Postmodernism : lies & death of our movement (2)

The ‘Pomo’ Backlash: Looking at Feminism in the Aftermath of Postmodernism (Part 2)

Guest post by Maggie H.

There is an over-emphasis on discourse and domination of ‘language’ in postmodern feminist works; this frequently fails to address the central issue of structural male domination over women. There is validity in linking language with power. However, radical feminists have explained where the ‘master narrative’ lies; it is not in women’s accounts of their life experiences. The voices of the oppressed ought not to be deconstructed. It is men who have privilege and the power of naming in a patriarchy (Daly, 1979; Dworkin, 1979), and men like Foucault or Derrida are no exception.

Structural male dominance should adequately be addressed; but Jane Flax (in Thinking Fragments; 1990), for example, would rather use the terms ‘gender’ and ‘gender relations’ than male dominance. She makes the absurd claim that there is a need to find what gender relations ‘really are’, while gender continues to be constructed and enforced by a male-supremacist context. She remains obscure on the reality of sex hierarchy in a gendered society where men dominate women. There is notable reluctance, in Flax’s work, to seriously name the agent for women’s oppression, i.e. men.

Another postmodern feminist, Chris Weedon (Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory; 1987) cannot distinguish radical feminists’ theoretical contrast between sex and gender when she accuses us of believing in a “true essential non-patriarchal femininity” rather than femaleness. Rich (1977) rejected essentialism when she explained that women are socialised to become nurturing. Radical feminists have always made a crucial distinction between femininity and actual biological femaleness, in other words gender vs. sex.

Weedon (1987) also remains undecided on where exactly power relations lie, and eschews naming male dominance and properly identifying whose interests are being served by the status quo. Nicholson (1992) repeatedly use the term ‘sexism’ rather than ‘misogyny’ –which would be more politically powerful. There is some self-policing of language in her work that can be observed in her cautious attitude to the terms ‘mothering’ and ‘reproduction’. The reader can feel that the postmodern ‘feminist’ much more concerned with avoiding ‘risk of essentialism’ at all cost and with intersections of race and class, rather than being concerned with women’s shared experience of patriarchal oppression. In Nicholson’s over-emphasis on language and “the epistemic is political” (p.69), any chance for genuine political feminist analysis gets lost.

Judith Butler’s (Gender Trouble, 1990) analysis of heterosexuality is far removed from Rich’s (‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,’ 1980). Adrienne Rich identified heterosexuality as a patriarchal institution and a primary site for women’s oppression. Similarly to her, Jeffreys (1993) argues that a proper lesbian feminist analysis would constantly address male interests as being served and maintained by heterosexuality. It is therefore true that Butler is not being fair in purporting that:

Lesbianism that defines itself in radical exclusion from heterosexuality deprives itself of the capacity to resignify the very heterosexual constructs by which it is partially and inevitably constituted.”(Gender Trouble, 1990, p. 128; emphasis mine)

In her focus on ‘gender as performance’, Butler also supports butch/femme roles as ‘transgressive’. In Bodies that Matter (1993), she drew on Lacan and Freud (male thinkers who had been explicitly criticised by modernist feminist) to argue that the phallus is ‘transferrable’ from a post-structural ‘body as text’ perspective. She then devoted thirty-four pages on the “lesbian phallus” and did not offer much hope for us lesbians when she claimed we need “the critical release of alternative imaginary schemas for constituting site of erotogenic pleasure” (Butler, 1993, p. 91).

Surely there is a better alternative to Butler’s phallic recommendations for lesbians; but she cannot envision it since her goal is rather to promote alternatives to traditional ‘rigid’ gendered norms rather than eradicating gender altogether. Butch/femme roles offer nothing revolutionary and what Butler seems to recommend looks very much like a mere ‘copying and pasting’ heterosexual gender norms onto lesbianism. One of the most powerful critics of Judith Butler, Sheila Jeffreys (The Lesbian Heresy, 1993; and Unpacking Queer Politics, 2003) described butch/femme roles as oppressively gendered and suggested that there is a genuine form of lesbian sexuality that exists independently from phallocentric and heteronormative / heteropatriarchal influences –despite a patriarchal gendered culture that continually attempts to chip away at it.

