Brains, Bodies, and Binaries

This post is the second in a series that will be released in the following months. See the introductory post here.

"The Body has remained a conceptual blind spot in both mainstream Western philosophical thought and contemporary feminist theory. Feminism has uncritically adopted many philosophical assumptions regarding the role of the body in social, political, cultural, psychical, and sexual life and, in this sense at least, can be regarded as complicit in the misogyny that characterizes Western reason."
Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, 1994

No matter the way they argue, it seems as if the unifying attitude of most privileged Western state philosophers in regards to the topic of feminism is this view of the body as an afterthought-- or maybe, not like an afterthought-afterthought, but like this annoying appendage that is, like, kinda in the way of an awesome progressive Perfect Idea of Woman that is both one hundred percent ethically right-and-at-the-same-time-neutrally and unshakingly logical, so of course you’d agree with me unless you’re a disgusting misogynist-afterthought. The concern in online arguments between TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and others, for example, doesn’t seem to have all to do with an analysis of how one may view women’s bodies (or all our bodies) as they relate to a variety of issues within patriarchy, but of this continued unravelling of this Perfect Idea of our bodies. This move therefore centres concepts, not people, and uplifts the voices of those with access to these concepts over people’s lives and conditions. In fact, as far as experiences and conditions are concerned, they only matter if they bolster the view of the idea(l) of the Body (yea that’s “idea” and “ideal”, nice huh?) that is given to us by Western reason, as Grosz so eloquently put in the quote above. The following will be a brief understanding of what we talk about when we view bodies, meaning, what is this ideal Body we in the West are thinking about, and how is this used by TERFs and their definition of feminism to oppress transgender people.

But, what is this ideal? What definition of feminism is TERFy? TERFs will often euphemistically refer to themselves as ‘gender critical feminists’. It is hard to find a succinct definition of the ‘gender critical’ position but it will help us here to consider a well known ‘gender-critical’ feminist’s idea of it:

One Gender Critical position says that, focusing on the concepts of womanhood and woman, the class of women is defined as such by the occupation of an oppressed role in a patriarchal society… This oppressive role is theorised as being based on certain biological and reproductive characteristics, or the perception of them based on external appearances… This sex-based oppression, the view says, is what defines them as ‘women’.

This understanding of the ‘gender-critical’ position is a good indicator of what the TERF-aligned state philosopher centres. Bodies, for example, are never mentioned, like legit, not even discussed. Also, look at what is not emphasised: the end of patriarchy as a system and its oppressive structures that directly harm bodies. Instead, it focuses on the ‘concepts of womanhood and woman’ without evaluating these concepts critically, and erases the individual and their very real, not a concept, body. Why is this important to bring up? Because this definition (and therefore understanding) of feminism does little to question why we accept the deep social norms we use for peoples’ bodies in the first place. Why is having specific genitals--a biological thing--often treated as the definition for specific genders, a social and phenomenological thing. In this light, it is easy for the TERF state philosopher to avoid the relationship between the social positions of women’s bodies with the fluid complexity and status of women’s (or anyone’s) bodies while retaining a progressive story to flex on your friends about how you’re a big advocate of women’s ‘rights’. A social position is kind of like a context, an area of example or space you occupy in the place you live that have a lot of meanings and connotations, for example, the jobs you’re expected to have and places you’re expected to be. In short, TERFs avoid questioning their belief of what the body is (especially for women) by seemingly agreeing with men that it is just a thing we already “know” about, directly opposing the succinct analysis of the body by Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex as not a thing but a situation: “a grasp on the world and our sketch of our project”.

It is this way that any and all of the TERFs believe their takes towards what the status of women are, specifically in terms of the body, should not be questioned. The assumptions they make of what women are, what a woman is, especially in a political and philosophical sense, should be flawless, which Grosz remarks later on in her work. This violently denies the myriad of ways in which the body has been represented and expressed socially, politically, and culturally, and seemingly ignores the more crucial point, that this essentialist view of the human body was what men have used historically to subjugate women. But this view of the human body is a creation of men themselves via the tradition of Western thought, from ancient philosophers like Aristotle, to medievals like Aquinas, to scientific Moderns like Descartes and Bacon, to now. This reasoning, this use of reason itself, allows the idea(l), that is, both the idea of and the ideal belief of the ‘woman’, to be centred, turning any deviant or alternative willing or representation of a man or woman into a hostile threat. In other words, this is the feeling, the crux behind all TERF talking points about trans/non-binary bodies and experiences. TERFs proclaim they’re not valid because not only do trans women not measure up to their form of Woman, full stop--but that the very existence of these types of bodies is hostile to them. But why is this ‘hostility’, uh, hostile? Why is this the thrust of all TERF state philosopher’s arguments, no matter how violent? Because the idea(l) form of Woman is the ruling idea, and defying the idea(l) of woman is defying the idea of the ruling class. Trans bodies and trans experiences go against the ideology of the status quo. Trans lives in scholarship and beyond are bent on eradicating, with full intent, the intellectual arm of our hegemonic culture that is exerted by the ruling class.

What is the “intellectual arm” of hegemonic culture? For that, we turn to Gramsci.

A former philosophy research assistant at St. John's University, Maxaïe Belmont (he/him) is currently a Gadamer scholar and writer in the field of phenomenology and aesthetics. His work revolves around aesthetic play and culture formation.

Editor’s note: the term TERF here refers to Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists. It’s a label used to refer to some radical feminists who want to emphasise the exclusion of trans women and trans femme people from, for example, women’s spaces. There was recently some debate as to whether to use this term when it was used in an article by Rachel McKinnon’s “The Epistemology of Propaganda”. We agree with the journal’s decision to publish the term.


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