There are two kinds of feminists in this world. Well, actually, there’s a fair few more than that. However, for the sake of your sanity, there will be no prospectus of modern feminism here, just the mild observation that there are those feminists who think that gender is natural in origin and there are those who don’t.

Like Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who this week lent her support to a genderless toy campaign called No Gender December, my view tends to the latter and holds that the social function of biological sex is to act as an alibi for gender difference. This is a pretty usual feminist view and is really no different in its opposition to sociobiological thinking than, say, that to racial theories of physical anthropology. The idea that there’s anything much in the world more essentially male than it is female, or white than it is brown, is ideological pants and the insistence that men and women are “just different” is a baseless work best left to FM radio announcers and most often rewarded not by Nobel but with a box full of icy cold cans of Coke.

So. If we hold, as the Greens spokesperson for women and I do, that the Battle of the Sexes is of an entirely social devising and functions not as an outcrop of our “essential” humanity but as a means of sustaining certain kinds of cultural inequality and divided wealth, we should do something about it, right? We should look at the origins of this alibi and expose them and afford the culture no excuse to conceal the cruel and oppressive work of centuries. We must give injustice no fruitful or covert conditions!

Well, obviously. We agree.

It’s at this point Waters and I disagree on the most ethical and effective methods of seeking this justice, and I just can’t agree that a good way toward it is parliamentary endorsement for the exchange of genderless gifts.

This is for a few reasons, but none of them coincide with the many published responses to Waters’ endorsement.

Waters delivered the Murdoch press its favourite kind of festive gift when she lent her support to a campaign of social engineering. No Gender December urges parent consumers to free their issue from the gendered forcing house of Toys’R’Us by buying “neutral” toys. It’s a pretty easy thing to take the piss out of, and News lit up like a Christmas tree with a string of its usual political-correctness-gone-mad baubles. The Daily Telegraph used its front page to decry the Senator who was not only “hell-bent on ruining the economy” but the very spirit of the season.

What followed this week was a range of works berating the Tele for berating the Senator and upholding the idea, with soft recourse to some studies, that the division of toys into pink and blue was a Harmful Gender Discourse.

There is rarely any point in countering claims by the Tele so let’s not bother with that. Those guys will whine about the pointless busywork of the Left until a global market is traded in seashells upchucked by the filthy tsunami they refuse to attribute to climate change. But Waters’ point is wrong in ways that deserve a little more attention.

“You can take away the play Joint II Strike Fighters or Baby’s First Erotic Pole Dance and you’ll find you still have gender.”

First, it sort of seems like upside-down thinking to me to say that toys feed “into very serious problems such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap”. I would have thought it was the other way around. Even if we accept that the handful of studies cited by Waters and her supporters prove that gender discrimination is sustained by toys, it is difficult to imagine that some other discourse would not fill the gap left on the sanitised shelves. My parents’ generation was largely doomed to an infant leisure guided only by tin cans and sticks but they managed to divide themselves into gender categories with great efficiency. In speech, in appearance and in the very stuff of ourselves, gender identity takes hold to preserve unequal social relations. And this is not, by any means, a natural process — after years of fretting about this sort of shit, I think it’s a social process best described by material psychoanalysis — but it is not one that is going to be reversed or even mildly troubled by the availability of purple toys. You can take away the play Joint II Strike Fighters or Baby’s First Erotic Pole Dance and you’ll find you still have gender.

Second, Waters’ thinking necessarily leads to a kind of genderless radicalism about which I fantasise, but for which I have no realistic hope to see in the next half-millennium. Which is to say, if we believe that gender is something that should not be taught and we also believe that gender does not exist outside its social frameworks, we believe in getting rid of it. And, in utopian instants, I do. The notion of the end of an identity that feeds, much better than a “stereotyping” toy does, an era filled with two kinds of people and two kinds of rules is the stuff of constructivist porn. But it’s hardly the stuff of real-world aims. If you don’t believe in gender — and again, many feminists including myself hold gender to be socially created fiction — then you don’t believe in a more acceptable kind of gender; namely, one that produces less obvious pink and blue signs of itself. Gender is gender, whatever its ornaments.

So, this sort of genderless imagining is — duh — entirely academic and, save for a few naive Scandinavian experiments that reward parents who dress their genderless children in pink dungarees or whatever, it doesn’t exist outside the pages of Foucault. Because it’s big and hazy and it exists in the stuff of ourselves. And that’s a place that parliamentarians have no business managing.

Governments can, and should be reasonably expected to, materially assist broad feminist aims. They can legislate for equal pay and recognise and amend other unequal, or harmful, conditions that occur as the result of the (fictional) class of gender. Governments can, and must, recognise that economic systems are opportunistic in their use of cultural systems like gender and race. They can legislate against discrimination and remove discriminatory legislation and work tirelessly to engineer an economy that refuses to endorse or utilise cultural discrimination.

But what they cannot do is end the cultural discrimination itself. If we accept — and I am supposing that Waters does — that the idea of gender is fundamental to the idea we have of ourselves, then you can’t go about trying to change that. You can certainly and must certainly amend its consequences, but you can’t tell anyone — as if you’d have a hope of it being heard in any case — that the idea of gender is wrong.

Of course, I can. This is because I am a sad old constructivist to whom very few people listen. But a parliamentarian has as much business in the cultural destruction of gender as they do in its maintenance.

Predictably, that sack of reeking ideology made more foetid by Christian misunderstanding Cory Bernardi attacked Waters with claims that gender was “real”. Well, frankly his view of sociobiology is as unwelcome in Canberra as Waters’ claims — with which I happen to agree — that gender is not natural.

Gender is an enormous, powerful fiction sustained by discourses we are yet to recognise and reproduced by means that inhere in the very stuff of our male and female identities. Parliamentarians are welcomed, and encouraged, to change the material conditions in which we male and female identities live. But they have got to stay out of our heads.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey