This article is, ultimately, about the row about ‘drag’ (!) which I think offers a good opportunity to think about the left/right confusion in the women’s campaign…
Is ‘queer theory’ left wing? Is ‘gender critical’ theory right wing? How many people are sufficiently academic, sufficiently fond of critical reading and sufficiently practiced in critical thinking to be 100% ‘for’ or ‘against’ either? And do you see how all those ideas get wound about in your head when you think ‘here is a man dressing up as a woman’?
People often talk of ‘gender theory’ and ‘gender ideology’ lately. Both are a simplistic synthesis of post-modernist a ‘queering’ of sex and gender. ‘Queering’ means boundary-breaking. It comes in useful when you’re trying to break down tired stereotypes about sex, race and class but it’s dangerous when, for example, predatory men decide it would be useful to break the boundaries of sexual consent, or the age of consent. That’s not just an idea – it’s demonstrably a tactic used by pedophiles. That’s what caused all the rows in the ‘70s over how the PIE (pedophile information exchange) managed to get so mainstream.
Transwomen are women
Is a meaningless statement which came out of post-modernist boundary-queering. Transsexual people had been around long before that. They knew, and we knew, they were men presenting (as they saw it) like women. Queer theory came along and said “let’s scrap ‘like women’, let’s break down the sex boundaries by saying they are women.” That gave us ‘gender identity’ theory, which tells us that, if a man feels like a woman, and says he’s a woman, then he is one and must be ‘treated as’ one. That presents a danger to vulnerable women and children that old-fashioned transsexualism did not, because it ‘queers’ the boundaries that safeguarding for women and girls relies upon.
Gender critical feminism
As far as I am concerned, this is a tautology. ‘Gender’, when applied to sex roles (as opposed to grammar constructions, which is where the word started out), is the set of rules and social norms that dictates how men and women respectively are ‘supposed to’ dress, talk and behave. The founding idea of feminism is that women (and men, if they so wish) can dress, talk and behave however suits their character.
Thus feminism is, by definition, ‘gender critical’. If you’re a bit radical with your feminism, you are probably more than critical, you are gender-abolitionist. You believe gender-norms are a force of oppression. Just like all the stereotypical ideas about race and socio-economic class (black people are sporty but not that bright? Working class people are poorly educated/racist/stuck on the idea of Brexit?) just like those insulting, oppressive, dangerous ideas, all ideas around gender need to be destroyed – blown out of the water and finished with, not just tweaked, not just ‘criticised’.
Any idea, however radical, will be appropriated by capitalism. Look at what happened to ‘hippies’. The original idea of ‘dropping out’ was that hippies aimed to be absolutely outside of the capitalist race to riches and power. Now, the words ‘rich’ and ‘middle class’ almost always precede the word ‘hippy’, because capitalism (thanks, Richard Branson) decided to sell the trappings of fashionable hippydom to hippies, and made capitalists of them.
The same happened to feminism. A rich, stock-exchange wrangling hippy is not, in the original sense, a hippy; and an expensively glamorous, exhibitionist, flirtatious feminist is probably not, in the original sense, a feminist. True feminism (like true hippydom) is anti-capitalist. That’s why, when the current women’s campaign got going, it wasn’t just feminists doing it, and where it was feminists, they tended to be called ‘gender critical’ feminists, because the world neeed to distinguish them from the capitalism-compliant quasi-feminists who had ‘gone mainstream’.
Feminism and femalism
The women’s group ‘Standing for Women’ came up with the word ‘femalism’ for women who were not necessarily left or right, not necessarily feminist or espousing any particular academic theory, but who want women’s spaces, services and sports to be reserved for female people – they want ‘woman’ to mean ‘adult human female’ in law, and in service-provision.
The reason there are rows about left and right within the current women’s movement is very simple. Not all femalists are entirely gender-critical, not all gender-critical women are academic feminists, not all are socialists. A percentage of women from every political arena are femalist. They may work together despite different political allegiances, and they are at risk of falling out over party-political allegiances – especially if they are working internationally, and the differences in political terminology between the UK and the US lead them astray. That’s just how life is but nevertheless, if they find themselves in the same street, holding up a placard saying “adult human female”, they mean the same thing.
