Feminist Review: You will never look at sex and gender identity in absolute terms again

Posted on April 21, 2010


I have been delighted by the number of reviewers and people using Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives in teaching who have gotten the central point of the book: sex and gender identity have to be understood as complex, dynamic, relational, material, but above all, historical.

That said, what did the Feminist Review mean in this comment? to take sex and gender as “absolute” means to treat biology as grounding some stable form of gender. Following the lead of writers like Judith Butler, I instead treat sex/gender as an incessant way of acting. In practice, this tends to be one of the first roadblocks I face in teaching this material. To say that sex/gender is not “absolute” is to say that it might not be a firm grounding of identity. This can be threatening.

How I cope with the desire for an absolute ground for sex/gender in the classroom is to begin with the biographical experience of embodied personhood as something that unfolds continuously over a lifetime, and something that changes constantly. It helps if you have athletes, dancers, or practitioners of martial arts in the classroom who can talk about how their understanding of their own bodies changes as they become more fluent in their practice.

By using domains that are open to choice– like athletics, or dance, or tai chi– we can have a conversation about the malleability of our bodily experience that nonetheless remains our own body even though it changes. A simple thing, but for me critical: sex/gender is an area where people feel strongly and where debate can be hard to foster. Shift the conversation just that little bit, and we can talk about body and being.