Queer Theory: A Brief Response to Wilchins, Butler, and Cohen

 

The complications that Queer Theory brings to the forefront is not unfamiliar to many activists today.  What I mean to say is, there is rarely a time when an individual’s identity is not questioned.  For example, the opening paragraph of Butler and the Problem of Identity by Riki Wilchins, reads “You don’t have to be a whale to join Greenpeace, and you don’t need to be locked up in a foreign cell to support Amnesty International” (123).  Likewise, an individual who supports the queer community may or may not be “queer.” Furthermore, how does one define such a community, and why must we categorize ourselves at all? Judith Butler faces this conundrum by her refusal to acknowledge identities at “face value,” by working to reveal the instability of categories and communities.

Butler begins Imitation and Gender Insubordination by disputing the concept of “being.” How does one theorize as a lesbian or otherwise?  These suggests that all who identify as “lesbian” would come to a single conclusion, which Butler explains as such; “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression” (Butler, 308). This issue resides very strongly in feminist debates. Wilchins upholds that “assuming a commonality to any identity, even one as apparently uncomplicated as Woman, can mean assuming a unity that doesn’t exist in reality” (124).  Not only are biological women concerned with different issues throughout the world, the questions such as “what makes a Woman?” are increasingly relevant. Butler and Wilchins use Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman to support their argument that there is a sense of “proper” womanhood.  When an audience reflected on Franklin’s lyrics, they almost unarguably thought of the biologically natural woman, stripped of her worldly problems. In other words, the “natural women” might have referred to regaining a sense of innocence, which is traditionally a feminine quality. However, if I were to read the lyrics through a queer lens, I would determine that term “natural” was used to speak of the “soul” or “true self.” I am reminded that the terms natural, real, and truth are all subjective terms in an identity discourse; therefore what is natural for one individual may be completely unnatural for another. Even though the two may both identify as women, their true senses of womanhood are not identical.

With this inter-identity crisis, I was reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s observation of a crumbling United States. He declared “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” I see a single feminism struggling to stand as well. There is matter of who is “more important” or “well-known” in the community. Think about the marginalized communities of transgender, genderqueer, gender-different and so on. The fact that I even wrote the words “and so on” proves that there are multiple identities that I am not aware of, or cannot remember due to the focus on the more prominent gay and lesbian communities. We refer to these “different” communities as LGBT+, using the + sign to cover our bases. I don’t know if this is more or less inclusive in the long run. Cathy Cohen seems to see positivism in wider sense of identity. In Punks Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens, she suggests “At the intersection of oppression and resistance lies the radical potential of queerness to challenge and bring together all those deemed marginal and all those committed to liberatory politics” (440). Even though I agree with this statement, I got the sense that Cohen does not agree with Wilchins or myself about the larger identity of fluidity. As a generally dominant culture woman, I was a little offended by her frequent aversion to heterosexuality. She seems to be discounting this identity as valid, and suggesting that the heterosexual identity is concrete.  In this way, she is enacting the exclusion of which she simultaneously protests.

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