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5 Overcoming the “Paranoia of Choice” Discourse in the Classroom
The Mis-education of Lady Gaga: Confronting Essentialist Claims in the Sex…
means “letting go of many of your basic assumptions about people, bodies, and
desires “(2012, p. 27). By dropping these preconceived notions students can lean
towards genders and sexualities that are not simply ﬁxed, but more ﬂuid and temporary. Granting students permission to “go gaga,” is especially beneﬁcial when confronted with the larger social structure of heteronormativity that I discuss next.
Heteronormativity, which plagues the larger social structure and social institutions, largely remains unexamined. As feminist theorist Stevi Jackson notes with
regard to choice rhetoric and sexuality: “… I consider it risky to assume that any
aspect of sexuality or gender is innate, since this can entail placing aspects of our
gendered and sexual practices beyond critique” (2005, p. 18). And because heterosexuality is considered a default or “not a choice” position, non-straights who
attempt to describe their identity by using “choice” language are considered abject
in a society that emphasizes heterosexuality as naturally occurring. By investigating
how a heteronormative social structure impacts how les/bi/gays and straight identities, I explain how the “paranoia of choice” continues to prop up heterosexuality as
the only socially “legitimate” sexual identity.
What I call “paranoia of choice” is at the crux of not only this paper but also the
current state of LGBT politics in the United States. “Choosing” one’s sexual identity is not consistent with the current doxa of Western understandings of sexual
identity. Hanne Blank (2012) writes that the very limited number of sexual orientations from which one identiﬁes with is simply an artifact of the social world.
Halperin echoed this in his breakthrough article “Is There a History of Sexuality?”
where he posited that, “sexuality is not a somatic fact; it is a cultural effect” (1989,
p. 257). Somatic fact or not, these kinds of statements have not given geneticists and
scientists pause for ﬁnding differences between the heterosexual and nonheterosexual body. It is cultural knowledge that geneticists have been trying to
locate a “gay gene” and “gay hormones” since the Human Genome Project commenced in 1990. Even with its ofﬁcial ending in 2003, the pursuit for the “gay gene”
continues (“Human Genome Project” 2013).
As I reviewed in the previous section neither the marked “gay” nor the unmarked
“straight” gene, hormone(s) or brain has been found. However, this Sisyphean quest
continues. Most sex researchers accept and reify the sexual orientation categories of
“heterosexual” and “homosexual” regardless of the sexual variance research subjects’ show. Moreover, the privileged position that biology, neuroscience and the
like hold in Western society makes the body the primary (and sometimes only)
tableau for ﬁnding evidence for “heterosexual” and “homosexual” selves. As long
as biological paradigms continue to dominate the knowledge hierarchy, alternate
forms of understanding sexual orientation will continue to lack validity.
In order to better frame this “paranoia of choice” I have found it helpful to ask
students when and how we use “choice” language is other discourses. Most students
are able to point out that “choice” language is celebrated when Westerners argue for
free-speech rights, reproductive rights, voting rights, etc. but when it comes to sexual identity “choice” language is somehow not appropriate. Democratic language is
apparently not meant for talking about one’s sexual orientation.
Perhaps what is most troubling to the student in the sex and gender classroom is
that many who eschew “choice” discourse are gay activists themselves, including
many who run nationally recognized LGBT organizations like the Human Rights
Campaign (HRC) and the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender
Taskforce. I have students investigate the sort of language these organizations use
when talking about sexual orientation to their membership base by investigating the
organizations’ website and written literature. It is not surprising that students ﬁnd
arguments rooted in biological essentialism or the natural because biological arguments are key to the campaigns of some les-bi-gay organizations; they uphold the
idea that les-bi-gay folks “pose no threat to the heterosexual majority” (Jackson
2005, p. 16). For example, The Human Rights Campaign’s Resource Guide to
Coming Out notes in bold type (and all caps) that “Your sexual or gender identity is
not a choice. It chooses you” A few paragraphs down, the pamphlet tells it readers,
“Being Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender is Natural” (“A Resource Guide to
Coming Out,” 2014). This is just one of many organizations that rely on a “paranoia
of choice” paradigm that discourages anything that is not believed to be innate or
Outside of national organizations like the HRC, gay advocates and bloggers like
John Aravoisis, writing for “AMERICAblog” reacted harshly to Sex and the City
star Cynthia Nixon when she posited that her bisexuality was a “choice.” After her
announcement he wrote: “If you like both ﬂavors, men and women, you’re bisexual,
you’re not gay, so please don’t tell people that you are gay, and that gay people can
‘choose’ their sexual orientation, i.e., will it out of nowhere. Because they can’t.”
