Many universities have departments whose names include the phrase “gender studies.” These are not neutral grounds of academic inquiry, but meeting-grounds for a dogmatic group of like-minded believers.
The dogmas of gender studies start with requiring people to use the word “gender” instead of the word “sex” to refer to men and women. It’s a move of which Plato would have approved. Men and women aren’t real essences any longer; only the more abstract “gender” is—as if “red” and “green” were declared not to exist as colors, but only Color, sub-set “the shadow we call green.” It denies them substance by giving prominence to a more abstract concept instead.
“Gender” isn’t exactly a neologism, because the word “gender” existed before gender studies as the general word to refer to masculine or feminine cases for nouns and pronouns in languages such as Latin. But gender as something that itself can be studied makes the general specific, leaving what are now sub-divisions of male and female as almost trivial differences.
If you start from this as a given, certain things follow and other things cannot be concluded—an example of the latter being that men and women are distinct categories in a primary way. Now they’re sub-sets of something larger, and the level of their distinctness one from the next has been demoted. That’s how language controls thought, as George Orwell pointed out.
The Effects of Placing Gender over Sexuality
As one representative example of this Platonic move to “gender” replacing “sex,” consider the name of Ohio State’s Department of “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.” (OSU shares the third topic with Brandeis, Harvard, and other programs. Far more typical is the first two alone, but always in that order.) A Martian might wonder that the title of the department says nothing about men because it includes the more general term and starts with women as what seems to be a defined group, and sex has become “sexuality,” which is perhaps best described as a function or capability that can be expressed in many ways.
The equivalent for an art school all about the color red might be the Department of Red and Color Studies, with no other departments of Green, Yellow, or Blue. There’s red, and there is color, but no other specific colors worth specifying. The OSU department’s statement of purpose clearly rejects from the outset that any of this (except perhaps being a woman) has any basis other than groups of other humans acting to determine and so limit the individual. “The mission of the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) is to generate and transmit knowledge about the gendered nature of our lives and the ways gender, sexuality and other categories of identity shape and are shaped by culture and society.”
Consider: “The gendered nature of our lives.” Lives, it seems, can acquire aspects of gender, but in any case gender is a “category of identity” which apparently acquires its nature (shape) from interactions with culture and society. Gender studies thus posits from the outset—perhaps unsurprisingly—that masculinity or femininity are not what we in fact are, but larger “categories of identity” to which the individual relates.
It takes the category out of the individual and distances the individual and that category, much the same way philosopher Rene Descartes posited the distinction between the perceiving “I” and the objective world. (A good deal of subsequent philosophy, including phenomenology and language philosophy, has been devoted to rejecting that Cartesian split, similar to the one gender studies re-instantiates.)
We’re Passive Pawns of the Collective, See?
The more universally something is true, the less useful it becomes in helping us process the differences we see in the world. This is the fate of the uber-popular notion that everything—here, masculinity, gender, sexuality, and so on—is constructed. If this means anything, it has to be as opposed to something: and the something is, clearly, not constructed, which must mean intrinsic, or given, or the result of inhuman forces. Countless papers read at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference since the mid-twentieth century are about “The Construction of X”—and so, the deconstruction in this brilliant scholar’s paper.
Construction is something we people do, so to say that something is constructed means that it’s not God-given (or something equivalent). In short, it can be questioned. But it’s not amenable to changes by individuals; indeed it’s not clear that individuals can change it at all.
Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between what the individual says, parole, and what the collective says, langue, suggests the fatalism of contemporary academia: I can tell you what’s wrong with what you do by pointing out that it’s what the collective does. But I can’t tell you how to fix it, because collective problems can’t be fixed by individuals.
Most men don’t like being told we’re the passive pawns of the collective and that our effort is meaningless. That it’s individuals reading about something being presented by an individual but beyond the power to affect or even the ken of individuals (who may deny what is said about them) is the fatal flaw of this way of thinking: it can’t change anything. So what does it matter what we say; whether we do the analysis or not, acknowledge it or not?
We Can Pretend to End Distinctions, But They Sneak Back
Saussure seductively suggested for those who deal in words that all language is merely an arrangement of signs with no intrinsic connection to the world, so that their meaning was created solely by re-ordering the arrangement. “I hate you” doesn’t somehow link to hatred, rather it is only an opposite of “I love you,” equally meaningless if not contrasted to its opposite.