Jeffreys (1993) explained that Butler’s (1990) concept of gender as being socially constructed is not a new one within feminism, as it was crucial to earlier feminist understandings of patriarchal oppression of women. Gender is a social construct that benefits men, and helps them preserve structural power over women. It perpetuates culturally and patriarchally enforced oppressive ‘feminine’ conventions on women. I read Gender Trouble and saw no reference in it to the gendered beauty practices affecting women’s bodies and everyday realities (see e.g. Jeffreys, 2006).

In Susan Bordo’s (2003) attempt to supposedly change women’s realities through text, she chooses to overcome her reason with desires and playful styles, showing how “conditions that are objectively… constraining, enslaving, and even murderous, come to be experienced as liberating, transforming, and life-giving.” (p. 168) In a magic intellectual tour de force, experiences of eating disorders come to be expressed as ‘empowering’. The irrational doublethink and over-emphasis on texts and meaning is rather troubling here. Postmodernism wants women’s desire to trump their reason.

Women, including women of colour, have historically been perceived by those in power as ‘creatures lacking reason’, and postmodern feminism’s abandonment of reason in favour of desire, as Waters (1996) pointed out, may well throw women squarely back in a reification of misogynistic Freudian analysis. Feminist theory that allows desire to substitute reason –and objects to concrete, rational thinking– becomes incoherent. Men and male-identified women have historically been using doublethink and language that distances itself from women’s oppression to belittle or minimise facts about women’s lives around the world (Daly, 1979).

Bordo (2003) appears to be trying to change women’s world through ‘text’, while ignoring the material reality of eating disorders. According to her, female bodies can “now speak of their necessity in their slender spare shape and the currently fashionable men’s-wear look.” (p. 171) The anorectic teenage girl can now use her body to show the ‘strength’ and ‘self-control’. She can empower herself with an ‘androgynous’ slender look that can ‘subvert’ internal contradictions of gender. I remain sceptical that this gender analysis can possibly help change the reality of eating disorders.

Earlier feminist theories of gender as socially constructed (and separate from biological sex), argued it had to be transcended for women to be free (e.g. Ann Oakley, Sex, Gender and Society; 1972). The new postmodern ‘feminist’ understanding of gender is quite different. Now, the biological sex disappears as being itself ‘socially constructed’ (2) and gender has to be ‘explored’ in all its ‘multiplicity’ (Jeffreys, 2003).

Jeffreys (1993; 2006) explained that Butler’s idea that gender is simply a ‘performance’ is completely removed from the context of women’s oppression (Jeffreys, 1993). Gender was constructed as a way for men to maintain power over women. Painful and time-consuming gendered beauty practices affect women’s bodies and realities (Jeffreys, 2006).

Butler’s (1990) gender protection racket lies in implications that gender ‘performances’ which switch gender roles are ‘subversive’ within a supposedly ‘right’ context. Butler’s suggestion that ‘performing’ gender in ways that swap some gender roles for others can be ‘subversive’ in certain contexts shows that she wants to preserve gender rather than getting rid of it. Butler’s vision is short-sighted and offers no real feminist solution to gender. The ‘rigidity’ of gender is not the problem. Butler’s ‘gender-as-performance’ ideology led to a conceptualisation of gender as ‘multiple’ by later queer theorists who purported the existence of many ‘genders’ (Jeffreys, 2003; Wilkinson and Kitzinger, in Radically Speaking, 1996). Bordo (2003) abandons a second-wave analysis of gender to be able to discuss a way to ‘subvert’ traditional norms of femininity simply with alternative ones. Such approaches separate gender from its material foundation in the oppression of women.

