Perception of Inhumanity: The “Deviation” of Female/Queer/Trans/Intersexed Bodies
13 December 2011
Female, queer, trans, and intersex are all socially constructed identities that are both projected onto others and performed by the self. This self-expression, however, is often in response to the production of these bodies as deviant and against the norm by society. What is common often becomes what is dominant, and dominance gives agency to appropriate “normal”. Commonality shifts over time; perceiving something as common directly relates to how it is expressed by the self and validated by others- and the expression of trends, ideologies, and elements of one’s identity is constantly in flux. Thus, dominance originally gains its power from numbers, but maintains its power once commonality has shifted through the frameworks that have been established by the dominant for that very purpose. This power allows what- or who- is dominant to establish a sense of normativity. It is through this identification of a sense of “norms” from which to deviate and the construction of frameworks like heterosexuality, the gender binary system, and the correlation between gender and sex that enforce this assumed deviation from the norm that female, queer, trans, and intersexed bodies- especially bodies of color- are produced historically as inhuman.
Frameworks like heterosexuality, the gender binary system, and the assumption that sex and gender are the same establish the societal norms that are held up as standards to marginalized peoples. These oppressive frameworks are constructed based on the assumption that there are essential truths to gender and sexual orientation. Foucault argues that revealing this very truth is the goal of discourse. Similarly, Wittig argues that while the category of “woman” is social, the oppression women face is thought to originate biologically; thus, oppression cannot be overridden as long it is thought of as being in response to something from within- something that is specifically innate to the female body. In the movie Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon Teena’s gender expression as a man threatens other male-bodied characters to the point that they confront and eventually assault him. Thus forces him to be objectified as a woman despite his performed gender identity as a man. This again reflects that while gender is socially constructed, gender-based oppression is based on biology- and subject to anyone who embodies a non-male form. This assumed biology-based essentiality serves as a starting point and source of justification for the construction of the oppressive social frameworks that “other”.
Social frameworks that produce marginalized bodies as deviant are also constructed based on and enforced by one another. Wittig argues that heterosexuality informs the social construct of the gender binary: “heterosexuality [is] a social system…based on the oppression of women by men and…produces the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this oppression” (Wittig 271). A gender binary is problematic not just because it originates from heterosexuality, but because heterosexuality itself exists in yet another binary framework: the framework of sexuality. The social framework of sexuality informs the social framework of gender, and their coexistence thus ensures their mutual survival. Another phenomenon whose binary parts interact to construct oppressive frameworks is the association between sex and gender. It is considered “normal” to base one’s gender identity on one’s sex because they are thought to be interchangeable and mutually exclusive. However, individuals like Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry whose gender identity is not reflective of the typical relationship between gender and sex are subject to discrimination and brutality. The other characters base their judgment of his manhood and masculinity- or his alleged lack thereof- not only on his lack of a penis but on the fact that he problematizes their understanding of gender expression. The assumption that gender and sex are the same, or that gender is always an expression of sex, creates an oppressive binary system where either one expresses their sex through “normal” gender performance, or one fails to and is thus deemed inhuman.
Once constructed, the social frameworks like heterosexuality, the gender binary, and the relationship between gender and sex are all enforced to maintain a sense of normativity- and thus to maintain the source of deviation from the norm that justifies inhumanity and oppression. The act of engaging in discourse to reveal truth is a framework in and of itself that perpetuates the notion of the existence of an essential truth. Foucault’s text The History of Sexuality addresses the discursive practice surrounding sex that has developed over time to bring attention to society’s notion that with sex, it is no longer enough to do. One must speak in order to validate and complete the sexual experience in its entirety; one must speak about sex to legitimize it as true. It is in the perpetuation through this discourse, about sex or otherwise, that truth is powerful: “truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power… it induces regular effects of power” (Foucault 132). In the case of Boys Don’t Cry, this discursive attempt to reveal truth to maintain power manifests itself as violent confrontation. The assault onto Brandon by the other male characters is an attempt to reveal the truth about his genitalia; however, a higher and more profound truth could have come from understanding the intricacies of his gender expression in spite of his genitalia. Thus, the nature of the truth itself is irrelevant- truth is based on the concept of “norm” and both are completely relative because both are completely based on subjective perception. It is instead the act of revealing truth- or what one perceives as truth- that is powerful, regardless of what the truth itself is. Thus, while they never fully knew or understood Brandon’s personal truths, the male characters who assaulted him obtained and maintained their power through the very act of confrontational discourse.
It is important to notice that discursive revelation of truth for the sake of gaining power is a phenomenon enforced not only by the perpetual action of the heterosexual, binary-gendered communities considered to be “normal”, but also by the nature of the female, queer, trans, and intersex communities themselves as well. Dominant individuals in society are able to gain power from discourse because they exist within a social framework of repression and silence- similar to the repression Foucault addresses surrounding sex in The History of Sexuality. However, the female, queer, trans, and intersex communities have created a framework of interaction and dialogue, one that promotes discourse and education from the start. Information and acceptance are never repressed in these communities; because they are made up of marginalized individuals they are often held together by the glue of education-based solidarity. While they are repressed in “normal” society, female/queer/trans/intersex bodied individuals are not repressed within their own communities, nor do they repress others. Because they disengage from repressing others as individuals who are repressed themselves, members of the female/queer/trans/intersex communities are never able to gain the power that comes from repression. The very core of these communities as discursive from the start proves to be their powerless pitfall.
The dominance of commonality leads to the power to appropriate norms and standards. This normativity constructs the social frameworks of heterosexuality, the gender binary system, and the assumed relationship between sex and gender. It is these systems that reproduce- literally and figuratively, mentally and physically- the power charging and charged by norms. The gender and sexual orientation standards perpetuated by these systems serve as a point of departure from which female, queer, trans, and intersexed individuals are accused to deviate. In shaping our larger social interactions, these frameworks shape our individual relationships- and thus shape the way we project these identities onto others and express these identities ourselves. This entire vicious cycle is fueled by fear of the unknown, fear of the different and of the other. By producing female, queer, trans, and intersexed bodies as deviant and inhuman, society manifests this fear in a way that allows it to eventually dominate it; terror is literally embodied by the bodies of these individuals as a face is put to its name. Instead of seeking out and creating sources of “othering” though, we should strive to “self” any and every individual we encounter to achieve a sense of empathy, understanding, and true solidarity against this issue of the perpetuation of inhumanity. By “selfing” others- by seeing oneself in another- the face of terror just might start resembling the face in the mirror.
Boys Don’t Cry. Stephen Bosustow Productions, Distributed by Perspective Films, 1973.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. London: Allen Lane, 1978. Print.
Wittig, Monique. “One Is Not Born A Woman.” The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. London: Routledge, 1997. 265-71. Print.