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Form, Function and Gender.

It seems to be the week for people who work at colleges formerly known as World of Carpets to make me roll my eyes on twitter. The week started with the University of Westminster lecturer in diversity informing me that sometimes you have to sacrifice the few for the needs of the many. Minority groups in her lectures must feel so welcomed. Yesterday it was the turn of Rupert  Bear, Read , apparently a philosopher at the University of East Transphobia to show what a pitiful state higher education is in the UK today.

I am suspect of any man who chooses to write on feminism, especially when they decide to take a side with extremists and bigots. When you do not belong to an oppressed group your role is to listen, a hard thing for a cis man I know, but we can all overcome our upbringings if we try hard enough. Rupert claims to be a philosopher though, and so I read his blog wondering exactly how he approached the idea of gender and gender identity. I found this pearl of wisdom amongst the below basic analysis of feminist thought.

1) That there is a genuine, complicated question within Feminism about whether trans-women can or should in every or all respects be regarded straightforwardly as women (They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause; they chose to be (to become) women rather than having been brought up gendered female; etc. etc). It is complicated. Does feeling psychologically as if you are a woman and making certain changes to your body as a consequence make you a woman? Or first, a more basic question: Is it enough, in order to BE a woman, to psychically identify as one? To this second question, we must surely answer: no. (It it were, then it would presumably be enough to be disabled to psychically identify as disabled; it would be enough to be black to psychically identify as black; etc.)

Now of course all of his biological arguments are to use the technical term, bunkum. I am a cis female and I dont have periods, nor have I experienced the menopause. There is a deeper point here however, about what we see gender as being. For Read it is about external signifiers, despite the fact that these signifiers differ from culture to culture, from person to person. My friend who has had a double mastectomy is no less a woman, nor is the cis woman born without a womb,vagina or cervix. What then is a woman?

I think we need to go back, way back, to Plato and the idea of forms to answer the question. Radical feminist thought attempted to claim “womaness” was determined by society, that gender is a construct of patriarchy. As always though they were stuck within their white eurocentric middle class idea of what the world is. The only society they considered was their own, and the only definition of woman they considered was that which fitted themselves.

How do you know a table is a table? Some might answer form, some might answer function. A table is something that looks like a table, or a table is something which you can put things upon. This is the line Read and his radical feminist chums take with gender. Gender is determined by form and function, a woman is a woman because she looks like a woman, and/or  because she can fulfil the functions of a woman, as determined by patriarchal society. Of course this definition of gender merely serves to uphold the patriarchal norms norms which oppress women, which is why men like Read are so attracted to radical feminism. Sarah Brown explores this idea excellently here.

So according to a form and function idea of gender this is a table

This is also a table

Is this a table?

In form , it differs less from the first example than the second does, it has legs and a relatively flat top on which you can place things. However you probably struggle with the idea we should identify this as a table. This is because we have the concept of a table in our head, from which we determine the tableness of all table like things. The third picture does not fit, and therefore dismiss it as not -table.

This is Plato’s main thought throughout much of his work, that there exist, beyond us, and yet innate to us ideas which go beyond any actual physical table and to a concept we have of tableness. What on earth does this have to do with gender I hear you cry? We know form and function do not define gender, it is scientifically wrong, and based on a limited set of norms which put white western values as the only ones that matter in discussions of gender. I would argue that we have a Platonic concept of gender, an idea of womanness and manness that is not based on the form, or the function of a man or a woman, but on an innate, internal understanding of the concepts. (for the moment I am remaining in the binary, this is not to deliberately exclude non binary people but as a cis binary person I cannot comment on how their innate sense of gender/s works).

Read argues that he supports transphobic feminists because  someone’s womanhood cannot be internal, but as I have argued a sense of gender can only be internal. Norms can and do vary, however, norms are about expression of gender, not about what gender someone is. For example, I like many, remember Boy George and Marilyn first appearing on TOTP. The common refrain was that “you could not tell if they were a girl or a boy” because both had long hair and wore make up. People were so used to one way of gender being expressed they were troubled, and confused by a different one. To the terfs, and Read, Boy george and Marilyn were women, since the way they chose to present themselves was one women generally used. The fact they identify as (ie have the platonic form of male as their ideal) men is irrelevant if gender is about externals and not internals. Or as Carter argued here, if someone cut off his cock, he would still be a man.

