In a Nutshell
Sex Ain’t as Simple as Restroom Signs Suggest
Sex and gender are always strange. And they’re never simple. So here’s what queer theorists most want you to understand: whatever you think you know about gender roles, what it means to be gay or straight, and so on, can be destabilized. Nothing is what it seems.
(Plus, we’re pretty sure Judith Butler wants you to know that we can have fun talking about sex. Just remember: no giggling, please.)
Queer theory, in part, is a reaction to a school of 1970s feminism that believed each sex comes with its own essential characteristics. You know, girls are calm and thoughtful, while boys are spontaneous and passionate, that sort of thing.
But those feminists’ central argument was that we think too much about what the boys do. And while our brains are on men, men, men, we’re busy ignoring female characteristics. So these feminists were all like, Why not give the girls a chance in the spotlight for once, eh?
And that’s a very well-meaning question. But queer theorists were not happy about all of the male-female categorical thinking that undergirded 1970s feminism. Like: why must men and women have “essential traits”?
Let’s not go blaming some feminists for all of the strict male-female thinking, though. These essentializing notions were actually partially Sigmund Freud’s fault. He said that since men have a penis, they have inherent social and societal power—what he called the phallus.
Women want the phallus, obviously, but they have no penis. So receiving the penis (during sex, yes, teehee) bestows upon them some of that magical penis power. Then that famous Frenchman, Michel Foucault, comes along in the 1970s. And he shakes things up a bit. (Phewf.)
He said that those people who have the most power—mostly white, wealthy men—are the ones who get to tell us what is normal and abnormal when it comes to gender and sex. So, of course, male bodies build bridges, while female bodies bake pies and nurse babies…
Now everyone just go about your business peacefully.
Um. Not so fast, you gun-totin’ cowboys and damsels-in-distress. Queer theorists believe that the human body may not be essentially male or female. C’mon, bodies are weird, and when you take a step back from all the cultural trappings of gender, bodies can be hard to categorize on a purely empirical basis.
(Many infants are even born intersex—i.e., having both male and female sex characteristics. So there.)
All the World’s a Stage, and Gender—Merely a Performance
Imagine a frat guy smashing a beer can on his forehead at the tailgate party of a football game. This may not be the classiest move of all time, but it is definitely a performance of what it means to be a dude (in contemporary Western culture); it’s meant to say, guys will be dumb and rowdy. A.k.a., “boys will be boys.”
Now, think of a young girl’s tea party with all of her tiny little tea accoutrements placed carefully on a miniature table, while stuffed animals pack her pink bedroom. This is a performance of what it means to be a girl (in contemporary Western culture); it’s meant to say, “Oh, look at me, I’m so prim and proper and ready for domestic life.”
Performances like this, queer theory tells us, are learned by watching other guys and girls do “girlie” and “manly” things—not through some secret of genetics. Plus, in reality, people’s gender and sexuality expressions are very diverse. They’re much more fluid and unpredictable than society’s constructed categories would suggest.
All of us have character traits that swim against the gender mainstream. What about that woman with the short, pixie haircut? Or that dude with the long ponytail? All people are mixed gender bags… which means that the penis is no longer the center of the Universe. (Sorry Sigmund.)
At this point, you can probably imagine how queer theory can be used to read other literary works: critically. And with no clear answers. When queer theorists analyze literature, they love to play the net—that gray area between author and reader, male and female, light and dark, good and evil.
Queer theory loves destabilizing popular cultural narratives. And by that, we mean taking the character out of place, the word out of place, the sentence out of place. And saying, nothing is what it seems.
This theory is a rebel with a cause. It teaches us that language and human expression, in all its forms, are stranger than we ever thought possible. We’re never sure what’s left, though, once queer theorists have torn down all our preconceptions about gender and sexuality.
Except a dismal, dismal world. Eep. Help us?
Why Should I Care?
Why Should Readers Care?
When we are allowed to talk about sex and gender outside of what is “normal” and “abnormal,” all people become strange together—there are Freaks and Geeks inside all of us. And, most importantly, all people become people, deserving of the same basic human rights and respect.
So, thanks in part to queer theory, the princess who wants to choose her own husband—and not just be tied to the first guy who busts through the tower gate to save her—can now be fairy-tale material. In 2012, Princess Merida from the movie Brave performed her princess role very differently than did Briar Rose in Sleeping Beauty, made in 1959.
Today’s Disney Princess questions how a girl should act and whether she will marry like everyone else or ever marry at all. Now that’s queer.
Plus, queer theory deals with much more than just sex. It goes to the heart of a person’s identity, encouraging us to ask ourselves this question over and over again: who am I really? If we perform manhood and womanhood, then maybe we perform a bunch of other things as well.
Like: How should a teacher act? How should a priest or pastor act? When we understand how people in power control what is normal, we begin to question our own definitions of normal and voila—realize that maybe none of us are normal.
So maybe we don’t have to abide by any “shoulds” in this life after all. (Except, maybe, you should go to school. Sorry, we had to.)
Queer theory also teaches the reader to look at every other literary genre with a new set of critical eyes. The characters in novels and films that we think we know so well become newly strange, and a whole set of new questions arise.
For example: why does Victor Frankenstein wish to create a “beautiful” man instead of a “beautiful” woman? Why are so many antagonists, male and female, almost always unmarried and single? And if Peter Pan was really a boy, why does a grown woman usually play him on stage?
Why Should Theorists Care?
Before queer theory there were two genders (also know as “sexes”): men and women. Sometimes, they liked to battle. And history was written according to themes men cared about—land, political struggles, exploration, and settlement—from an entirely male perspective. When feminism hit, women pushed to expand the roles they were “allowed” to play in society, and have their voices heard.
But, in some people’s views, feminism also made the case that all men were aggressive. And that sex was always violent, and that if women ran the world, we’d all be better off. The more rigid these definitions of “the masculine” and “the feminine” became, and the more the battle of the sexes raged on, the more excited queer theorists became to step in and challenge those categories.
One definition of “queer” is someone who moves between the identities defined by patriarchy and essentialist categories of femininity—someone who always questions who gets to define what the facts are in any argument. Today, all disciplines, from Marxism to Formalism to the biological sciences, can be viewed from this skeptical perspective.
Any theoretical discipline, if formulated and developed within a society of like-minded individuals of the same socioeconomic class, religious affiliation, gender, sexuality, or so on—a.k.a. pretty much any school of thought ever—is open to re-examination using a queer critique.
The queer theorist motto is: always ask questions.
Why are French nouns grouped as male and female? Why are some nouns neuter? Is there really a difference between women’s work and men’s work? Was Charles Darwin always right?
Are males of a species always really tough or really handsome, and are females always coy and homely and patient? Where do Native American History and transgendered people fit into our society’s cultural narratives? Why did Western ethic groups stigmatize what the Native American peoples called “two-spirited” individuals?
All theories have queerness huddled inside their rhetoric, just waiting to be discovered. So one can queer all kinds of texts. Consider how Walt Whitman, America’s Poet and a lifelong bachelor, writes of his love of men. Queer theory asks: is this a friendship kind of romantic love or some early type of bromance?
How might our view of American Literature during the Antebellum Period change if we examine the success of one of its giants as a gay man? We can also queer our examination of time periods, you see.
Queering a discourse simply means challenging a theory or school of thought to question its own identity. And it’s good to reexamine everything you think you are. It’s painful, yes. But it’s a part of growing up, we think.
Onwards and upwards, Shmoopers.