A Brilliant Marxist Analysis of Queer Theory


While I am no Marxist, I have often thought that contemporary Marxist analysis is often very insightful. (Of course, I often part company when Marxists turn to proposed solutions.) Marxist feminist analysis is especially keen-eyed, seeing the nexus of commodification and sexual hierarchy. The Nordic Model for prostitution owes a lot to Nordic feminist Marxists.

So while I am not on "The Weekly Worker's" contact list, when someone alerted me to this excellent essay from last month, my interest was piqued. And wow, what a brilliant analysis of, and reasoned argument against, queer theory!

The author, Amanda McLean, starts by recounting the long list of oppressions committed specifically and preponderantly against women--FGM, compelled surrogacy, porn, child marriage, sexual harassment in public spaces, and asks whether the new trend towards erasing the word "woman" through gender-neutral language, such as "cervix-havers," "menstruators," "chest-feeders," "pregnant persons," etc., is helpful or harmful in terms of righting these wrongs against women.

Marxists are confirmed materialists, so it is no surprise that MacLean thinks this trend is harmful. What's interesting is the argument she constructs to reach that conclusion.

MacLean examines the queer theory of Judith Butler as her foil:

"Thus gender replaces sex altogether [hereafter quoting Butler--ed.]: '... if gender is the social construction of sex, then it appears not only that sex is absorbed by gender, but that ‘sex’ becomes something like a fiction, perhaps a fantasy.' Butler believes that 'man' and 'woman' are constructs created to enforce compulsory heterosexuality: 'The category of sex belongs to a system of compulsory heterosexuality that clearly operates through a system of compulsory sexual reproduction … ‘male’ and ‘female’ exist only within the heterosexual matrix.'"

MacLean comments [and the quotes embedded in her comments are from Butler]: "[Butler believes] it is therefore through the power of language, and the naming of male and female, that gender oppression is created; and it is by the power of language that it can also be defeated. In order to dismantle the oppression that has resulted from this categorisation, it will be necessary to implement an 'insidious and effective strategy … a thoroughgoing appropriation and redeployment of the categories of identity themselves … in order to render that category, in whatever form, permanently problematic.' This feat is to be achieved specifically by 'depriving the … narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: ‘man’ and ‘woman’.' The category ‘women’ is particularly promoted as being ripe to be emptied of meaning: 'It should be a permanent site of contest … There can be no closure on the category and … for politically significant reasons, there ought never to be. That the category can never be descriptive is the very condition of its political efficacy.'"

MacLean then argues this is not only a dead end, but even worse: this strategy hurts women:

"For those who believe that reproduction is the only societal contribution appropriate to the class of people that possess wombs, by virtue of the fact that they possess wombs, altering the use of the word ‘woman’ cannot change that. It is the reproductive ability itself, not the words used to describe it, that the argument is based on. Nothing materially changes - moving words around will not change the position of the uterus, or its function. It is as futile as rearranging the labels on the deckchairs on the Titanic. Or like renaming the Titanic itself after it has hit the iceberg - thus, miraculously, the Titanic will not sink after all. Many of the abuses and exploitations that oppress women target the real sexual and reproductive aspects of women’s bodies - our materiality - so a materialist analysis is essential. Can any such analysis work, when its starting point is that sex is a fiction?" [emphasis mine]

More: "Is it not a far better explanation that people became aware of the blindingly obvious early on in human development - that there are very clearly only two reproductive roles, and that the anatomical features associated with each are astonishingly easy to identify at birth in nearly all humans? And that the possession of those distinct anatomies resulted in them being named, in the same way that other significant natural phenomena are named - because, irrespective of any relative value placed upon them, they actually exist?" [emphasis mine]

MacLean also suggests that the purpose of the oppression of women is not compulsory heterosexuality, as Butler argues, but rather the enforced sexual fidelity of women so that men could assure paternity--that is, know they were actually the fathers of their children. Consider, she says:

"Why is feminine behaviour submissive, while masculine behaviour is dominant? Why not the other way around? Why must one be dominant and the other submissive at all? Wouldn’t a hand signal do instead? How do the particular, specific manifestations of gender serve the purpose of enforcing heterosexuality and eliminating homosexuality, when many of them, such as FGM, reduce heterosexual behaviour in heterosexual women? True, any enforcement would require bullying of some kind, but why is it that so much of the bullying related to sex focuses on (heterosexual) women, and so relatively little on heterosexual men? Why is virginity in women prized but of little account in men? Why is so much actual heterosexual behaviour, that could lead to reproduction, so viciously punished? Why are women punished, humiliated, shamed far more than men for sexual promiscuity - heterosexual promiscuity? Why is it girls, not boys, who are the primary victims of child marriage practices? Why, in so many cultures, are women traditionally not allowed to own property, and children are considered the property of the father and not the mother? What answer does queer theory have to all this? None. It is not even framed as a question that needs to be answered.

"All of these disparate cultural practices spring sharply into focus when we understand the simple rule formulated by Friedrich Engels, the primary and founding rule of patriarchy, which exists to enforce the rights, not of men in general, but specifically of fathers: when property is private, belonging to male individuals rather than shared communally, women must bear children only to their husbands."