Aravoisis goes on to say, “Every religious right hatemonger is now going to quote
this woman [Nixon] every single time they want to deny us our civil rights”
(Aravoisis 2012). While I don’t dismiss Aravoisis’ fears that hate mongers will use
Nixon’s comments to support reasons gay and lesbian (and bisexual) folks shouldn’t
have civil rights, the larger question is: “Should we promote dogmatic either/or
tropes to discuss sexual orientation because hate mongers will vilify us or do we
attempt to instead present cultural facts about queer folks regardless of how hatemongers react?”
Sexuality researchers like Lisa Diamond (2008) rightly notes that there is no
other topic in sexuality research that infuriates more than that of choice or change
in one’s sexual orientation (2008). And while Diamond sees sexual orientation as
something that cannot be changed she is willing to advocate that folks should be
able to determine their sexual lives regardless of who might be the current hatemonger: “… plenty of inborn traits are viewed as highly undesirable, so why should the
notion of social orientations as a biological trait make it more socially acceptable?…
After all, the common view of race and ethnicity as inborn traits has not eroded racism” (2008, p. 138).
For those of us, especially our students who have been faced with bias—whether
due to a combination of race, ethnicity, gender, age or sexuality—many would point
out that hatemongering will continue regardless of the language one chooses to talk
about outsider identities. Moreover, the task of the social scientist is to look at social
and cultural facts (and artifacts) and present their effect on society, not avoid these
The Mis-education of Lady Gaga: Confronting Essentialist Claims in the Sex…
facts in order to spare what Aravoisis and others see as a way to dissuade civil
rights. Civil rights will be denied to those of us who do not follow hegemonic ideals
regardless of whether or not we think something is a choice. The idea is that civil
rights will not be afforded to groups who “choose” their disadvantage in society.
But as sex researcher John D’Emilio suggests: “Do we really expect to bid for real
power from a position of ‘I can’t help it?’” (1992, p. 187). Must we use the essentialist, “not a choice” trope that will at best provide a minority-status in a sociopolitical climate that continues to buttress heterosexual privilege on the backs of
les-bi-gay politics? Or instead, as Whisman posits: “What about … the recognition
that living as sexual outlaws is what unites us, not a shared and essential identity”
(1996, p. 124).
An example of uniting under the banner of “sexual outlaws” is the “Beyond
Same-Sex Marriage” (2006) statement signed by some of the most prominent U.S.
and International queer theorists and activists and the Against Equality (AE)
(Conrad 2014) group that has collectively published essays on why gay marriage
does little for equality since marriage, itself, perpetuates power imbalances. The
signatories of the “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” call for a new strategic plan to
LGBT organizing that does not limit it to the securing of same-sex marriage rights,
but broadens the goal to varying family relationships that exist outside of a twoperson marriage.
In order to juxtapose ideas from so-called “sexual outlaws” students should also
be aware of the stance that major lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender organizations in
the United States have on the “born this way” trope. This sort of informal research
can easily be undertaken in beginner or intermediate undergraduate classroom. I
have successfully employed informal research with ﬁrst and second-year students in
September 2012 and again in September 2014. Students conducted informal analysis of major LGBT organizations (The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force,
Lambda Legal, GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation),
and PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and
found that all warn against the statement that sexual orientation is a “choice.” As an
exemplar of this practice Lambda Legal cautioned against using the world “choice”
because it might prop up reparative therapy campaigns even though the American
Psychological Association denounced reparative therapy in August 2009 (APA
Task Force). No doubt are these major organizations inﬂuenced by the essentialist
or biological position on one’s sexual orientation as they more easily ﬁt the civil
rights model of social movements that rely on a “born this way” trope.
