Consider three familiar categories that structure so much of life: sex, gender, and desire. Standardly, we assume that sex is the biological fact that determines our gender, and our gender, in turn, determines our sexual desires. In this course, we critically examine this “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self, with a special focus on the elaborate efforts societies make in creating and reinforcing conditions that are supposed by those societies to be “natural.” Is the “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self correct, and, if not, what does it mean for sex, gender, and desire—and for practices, institutions, and societies built upon the logic of that conception?
Overview of the course
This course began as an outgrowth of my scholarly interest in gender (especially masculinity) and as a response to the heterosexism I was noticing both on and off campus. Since that first class, I’ve taught various versions of the course, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, at several universities. This syllabus reflects a refinement of the material I have used over the years.
The arc of the course can be understood as a (mis)reading of the history of feminism; in particular, we look at how queer theory is a part of the reaction to the perceived centering of second-wave feminism on the experiences of white, middle-class, straight women.1 To that end, we posit a basic distinction between sex and gender, and we examine “gender norms.” We then examine how these gender norms assume either (implicitly or explicitly) that their objects are heterosexual. From there, we highlight how raising that particular criticism threatens to undermine undermine both feminism (for a lack of a single subject that is “woman”) and the sex/gender distinction itself. We then look to the consequences of this “queer theory” critique for various social institutions.
In all, the course proceeds through five major sections:
- Framing: examining Foucault’s account of institutions, the internalization of norms, and the production of a self.
- A first go at the sex/gender distinction: developing the basic move in our theoretical repertoire, the distinction between sex (a function of biology) and gender (a function of social norms).
- Feminism’s gender trouble: critiquing the picture of gender as envisioning a “universal” woman when there is not—with a focus on sexuality and feminism.
- Biopolitics and sex/gender/desire: rethinking various institutions that are built up around a logic of “sex/gender/desire,” including scientific inquiry into human biology and the medicalization of trans persons.
- Heterosexism and cissexism: understanding how the foregoing leads to systems of oppression and privilege.
The main course assignment
The main assignment for the course is a term paper that features elements due throughout the semester. (I have used this style of assignment in other courses, as well.) The essence of the assignment is that students are to take what they’ve learned in the class—in particular, the theoretical approach taken by one of the authors—and apply it to some novel case: the operations of power, gender, and desire in some aspect of “everyday” life. Some of the topics that students have pursued have included:
- Miss Understood: Drag Queen Femininity
- African American MSM (Men who have Sex with Men): The Victims of a Heterosexist Society
- “Quit it, Fag!” The Shift in Adolescent Male Expression of Masculinity through Homophobic Bullying
- Fraternities, Masculinity, and Rape
- Private Waste, Public Space: The Regulation of Gender in Public Restrooms
- The Sexism of the University Housing System
- Butler’s “Subversive Bodily Acts” and the Kathoey Culture in Thailand
- “Loose” Women, Femininity, and Opera: A study in representations of the feminine in the performing arts
- Contemporaneous reactions to women being integrated into previously male-only colleges and the aftermath
- Gender analysis of the “How Women Can Succeed in Business” literature
- Self Concept, Body Image, and Sexual Identity in Post-mastectomy Patients
- Gender and Female MCs in Hip Hop
The assignment proceeds in sections throughout the semester. The first step in this process requires students to think about our authors, consider some possible topics, and then submit two potential paper topics. Each paper topic is a paragraph that identifies the author whose work will constitute the theoretical framework for the investigation, specifies the test case, and previews the paper’s thesis. I examine the topics, evaluate them for the propriety (e.g., that they aren’t dissertation topics), choose the most interesting/likely to succeed, and offer comments on how to proceed if necessary.
The second step has the students submitting a “proposal”—essentially, it is a mid-semester, work-in-progress document. The proposal is where students provide descriptions of how they intend to address each element of the assignment by providing a summary of the relevant facts and an overview of the argument. Students are also to provide a bibliography of their factual (rather than philosophical) texts—the only philosophical texts allowed are ones from class. This step allows me to check-in on student progress, offer extensive comments about how to proceed with, fix, or enhance the work, and, perhaps most importantly, ensure that students do not wait until the night before the final paper is due to start work on what is an original piece of scholarship.
The final steps usually involve students presenting their research to the class and then submitting a final version of their paper.
Some notes on texts
Two things worth mentioning about the texts:
A) Some readers might be wondering why I use Foucault’s Discipline and Punish rather than his seemingly-more-topical History of Sexuality. There are a few answers to that, but the key point is that the material in Discipline and Punish (i.e., about institutions and internalization of norms) is central to framing both section (2), on gender, and section (4), on biopolitics. In addition, some of the relevant material in History of Sexuality is addressed by Butler in Gender Trouble.
B) I’m less than thrilled by the privileged focus of this reading list. Future versions of the course will have more texts by people of color, people with disabilities, and people from other traditionally excluded perspectives.