Posted on | May 3, 2014 | 81 Comments
“Allison eased herself carefully across the slippery sheets to the edge of the bed. Her feet dangling off the edge, she groped for the floor. She felt the slick, fur-like material of the rug between her toes. For a moment she played with it, enjoying the sensual tickling sensation on her barefoot. Then she sat up slowly, careful not to wake the girl sleeping on the other side of the bed.”
— first paragraph of Unnatural, by Sloan Britton (1960)
“One of the fundamental tenets of postmodern theory is that all identities are socially constructed, and that, throughout history, dominant groups have had the power not only to construct their own identities, which they disguise as ‘innate’ or ‘natural’ rather than created, but also to construct the identities of groups the dominant group has a vested interest in marginalizing. The appeal of postmodern theory lies in its method of ‘deconstructing’ the power relationships inherent in constructions of identity so that it becomes possible to articulate a counter-ideology which has as its aim the liberation and de-objectification of marginalized groups. The irony in this is that those most often attracted to and who are in a position to utilize postmodern methodology are themselves members of a dominant group, even if only in terms of level of education, and in the attempt to give voice to those who have been historically silenced and oppressed, they frequently run the risk of further marginalizing some members of these groups.”
— first paragraph of “Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch-Femme,” by Amy Goodloe (1993)
It is probably unnecessary to say that, given the choice between a lurid pulp novel about lesbianism and an academic treatise about lesbianism, most of us would choose the novel. Academia is overcrowded with bad writers, so it may be unfair to single out the field of Women’s Studies, and even more unfair to pick on the University of Colorado’s Amy Goodloe, simply because hers was one of the first articles that turned up on a Google search: “lesbian + feminist + butch + gender + role.”
(This was utterly random, Ms. Goodloe, and my apologies at your shock to discover your 1993 paper made the subject of online mockery, compared unfavorably to a steamy 1960 pulp novel. After writing about the butch “gender role” thing on Friday, I had in mind to do a follow-up, and you drew the short straw, so to speak.)
Goodloe is clear that her “postmodern” critique is about power. Because “all identities are socially constructed, and . . . dominant groups” possess the power to construct not only their identities but also “those who have been historically silenced and oppressed,” therefore the “method of ‘deconstructing’ the power relationships” aims “to articulate a counter-ideology which has as its aim the liberation and de-objectification of marginalized groups.”
This is less interesting than the plight of Allison, the good-girl-gone-wrong protagonist of Sloan Britton’s 1960 novel Unnatural. Her story — as tacky, vulgar and stereotypical as it may be — is about human emotion. Goodloe’s treatise is about political power:
For the past two decades [i.e., 1973-93 ], the dominant form of feminist discourse has, in attempting to “liberate” lesbian identity from patriarchal control, instead imposed its own identity politics on the lesbian community, with the result that those lesbians whose behaviors or “styles” do not conform to the feminist agenda have been doubly-oppressed — once by the dominant patriarchal culture, and again by the movement that claimed to seek the liberation of all women. This is perhaps most obvious in the feminist critique of role playing among lesbians, which is considered by the dominant feminist discourse to be a barrier to one’s “true” identity as a woman (assuming that there is such a thing). . . .
(Again, this is about who is “dominant” — not in the sexy sense of “dominant,” but in the less interesting political way.)
[I]f theorists make the whole notion of lesbian identity so problematic as to suggest that there can be no such thing, on what grounds then are lesbians to come together in the fight against oppression and homophobia? Deconstructing lesbian identity in such a way perpetuates the “divide and conquer” strategy of the dominant ideology, which has historically been used to deprive oppressed groups of the unity needed for power, by failing to recognize the agency of lesbians in resisting dominant constructions of their identity in favor of ones that more accurately reflect their lived experience.
It is the task of lesbian theory, then, Wolfe and Penelope argue, to both resist a kind of deconstruction that would render lesbians even more invisible, and to work towards the (re)construction of a lesbian identity as it is “experienced through a collective history and culture” . . .
(Checking Goodloe’s curriculum vitae, I don’t see any awards for “Most Boring Thing Ever Written About Lesbianism,” but . . .)
One of the problems with the construction of lesbian identity that is often noted by theorists is that it most often takes place within the terms of the dominant discourse, which has established heterosexuality as the “natural” or normative expression of human sexuality against which all other expressions are considered deviant and deficient. One of the first academics to challenge the naturalization of heterosexuality was Adrienne Rich, in an important and controversial essay entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980). Rich’s main argument is that heterosexuality is not only not natural or innate, it is in fact an institution designed to perpetuate male social and economic privilege, which means that the ideology of difference as the natural basis for sexual attraction is, in fact, a construction. . . . Rich goes on to argue that it is the primary bonding between women that is, in fact, natural, but which is disrupted by the imposition of compulsory heterosexuality in all women’s lives — or rather, in all but those few who resist heterosexuality in favor of the more “natural” state of woman-identification, which is the broader definition Rich gives to lesbianism. . . .