Certainly, the cultural creation of knowledge by the early sexologists has not been
abandoned. It is part of our common nomenclature that heterosexuality exists and
by default so too does homosexuality. Today, research ranging from neuroimaging
to the length of one’s ﬁngers is at the crux of “discovering” our true sexuality.
While this sort of research persists, we also know that studies of nervous systems
between heterosexual and non-heterosexual folks have shown no signiﬁcant differences (Blank 2012). Geneticists on the hunt for the “straight” and “gay” gene have
also had no conclusive results. Obviously the dizzyingly amount of research that
exists in an attempt to ﬁnd evidence of homosexuality is critical to Western societies. Like most minority-politics, we need to discover who is “out” so we can prop
up who is “in.” The fact remains (at least thus far) that sexual orientation does not
appear to have a signiﬁcant correlation to the physical body (Blank 2012; Fine
2011). What these lack of ﬁndings suggests is not that there is no biological component to sexual orientation, but that sociologists have more to offer about sexual
identity or orientation as an organizing agent in society. So while the geneticists,
endocrinologists, and neurologists continue to seek their answers to ﬁnding sexual
orientation within the body, social scientists need to not only problematize this
approach but do their own looking—into the social interactions, social institutions
and ultimately, the power relations in Western society.
Not only do the categories exist, but also we believe as a society that we know
how to ﬁll them—and what better way to ﬁll the categories than with those ideas
that seem to be rooted in nature. Invoking nature or the natural is so pleasing, copacetic even, because it does not involve further question or inquiry—it “just is” and
heterosexuality or homosexuality can exist without humans really having to do
much. The secret is that no one really knows conclusively whether heterosexuality
is the result of nature or nurture—most likely it is some combination of both and
I have proposed here that the future of discourse in the sex and gender classroom
must move away from the essentialist origin stories that attempt to explain women
and men’s sexual orientation as primarily a product of nature or biology. Lady
Gaga’s anthem, “Born this Way,” may be empowering on some level, but at what
cost? If students are willing to unravel the “gender knot” (Johnson 2014) then why
not equip them with similar tools to unravel what sexual orientation might look like
outside of “born this way,” essentialist tropes? Perhaps this is where “gaga feminism” comes in: “[to be] the ﬂy in the ointment, the wrench in the machinery …
Halberstam 2012, p. 141). I want to give students more than a tribute to being “on
the right track” because they were “born this way.” Will we be shoved “off the
track” if our DNA cannot prove our sexuality? What if the neuroimaging scans and
the DNA analysis give us a result we do not wish for? Will heterosexuals be willing
to submit DNA samples for testing? Perhaps my fear is not merely that we will be
pushed of “off the track,” but that we will be run over by a train that is speeding up
to ﬁnd biological answers to social questions. Let’s go gaga instead!
APA Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. (2009). Report of
the task force on appropriate therapeutic responses to sexual orientation. Washington, DC:
American Psychological Association.
The Mis-education of Lady Gaga: Confronting Essentialist Claims in the Sex…
Aravosis, J. (2012). Actress Cynthia Nixon says being gay is a choice. And she’s wrong.
AMERICAblog. http://americablog.com/2012/01/actress-cynthia-nixon-says-being-gay-is-achoice-and-shes-wrong.html. Accessed 12 Dec 2014.
Ault, A. (1996). Ambiguous identity in an unambiguous sex/gender structure: The case of bisexual
women. The Sociological Quarterly, 37(3), 449–463.
Beyond Marriage. (2006). Beyond same-sex marriage: A new strategic vision for all our families
& relationships. Resource document. http://www.beyondmarriage.org. Accessed 5 Aug 2012.
Blank, H. (2012). Straight: The surprisingly short history of heterosexuality. Boston: Beacon
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. Oxford: Routledge.
Conrad, R. (2014). Against equality: Queer revolution not mere inclusion. Oakland: AK Press.
