Form and function

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.

Woman

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.

Gender

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.

Additional application

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.

up [ii] Thanks to Kathy Miriam for this related analysis:

http://kmiriam.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/one-dimensional-feminism-and-the-election-of-2008/

up [iii] This is what I’m trying to get at here:

https://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/what-is-sex/

FURTHER READING:

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

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21 thoughts on “Form and function

  1. ‎”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.” – this was my favorite part! that last sentence was especially brilliantly composed. the whole thing was very eloquent & clearly written. and so very necessary at this moment.

    We need to disengage/release ourselves from the tangled web of words that trans have woven around our feminism.

  2. Thank you, genderslayer.

    We need to disengage/release ourselves from the tangled web of words that trans have woven around our feminism.

    EXACTLY. I think that should be the thesis sentence of the words/meanings analysis!

    It’s a very meta post, but ultimately, we MUST evaluate the wisdom of allowing emotional attachments (to forms) to distract us from what is truly at stake for women in political communication. I think the ‘foreign’ language analogy is particularly apt: ‘woman’ doesn’t mean anything in french; they have other words to describe THE SAME THING. For example, the internet tells me:

    You should use “femme” if you’re talking about a woman, but “femelle” if you’re talking about an animal. Don’t use femelle to talk about a woman, it would be extremely rude.

    Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_a_french_word_for_female#ixzz20nQQMcMe

    We do not have such a conceptual distinction in English. But we probably should.

    Italian Words for woman: donna, morta, signora

    Parsing translations could go on all day, into the night, and into next year. Fortunately for everyone reading this comment, I still struggle with the English language, so we’ll stop there.

    The problem with saying that “trans women are women” is BECAUSE of what it *specifically* negates from our traditional understanding of the meaning of the word ‘woman.’ Relying on sentimentalism and “the principle” of the matter are not sufficient political justifications for taking a purist position regarding terminology. We must keep our eye on WHAT is lost by appropriation and WHY we can’t lose it.

    Conversely, to say that “trans men are men” does not implicate similar political challenges because men are not systematically oppressed on the basis of BEING “men” from birth. The experience of boyhood is not inherently and universally oppressive because boys are the superior ‘gender,’ not the devalued one. It is not a political imperative for men/boys to be able to articulate the negative experiences and consequences of their sex-specific childhood social treatment in order to communicate and validate the class-based oppression that permeates their lives. THAT problem is unique to women-born-women. We need to step up our game.

  3. Excellent post, my favourite bits:
    Instead, ‘woman’ now refers to a potentially temporary and/or freely chosen way of interacting with the world.
    and
    By contrast, trans*/queer mis-use 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!

    On those two, you nailed exactly the current crisis.

    However, we (feminists/women) are always in a state of being on the defensive in such matters (he who has the power, controls the discourse/words). And the other key problem, is that the (mis-) appropriation of the words is extremely deliberate, in order that we have to reclaim ground to clarify the meanings of what should be straightforward terms.

    Patriarchy appropriates everything from females – women’s work, women’s works, women’s words – precisely to devalue them, invisibilise them. Which should give everyone the clue as to which side transgender and genderqueer are on, considering their fairly successful appropriation of our words. And the handmaidens are totally clueless that they are helping in their own demise and erasure.

  4. More homework for readers:

    The Flesh and the Feminine

    De Beauvoir argues that as a girl’s bodily development occurs, each new stage is experienced as traumatic and demarcates her more and more sharply from the opposite sex. As the girl ’s body matures, society reacts in an increasingly hostile and threatening manner. De Beauvoir talks about the process of ‘becoming flesh’, which is the process whereby one comes to experience oneself as a sexual, bodily being exposed to another ’s gaze. This does not have to be a bad thing; but unfortunately, young girls are often forced to become flesh against their will:

    “The young girl feels that her body is getting away from her… on the street men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh” (p333).