Red isn’t so much red as merely not-blue (or, for that matter, not anything else)—it was an easy step from here to see morality, social institutions, clothes, feelings, rules of any sort, and anything else we can name as being merely alternatives to other things like them. This was expressed by saying that they were “constructed”—arbitrary and amenable to being blown to smithereens by the withering force of an intellectual’s scholarly analysis.
But assigning too many things to the same category, eliminating what previously were distinctions, encourages people to come up with ways to re-introduce the distinctions by other means. All buildings are constructed, but that doesn’t mean some aren’t flimsier than others, or deserve to stand more than others. The three little pigs constructed three houses in total, only one of which was ultimately useful against the wolf. Yet the rage to find everything “constructed” levels everything. Those who argued for the substantiality and immutability of anything were held simply “not to get it”: the world was built on shifting sands.
Of course this stance was more congenial to those who wanted to change the status quo than to those who wanted to defend it, so it was an easy step from Jacques Derrida-influenced “deconstruction” to Michel Foucault-influenced analysis of “texts” as being power plays by those with the upper hand on the powerless. Power didn’t come out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao insisted: according to American professors, it came from “texts.”
Yet this was shown to be false when the weaker entities began “writing back” (variations on the joke of “The Empire Writes Back” were endemic at the Modern Language Association for a decade or so) without their countries being any richer or powerful. Having a say didn’t mean the colonials were more powerful, only that they were writing, a rather circular victory. And it turned out that writing wasn’t power after all if everybody could do it. It wasn’t the texts that established the hegemony; all they did was express something the guns had established.
Men Don’t See Themselves as Costumed Individuals
There is some overlap between the dogma of gender studies and the way most men actually see themselves. Most men share with gender studies the realization that we as individuals are not identical to the state we pursue, that of being a man: we can be born male without having achieved the state of being a (real) man.
Where most men depart from gender studies, the only academic space where maleness can be discussed, is that gender studies denies the validity or necessity of the pursuit on the individual’s part. Being a man for most men is vectored: we have to work to achieve it, and once we achieve it, we have to constantly maintain it. It’s like muscle.
Most infuriatingly for most men, part of what we see as being a man is protecting others, taking the hit. So we stand there with our jaws agape and feeling, as the Bruce Willis character in the original “Die Hard” movie puts it when the cops are working against him, “pretty f-cking unappreciated.”
That we are defending the world against terrorists may be nothing but our erroneous perception of ourselves, but the fact is that most men see themselves as protecting others, not excluding or hobbling. So any discourse (as it is called) that starts by accusing them of acting self-protectively rather than other-protectively is going to fall on deaf ears. This is certainly what gender studies does.
Gender studies is interested in the closet full of costumes we can put on. Most men don’t see them as costumes in a closet at all, but rather as gear for life: they have a purpose. The process of getting just the right one and having it be ours is fundamental. Gender studies insists these never become us: we’re like paper dolls onto which changeable cutouts can be superimposed.
For most of us, that means gender studies wants us to stop being men. Why insist on the perspective of the racks of clothes rather than the individual’s perspective of choosing the right one? Because that’s a dogma of gender studies. It’s as absolute a dogma as creationism.
Disparate Treatment of Men and Women in Gender Studies
Gender studies, almost always an offshoot of women’s studies, takes what women say about themselves and their perspective as a given. However, gender studies does not offer men this option. Instead men are told from without what they are, rather than asking how they see themselves. Goose and gander do not have the same sauce.
Thus, it turns out that the fundamental dogma of gender studies is that men and women are not in fact the same sort of being. As many university departments make clear, gender studies focuses on females and their oppression—what Syracuse University calls “solidarity among women” and “gender oppression.” They are not neutral playing fields of academic inquiry, but based on dogmas that most men do not subscribe to.
Tit for tat—you oppressed us for millennia, now we’re going to re-define a world that doesn’t include you—may be deeply satisfying as revenge, but it’s not something those not included can be expected to have much interest in or indeed respect for, as women themselves may well know.
Gender studies is not, therefore, an academic inquiry so much as the working out of dogmas that, within gender studies themselves, cannot be questioned. This is closer to the nature of religious schools, Jewish yeshivas, Christian theological schools, or Muslim madrasas, than it is to the secular questioning of presuppositions and search for objective truth of the modern university.
It is thus surprising that gender studies has found such a firm niche within that structure. Or perhaps this is merely a sign that universities are themselves increasingly becoming havens of refuge for the like-minded, rather than the centers for intellectual disagreement and discourse they have been in the past.