Rather than politically attempting to create numerous ways of ‘performing’ femininity and masculinity, radical feminists want gender and its socialisation to be discarded altogether. If gender were to be reconceptualised in terms of conforming to male dominance and female subordination, a better analysis of it would emerge. There are merely various ways in which feminine and masculine behaviours can play out (and these are not always expressed by the usual female or male actors), but only two genders exist. Gender roles are learned and should be eliminated –not just switched or played.

Butler’s perception of drag and unconventional gender role-playing as ‘subversive’ indicate no revolutionary strategy, no matter how many times she argues that such a ‘performance’ (because not acted out by an usual actor according to societal gendered expectations) would apparently reveal the fact that there is no core to gender. Male supremacy is perpetuated not just because people are unaware of the social construction of gender. It is maintained because men benefit from structural power over women (Jeffreys, 1993).

There is no way men would relinquish the sexual, economic, etc that patriarchy confers them once they see men wearing feminine clothes. Similarly, women’s oppression goes beyond having to wear makeup and noticing that drag queens or kings exist is unlikely to help women overcome their socially subordinate status. Moreover, modernist feminist theorists have criticised drag and cross-dressing as merely swapping a gender role for another and stereotypically caricaturing women (e.g. Janice Raymond’s 1994 edition of The Transsexual Empire).

Postmodernism and Butlerian ‘gender-as-performance’ ideology unfortunately spawned what Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger (in Radically Speaking, 1996) called the ‘queer backlash’ against feminism in contemporary culture. Queer culture (and the LGBTQWTF movement) is beyond caring about the sex a person was assigned at birth (either male or female). The only preoccupations of this ‘multiple genders’ Queer culture is the ‘performance’ of various Butlerian ‘subversions’, parodies, gender-bending or mimicries that a purported diversity gender gives them. In Queer culture, celebrities like Madonna or Lady gaga are perceived as ‘undermining’ the supposed rigidity of gender through the display of exaggerated femininity. Performers employ exaggerated use of high heels, makeup and submissive conduct as a form of ‘empowerment’ that is expected by Queer admirers to show casual observers the apparent reality of gender as a ‘performance’ and support Butler’s assertions from Gender Trouble (1990).

Among people who laud Queer theory and cultural practice, as well as Butlerian concepts, Cherry Smyth (Lesbians Talk: Queer Notions; 1992) claimed that Madonna is “…one of the most famous example of queer transgression” (p. 44). Whereas 1960’s-1970’s generation of women viewed patriarchally enforced feminine beauty practices like makeup or leg-shaving as agonizing and time-consuming after earlier feminist analyses of gender emerged, younger women now delusion themselves with perceptions of Queer femininity as ‘transgressive’. At the same time, the socially constructed institution of gender, which maintains structural male domination over women, remains unchallenged (Jeffreys, 1993). There is no doubt that ‘alternatives’ of femininity have been made available to women. However, gender gets reinforced by Queer culture, and it has no interest in promoting an authentic liberation for women from the institutionalised patriarchal bondage of feminine roles.

On a Bully Bloggers’ (2010) post, Jack Halberstam says that Lady Gaga’s sister’s ‘prison yard kiss’ with a female body artist apparently “…reminds the viewer that this is a queer sisterhood, a strange sisterhood and one which is not afraid to flirt with some heavy-duty butch-femme, S/M dynamics.” This is a very bizarre type of patriarchally twisted ‘sisterhood’ being shown here –and it is being displayed on an Internet page that contains ‘softcore’ pornographic portrayals of women as sex objects. Freedom for women has to start with a personal and political rejection of masochism, and of bondage and sadomasochism (Jeffreys, 1993). Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, the butch/femme roles that Butler frequently defended in her works (1990; 1993) are a replica of heterosexual gendered norms. Those roles do nothing to destabilize gender; they only perpetuate it.