That is not true of far-right ‘anti-trans’ groups though. They are something else…
Real feminism is anti-capitalist
The ‘feminism’ you see on the ‘soft left’ tends to be pro-surrogacy and pro-sex work because they are (softly) pro-business and (softly) libertarian. To me, that is completely crazy because surrogacy and sex work are particularly violent, profit-spinning, consumer-satisfying industries. If you are challenging gender and/or challenging capitalism, you can’t have either surrogacy (because babies are not a product to sell) or sex work (because sex is not work, nor is it something men can “buy from” women). To me, all that clearly says that the soft-left is not really feminist at all but obviously, capitalist women who identify as feminist would not agree with me on that. We’d be quite likely to have rows about it (or on a good day, a debate!)
Transition is genderist
Just like real socialists, or anyone else who has done a proper class analysis, real feminists recognise gender as a weapon of sex-based oppression. If they are good critical thinkers, with a good helping of empathy and socialism, they will understand that in a gender-bound, sexist society, many people will feel the need to ‘live that fiction’, and try to ‘be’ the opposite sex. Gender-abolitionists are not trying to harm trans people, they are working for a world where no-one could feel trapped into relying on such an idea. They should be able to dress as they like, call themselves what they like, sleep with whoever would have them… (oh my, where have I heard that before) without having to claim they have ‘changed sex’.
Right-wing anti-trans thinking
At the other end of the political spectrum, you find the authoritarian genderists, who believe citizens must obey gender-stereotypes. Women must be soft, pretty, loveable home-makers and men must be stronger, sportier and more managerial.
So you get people who oppose ‘queer theory’ promotion of transitioning on the left and on the right, but you are more likely to find ‘anti-trans’ people on the right. To tell the difference, you need to look closely at what, exactly, people are criticising.
‘Drag’ stands for ‘dressing as girls’. In a gender-free society, that would be impossible, because in a gender-free society, there would not be these stereotypes of what girls and women are supposed to wear, and so nothing that ‘drag’ people could claim they were ‘dressing as’. Left-thinking and feminist people criticise ‘drag’, saying ‘that is not necessarily what girls are like’. Right-wing, authoritarian people say ‘those are girl things, men should not wear them’.
But there is a LOT more to ‘drag’ than clothes. Many gay men like dressing up as ‘drag queens’ and some lesbians as ‘drag kings’ — if you think the latter sounds funny, it’s because it messes with ‘power dynamics’ — men dress as women to show off and get attention (very queenly); women generally dress as men to hide. That’s not very ‘kingly’. They do it because capitalist society is not kind to men who like dressing up unless they pretend it’s some kind of cabaret act, and just isn’t very kind to women who act assertively, full stop. Many feminists hate male ‘drag’ because drag queens behave in a ridiculous, exhibitionist, narcissistic manner, and claim that that is ‘behaving like women’, which is very insulting, and does a lot to prop up harmful gender-stereotypes.
Stand up to what?
I finish this piece on the topic of drag because I wrote a blog about it yesterday, and got up this morning to find out that the campaign group, Stand up to Racism is defending ‘Drag Queen Story Time’, that is, they are defending using ‘drag’ in libraries, for kiddies’ story time sessions.
Why are Stand up to Racism defending this sexist, regressive practice being foisted on our children? Because they have seen right-wing activists protesting against it. Do please apply some critical thinking here. The fact that right-wing bigots do not like drag acts in kiddies’ libraries does not make it a good thing, nor does it make it the job of the left in general, or anti-racists in particular, to defend them.
Here’s my blog post…
… and here’s how to clarify a feminist position: I defend the right of both men and women to dress and present as they see fit. I object to men dressing up and behaving as a parody of girls and women by relying on ‘feminine’ gender rules. I object to them parading in front of kids teaching them that this is in any way what girls and women are supposed to be like.
Drop the ‘Drag Queen’ title, drop the pronouns and then, if your story book is good enough, by all means read it to kids in libraries. And, librarians — please, please, read the Cass Report, or even a swift summary of it, so that you can see why many women, left, right and centre, oppose ‘gender identity’ ideology, and why our kids could really do without any more confusing messages about what it means to be male or female, however their parents happen to vote.
Times are hard, and so the articles on this site are freely available but if you are able to help support my work with a donation from time to time, I am very grateful.