Gender binary and the limits of poststructuralist method
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. In contemporary gender history, the story about the making of the gender category is inseparable from the concept of ‘gender binary’. It at once signifies a research agenda and constitutes a persistent problem pervading feminist analysis itself. On the one hand, it points to the massive historical record of persistent inequality between the sexes. On the other hand, the concept of ‘gender binary’ undergirds gender history’s analytics, which empowers historians to pursue, expose and deconstruct the binary organisation of gendered – woman/man – identities as well as social relations and discursive formations that produce them. In both capacities, the concept carries a rich repertoire of connotations, which informs and influences the gender category: those of radical distinction, opposition, mutually exclusive and exhaustive differentiation, hierarchy, domination, oppression – in all their myriad historical forms. As a result, it captures the entanglement of gender – in theory, an open-ended category – in binary, that is, negatively and positively determined connotations of feminine and masculine and, consequently, in a particular, historical form of heterosexual subjectivity, the one structured like a binary system. The entanglement of gender history’s foundational category – gender – in the binary systems of assigning difference has had many critics. What has been left unexamined however and what gives this article its focus is the poverty of gender as a binary device to analyse those gendered identities that constitute heterosexual relations but do not fit the binary matrix. The goal in this article is to enable the conditions for the continuous development – not abandonment – of the gender category and our theoretical framework. To do that, I explore how the gender category became a binary category, tightly identified with connotations of asymmetry and hierarchy, by undertaking a deconstructive rereading of a foundational work by one of the discipline’s most influential poststructuralist theorists – Joan Scott. I conclude by arguing that in order to address the problem of gendered, heterosexual identities that do not fit the binary matrix we need to revisit the concept of dichotomy and differentiate it from binary connotations of difference found in heteronormative gender systems.
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