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Who’s Afraid of Gender? – review

Butler’s book is an accessible call for a liberative politics of gender even if it is too charitable to anti-trans ‘feminists’, writes Jess O’Thomson

4 minute read

Protestors in London holding pro-trans rights placards, with one in the centre holding a megaphone

Title: Who’s Afraid of Gender?

Author: Judith Butler

Publisher: Allen Lane

Year: 2024

By far their most accessible book to date, and seemingly aimed at a more general audience, the ideas explored in Judith Butler’s latest are no less complex than usual. Butler argues that gender has become a powerful ‘phantasm’ – a psycho-social phenomenon in which ‘intimate fears and anxieties become socially organised to incite political passions’. It is so powerful that, even though understandings and definitions of gender are hotly contested between feminist and queer theorists, the ‘anti-gender ideology movement’ treats it as a monolith.

The book explores key players in the anti-gender movement, from the Vatican to the so-called gender-critical feminists operating in the UK. Butler rightly identifies that the weaponisation of the gender phantasm is ‘authoritarian at its core’, promising a return to a patriarchal order that only a strong state and its violent instruments can guarantee. Gender is conceived as a terrifying enemy within, a ‘threat to the nation’, which justifies fascistic interventions.

In their psychologisation of the phantasm and the fear it involves, Butler unfortunately tends to deny agency to some anti-trans actors. They paint a picture of people incited into attacking ‘gender’ by false fears and fantasy, accepting clearly contradictory arguments due to psychological compulsions of terror. But patriarchy does not exist merely because of distorted ideas about how gender should operate – some people materially benefit from a world in which women are forced to remain in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.

Rather, it maintains a subservient class performing unpaid reproductive labour, benefiting the men who dominate and providing the backbone of a capitalist economy. Perhaps some of those attacking gender operate less out of irrational fear, and more out of concerted desire to protect their own material interests as members of a dominant class.

Generous analysis

Butler’s over-generosity is also apparent in their discussion of UK anti-trans ‘feminists’. While criticising them for their alliance with the right, Butler maintains that they have done so ‘unwittingly’ and fails to challenge whether their position remains feminist at all. For example, when Butler dismantles Kathleen Stock’s arguments around the supposed threat posed by trans women in single-sex spaces, they presume that Stock is approaching the issue with genuine feminist concern for cis women’s safety, once again psychologising Stock as overcome by particular fears.

This analysis does not confront the fact that Stock now writes decidedly anti-feminist articles in right-wing publications – and not only on trans subjects. Stock has, for example, decried feminist calls to treat abortion as healthcare as ‘extremist’, criticising them for not recognising the potential ‘rights’ of fathers over foetuses. Stock argues that the mother, foetus, father, and indeed extended relatives, all have ‘interests’ in the ‘outcome’ of a pregnancy – and that the interests of the pregnant woman (whose bodily autonomy and integrity is under discussion) should not simply rank above them. Butler disappointingly fails to recognise that while such ‘gender critical’ reactionaries may talk in terms of women’s rights to advance their agenda, they have abandoned meaningful feminist struggle altogether.

Challenging the status quo

The book contains many compelling discussions, importantly including a rejection of liberal feminism and its links to the capitalist system that causes real harm around the world, particularly in the global south. This harm provides a hook onto which the anti-gender movement can latch. Most interestingly, Butler delves deep into the concept of ‘sex’, rightly rejecting the nature/culture distinction between sex/gender which has long plagued gender studies – and to which their work contributed. Instead, Butler invites us to consider the important ways that sex itself is socially constructed and developed, demolishing its position as an immutable, natural, and ‘common sense’ category.

Butler’s ultimate conclusion might seem unsatisfying to some. They continually emphasise the need for ‘thoughtful debate’, and to build broad coalitions with those we disagree with. At first glance, this might appear naive – Andrea Long Chu has criticised it as ‘needlessly conciliatory’. Taken at its highest, however, it can be understood as a call for solidarity and creativity – building the world we want to see with each other.

Butler envisions making ‘freedom into the air we together breathe’. If this is taken on as a material challenge, not just one of ‘vision’, then it is the right call. We must imagine not merely debates, but practicalities like mutual aid and provisions of vital healthcare (such as abortion access) in our communities when such resources are under threat. We need to start working together to build a world in which we can all thrive.

This article first appeared in Issue #244 30 Years of Red Pepper. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Jess O’Thomson is a legal researcher and journalist. Their book on transphobia is forthcoming with SAGE Publications

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