If that is the case, then many gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity make sense as a form of signalling of compliance to this rule:

"How do men, individually and collectively, stop - or attempt to stop - their wives from sleeping with other men? Promises are not enough, as we know. How do you stop anyone from doing something they want to, from expressing their own desires? You bully them. You humiliate, threaten, harass, attack and perhaps - occasionally - even murder them. In these multiple ways you seek to enforce compliance, through assuming social dominance and forcing social submissiveness and subordination.

"The global hallmarks of masculinity and femininity would be recognised in any other primate species as the unmistakable signs of social dominance and social subordination. Socially dominant primates (and other mammals, plus many other vertebrates) make themselves large, take up space, monopolise resources. These are the core components of masculine behaviour. Subordinate animals drop or avert the gaze, make themselves small, move out of the way, and surrender resources. These are typical feminine behaviours. In primates, attending to the needs of the dominant members of the group, by grooming, is also characteristic of social subordinates. In humans, grooming as such has been replaced by a far broader suite of behaviours that involve serving the needs of the dominant class. Gendered behaviours and the social values attached to each sex reflect this pattern worldwide. Societies globally and throughout time promote and encourage these masculine and feminine behaviours - better understood as dominant and subordinate behaviours - as appropriate to men and women respectively. Western cultures are no exception.

"So femininity is a stylised display of primate submissiveness - a behavioural strategy that reduces or avoids conflict by reliably signalling submission to social dominants . . . Understanding and placing ourselves as animals with real, material, biologically sexed bodies - rather than the smoke-and-mirrors erasure of sex and materiality itself that queer theory promotes - gives us a far more powerful tool to understand and combat the oppression of women . . . than queer theory’s baseless speculations ever can."

The cure, says MacLean, is to undercut the social dominance of males so that they cannot successfully enforce submissiveness on women. While some (such as I) would suggest this will be an ongoing battle because not only are males socially dominant, but they are also physically dominant, MacLean is far more optimistic:

"There is nothing inherent in being a man that makes men oppress women - it is their position in society that allows them to do it, and rewards women who collude with them. Power is the ability to harm without being harmed yourself, and [c]urrently, men very frequently have that power in relation to women, and so they use it, resulting in very many harms. When, within any given social grouping or class, men occupy a position of power with respect to women, it is not an inevitable effect of human biology: it is a position gifted by property, by wealth, by tradition and by law. We must seek to rebalance power to prevent harm. That involves, among many other things, abolishing both masculinity and femininity - no progressive cause should support or perpetuate a social system in which dominance is encouraged in one group, while social submissiveness is promoted in others. It is absolutely contrary to all ideas of human dignity and liberation. How could any liberatory movement adopt a position that posits an innate, inescapable hierarchical system at the heart of human nature, with close to 50% of humanity born inescapably into a submissive role?"

And yet, she says, that is exactly what queer theory attempts to do! And she is right:

"But in today’s gender debate, the position of queer theory-inspired trans activists is exactly that. For them, to be a ‘woman’ is not to be female, but to be ‘feminine’- in other words, to be a ‘woman’ is to be submissive. It is here that we begin to see the true social regressiveness of this supposedly liberatory movement. . . [S]ince most people born with female reproductive systems are ‘cis’ women, they are supposedly innately feminine, which is to say, innately submissive, subordinate, and servile. Meanwhile a similar proportion of people born with male reproductive systems are considered to be ‘cis’ men: innately masculine, and therefore born into a socially dominant role. It is likely that many activists and well-meaning people on the sidelines of this debate have not thought it through far enough to understand that this is the logical and necessary conclusion of their arguments.

"While most trans activists avoid definitions like the plague, such a conclusion is borne out by the attempts of some to redefine ‘woman’ and ‘female’. Definitions of ‘woman’ include such gems as: 'a person who acts in accordance with traditional gender roles assigned to the female sex' and 'anyone that culturally identifies and presents as the combination of stereotypes and cultural norms we define as feminine' or 'adhering to social norms of femininity, such as being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable and concerned with appearance.' And femaleness is 'a universal sex defined by self-negation … I’ll define as female any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another … [The] barest essentials [of femaleness are] an open mouth, an expectant a**hole, [and] blank, blank eyes.'”

MacLean concludes: "This is what we are fighting. It is why we are fighting. We refuse to submit." [emphasis mine]

This really is a brilliant analysis, and points out a counter-intuitive truth--that to be female is to be someone who is perpetually fighting or at least in psychic conflict with "femininity." Females don't actually want to be submissive unless that norm is bullied into them so that they internalize it. Thus for male-to-trans individuals to define what a woman is in terms of the submissive roles we women have been forced and pummeled into playing for millennia is not just regressive--it's offensive and it's harmful to all women everywhere. It is the very opposite of women's liberation--it's women's imprisonment. It is so predictable and true-to-type that even in 2021 it is--still!--biologically male beings who are in favor of the continued and reified imprisonment of women, even when they say they are not men.

Insist on material reality, my sisters, for that is the only foundation on which our true liberation will ever be obtained. Stand Against the Erasure and Replacement of Women (AEROW). Kudos to Amanda MacLean for an unstintingly clear analysis of what queer theory really means for women!