A while before the latest hoo-ha about Judith Butler, I had just been reading her again. Though she claims her critics have not read her, this simply isn’t the case. I read Gender Trouble when it first came out and it was important at the time . That time was long,long ago. She was just one of the many ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers I was into. I would trip off to see Luce Irigaray or Derrida whenever they appeared.
I got an interview with Baudrillard and tried to sell it to The Guardian but they didn’t know who he was so its fair to say I was fairly immersed in that world of theory. For a while, I had a part time lecturing job so I had to keep on top of it. Though Butler’s idea of gender as performance was not new , it was interesting. RuPaul said it so much more clearly in a quote nicked from someone else “Honey ,we are born naked, the rest is drag”
What I was looking for again , I guess is not any clarity – her writing is famously and deliberately difficult- but whether there was ever any sense of the material body. She wrote herself in 2004 “I confess however I am not a very good materialist. Every time I try to write about the body, the writing ends up being about language” .
Butler from on high ,cannot really think about the body at all which is why they (Butler’s chosen pronoun) are now the high priestess of a particular kind of trans ideology. The men who worship Butler are not versed in high theory. The fox botherer had a “brain swoon” at some very ordinary things Butler said. Mr Right Side of history nodded along in an interview. Clearly neither of these men are versed in any of this philosophy and would be better off sticking to tax law and the decline of the Labour Party. Butler is simply a totem for them.
Butler said in the Guardian interview for instance “Gender is an assignment that does not just happen once: it is ongoing. We are assigned a sex at birth and then a slew of expectations follow which continue to “assign” gender to us.”
So yeah? That’s a fairly basic view of the social construction of gender though I take issue with the assigned at birth thing ,which I will come back to and why I started reading her again in the first place.
This phrase “Assigned sex at birth” is now common parlance but simply does not make sense to me. I am living with someone who is pregnant. I have given birth three times and been a birthing partner. I know where babies come from. There is a deep disconnect here between language and reality which no amount of academic jargon can obliterate.
Babies come from bodies. Not any bodies but bodies that have a uterus. They grew inside a woman’s body until they get pushed out or dragged out into the world.
The facts of life.
The facts of life that we are now to be liberated from in the form of denial. Only one sex can have babies but we must now somehow not say that. The pregnant “people” of Texas will now be forced into giving birth to children they don’t want because they are simply “host bodies”. The language of patriarchal supremacy and that of some of the trans ideologues is remarkably close, as is their biological ignorance. There is no foetal heatbeat at six weeks for instance.
When a baby is born , doctors and midwives do not randomly assign a sex, they observe it and they do it though genitalia.
There is a question over a tiny percentage of babies ,less that one percent with DSDs but even then they are sexed with doctors having difficult conversations with parents about what may happen later.
Somehow, though when I read the way in which this is now all discussed it is clear to me that the people talking have never been pregnant, never had a foetal scan, never been near a birth , never miscarried, do not understand that even with a still birth babies are still sexed and often named.
If you want to know the sex of your baby you can pay privately and know at 7 weeks ((*49-56 days from the first day of the mother’s last menstrual cycle). A 12 week scan will show it. That is why so many female foetuses are aborted . I have reported on this.
Talking to paediatricians about this is interesting because they do indeed have to think through these things that we are being told are not real eg. that sex is just a by-product of colonialism for instance. Sometimes pre-conception , geneticists will be looking at chromosomes because certain diseases are more likely in men or women. Males have a higher risk of haemophilia for instance.
One doctor told me “When babies are premature, the survival advantage of females over males is well known throughout neonatology. This is sometimes something we talk about with parents when there is threatened premature labour around 23 weeks' gestation and options to discuss about resuscitation and medical interventions. In fertility treatment (or counselling around fertility in the context of medical treatments) it is pretty inherent to know whether we need to plan around sperm, or ova + pregnancy.”
She also said that if she involved in a birth that “assigning” isn’t the word she world use. “Observed genitals a highly reliable observation, just like measuring weight or head circumference which is also done at this time. “ Another doctor said that anyone involved with a trans man giving birth would be doing the best for the patient in front of them.
Sex then is biological fact. A female baby will have all the eggs she will ever have when she is first born which is kind of amazing. It is not bio-essentialist to say that our sexed bodies are different nor is it transphobic to recognise it.
Except of course in my old newspaper ,The Guardian who are now so hamstrung by their own ideology they have got their knickers in such a twist they can barely walk. They completely misreported the WiSpa incident , basically ignored the Sonia Appleby judgement at the Tavistock. Appleby was a whistle blower ,a respected professional concerned with safe guarding. She won her case. The cherry on the cake this week was an interview with Butler, themselves (?) in which they went on about Terfs being fascists and needing to extend the category of women.