D’Emillo, J. (1992). Making trouble: Essays on gay history, politics, and the university. New York:
Diamond, L. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Fine, C. (2011). Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
France, D. (2007, June 25). The science of gaydar: If sexual orientation is biological, are the traits
that make people seem gay innate, too? The new research on everything from voice pitch to
hair whorl. New York Magazine.
Garﬁnkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
Halberstam, J. J. (2012). Gaga feminism: Sex, gender, and the end of normal. Boston: Beacon.
Halperin, D. M. (1989). Is there a history of sexuality? History and Theory, 28(3), 257–274.
Hemmings, C. (2002). Bisexual spaces: A geography of sexuality and gender. New York:
Human Rights Campaign Foundation. (2014). Resource document. A resource guide to coming
out. http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/resource-guide-to-coming-out. Accessed 12 Dec 2014.
Jackson, S. (2005). Sexuality, heterosexuality and gender hierarchy: Getting our priorities straight.
In C. Ingraham (Ed.), Thinking straight: The power, the promise, and the paradox of heterosexuality (pp. 15–38). New York: Routledge.
Johnson, A. (2014). The gender knot: Unraveling our patriarchal legacy. Philadelphia: Temple
Kessler, S. J., & McKenna, W. (1978). Gender: An ethnomethodological approach. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Lady Gaga. (2011). Born this way. Abbey Road Studios.
Lorber, J. (1994). Paradoxes of gender. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Lorber, J. (1996). Beyond the binaries: Depolarizing the categories of sex, sexuality, and gender.
Sociological Inquiry, 66(2), 143–159.
National Human Genome Research Institute. (2013). Human genome project. Resource document.
http://report.nih.gov/NIHfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=45&key=H#H. Accessed 5 Jan
Rubin, G. (1975). The trafﬁc in women: Notes on the ‘political economy’ of sex. In R. Reiter (Ed.),
Toward an anthropology of women (pp. 157–210). New York: Monthly Review Press.
Seidman, S. (2009). The social construction of sexuality. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Tiefer, L. (2004). Sex is not a natural act & other essays. Boulder: Westview Press.
Whisman, V. (1996). Queer by choice: Lesbians, gay men, and the politics of identity. New York:
Performances of Pronouns: Using Feminist
Post-structuralism to Explore the Social
Construction of Gender
“But there are real differences between men and women. That
is a scientific fact.”
“Look at how little kids play with each other and what toys they
prefer! You can’t argue with biology.”
“Being a woman makes me a better teacher. My maternal drive
is strong and I love working with kids. I know it’s something I
was born with.”
As a feminist professor within a College of Education, I hear the above arguments,
with slightly different iterations and variations, every semester. Essentialized conceptualizations of sex and gender abound in the United States, and they are especially present in my current cultural, historical, and political context: I teach in a
city, Memphis, Tennessee, which is located in what is often referred to either pejoratively or fondly as the ‘Bible Belt,’ and our city struggles with histories that are
alive in the present, histories of structural classism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism. I teach qualitative research courses; in these courses, we study a variety of
macro theories that are used within qualitative research. Although we critique
essentialized understandings of gender throughout the semester, these essentialized
understandings are most directly challenged during the weeks we engage with feminist poststructuralism. In what follows, I begin with a brief description of some
important poststructural concepts that feminist scholars and theorists have used to
deconstruct sex and gender. After discussing each concept, I explain how I use this
concept to challenge commonsensical and essentialized understandings of sex and
gender in our class discussions. The chapter concludes with an exploration of Judith
A. Happel-Parkins (*)
Counseling, Educational Psychology and Research,
University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
K. Haltinner, R. Pilgeram (eds.), Teaching Gender and Sex
in Contemporary America, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30364-2_3
Butler’s ideas about gender performance and how her work can be used to open up
spaces of resistance and possibility within the higher education classroom.
