How can we, as feminists, move beyond the binary to fight both sexism and cissexism?
From Mother Earth to Father Time, from cars to the color pink, we constantly think about the world around us in terms of gender. But English is not a language that obliges us to gender nouns like French or Spanish: there must be another reason as to why we insist upon gendering inanimate objects and abstract concepts. The gender binary’s influence, instilled upon us from birth, penetrates the way we think about, view, and describe our world.
As feminists, we fight for gender equality. But, in the words of George Orwell, are “some…more equal than others?” While we strive for the rights of women, the language we use risks excluding those who do not conform to the gender binary, leading us further from equality. Take the popular feminist slogan, “The Future is Female.” While on the surface this statement appears to empower women, what are the underlying implications? By asserting that the future is female, this seemingly harmless statement reinforces cisnormativity, alienating those who do not identify with the binary. Similarly, praising “Pussy Power” ties gender to a specific set of genitalia, reinforcing the outdated notion that biological sex equals gender.
In her essay exposing the prejudices hidden within the scientific language of biology, feminist anthropologist Emily Martin asserts the need to “wake up sleeping metaphors,” by which she means that cultural biases hide within the language we use, and we cannot oppose them if we are not aware of them. If we fail to identify these biases they will remain asleep, invisibly reinforcing prejudice.
Our current formulation of feminism, with its emphasis upon the notion of woman, can be perceived as one such “sleeping metaphor.” Although feminism works towards the “political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” the underlying implication of this definition, for many, means equality between men and women.
Implicit within the desire for equality lies a desire for unity. By viewing gender in terms of the binary, the opposite occurs.
The binary dictates certain expectations that become so entrenched in our minds that it becomes near-impossible to discuss gender objectively. By acting within the confines of the binary, ideals of the ‘essential’ woman inevitably emerge — something in which feminist writer Roxanne Gay takes a particular interest. The issue with “essential feminism,” she asserts, is that “it doesn't allow for the complexities of human experience of individuality.”
When we focus solely on the notion of womanhood, we inadvertently reinforce rigid notions of gender. Meaningless and ever-changing standards — a good feminist must be angry, must not like men, must have a career — cause feelings of inadequacy among feminists who feel they do not fit the mold.
What we must realize is that none of us fits the mold.
To accommodate individual expressions of identity, it is crucial to acknowledge that gender encompasses more than man and woman. Gender is a construct and, as a gender-centric movement, feminism must recognize this. We should be fighting sexism and cissexism.
The gender binary represents a deeply rooted, divisive element of our society that acts as a block to progress. Rather than acting within its confines, we need to fight the binary. By carefully examining the language we use, we can begin to use language to deconstruct this system of division. Our understanding of gender must evolve in order to further the interests of all feminists: equality. Making small shifts in the language we use is a small price to pay for that.
Hope Rangaswami is a British-Indian writer and first-time contributor to The Rational Creature. Follow her on Instagram.