Gender Definition

Feminism and Psychoanalysis

A Critical Dictionary

edited by

Elizabeth Wright

Basil Blackwell, 1992

The development of stable genders within the binary frame of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ thus presupposes the effective exclusion of these other developmental possibilities. Conversely, we might well argue that the de-pathologization of these other modalities of gender is open­ing up the terrain of gender beyond the heterosexual matrix and the binary logic which supports it.”


Gender as a category emerges within feminist psychoanalytic discourse at the site of a series of debates about how and. where to for­mulate the problem of cultural construction. Is gender acquired in the course of socialization and the internalization of norms, or is gender part of a linguistic network that precedes and structures the formation of the ego and the linguistic subject? For the most part, OBJECJECT-RELATlONS THEORY tends to argue that gender is a set of roles and cultural meanings acquired in the course of ego formation within family structures, and that significant changes in child-rearing practices and kinship oganization can alter the meaning of gender and close the hierarchical gap between the genders of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ {see Chodorow, 1978). As an English term, ‘gender’ is used within some Anglo-American feminist theory, but does ‘not usually appear within a Lacanian analytic dis­course. Feminists re-working the Lacanian tradition tend to refer to sex­ual DIFFERENCE, the primary form of linguistic differentiation that belongs to the Symbolic and which conditions, regulates and institutes the speaking subject. Although Lacan comes to distinguish between the subject and the ego, it is clear that neither construct can exist prior to its marking by sex. Whereas most theorists of gender presume a subject who takes on a gender in the course of its development, the Lacanian view insists that the subj^t itself is formed through a subjection to sexual difference (for an exception see Wittig, 1985). Whereas gender appears to be a cultural determination that a pre-existing subject acquires, sexual difference appears to constitute the matrix that gives rise to the subject itself.

When ‘gender’ is used in feminist analysis it is almost always defined in relation to ‘sex’: gender is the cultural or social construction of sex. The distinction between sex and gender has received consequential for­mulations in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (‘One is not bom, but rather becomes, a woman’: de Beauvoir, 1952, p. 301) and in cul­tural anthropology where gender does not reflect or express sex as a pri­mary given, but is the effect of social and cultural processes (Ortner and Whitehead, 1981, p. 1). As a sociological or anthropological category, gender is not simply ‘the gender one is’j’a.e. man or woman, but rather a set of contingent meanings that sexes assume in the. context of a given society (see Scott, 1988).

The ‘sex/gender system’ is a coinage that anthropologist Gayle Rubin offered to explain the variable ways that kinship organizations produce gendered beings out of sexed bodies: ‘Every society also has a sex/gender system – a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be’ (Rubin, 1974, p. 165). Rubin’s essay takes its bear­ings in relation to the work of Claude Levi-Strauss (1969; see especially final chapter) and Jacques Lacan (1977a, b), and constitutes a specific effort to re-work the theoretical alignment of structural linguistics with a psychoanalytic account of the Symbolic. Her argument questioned the alleged universality of L6vi-Strauss’s analysis of kinship relations in which he outlined the universal or permanent Symbolic structures that require every nascent human to submit to the incest taboo in order to enter into kinship and the Cultural status of the human subject. Only through subjecting incestuous impulses to this taboo do ‘subjects’ emerge; as a result, human subjects, emerge upon the condition that they are first gendered through kinship relations. In other words, to accede to the status of a speaking ‘I’, one (of course, there is not yet a ‘one’, although the temporal fiction of explanation requires this grammar) must first be positioned within kinship, i.e. become a daughter, sister, brother,“Son. These positions are secured, as it were, through the effectivity of the incest taboo, that is, the prohibition against certain incestu­ous unions that is effected through a compulsory differentiation among family .members. Kinship relations can thus be understood as the enact­ment of this differentiating prohibition. T only become a coherent and viable T to the extent that I am differentiated from (prohibited from desiring or becoming) the members of my kinship group – family or clan [see ANTHROPOLOGY AND CROSS-CULTURAL ANALYSIS).

Significantly, the law of kinship produces human subjects, i.e. speak­ing beings, through differentiating between genders by means of the pro­hibition not only of incest, but also homosexuality; gendered subjects are thus produced through a series of generative prohibitions which reg­ulate not only sexual behaviour, but sexual desire itself. Part of the Lacanian contribution to this theory consists in the following sugges­tion: the ‘I’ is a coherent and viable ‘I’ to the extent that it effects an Imaginary identification with the parent of the same sex, and displaces its desire for the parent of the opposite sex on to a substitute for that parent. Of course, for ‘the girl’ matters are more difficult since she must effect a double renunciation: first, she must renounce her desire for the mother (the mother is understood psychoanalytically as the primary object) and then displace the ostensibly consequent desire for her father. Men have it easier, needing only to displace that desire for the mother. Of course, this account is highly debatable, since it presumes, first, a pri­mary homosexuality on the part of women that is denied to men, and second, that women will not only deny the desire for the mother, but will be required to deny any desire for a substitution for the mother as well {see motherhood; mother-daughter relationship).

It appears, then, that it is only through subjection to this process of heterosexualized gendering that viable or coherent human subjects are produced. One is a ‘man’ to the extent that one does not desire other men, but desires only those women who are substitutes for the mother; one is a ‘woman’ to the extent that one does not desire other women (one has transformed the spectre of that desire into an ‘identification’) and desires only those men who are substitutes for the father. Indeed, ‘one’ is not a one, that is, a speaking, human subject, except through subjection (the French assufettissetnent might more accurately be trans­lated as ‘subjectivation’) to this heterosexual imperative.