Feminist Poststructuralism: Discourse, Language,
The potent pleasures for feminists in poststructural deconstructive work lies in the potential
for ﬁnding the means to undo sedimented truths through which they might otherwise be
held captive. (Gannon and Davies 2012, p. 76)
Poststructuralism has been accused of being elitist and therefore irrelevant because
of the complexity of some of its main ideas (Gannon and Davies 2012; St. Pierre
2000; St. Pierre and Pillow 2000) and because of its seeming lack of concern with
the material realities of people’s lives. The entanglements of feminism and poststructuralism have served to address some of these critiques. Elizabeth A. St. Pierre
(2000), a preeminent feminist poststructuralist working within the disciplines of
Education and Qualitative Research, challenges these accusations in her provocative article, “Poststructural Feminism in Education: An Overview.” The “taking up”
of poststructuralism by feminists has led to a conceptualization of how poststructuralism can have material effects for women and other marginalized groups. Because
of its comprehensiveness, I assign St. Pierre’s article at the beginning of each qualitative research course that I teach, and her text is the primary point of reference I use
during our discussions of poststructuralism.
Discourse is an important concept within feminist poststructuralism. Sara Mills
(2004) examines how Foucault employs the idea. First, and most generally, discourse is all spoken words, statements, or texts which have some sort of effects on
the world. Second, Foucault points to the importance of regulation and coherence.
Discourse is comprised of “groups of utterances which seem to be regulated in some
way and which seem to have a coherence and a force to them in common” (Mills
2004, p. 6). Finally, as Mills (2004) explains, Foucault articulates that he is less
concerned with the content of the actual utterances, and more concerned with “the
rules and structures which produce particular utterances and texts” (p. 6). These
explanations of discourse point to the ways in which discourse operates in the world,
and they point to how different Truth regimes are socially and historically produced.
There is no one dominant discourse, although there are discourses that are more and
less powerful, depending on the social, historical, and political context. The concept
of discourse is important because it allows for feminists to trace different explanations for historical or current theories, ideas, actions, or practices. The focus of
discourse analysis is on exploring how ideas are formed and propagated, and how
Performances of Pronouns: Using Feminist Post-structuralism to Explore…
these ideas shape different aspects of society. As St. Pierre (2000) explains,
“Foucault’s theory of discourse illustrates how language gathers itself together
according to socially constructed rules and regularities that allow certain statements
to be made and not others” (p. 485). Similarly, Britzman (2000) asserts that “discourses authorize what can and cannot be said” (p. 36) and performed, I would add.
Once a particular discourse has become normal, or entered into popular ideas of
common sense, it is difﬁcult to act or even think outside of the discourse (St. Pierre
After discussing poststructural conceptualizations of discourse, I ask my students to brainstorm about powerful discourses that they see operating within their
own lives, as well as within our larger cultural context. We discuss poststructuralism’s skepticism of grand narratives of Truth, which happens when certain powerful discourses become commonsensical and normalized. In these discussions, I
often use the example of our culture’s oftentimes blind adherence to science, leading to what some feminist poststructuralists call scientism (Lather 2007; St. Pierre
and Roulston 2006). Since many of my students work within K-12 education, our
critiques of scientism as it relates to standardized testing, accountability, and ‘best
practices’ often give students a language through which to understand and voice
their frustration with current national education policies and practices. Students
often come up with additional examples that start to critique other grand narratives
surrounding race, gender, religion, etc. Using sex and gender as an example, we
start to conduct a genealogy of how our current beliefs and understandings about
gender have come to be understood as grand narratives that supposedly reﬂect an
essential and monolithic Truth. First, I ask them to describe how sex and gender are
understood within our current context. Inevitably, they provide essentialized
descriptions of sex and gender, Next, I ask them to consider which other discourses
lead to the strengthening of essentialized understandings of gender and sex. This
often leads to a discussion of the inﬂuence of religion, history, science, and economics on our understandings about gender ideals and expectations. Then, following Britzman (2000), I ask them how the strength of these dominant discourses
“authorize what can and cannot be said” and done (p. 36). We discuss questions
such as: How are our understandings and enactments of gender constrained by the
dominant, essentialized understandings of sex and gender? When have you felt constrained or policed because of gendered discourses? I encourage students to share
stories of when they felt policed in some ways, and how they see society policing
children’s enactments of gender. As a class, we discuss examples from the news,
from popular culture, and from our contexts within public schools or our places of
work. We also explore, in a Foucauldian sense, how outward policing becomes a
continuous practice which we internalize, so that said policing becomes naturalized
and seemingly innate.1 Finally, I ask them to come up with examples of different
cultures and/or historical contexts within which different discourses about sex and
gender dominated. How was gender understood and enacted in these contexts?
