I’ve most often encountered the form/function distinction in architectural and design contexts, but I’m going to try my hand at applying it to feminist analysis.[i]
Words and meaning
I started thinking about this problem because of feminism’s struggle to retain control of certain words such as ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ The truth is that feminists want these words to mean certain things. In the context of language, words are the form and meaning is the function. We can utter all kinds of words, but if they don’t mean what we want them to mean, then they don’t function as we intend them to. I may even like the sound or feel of certain words’ forms, but I need not be dependent on particular syllables or letter patterns to convey my ideas; I need to be able to convey the ideas themselves.
If my goal is effective political communication, I need to be able to express the complexity and nuance of how particular details and variables interact. I’m not a poet (!) so it doesn’t actually matter what language I’m using– English, Spanish, Swahili, or American Sign Language– as long as my listener can readily absorb the concepts that my words represent. Particularly because of what feminists and females have at stake in the context of political discourse, I believe that terminology must ultimately take a back seat to meaning.
Feminists are currently struggling with some very serious communication challenges as a direct result of the trans*/queer movement’s appropriation of terms central to our political analysis, including ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ These words have become disconnected from their traditional meaning and no longer function, or communicate, in the way that feminists intend them to. For example, saying that “trans women are women” renders the characteristic experience of girlhood– and all of the associated involuntary feminine grooming that it entails– unnecessary to understanding what a ‘woman’ is. It also negates the assumption that to be a ‘woman’ is an immutable characteristic, thereby opening the class ‘woman’ to anyone who wishes to join it (i.e., non-women/men).
If “trans women are women” then the condition of being a ‘woman’ no longer refers to the (1) lifelong from birth and (2) involuntary process of being exposed to and internalizing female-sex-specific social experiences. Instead, ‘woman’ now refers to a potentially temporary and/or freely chosen way of interacting with the world. This meaning implies that to be a ‘woman’ is created out of the mere belief that one is a ‘woman’ (identity) and/or created when one appears to others to be in the form of a ‘woman’ (external perception, per-form-ance). Using this meaning of ‘woman,’ a drag queen who passes on Saturday night may be no less a woman than I am in that moment.
When we agree that “trans women are women,” we agree that (1) girlhood and (2) lack of choice about being named and treated as a ‘girl’ from birth are not relevant to the meaning of the term ‘woman;’ these experiential elements are deliberately removed from future communications about ‘women.’ This shift in meaning causes the word ‘woman’ to function differently. It renders it more difficult for feminists to articulate and communicate the mechanics of women’s class-based oppression as an unbroken chain of sex-specific treatment that saturates the social trajectory of our lives with no beginning and no end.
Another excellent example of modifying semantic function can be demonstrated with the term ‘gender.’ Feminists have historically used this word to describe the normative social constructs of masculinity and femininity. For feminists, the word ‘gender’ functions as a reference to sex-based stereotypes whose sole purpose is to maintain a strictly ordered sex-based social hierarchy that systematically values males and masculinity over females and femininity. By contrast, trans*/queer appropriation of the term ‘gender’ divorces the concept from its social origins and, instead, locates ‘gender’ within individual desires. Now, ‘gender’ is private and personal. It is self-defined; it’s fluid and amorphous. It has nothing to do with hierarchical social orders, sex-based social roles, or class-based oppression. ‘Gender’ is simply a fun dress-up game to be celebrated! ‘Gender’ dysphoria is recast as pathology, rather than being understood as a reasonable reaction to oppressive sex-based stereotypes that control the lives of everyone. This shift in meaning causes the word ‘gender’ to function differently by communicating very different—even conflicting— concepts to the listener. Once again, feminists’ ability to communicate the harm caused to ‘women’ by externally enforced sex-based stereotypes that we understand as ‘gender’ is made more difficult.
Feminists should seriously consider how much it matters whether we use particular words to describe our meaning(s) and to analyze female experiences, or whether it’s actually more important that the meaning itself be well-understood even if it requires us to employ additional or different terminology. I understand that it shouldn’t be necessary to have this particular conversation in the first place; our words should never be appropriated to serve other people’s agendas. But if we are intent on communicating our ideas, if we want feminism and feminist analysis to be understood, we may have little choice but to take advantage of alternate semantic forms in order to remain functional and persuasive in the context of political discourse.
Bodies and reproduction
My favorite thing about using a form and function framework for feminist analysis is that it can be leveraged to illuminate many of the problems caused by the flatness of post-modern political ideology.[ii] For example, it can be applied to how we understand female bodies in two separate ways. First, the sexed form of a body dictates that body’s social function, roles, and treatment (that’s social determinism, not biological determinism, thank you). Secondly, how and whether any particular body form physically functions in terms of reproduction is relevant and important to the individual who is housed in that body.
Trans* activists and other people influenced by post-modern ideology often argue that ‘sex’ is reducible to that which is objectively observable (mere form) or less (subjective identity). This view fails to account for social functions as analyzed above in regard to the feminist meanings of ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ Further, the physical functions of the female body, especially in terms of reproduction, are critically important to any conversation about ‘sex,’[iii] yet they are deliberately invisibilized by post-modern analysis.
As illustration, understanding the female experience of having breasts must include more than an analysis of the external social attention that the form of one’s breast receives from others; it must also address the physical experience of having breasts, including the potential and actual function of breasts as sources of biologically engineered nutrition for baby humans. Does that part of our female body function as we need and expect it to? Does it hurt; does it heal; and how does it impact female lives and physical possibilities?
It’s important to account for reproductive processes and functions because they operate regardless of whether ‘sex’ is clearly identifiable from apparent physical form and regardless of whether one socially functions as a ‘woman.’ Analyzing the physical functions of multiple female reproductive processes is necessary to developing feminist theory that fully reflects the conditions and experiences of humans living in female bodies. We must pay attention to the ways in which the female form interacts with both the social and physical functions of female lives.
There are many ways and contexts in which a focus on ‘form’ weakens feminist political analysis and hollows out female lives to that which may be externally observed by non-women, by men. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by one-dimensional representations of women’s realities that fail to account for function. There are surely circumstances under which form is relevant to function, but form should not be seen as more important than function nor become a political substitute for it. Feminists must always keep our eyes on the function ball. We must prepare ourselves to explain why the flat, superficiality of post-modern forms are an inadequate basis on which to rest our understanding of women’s lives and, therefore, an inadequate basis from which to generate functional feminist political analysis.
up [i] Please note that there is, in some cases, there may be a further distinction between form and substance, as differentiated form and function.
Clarke, Jessica A., Adverse Possession of Identity: Radical Theory, Conventional Practice (2005). Oregon Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, 2005. Available for download at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1458068