Study Guide

Queer Theory Buzzwords

Phallus

We know that the word “phallus”can simply mean penis. But to Sigmund Freud and other theorists, the phallus is the social power of the penis. It’s what men are entitled to just by being born men, and what women want out of men.

Ever heard the phrase “penis envy”? Well, yeah. Phallus essentially captures that notion. But do you think it’s a coincidence that the dude who came up with this idea of the phallus was, well, a dude? Nope, neither do we.

Gender Performance

Have you ever heard a parent scold a child by saying something like, that’s not lady-like. Or, boys don’t cry. We certainly have. And comments like these key us into the idea that gender is not just about (or, perhaps, at all about) biology; gender is composed of a series of carefully choreographed cultural performances.

There are things boys are “supposed” to be, say, and do in a culture, and things that girls are “supposed” to be, say, and do in a culture—and your parents and your peers will likely remind you of these gender normative rules if you decide to break them. But some days you feel like acting the part, and some days you don’t, are we right?

Heteronormative

Do you know any of those painfully normal Mr. and Mrs. Jones-type families? The kind where there’s a Mom and a Dad and a baby and a dog and a white picket fence and a mortgage on a house in the suburbs with nice neighbors and a nice lawn with pretty flowers?

If something or someone is actin’ all heteronormative, then they’re expecting that everyone has, wants, or should want this kind of lifestyle. Which just isn’t fair. Some women like sleeping with other women. Some men don’t want kids. Some people just want to win RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Ya hear?

Social Constructionism

Basically, this is the idea that things we often thing are essential about people—that he’s a he and she’s a she, that one girl is Black and another white, etc.—are actually not essential at all. While some of these social characteristics might have some basis in biology, they are blown way up by cultural practices and people’s expectations of how certain “kinds of people should act.”

As a result, we take these kinds of social categories way, way too seriously. And you can see how buying into male-female kinds of dichotomies quickly leads to prejudice, yes? Like, if women are better at child-rearing because genetics, then it makes sense for women to leave their satisfying, high-paying jobs to be housewives, right? Yikes.

So, one of the lynchpins of social constructionism is that these people categories are primarily defined by the social group(s) that are currently in power. You know, if women ruled this world, we might all be walkin’ around wondering why men make such good pie—it must be in their biology. Think about it.

Homophobia

Homophobia is the hatred of gay people for, well, being gay. (No, it doesn’t make any sense to us either.) If you want to get all psychoanalytic about it—and some people do—you might argue that people are homophobic because: (a) people are afraid of anything they don’t understand; and/or (b) many people harbor some romantic feelings towards people of the same sex at some point in their lives, and that scares them.

Abnormal

Whatever you are that most people are not. Whatever you’re not that most people are. You get the picture.

Queer

People came up with the word “queer” because “gay” just wasn’t cuttin’ it for some folks anymore. Why, you ask? Well, first of all, “gay” used to mean “happy,” and then it seemed to be used against gay people as a pejorative term.

But then there’s this in-group issue of inclusivity. Not everyone is simply gay or straight, right? Some people are bisexual, and others asexual. And some people are straight, but they want to make it clear to others that they are allies of gay communities. All of these people, then, can call themselves queer.

And that makes for one big, happy queer family.

Gay

Happy? Yes. Same-sex attracted? Yes. Desirous of equal protection and civil rights? Yes. (Usually.) Since to be “gay” partially identifies one as a member of some community, and partially labels oneself as a “certain kind of person,” what it means to be gay can vary widely from individual to individual, of course.

Third-Wave Feminism

This brand o’ feminism most strongly asserts that gender is not real. A body makes sperm or a body makes eggs or maybe some bodies don’t make either, but beyond that—we’ve made the rest up. Women can be aggressive and challenging and men can be sensitive and caring. We are all mixtures of social codes and wild biology. Bam.