A significant difference emei^es between feminist theorists based on object relations and those grounded in Lacan with respect to the effectivity of this primary prohibition. Object-relations theorists tend to confirm that this process whereby the differentiating norms of kinship are inter­nalized actually works, that is, that the prohibitions are binding. On the other hand, feminist theorists such as Jacqueline Rose (1986) argue that the internalization of norms in the construction of gender is bound to fail. In so far as prohibitions are internalized, they produce a domain of unconscious fantasy that calls into question the stability of the very iden­tification that the prohibition compels: ‘the unconscious constantly reveals the “failure^of identity’ (Rose, 1986, pp. 89-91).

The contestation of stable gendered positions is conceived yet differ­ently by Rubin. Whereas Levi-Strauss described the structures of kinship as universal, Rubin argues persuasively that those very structures are culturally variable and historically contingent. She claims that there are cultures in which kinship does not produce human subjects through the strict le^slation of heterosexuality, and that kinship structures have a historical future which suggests a relaxation and revolution of the rules of kinship (Rubin, 1974, p. 199). Informed by feminist and gay cultural movements, the future of kinship relations could lead to the de-stabilization and ‘overthrow’ of gender itself. In this sense, Rubin is perhaps closer to those object-relations theorists who maintain that changes in family structures and co-parenting arrangements can effectively produce an equality between women and men.

At least two problems emerged in the context of Rubin’s analysis. First, if feminists are to take Lacan- seriously, gender cannot b^ said to be the cultural construction of sex, for ‘sex’ is established through the linguistic effect x)f sexual difference, and this effect is coextensive with<language, and, hence, culture as such. Whereas Rubin presumes that gender is pro­duced through various practices that regulate kinship relations, Lacan privileges the initiation into language as the primary process by which sexual difference is required and constituted. If the Lacanian scheme is right, gender cannot be overthrown, and the very wish to do so is a provisional fantasy inevitably thwarted by the Symbolic, i.e the constitutive con­straints of language itself. Secondly, biological ‘sex’ is not a given, since there is a politically informed history of the biological sciences which articulates the putative ‘facticity’ and ‘materiality’ of sex (see Ortner and Whitehead, 1981). Not only have several writers, including Wittig and Foucault, argued that sex is a political category and not a biological given, but even within Lacanian theory, it is unclear that recourse to a pre-symbolic ‘biology’ is possible, since there is no direct, i.e. non-fantasmatic, access to that which precedes language. This latter point suggests that the sex/gender distinction, operative in sociological (Chodorow, 1978) and anthropological (Ortner and Whitehead, 1981) discourse, comes under critical pressure from the Lacanian view that sex is always marked within the matrix of sexual difference, and recourse to sexual difference can take place only within and as language. In so far as language designates cultur­al significance, sexual difference emerges simultaneously with culture itself. This calls into question the notion of a pre-cultural sex that must be made over into a culturally contingent ‘gender’. Such a view has critical implications for any effort to consider ‘gender’ as that into which one is socialized, for the ‘one’ is always already marked by sexual difference, constituted, as it were, in culture as a sexed being prior to the process called ‘socialization’.

On the other hand, a strength of Rubin’s revision of Lacanian theory is that it challenges the way in which compulsory heterosexuauty is installed as a permanent feature of the Symbolic, and questions whether that naturalization of heterosexuality misreads the workings of kinship outside the framework provided by Levi-Strauss. Moreover, in so far as the Lacanian scheme concentrates on the oedipal drama as that which articulates sexual difference, it misses the variations on how prohibi­tions, identifications and desires are constituted in contestation of the heterosexualizing norm. To accept that norm as the invariant Symbolic instituted in the rules of language implies that the only contestation of those norms will take place in the Imaginary and through fantasy {see Rose, ,1986), but that the norm will remain the invariable norm by virtue of which every such contestation takes place.

If the strength of Rubin’s critique is to be retained, it must be refor­mulated in a theory that both ackowledges the cultural primacy of the Symbolic – that fact that we are born into and through sexual difference – but also locates an historical specificity and contingency to that very Symbolic domain. To that end, the term gender remains an important reminder of the variable and contestatory modes of masculine and femi­nine psychic life as well as those forms of psychic life and sexuality which either fail to fit squarely into those conventional domains or which cross those domains in ways that call for a new sexual vocabulary

{see femininity; lesbianism; MASCUUNTrY; sadomasochism).-

To the extent that genders have remained binary within certain Western cultures, they have appeared to naturalize the distinction between men and women. Freud argued that this distinction is an unsta­ble one, and that sexed positions stabilized through the ‘accomplish­ment’ of heterosexuality are in no way guaranteed (1905, pp. 233-7). Freud reviewed the possibilities of other developmental trajectories, such as various forms of inversion and modes of anatomical hermaphroditism. The development of stable genders within the binary frame of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ thus presupposes the effective exclusion of these other developmental possibilities. Conversely, we might well argue that the de-pathologization of these other modalities of gender is open­ing up the terrain of gender beyond the heterosexual matrix and the binary logic which supports it.


de Beauvoir, Stmone, 1952 tl 949]: The Second Sex, crans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Random House.

Butler, Judith, 1990: Gender TrouBle: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge

Chodorow, Nancy, 1978: The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel, 1978: The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. London: Allen Lane. Freud, Sigmund, 1905: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, SE, 3, pp. 123-246.

Lacan, Jacques, 1977a [1953]: ‘The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis’, f^its: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan. London; Tavistock, pp. 30-113.

Lacan, Jacques, 1977b [1958]: ‘The signification of the phallus’, Ecrits; A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, pp. 281-91.

Levl-Strauss, Claude, 1969 [1949): The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. J. H. Belle and J. R. von Sturmer. London: Eyre and Spotriswobde.

Ortner, Sherry B., and Whitehead, Harriet, 1981: Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.