Bartky refers to this as the “panoptical male connoisseur” (1988, p. 72) when she explores this
phenomenon in women in Western cultures.
What does this mean for our current understandings and practices of gender? These
discussions often lead to students understanding and acting differently in their
worlds. Students often describe a shift in how they understand themselves, and how
they interact with others. For example, one student, who is both a mom and a public
school teacher, told our class that she began to critique how others teachers reiﬁed
essentialized understandings of gender differences after our conversations about
poststructuralism, sex, and gender. She told us that she no longer felt comfortable
taking part in these conversations, and she had begun to intervene on these conversations because of what we had been learning in our course. The other teachers were
open and interested in her new perspective, and a series of provocative conversations ensued. Critiquing commonsensical grand narratives, and shifting our understandings of them from one of Truth to one of discourse, allows students to see their
socially constructed (and therefore contested) nature. This allows us to theorize the
making, and the consequent ability for us to re-make, of normative understandings
and practices of categories such as gender.
Language and Subjectivity
Closely related to poststructural understandings of discourse is the importance and
deconstruction of language. Often referred to as the ‘linguistic turn,’ within poststructuralism, language is understood as being constitutive and not merely descriptive. Said differently, language constructs reality, it does not merely reﬂect or
describe a pre-existing reality. One of the ways in which language constructs and
codiﬁes reality is by our utilization of master binaries (St. Pierre 2000). Binaries and
binary thinking lead to either/or thinking and, as many feminists have explained,
binaries are inevitably hierarchized (Plumwood 1993, 2002; St. Pierre 2000).
As has been illustrated, discourses, in direct and indirect ways, inﬂuence how
individuals exist in the world. Similarly, language shapes both how we think and
how we act because of its constitutive nature. The poststructural understandings of
discourse and language are therefore directly linked to subjectivity, which is another
concept that we discuss in class. As St. Pierre and Pillow (2000) explain, feminist
poststructuralism continues to “trouble the subject of humanism—the rational, conscious, stable, uniﬁed, knowing individual” (p. 6). Rather than seeing the subject as
free, active, rational, and individual, poststructuralism instead points to the construction of the subject, and insists that the subject is constituted in and through
discourse. As Gannon and Davies (2012) suggest, as subjects, we are “always
already constituted within discourse” (p. 73). We are subjects of, and subjected to,
discursive webs, and these webs work on and in us, inﬂuencing desire, rationality,
and what we believe can and cannot be said/thought/done/enacted (Foucault 2000).
This shifts discussions of “choice” and “free will.” Poststructuralism does not conceptualize the idea of “choice” as meaningless; rather, it points to the constraints
around the idea of “choice” by locating ideas and actions within discursive webs.
Instead of thinking of the subject as individual and autonomous, poststructuralists
Performances of Pronouns: Using Feminist Post-structuralism to Explore…
attempt to locate how subjects are situated in particular discourses, how they are
both subjects of, and subjected to, particular discourses (Foucault 2000). These discursive webs inﬂuence how subjects are able to perform and interact (or not) in their
worlds. As St. Pierre (2000) explains, poststructuralism opens up the subject to the
possibility of “continual reconstruction and reconﬁguration” (p. 502). The poststructural understanding of the subject points to the often contradictory ways in
which subjects are constituted. This is done by calling attention to the fragmentary
and ﬂuid nature of subjectivity, and by refusing to narrate the subject as linear,
rational, whole, or as the “origin” of thought and action.
