 


Image Source: Rochester City Newspaper

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