Research That Goes Under the Skin. Body and Materiality in Gender Studies

Analyses Debates

December 2017

Gender always has to do with the body (-ies). It is no coincidence that the relationship between materiality and gender is an important area of research within Gender Studies. Despite this fact, public media continue to portray Gender Studies as a field that ascribes to a naive constructivism without any regard for scientific findings. A prime example of this superficial treatment of gender in the media is its approach to Judith Butler's work. Such portrayals give a false account of the current state of research and of Gender Studies as a scholarly discipline.

Several feature articles that have recently appeared in German-speaking newspapers have misconstrued Gender Studies as basing its research on a simplified and false understanding of constructivism. The object of choice in such reductive readings is—even now, after twenty-five years—the work of US American philosopher Judith Butler. Not long ago, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung  (FAZ), for instance, stated that Butler conceived of gender as "a variable one can freely choose," which is  "independent of one's body or environment" (8 Nov 2017). Also drawing on Butler’s work, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) stated Gender Studies is founded on "the negation of well-established natural scientific theories" (7 March 2017). Both claims are false and illustrate the lack of knowledge evident in how the media often portray Gender Studies. The fact is of the matter is: Judith Butler provided groundbreaking insights for understanding the body and gender that have subsequently, had an impact on natural scientific research as well. These insights might just as well come from a researcher in bioscience—because anyone conducting empirical research on X- and Y-chromosomes knows of the complexity involved in the constitution of sex on a genetic level. Regardless of which bodily characteristic is the research topic—be it hormones, genitals, body hair, muscle strength, bodily size, fat distribution or the brain—none can be ascribed to a set, predetermined blueprint that only functions on a binary basis. The field of Gender Studies and research on gender in the natural sciences alike understand gender as a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon.

Knowledge Transfer in Multiple Directions

The ongoing transfer of knowledge across different fields researching gender is an indicator of the significance of natural scientific findings for Gender Studies. Countless findings from medicine, biology, neuroscience, and science and technology studies have been introduced and integrated into Gender Studies, have become integral to certain strands of theory, or further expanded through specially developed methods. For instance, Gender Studies has explored the research finding from medical science that in terms of physiology, a heart attack expresses itself differently in men and women. Not only has this led to reconsiderations of what it means to apply difference theories to gender, it has also led to advancements in sociological research on public health. Research on primates, which found female monkeys to be as sexually active as their male counterparts, also found resonance in Gender Studies in the 1980s, a time when the new women's movement had been engaged with questions concerning female sexuality and self-determination. The insight provided by zoological research that female squirrels, hyenas and cows mount one another for sexual pleasure, helped feminist researchers think about the "naturalness" of homosexuality. For developing theories concerning gender identity, queer-feminist and trans* theories took cues from endocrinology research that showed beard growth could be induced hormonally, rendering it independent of the body's genetic sex. The ways in which science and technology studies questioned the boundaries between humans and machines inspired feminist theories to create the cyborg as a central figure that enabled the boundaries between men and women to be interrogated in completely new ways. Also: the recent discovery in neuro-endocrinology that testosterone levels in men vary according to certain factors, such as fatherly care and physical contact with offspring, has been caught the attention of debates in a specialized area of research in Gender Studies called fatherhood studies.
Simultaneous to the integration of findings from natural science research into Gender Studies, since the 1970s, the body and its materiality were also being discussed in Gender Studies. On several occasions, these debates further gained ground when researchers trained in natural sciences developed specialized and interdisciplinary methods for their inquires. Ruth Hubbard, Bonnie Spanier, Lynda Birke, Janet Sayers, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Joan Scott, Ruth Bleier, Londa Schiebinger, Barbara Duden, Helen Longino, Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, Sarah Franklin, Adrienne Zihlman, Linda Fedigan, Sarah Hrdy, Nelly Oushourst, and Helga Satzinger  are but a few names of scholars who played a key role in establishing and advancing these debates. Currently, these topics are still debated among scholars, including Karen Barad, Sarah Richardson, Cordelia Fine, Deboleena Roy, Sari van Anders, Daphna Joel, Rebecca Jordan-Young, Banu Subramaniam, Cynthia Kraus, Victoria Pitts-Taylor, Giordana Grossi, Sigrid Schmitz, Kerstin Palm, Odile Fillod, Corinna Bath, Petra Lucht, Emily Ngubia Kassé, Gillian Einstein, Catherine Vidal, Elizabeth Wilson, Malin Ah-King, Patricia Gowaty, Joan Roughgarden, Bruce Bagemihl, and Ruth Müller.