The critique most often leveled against role-playing in the lesbian community comes, as we have just seen, from the feminist belief that all role-playing replicates the very (hetero)sexual structure from which lesbians are supposedly free. The idea that one’s sexual identity might depend on or evolve from such role-playing is considered “unenlightened,” and a sign of one’s successful socialization into the dominant ideology. But there is also a growing body of lesbian-feminist scholarship that attempts to shed new light on our understanding of the function of role-playing within the lesbian community, arguing that lesbian roles not only challenge the constructed nature of heterosexual roles but are, in fact, subversive of the sex/gender system as a whole. . . .
(Here we are getting to the core of why feminism ultimately requires lesbianism. Feminist theory holds that it is “the sex/gender system” which is the source of women’s oppression under patriarchy. If, as Goodloe says in summarizing Rich, “heterosexuality is not only not natural or innate, it is in fact an institution designed to perpetuate male social and economic privilege,” then this “dominant ideology” of heterosexuality is key to women’s oppression. That which is “subversive” of the system — i.e., lesbianism — is therefore liberating.)
According to [feminist Esther] Newton, in “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman” (1984), the figure of Stephen Gordon [in Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness] “was and remains an important symbol of rebellion against male hegemony” . . . because of the way she challenges the “natural” relationship between sex and gender. . . . According to Newton . . . the character of Stephen Gordon is not “mannish” because she wants to be a man, but for the more complicated reasons of resistance to the dominant construction of “femaleness,” and decision to publicly announce and act on her desire for other women — which, in a phallocentric culture, means appropriating the male role.
The claim Newton is making for Hall’s character is that, rather than capitulating to the dominant construction of lesbian identity as a defect of nature, she instead destabilizes gender categories by exposing them as roles that can be assumed by either sex. Masculinity then becomes nothing but a social role, albeit one accorded power and dominance in the culture, and therefore women who reject the prohibitive and dehumanizing role of “femininity” symbolize this rejection by “cross-dressing,” appropriating the codes and symbols of masculinity while remaining fully female. Role-playing then becomes, at least for the “butch” woman, a challenge to heterosexuality rather than a replication of it. . . .
OK, enough with the italic interpolations. You can go read the whole thing. Where you see Goodloe’s article going — and the destination was clear from the start — is toward justifying butch-femme roles among lesbians as an attack on male “power and dominance.” Women who exercise “power and dominance” in their relationships with other women, however, are OK because they’re women, and if femininity is “prohibitive and dehumanizing” for heterosexual women, somehow being submissive toward a butch lesbian is also OK, because it “destabilizes gender categories.” Amid the academic jargon, Goodloe makes this pretty clear:
Because it is butch women who visibly disrupt the dominant ideology of gender roles with their seeming appropriation of masculinity, scholarly attention tends to focus on “butchness” when addressing issues of lesbian identity. The equally important role of femme women in the construction of lesbian identity is ignored, often because of the misconception that femme women are attempting to disguise their homosexuality by “passing” as straight — which is to say, by buying into rather than rejecting the dominant culture’s construct of “femininity.” What [feminist Joan] Nestle suggests, however, is that the femme role is just as threatening to the institution of heterosexuality because of the way it co-opts the conventional female role in order to signal desire for other women, which of course runs counter the very purpose behind the social construction of femininity. What the femme role makes perhaps even clearer than the butch is the performative nature of all roles, which makes it possible for a biological female to “play at” being a woman by exaggerating what the culture has defined as “womaness.”
Does this involve a strap-on dildo by any chance, Ms. Goodloe? Because we’re all tired of theory about butch-femme roles, which we are certain must be less interesting than the reality. But the same is true, actually, when feminists write about heterosexuals — all they see is male patriarchal hegemony and the presumed victimhood inherent in “the conventional female role.”
Has no feminist ever considered the possibility that not all heterosexual women are clueless? Are there no happily heterosexual women who are as aware as any feminist of “the performative nature of all roles,” and who take an unembarrassed pleasure in performing “the conventional female role” with conventionally masculine men?
Once you discard the power-obsessed collectivist ideology of feminism, what purpose is served by this demonization of men and this contemptuous disdain for “conventional” women?
Feminism’s critique of gender roles (“all identities are socially constructed”) is fundamentally an ideology of selfishness, embraced by perpetually disgruntled women whose inability to find happiness in traditional relationships is turned into a “sour-grapes” rationalization — the argument that traditional relationships are inherently bad. And to hell with Goodloe’s claim that “the dominant discourse” is what “has established heterosexuality as the ‘natural’ or normative expression of human sexuality.” If heterosexuality is not natural, why are there more than 6 billion people on the planet? Maybe Ms. Goodloe wasn’t paying attention in biology class when mammalian reproduction was explained, but her ignorance of the procreative process is not our fault.
Meanwhile, back in Sloan Britton’s 1960 world . . .
She had often thought of leaving. There were too many times when Lydia made life hell for her. Nothing was worth those hours and days of anguish and despair. Lydia was a sadistic bitch who delighted in tormenting Allison.
But Allison would never leave her.
Allison loved Lydia.
She loved her so much that sometimes she thought it was wrong. Human beings weren’t supposed to love each other so much. There must be something sinful about a love so strong it blotted out everything else, including decency and self-respect.
Yeah, that’s hot — and I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet!
Oh: Sixth annual National Offend a Feminist Week begins Monday and continues through May 11 — Mother’s Day, because where would the heteronormative patriarchy be without dear old Mom?