Social Determinism Versus the Essentialism of “Cis Privilege” Theory

The politics of gender have always implicated the politics of sex. This is because one of two “gendered” social roles are assigned according to the genital “sex” of each individual’s body at birth. The politics of sex and gender are therefore inseparable by social design. This seems an obvious truth, but many people are still seduced by the idea that gender is somehow “programmed from within.” I will explain how the increasingly popular theory of “cisgender” and “cis privilege” takes advantage of our pluralistic ignorance to reinscribe a fundamentally conservative ideology of gender role essentialism.fausto-sterling SOCIAL DETERMINISM

I am fond of using the graphic above to illustrate the mechanics of social role determinism and its relationship to the presence (or absence) of a phallus at birth. The image itself is featured in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body. [i] She provides the following context:

As a teaching tool in their struggle to change the medical practice of infant genital surgery, members of the Intersexual Rights Movement have designed a ‘‘phall-o-meter’’ (shown in figure 3.4), a small ruler that depicts the permissible ranges of phallus size for males and females at birth. It provides a graphic summary of the reasoning behind the decision-making process for assigning gender.

Again, in Fausto-Sterling’s words:

Deciding whether to call a child a boy or a girl, then, employs social definitions of the essential components of gender. Such definitions, as the social psychologist Suzanne Kessler observes in her book Lessons from the Intersexed, are primarily cultural, not biological.

Medical diagnosis of “male” or “female” determines the individual’s social role as “boy” or “girl.” Culture imposes a complex set of values on our bodies, behaviors, moods, and relationships through the process of sex-based (aka “gender”) role socialization. This sex-based division of social labor is externally—not internally— enforced and dictates a very particular set of things about the form of our relationships to others. The picture of the bib below provides an example of the social script for how adult males are expected to relate to their female children, even before the child can feed herself without making a mess.

pink_daddys_little_princess_bib

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A feminist critique of “cisgender”

[first published June 8, 2012 on the Liberation Collective blog]

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Consistent with common usage of the term “cisgender,” the graphic below explains that “…if you identify with the gender you were assigened [sic] at birth, you are cis.”

I cannot find a way to attribute the artist of this drawing. All leads are appreciated.Another Trans 101: Cisgender webpage describes cis this way: “For example, if a doctor said “it’s a boy!” when you were born, and you identify as a man, then you could be described as cisgender.” [i] Likewise, girl-born people who identify as women are also considered cisgender. WBW are cis.

Framing gender as a medically determined assignment may seem like a good start to explaining gendered oppression because it purports to make a distinction between physical sex and gender. Feminism similarly understands masculinity and femininity (e.g., gender) as strictly enforced social constructs neither of which are the “normal” or inevitable result of one’s reproductive sex organs. Feminism and trans theory agree that coercive gender assignments are a significant source of oppression.

On closer inspection of the concept of “cisgender,” however, feminism and trans theory quickly diverge. Feminism does not believe that asking whether an individual identifies with the particular social characteristics and expectations assigned to them at birth is a politically useful way of analyzing or understanding gender. Eliminating gender assignments, by allowing individuals to choose one of two pre-existing gender molds, while continuing to celebrate the existence and naturalism of “gender” itself, is not a progressive social goal that will advance women’s liberation.  Feminism claims that gender is a much more complicated (and sinister) social phenomenon than this popular cis/trans binary has any hope of capturing. Continue reading