Bodies That Matter

In the late 1970s the distinction between sex and gender—a finding from sex science, which is also a branch of natural science—paved the way for feminist engagements with gender. In this context, sex designates biological and bodily differences between men and women; gender refers to the socially conditioned and hierarchically organized difference between the sexes, which vary from culture to culture, change throughout history, and are brought about by social power structures. In short: when a child is born, the child's physical characteristics determine if it is a girl or boy. This is known as sex; and biological science determines what constitutes sex. Patriarchal social conventions determine if the child wears pink or blue clothes, if the child is given a doll or toy car to play with, is more frequently called cute (and therefore an object) or assertive (therefore a subject). The advantage of separating sex from gender is that it enables an analysis that reveals various false assumptions and links made between the two. Thus, the idea that women give birth to children is attributed to biology. The idea that a woman cooks, cleans, and does the laundry for the children and the entire family, however, is a cultural norm and not based on biological circumstances. However, this would imply that sex is a fixed given, while gender (with the help of social awareness raising campaigns, protests, political measures and social moments) can be changed. Consequently, numerous feminist researchers began focusing on gender, because sex was in a blind spot of the revolution.

Body and Construction

In the early 1990s, Judith Butler radically questioned the razor-sharp divide between that which is biologically given and culturally ascribed. Like numerous other groundbreaking scientific discoveries, her critique is based on a simple observation: that our knowledge of biological sex and the body does not come from nature. We acquire this knowledge through employing cultural techniques, especially language. We cannot talk about bodies without simultaneously "constituting" them as we talk about them, that is, we bring them about through employing symbolic systems. By acknowledging that sex is also brought about—to a certain extent—by culture and is therefore quasi gender it was no longer in a blind spot of the revolution. This also raises the question if what we assume to be natural is not also based—to a certain extent—on our own cultural assumptions about nature.  However, this does not mean—as is often claimed—that gender is something we can freely choose. In Bodies That Matter (1993) Butler distinctly distances herself from a do-it-yourself theory of gender. She acknowledges her proposal to grasp gender as a construct had sometimes been interpreted as meaning one could open the closet each morning, pick out a gender, put it on, take it off in the evening, and simply put it back. What she aimed to show was quite the contrary, namely that social and cultural norms have an effect on the body and thus are inseparable from constraints that are by no means easy to shake off.
Gender-specific socialization is a case in point regarding the powerful effect of cultural norm. The fact that bodies—depending if they are classified as female or male—are touched differently, addressed differently, and encouraged (or discouraged) adopt specific bodily postures and activities, is written into and helps shape these very bodies. Empathetic nodding while listening, sitting wide-legged, dutifully watching one's weight, building muscle mass, speaking softly, or loudly are all things we incorporate into our gendered bodies—quite in the same way that years of working at the computer or on the potato field shapes our bodies.
Generalizations about gender categories are another example of the powerful effects of cultural norm. The abovementioned ability to give birth is a textbook example of sexual difference according to biology. It assumes women can bear children and men cannot. What good is it to think of sexual difference in this way? Not much, considering it does not apply to all women—some may be too young, too old, trans*women, not have a uterus, be affected by possible repercussions of salpingitis, or have a hormonal balance does not allow for pregnancy. Not to mention that 34% of women who give birth today do not have a "natural" birth. Or a woman might need an egg cell donation, as they are incapable of producing egg cells, which therefore implies—depending on the definition—that they are not women to begin with. Statements such as "women can bear children" are therefore inaccurate and obscure the complexity of the issue at hand.

What is Materiality?

Like every scholarly field, Gender Studies also questions invalid generalizations or inaccurate assumptions of everyday knowledge, and searches for ways to hone, specify and expand such knowledge.  The statement "women can bear children" maintains and contributes to constituting the notion that there is such a thing as a "female" body. Because it only applies to some women, and therefore inaccurate, we need to search for more exact ways of grasping gender both scientifically and in everyday terms. Viewed in this light, the task of Gender Studies is the same as any other branch of science. If Marie Curie had been satisfied with the available knowledge about the chemical elements in her day, radium and polonium would never have been discovered. This necessity of undoing inaccurate categorizations is precisely the point where Butler's insights intersect with natural science research on gender.

But that is not all. Aside from the social construction of gender, Butler's work poses another controversial question that is still being debated in natural science research on gender today. According to Butler, the gendered body's materiality is shaped through the powerfully effective cultural practices yet it never fully merges and becomes one with them. What is that “other” aspect of materiality that takes shape through cultural practices, but does not merge into and become one with them? Consistently addressing a boy as a girl will likely influence his behavior, bodily posture, or range of movement. However, it will not make him grow a uterus. What needs to happen in order for a uterus to take shape inside a body?
The key question that remains is: what, aside from cultural construction (from which it is inseparable), is gender-specific materiality? Butler raised this question without being able to provide an answer. Her research did not focus on the inner workings of the body, because she was not trained in the natural sciences. Her interest and capacity to refer back to the gendered body ended—to a certain extent—with the epistemologically extremely relevant insight that those who research the biological body also always constitute it. This does not mean, however, that nothing else located outside these constitution processes matters. For, that which goes on "under the skin"—the physiological body processes—works according to its own logic, which in turn affects social construction processes which, for good reason, can be understood as active and creative processes. For years Gender Studies researchers, such as Donna Haraway, have emphasized the importance of acknowledging bodies as actors. This "active material" is precisely the subject of intensive research in "new materialism," one of the most dynamic fields of research in Gender Studies today.

Video still from “Donna Haraway Reads National Geographic,” 1987. Source

Publication Date:

18 December 2017