Once we exclude external signifiers of gender, and we must to be scientifically correct, then we are only left with that feeling of being a woman that Read dismisses as being not enough to determine womanhood. This internal feeling, which I believe correlates to a platonic ideal of gender, an idea existing outwith ourselves, yet also innate to ourselves, is the only signifier of gender which is neither culturally specific or scientifically inaccurate. Read of course, like so many men who wish to defend their privileged position in patriarchy, had seized  on the dog whistles of transphobia to attack trans women. The comment about body integrity disorder is one of those dog whistles that say I belong in this camp when it comes to gender, a common attack on trans women that they are just mentally ill self harming men.  He and the terfs are welcome to each other, however since he is a leading spokesman for the Greens, and standing in the election in May his transphobia must be highlighted, for we do not need more men in power who will use that power to oppress and harm women.



10 comments on “Form, Function and Gender.

  1. lucybottomface
    January 22, 2015

    Reblogged this on bottomfacedotcom and commented:
    Brilliant post regarding gender from a philosophical viewpoint.


    • jemima2013
      January 22, 2015

      thank you so much, this means a lot to me


  2. Pingback: Deep Green Transphobia comes to the UK | The Other Sarah

  3. ValeryNorth
    January 23, 2015

    The discussion you write here is eerily similar to one I used about myself and motherhood:

    “I think my genderfluid identity, and my association of femininity with my body, pulls me towards that as opposed to the other. The word, the name, the title, “mum”, means little. It is to feel like I am mum that matters.”

    I’m not sure Plato is necessarily the best analogy or reference to the concept; my version draws more on the little I know of Jung. But the strict categorisation of TERFism (and Dr Read) is clearly inadequate. Creates “Do you qualify to be a member of our club?”


  4. daira
    January 24, 2015

    “I am a cis female and I dont have periods, nor have I experienced the menopause.”

    In support of your point here, I’m a trans woman and I *have* experienced symptoms after my orchiectomy that are very similar to post-menopausal symptoms, occurring for the same biological reason (insufficient oestrogen), and treated in the same way by increasing my dose of HRT.


    • jemima2013
      January 25, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, yes, and doesnt the medical profession warn trans people that when they begin taking hormones they will experience a “second puberty”. Reads reductive understanding of biology leaves a lot to be desired.


  5. jemima2013
    January 25, 2015

    Thanks for the link, and yes, i think it is the same thing, not sure that Jung isnt drawing on Plato tho with the idea of universal parts of the mind, where do u get the concept of the anima from after all?


    • ValeryNorth
      January 31, 2015

      As I understand it the “collective unconscious” and all that stuff, is a result of shared experiences that are common to human life, rather than an appeal to an absolute “ideal” form? Or maybe that’s me drawing parallels with Marx’s class consciousness?


      • jemima2013
        January 31, 2015

        Think Jung sore it the other way round, that some experiences are shared because they flow from the collective unconscious, the mind shaping society rather than the other way around.
        Of course Marx was not a materialist for nothing ans would of course have disagreed. I have often wondered tho how marxism would have looked had he written a few years later when Freud had highlighted the importance of the inner world.
        Oh my, there is a movie to be made, Marx meets freud!


        • ValeryNorth
          January 31, 2015

          It’s something that fascinates me, because all these ideas (Marx, Freud, etc) come out of the golden age of classical physics and engineering (and, of course, Darwin and Wallace in biology), with the Victorian advances in electromagnetism, and then Einstein’s theory of relativity. By turning Marx’s idea of how ideas are shaped in their time back onto the ideas he developed, and looking at the science of the time, I wonder what Marxism would look like, if Marx had developed it in an era when quantum theory and mechanics were well-known?

          But, yeah – as spiritual as I am, my instincts are materialist in the philosophical sense when it comes to these things. So I tended to interpret the snippets I’ve read of Jung (and, similarly, the Tarot and other divination systems) from that kind of perspective.

          Where that leaves me as regards to the questions in the OP, I’m not sure, although I’m pretty clear where I come down on whether trans women are women!


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This entry was posted on January 22, 2015 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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