Wilkinson and Kitzinger (1996) see Queer theory and practice as gay male-centred primarily concerned with the needs of gay males (and transgendered “male-to-female” individuals) rather than lesbians’. Despite its supposed ‘transgression’, Queer theory is deeply conservative. Gender roles are not discarded; they are merely swapped and ‘played around’ with. Queer politics view transgenderism as ‘progressive’. The vast majority of women-only spaces have now been invaded by people who were assigned male at birth (and thus do not share the same life experience as those who were oppressed as female since birth). This undermined the potential of feminist consciousness-raising spaces for feminists and women (Jeffreys, 2003). Radical feminists have long denounced the medical establishment for institutionalising and reinforcing gender conformity through the promotion of transsexual surgery, or transgenderism, which merely swaps one gender role for the other (Raymond, Transsexual Empire, 1979/1994a).

In the aftermath of postmodernism and Queer theory, gender (which feminists have long sought to eradicate) could well become enshrined in law. The conservative role of queer politics clearly shows itself in the politics of US organisation called GenderPAC, which attempt to legally protect gender roles and identities (Jeffreys, 2003).

Postmodernism (or poststructuralism) along with its offshoot, Queer politics, are antithetical to the liberation of women from male oppression, and there is no adequate feminist goal to be gained in seeking ‘equality’ politics, as Greer (2000) has shown. In her book on feminism after postmodernism, Zalewski (2000) presented a mostly neutral standpoint on postmodernism when comparing it to radical feminism, arguing that there can be qualities in both –that while radical feminism presents interesting perspectives on women’s bodily realities, postmodernism apparently presents some intellectual ‘qualities’ in the academia. I disagree. Postmodernism is a product of male-institutionalised scholarship that does nothing to help women as a sex class.

The academia, with its purported open-mindedness to feminist theory, would have been a good point of departure for feminist consciousness-raising and action, but what happened instead is deeply heartbreaking and disappointing. Mary Daly (in Quintessence, 1998) warned that there had been an unfortunate ‘taming’ of feminist genius in academia. This has partly encouraged radical feminists to choose alternative networks of communication to reach all kinds of women, e.g. online resistance has been a powerful way to bypass academia (like the creation of this RadFem Hub here, for instance). As Carol Anne Douglas said regarding academic ‘feminism’:

“Foucault is “high” theory… Apparently, the works of …Rich, …Daly, …Lorde, …Dworkin, and virtually everybody else who has ever moved women are “low theory”… If that’s the case, then you take the high road, baby, and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland, Peoria, Bangladesh, or any actual place before you.” (Douglas, ‘I’ll Take the Low Road: A Look at Contemporary Feminist Theory’, in Off Our Backs, XXIII (2), 16-17p. 16).

Wild Women(3) will not care whether or not genuine feminist truth-telling pleases men or not. They will tell it as it is, without obfuscating it within complex academic language. Hopefully, the importance of the ‘women-as-a-sex-class’ analysis will soon re-emerge in the next wave of feminism.


Maggie H. is a lesbian feminist and a separatist. She frequently reads the Radical Hub, and has commented here before. She is a sociology student in the School of Social and Political Sciences at University in the UK. She has taken a temporary break from radical feminist blogging (during her studies), and plans to come back to the radfem blogosphere under a different screen-name after graduating.


2. I understand that intersexed people exist, and they should not be forced to fit in a category if they do not want to. However, there is a certain reality commonly shared from birth onwards for people who were assigned female at birth (FAAB, see Femonade, 2011), including some intersexed people who were assigned as such. Moreover, Martha Nussbaum (in ‘The Professor of Parody,’ New Republic; 1999) noted that “[c]ulture can shape and reshape some aspects of our bodily existence but it does not shape all aspects of it… This is an important fact… for feminism, since women’s nutritional needs (and their special needs when pregnant or lactating) are an important feminist topic.” (p. 42)

3. Mary Daly (1998) used the term Wild Women to describe any female who have not been domesticated by patriarchal ideologies, or who are at least eager to break away from them –unlike Dworkin’s (1983) right-wing women, for instance, who attempted to make compromises with patriarchy

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