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Caroline Criado-Perez on Judith Butler: What's a phallus got to do with it?

In the late 80s, a new theorist emerged on the scene. She was called Judith Butler, and she was to revolutionise gender theory so fundamentally, that to write a paper on gender in the 21st century that does not at least reference Butler, is to almost place yourself outside of theoretical intelligibility.

Judith Butler believed we were all performing gender. Photo: Getty
Judith Butler believed we were all performing gender. Photo: Getty

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once claimed that “woman does not exist”. Women, or as Lacan therefore puts it in his lecture “On Feminine Sexuality” , “Woman”, might be forgiven for double-taking at this outlandish claim, but don't worry. This is only a symbolic claim, it only applies to which gender can have meaning in language, Lacan assures us, before going on to affirm that, “women's sexual organ is of no interest”. Hmmm.

Man, on the other hand, well. Man is different. “A man is nothing but signifier”, Lacan proclaims. He is the originator of all meaning. Taking inspiration from Freud's famous “penis-envy” theory, Lacan tells us that it is the “phallus” that is the signifier. (NB: the phallus, not the penis: we're still in the realm of the symbolic which despite its odd obsession with sexual organs is in no way related to the realm of the physical. Keep up, people.) And the phallus, despite being only symbolic and not related to actual sex, is intrinsically male. As a result, a woman cannot signify. She is without meaning. Symbolically.

As you might imagine, feminists have had some problem with this theory. In reaction against Freud's colonialist designation of female sexuality as the “dark continent for psychology”, (that is unknowable, hence Lacan's “Woman”), Hélène Cixous, one of the leading proponents of the theory of écriture féminine, which proposed that women should write outside of the shackles of male-defined meaning, had this to say:

The Dark Continent is neither dark nor unexplorable - it is still unexplored only because we've been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable. And because [men] want to make us believe that what interests us is the white [male] continent...

Her point was simple. Freud positioned men as eternal subject, their viewpoint as the viewpoint, when he claimed that “[t]hroughout history, people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity”, going on to clarify that “people” in fact meant “men”, since for “those of you who are women this will not apply: you are your selves the problem”. Cixous turned this blinkered contention on its head. Women are people too, she radically pointed out, and therefore are not intrinsically unknowable. We are not born as pure mystery. Rather, it is because psychology has been written by men, from a male perspective that has no interest in considering whether or not there may be an alternative, female worldview, a view of the world informed by occupying a position at the bottom of the social order, that women have been portrayed as essentialised and unknowable Other. It is because of this failure of imagination that woman has been positioned in the psychological literature as destined never to be a subject, never able to signify in and of herself. Only able to have meaning in so far as she is not the one true signifier: the mighty male phallus.

Cixous radically said that it didn't have to be that way. After all, she points out, white ink is only unreadable if it is written on a white page. So why are we unquestionably putting up a structure, a page, that renders our voices silent, our ink invisible?

Cixous was joined in her radical rejection of a male-defined access to meaning by Luce Irigary, and the French school soon gained currency in Anglo-American theoretical circles. But then, in the late 80s, a new theorist emerged on the scene. She was called Judith Butler, and she was to revolutionise gender theory so fundamentally, that to write a paper on gender in the 21st century that does not at least reference Butler, is to almost place yourself outside of theoretical intelligibility.

Butler is perhaps most famous for her theory of gender performativity, that is, the idea that gender is brought into being by repeated performances of a particular gender role. Gender performativity has entered into theoretical lore, and I have my problems with how it has been deployed to, ironically, position gender as somehow innate. In this essay, however, I would like to focus on Butler's related theory of intelligibility, since I think it throws light on how a theory that you might think would destabilise oppressive gender norms, has actually been used to shore them up.

In Gender Trouble, perhaps her most famous work, Butler criticises ‘received grammar’, as incapable of contesting gender, since ‘gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms’, warning that ‘the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself.’ This sounds a bit like Cixous. Let's challenge those patriarchal structures that render our voices unintelligible. Let's stop blindly accepting the white page offered to us.

