Gender is having a moment. And for good reason. Although once the exclusive purview of scholars who distinguished between (constructed) gender and (biological) sex, gender has become a topic of popular discussion. Think of the television series I am Cait or Transparent.
The issue of gender has become volatile partially due to the “bathroom wars” over whether transgender people have the right to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with rather than that of the sex assigned on their birth certificates. In this context, it is revolutionary that Jemima Repo opposes using the term “gender”. Adopting and expanding Michel Foucault’s biopolitical genealogy of sexuality as a model for her biopolitical genealogy of gender, Repo argues that gender, which has come to define biopolitical technology, is an “apparatus” that manages life, reproduction and capital.
Before the mid-20th century, “gender” was used regularly only in linguistics, where nouns were classified as feminine, masculine or neuter. But in the 1950s and 1960s, American researchers and psychiatrists who were working with intersexual and transsexual populations distinguished between psychological sex that was learned (gender) and biological sex. Repo argues that scientists and doctors used gender as a biopolitical tool of social control. Gender became an instrument of discipline to manage and normalise patients: “The truth of sex…was learned through imprinting and constructed through surgery. Gender was taken up to strategically interfere in the contingent cognitive processes of the behavioural control system of the mind, and by cutting up and reordering ambiguous genitals into normative and normalizing stimuli.”
By the early 1970s, feminists also contrasted gender and sex. Later critics such as Judith Butler would argue that this distinction is limiting because, in Butler’s famous words, sex is “always already gender”. Yet the nature-nurture binary continues to be a mainstay of feminist theory, challenging biological determinism and its control of the female body for reproduction.
But Repo is having none of it. Calling on us to “suspend all theories of gender”, Repo contends that “gender never belonged to feminism” and questions the usefulness of a term that is connected not only to psychological and medical attempts at normalisation, but also to neoliberalism. For Repo, feminists such as Kate Millett and Nancy Chodorow, who embrace gender to argue against biological essentialism, become inextricably bound up with neoliberal biopolitics and capitalism. Disconnecting neoliberalism and feminism requires a “strategic reversal” of power such as that proposed by radical feminist Valerie Solanas (perhaps best known for shooting Andy Warhol) in her SCUM Manifesto. The acronym stands for the Society for Cutting up Men. (Don’t ask!)
Repo’s argument has several problems besides her sometimes over-the-top radicalism. Although she uses parts of Judith Butler’s methodology, she attacks Butler for dehistoricising gender. Yet Repo’s own historicism is questionable. She relies heavily on Foucault’s genealogical method – but Foucault was never one for historical accuracy.
This book has many merits, but readability isn’t one of them. Repo’s argument may be groundbreaking, but her style is too dense to reach the wide audience it deserves at a time when gender is becoming a blood sport.
Deborah D. Rogers is professor of English at the University of Maine and author of books on Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic.
The Biopolitics of Gender
By Jemima Repo
Oxford University Press, 232pp, £19.99
Paperpack published 27 July 2017