Fighting the Phantasm in “Who’s Afraid of Gender?”

Who’s Afraid of Gender? is a book borne from an urgent moment. It is not so merely because gender is being taken up as a catch-all term for a variety of political aims but because the question of transgender existence has become mainstream, upsetting past gender theories—even Butler’s—and becoming the center of the gender debate. Butler’s book aims to take up the entirety of the debate, offering a full-throated defense against, if not all, most of the ideas from the transgender debate that are put forth in order to exclude lives that do not align with nationalistic, authoritarian, and religious views. By both attempting to decode the overdetermined meaning of gender and positioning against those that they argue are acting in a trans-exclusionary manner, Butler presents explicit answers to the title of their book, delineating a set of individuals and groups who are purporting to know what gender is and is not and asserting that the fear and anxiety around that subject is a “phantasm.”

Butler uses the word phantasm to describe how very specific fears that may not even have much to do with gender are being masked and exploited by substituting in a word that is purposefully vague—a word that is difficult to define, even for scholars: gender. What comes out of describing this phantasmatic scene is a well-researched constellation of the way that the Vatican, the Americas’ evangelicals, and nationalists around the globe are piggy-backing on one another and sometimes even working together in order to organize society into one “acceptable” form. That is, one that denies the right of self-determination and eradicates populations of people who are already evidence of an existence that is incommensurate with the one-form reality purported by these groups. Butler points out that this fascist agenda for one acceptable existence is exacerbated by the methodical, neoliberal unraveling of a social safety net that the church is increasingly becoming charged with providing. This point speaks to a tension that is identified in their book. Within a specific economic system, people can become more accepting of authoritarian regimes that want one form of existence when those people’s sense of what freedom means is skewed because they perceive the entity that provides a safety net of social service as offering more freedom to them as individuals.

Butler goes on to describe how the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton decision demonstrates that whether or not one wants to relegate gender to one form of “complementarity,” workplace decisions based on a definition of sex assume unequal treatment and fall under discrimination. This decision makes it very clear: when acting on ideologies or beliefs that amount to discriminatory behavior, those beliefs are exposed as prejudicial, which is and can only ever be what one acceptable form of existence means. In this way, Butler’s book emphasizes that a gender-inclusive world is actually in agreement with democratic principles of freedom and liberty. What follows this discussion is a criticism of TERFs or trans-exclusionary radical feminists. And Butler attempts to make it plain that to be trans-exclusionary is to be in alignment with the fascists that seek not to merely eradicate gender but to destroy freedom, for when powers make it illegal to live as something other than Adam or Eve, one may have a “settled” sense of gender, but they have also settled everything else, where there is no such thing as liberty. Butler’s book underscores the stakes of the gender debate, trying to show how the debaters incorporate this topsy-turvy orientation, where the conversation becomes a phantasmic belief that authoritarianism will do more for people than democracy.

The problem of trying to write this review is that, while Butler’s book is an argument that is part of a serious and critical debate—the ideas inside of it need to be considered, dissected, and wrestled with, although their, perhaps, implicit message that the essence of a co-constitutive nature and nurture existence means an inevitability of the “unsorted,” and explicitly that the goal is not to re-sort everything but to create a world that includes all, seems to ring true—Butler is employing all of their rhetorical powers, and the book includes so many arguments that the text does have blind spots, contradictions, and straw-peoples, which is an acknowledgment that may appear to some as inflammatory.

For example, if one were to point out that the phantasm itself becomes a catch-all, which works less as a tool to parse rhetoric than to create it—serving as a one-word dismissal of experiences and fears as fantasy—then they may assert that this dismissal is disregarding lived truths in the same manner that Butler says occurs when transgender experience is disregarded. While this dismissal does not necessarily result in similar rights-stripping outcomes, it never does do to dismiss the feelings of those who are necessary to achieve a truly inclusive world. Additionally, it would be a mistake to lump in the set of the population that is being exploited within the phantasmatic scene with the self-serving regimes who are doing the exploiting. These distractions undercut Butler’s larger aims, which at times take a back seat to rhetoric focused on winning the debate. A criticism of these moments distracts from the aforementioned productiveness of the text. A review that dares to point out such inconsistencies risks appearing as if everything that Butler’s argument is amounting to is wrong, as if one is taking up the side against them, or putting one’s hat in with fascist powers. However, it is a reminder that it is easy to get caught up in emotions, and acting with those emotions does not necessarily serve one’s cause. Indeed, the reader of Butler’s book will only be successful in doing so if they enter with an awareness of their emotions and realize that reading Who’s Afraid of Gender? is a process of constant renegotiation with one’s fears and anxieties.

See Also

Butler’s book may be best summed up as a perceptive glance at the ideologies and powers that seek to use gender, or rather fear, to sort and reduce lives, with a fierceness that may cast a more narrow net in its goal of “mak[ing] gender promising again.”

Who’s Afraid of Gender?
By Judith Butler
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Published March 19, 2024

Source link