On first reading this, I couldn't help excitedly thinking of my feminist awakening while reading Deborah Cameron's Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Cameron referenced a study showing that when women hear “man” or “he” referring to mankind rather than specifically the male of the species, they nevertheless think of a man. This was despite the arguments from grammar purists that grammar is merely abstract, with no link to the reality of social gender (remind you of anyone whose name begins with an L?). It was a shock to me; I had never noticed it, but I realised this was exactly what I did, and that it had led to “lawyer”, “doctor”, “politician”, so often accompanied by the grammatically correct, default genderless “he”, also appearing in my head as a man. My whole mental world was peopled by powerful, successful men – no wonder I felt inadequate.

Butler goes even further in Undoing Gender, writing that “[t]here are advantages to remaining less than intelligible, if intelligibility is understood as that which is produced as a consequence of recognition according to prevailing social norms”. So far, so exciting. Like the French theorists of écriture féminine, who proposed a specifically feminine form of writing, one that expressed the female perspective, Butler says that we don't have to accept male-defined meaning. And if that renders us unintelligible – unable to signify – who cares? We understand ourselves – you can make the effort to get beyond your own myopic perspective.

But having identified this problem of male-defined meaning, Butler goes on to prescribe a rather surprising solution. In Bodies That Matter, Butler says that Lacan has no right to assume ownership over the phallus, and thereby determine its meaning. Instead, she says, we must disrupt, we must queer, his misogynistic claiming of meaning for the male, by insisting on the “transferability of the phallus”. And so, like a genderqueer rabbit out of a hat, the “lesbian phallus” is born. This disrupting birth is, Butler assures us, “compatible with the Lacanian scheme”.

I can see where Butler is coming from with this, but I can't help but feel that it's slightly . . . unambitious. Why, we might ask, is it so important that we cohere with the Lacanian scheme at all? What happened to the radical notion of saying, actually, Freud, no, “people” have not “knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity”, men have, because they never thought it worth just asking us. We are not “[our]selves the problem”, Freud, the problem is a male-defined and male-constructed schema, that conceives of humanity, sex and gender purely from the perspective of the male sex class, as if the perspective from the bottom simply doesn't exist. I don't want to reappropriate the phallus; I would rather make like Irigaray and pledge allegiance to the “void”, that “gaping emptiness heavier than any matter”. I don't see why I have to accept this schema as so fixed that all I can do is “queer” it; I would rather demolish it.

The immediate argument against that, and one that Butler herself might propose, is that calling for a rejection rather than a reappropriation of the phallus is to essentialise gender roles. Of the French feminists, Butler wrote that their “model of culture” was not that far from the patriarchal one, in that it assumed the “constancy of sexual difference”. What she wanted, was a “femininity” of “multiple possibilities”. This is a cry that has been taken up by a whole army of third-wave feminists, and it is extremely attractive. You do not have to be the fainting, incompetent, violable victim that your culture tells you you are. Just reject it and say you can be as good as any man, you can be as meaningful as any man. You have as much access to this signifying phallus as he does, and what's more, you're de-heterosexing it. Take that, patriarchy.

The problem with this, on the surface, attractive solution, is that it confuses the personal with the public. Just because I personally believe, or even know, that I am a strong, independent woman, who has intellect, who deserves an education, a public voice, who doesn't deserve to be raped, who doesn't deserve to be killed, that personal knowledge doesn't change a global order that says the exact opposite. And this matters, because we are not just dealing with theoretical abstracts here, but a global order in which one out of three women suffer from violence at the hands of men, 85,000 women a year are raped in the UK alone, and two a week die at the hands of their partners. This is not to say Butler does not acknowledge this – of course she does, and she works outside of the academy to combat it. But her theoretical work does not seem to account for the reality of the world in which women operate, and it is a world that does conceive of sex difference as fixed. The fact that most feminists accept that this is a culturally rather than a biologically ordained phenomenon, does not make it any less real for the women who are denied an education, denied a say in the global order, who are raped, who are killed.

Accepting that and constructing a feminist theory that takes account of this reality, is not the same as saying that this reality is fixed. It's saying, this is our reality in the here and now and we have to acknowledge that in order to solve it. Pretending reality is what we would like it to be is not going to change anything. At best, it's going to make one woman feel more powerful. But it will do nothing for women as a class. And feminism worth its salt can't be about making individual women feel better about themselves – feminism cannot be reduced to individual therapy. What feminism needs to be about is altering a social structure that positions women at the very bottom. That is what will enable femininity to signify “multiple possibilities”. To paraphrase the brilliant Audre Lorde, queering the master's tools just isn't going to cut it.