Does anyone EVER stop to think that most gender critical women are of the left, supporters of gay rights, often lesbian and that this is not America? We are not in bed with the far right. This is bollocks. Just another way to dismiss us.
As we watch Afghanistan and Texas ,to say Butler’s words were tone deaf is to say the least. But they didn’t even have the guts to keep the most offensive stuff in the piece and overnight edited it out without really explaining why : the bits where Butler described gender critical people as fascist. Perhaps because the person their “reporters” had defended against transphobia at WiSpa turned out to be a known sex offender, perhaps because someone pointed out that Butler was throwing around the word fascist rather like Rik Mayall used to do in the Young Ones.
All of this is rather desperate and readers deserve better. When I left that newspaper I said that I thought and expected editors to stand up for their writers in public. Instead they go into some catatonic paralysis. I may have not liked this interview but it should never have been cut. Stand by what you publish or your credibility is shot.
But this is about more than Judith Butler and their refusal to support women . Butler is not really any kind of feminist at all. What this is about is the large edifice of trans ideology crumbling when any real analysis is applied. Yes, I have read Shon Faye’s book and there are some interesting points in it and I totally agree that the lives of trans people should be easier and health care better . I have never said anything but that.
What Faye does in the book is say that there can be no trans liberation under capitalism so there will be a bit of a wait I suspect.
Yet surely it is the other way round and what we are seeing is that trans ideology (not trans people – I am making a distinction here ) represent the apex of capitalism . For it means that the individual decides their own gendered essence and then spends a fortune on surgery and a lifetime on medication to achieve the appearance of it. Of course lots of people spend a lifetime on medication but not out of choice. Marx understood very well that the abolition of our system of production would free up women.
Now it is all about freeing up men. Who say they are women. Quelle surprise.
Nussbaum’s famous take down of Butler is premised exactly on the sense of individual versus collective struggle “ The great tragedy in the new feminist theory in America is the loss of a sense of public commitment. In this sense, Butler’s self-involved feminism is extremely American, and it is not surprising that it has caught on here, where successful middle-class people prefer to focus on cultivating the self rather than thinking in a way that helps the material condition of others. “
Such thinking now dominates academia. There is simply an unquestioning rehearsal of something most of know not to be true thus Amia Srinivasan writes in The Right to Sex “At birth, bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female’, though many bodies must be mutilated to fit one category or the other, and many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made. This originary division determines what social purpose a body will be assigned.”
What does ‘sorted’ mean here? A tiny number of intersex babies are born. A tiny number of people are trans and decide to change their bodies. The feminist demand to challenge gender norms without mutilating any one’s body no longer matters. What matters now is this retrograde return to some gendered soul. This is not something any decent Marxist would have any truck with . Of course one may change over a lifetime and of course gender is never ‘settled.’ We are complex people who inhabit bodies that often don’t work or appear as we want them to.
But not only is there a denial of basic Marxism going on here , what becomes ever more apparent is that there is a denial of motherhood. Butler said “Yet gender is also what is made along the way – we can take over the power of assignment, make it into self-assignment, which can include sex reassignment at a legal and medical level.”
Self-assignment is key . One may birth oneself. No longer of woman born but self -made. This is a theoretical leap but it also one that has profound implications for women as a sex class. We are really then, just the host bodies to a new breed of people who self-assign.
Maybe that is the future although look around the word and there isn’t a lot of self-assignment going on. There are simply women shot and beaten in the street, choked to death or having their rights taken away. There is no identifying out of this , there is no fluidity here . This is not discourse. It is brutality and do we not have some responsibility to other women to confront male violence ?
Instead the hatred is aided and abetted by so called philosophers describing other women as Terfs. It is utterly depressing.
The sexed body. The pregnant body. The dying body. The body is in trouble when we can’t talk about it . I thought of Margaret Mary O’Hara’s beautiful and strange lyrics and what they might mean. I await my child’s return from the hospital as hers is a difficult pregnancy and thank god they are on the case. The sex of the child she carries does not matter to me at all .
It simply exists. Not in language but within a body.
Why is that so difficult to acknowledge?
Oh, just want to push somebody
Your body won't let you
Just want to move somebody
Body won't let you
You want to feel somebody
Body won't let you
Who, who, who do you talk to?
Who do you talk to?
Who do you talk to?
When your body's in trouble
The body's in trouble
The body's in trouble
When your body's in trouble, who?
Illustrations by Ruby . Contact her through me.