If we understand subjectivity in a poststructural sense, critiquing and challenging gender roles and expectations is not as easy as merely making different decisions or acting in different ways. People are caught in webs of discourse, and, as
mentioned above, they are both subjects of, and subjected to, various discursive
regimes (Foucault 2000). A move away from understanding the individual as agentic and in possession of free will allows students to conceptualize subjectivity as
relational and contingent. It also creates space for students to consider what it would
mean to produce themselves differently, to take up different discourses for different
productions of the self. The idea that we have a core, essentialized self is challenged, which opens up space for multiplicity and different iterations of the self. I
ask students to consider who they might be if they started telling different stories of
themselves. If we no longer believe in an inner, essential core, how else might we
be able exist? Which discourses have they thought were off limits? What might happen if they were able to reconstitute themselves in different discursive formations?
Poststructuralism in the Higher Education Classroom
In order to facilitate the class’s deconstruction of their own subject formations
through an analysis of discourse and language, I ask the class to create a list of master binaries that are utilized in our current social, political, and cultural context.
They work in small groups, and they reference the St. Pierre (2000) reading while
they construct their lists. We share our lists with each other, and we discuss similarities and differences. Inevitably, male/female is a binary that each group lists, and,
as a class, we think with theory (Jackson and Mazzei 2012), namely poststructuralism’s skepticism of grand narratives and hierarchized binaries, in order to deconstruct the ways in which this particular binary is maintained and deployed in our
individual lives, as well as collectively. I ask them to do a quick-write about how
they understand that binary functioning in their lives. I also ask them to ﬁrst do a
thought experiment, and then to conduct a real, embodied experiment. What happens if we refuse the binary? Said differently, what if we disrupt the male/female or
man/woman binary? How could we enact gender differently in our own lives, and
what would be the implications, reactions, and (mis)understandings of these
actions? I encourage students, in the week after our discussions of poststructuralism, to disrupt certain gendered actions and performances in their daily lives,
keeping a journal of what they did, how it made them feel, and how others reacted
to their performances. I then ask them to share these journals in the next week of
class, and the student, along with the rest of the class, theorizes his/her experiences
using the theory we have discussed in class. One powerful example that a student
shared involved how he actively challenged heteronormative masculinity by accompanying his child to a traditionally mom-only space. He spent time with his child in
this space, and attempted to socialize with the other moms. This student shared how
freeing it was for him to openly challenge the gendered expectations put on him
about what it means to be a man, father, and caretaker, and, although he felt judged
and policed by some of the women, he felt empowered and fulﬁlled by his open
disruption of gendered expectations and practices. This same student challenged
himself to talk openly with his child about his emotions and feelings and, while at
ﬁrst uncomfortable, he was able to connect with his child in different ways while
challenging his own beliefs about masculinity. Another student journaled about how
she was treated by others in public when she began to dress and act more androgynously. Until she began to experiment with her performances of gender, she had not
realized how differentially people are treated based on gender conformity. She felt
judged and ostracized, at times violently, by others. She began to see how sex and
gender binaries function in her own life, and how they are policed and regulated by
Finally, to help my students further conceptualize the embodied implications of
poststructural understandings of discourse, language, and subjectivity, I share with
them Judith Butler’s understandings of sex, gender, and gender performance. The
material effects and embodied realities of gender discourses, binary language, and
constructed and contingent subjectivities are exempliﬁed in Butler’s conceptualizations of gender performance. Her theories help my students begin to understanding
how poststructural ideas and understandings can be seen in our everyday existences.
In what follows, I explore the main components of Butler’s discussion of gender
performance, and I elaborate on how I encourage students to interact with her ideas.
The Creation of the Natural: Gender Imitation
Butler makes a number of claims about sex and gender which inform her thinking
about gender performance. Her ﬁrst suggestion is that the binary of sex and gender
needs to be broken down and re-examined. She claims that we to need recognize the
social construction of not just binary gender categories, but also binary sex categories. “An account of gender must not merely assume that it is the cultural inscription
of meaning on a pre-given sex” (Gilbert 2007, p. 130). Gender should not be understood as a cultural interpretation of a biological fact; rather, the binary categories of
male/female must be understood as socially and historically situated. Although she
does not dismiss the various differences in biology that are present, she believes that