    There are many more such events in a growing girl’s life which reinforce the belief that it is bad luck to be born with a female body. The female body is such a nuisance, a pain, an embarrassment, a problem to deal with, ugly, awkward, and so on. Even if a girl tries to forget that she has a female body, society will soon remind her. De Beauvoir gives several examples of this: the mother who frequently criticises her daughter ’s body and posture, thus making her feel self-conscious; the ‘man on the street’ who makes a sexual comment about a young girl’s body, making her feel ashamed; and a girl’s embarrassment as male relatives make jokes about her menstruation.
    http://philosophynow.org/issues/69/Becoming_A_Woman_Simone_de_Beauvoir_on_Female_Embodiment

    One Is Not Born a Woman
    Monique Wittig
    DOWNLOAD AT:
    http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CFcQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fecmd.nju.edu.cn%2FUploadFile%2F17%2F8012%2Fbornwoman.doc&ei=X60GULyJIIOS9gSHvZDZBw&usg=AFQjCNH9PukjmOhD1SDqeqeHxPhdCg45nw&sig2=x1opG6ew2ZEDxx66QG1e-w

    Are Lesbians Women?
    Jacob Hale [trans man alert!!]
    Hypatia
    Vol. 11, No. 2 (Spring, 1996), pp. 94-121
    DOWNLOAD AT:
    http://www.analogfeminism.net/Are_Lesbians_Women_-_Hale.pdf

    That should keep you busy for a while.

  5. I liked this bit in the article about de Beauvoir:

    The intertwinedness of body and mind helps explain women’s oppression. Women do not choose to think about their bodies and bodily processes negatively; rather they are forced to do so as a result of being embedded in a hostile patriarchal society.

  6. ‎”Women are a *Sex*. Women are a separate group due to their biological distinctiveness. The merit of using the term is that it clearly defines women, not as a subgroup or a minority group, but as half of the whole. Men are the only other sex. Here we are not referring to sexual activity, but to a biological given. Persons belonging to either sex are capable and can be grouped according to a broader variety of sexual preferences and activities.

    *Gender* is the cultural definition of behavior defined as appropriate to the sexes in a given society at a given time. Gender is a set of cultural roles. It is a costume, a mask, a straitjacket in which men and women dance their unequal dance. Unfortunately, the term is used both in academic discourse and in the media as interchangeable with ‘sex.’ In fact, its widespread public use probably is due to it sounding a bit more ‘refined’ than the plain word ‘sex’ with its ‘nasty’ connotations. Such usage is unfortunate, because it hides and mystifies the difference between the biological given–sex –and the culturally created–gender. Feminists above all others should want to point up that difference and should therefore be careful to use the appropriate words.” — Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 238.”

  7. That was the stuff that informed the “second wave”. I hadn’t read her, but many of the feminists that I met had. That analysis is now considered “advanced”, but only because those basic principles were thrown over in favour of something that was an easier sell. That was the fuel in the tank that fed the revolutionary combustion of women in 1970. 😀

  8. It’s “ADVANCED” because emotional and sentimental attachments to forms continue to act as intellectual barriers to developing analysis that more finely articulates the mechanics of female oppression. It’s quite frustrating, actually.

  9. Unfortunately, the term is used both in academic discourse and in the media as interchangeable with ‘sex.’ In fact, its widespread public use probably is due to it sounding a bit more ‘refined’ than the plain word ‘sex’ with its ‘nasty’ connotations.

    The problem was ‘sex’ was a noun and a verb, and it was the bonking verb that should have been changed. I guess the bonking verb usage probably started from ‘sexual intercourse’ or ‘sexual reproduction’ and got really shortened – so the bonking verb was really the interloper here, causing at least some of the problems we have now.

    Strange, but the ‘gender’ stand-in for biological sex has not really taken off for animals, that is still ‘sex’. I think I would laugh in the face of any vet that asked me what the ‘gender’ of my cat was.

  10. GINSBURG. Though I don’t blame her. I’m sure she never DREAMED that we would be dealing with this magnitude of PHYSICAL and FUNCTIONAL denial.

    The distinction between sex and gender is not currently part of American employment law.32 Although courts use the two terms interchangeably in Title VII jurisprudence,33 I differentiate them in this Comment to simplify the discussion of the diversity of sexual minorities. Interestingly, the person most responsible for this synonymity is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When she was the premier litigator of sex discrimination cases, Justice Ginsburg chose to use the phrase “gender discrimination” to avoid the prurient associations of the word “sex.”34

    https://kindle.amazon.com/post/37I5PH4PQNQOX

    From this law review article:
    Mark E. Berghausen, Intersex Employment Discrimination: Title VII and Anatomical Sex Nonconformity, 105 Nw. L. Rev. 1281 (2011).
    DOWNLOAD AT:
    http://www.law.northwestern.edu/lawreview/v105/n3/1281/LR105n3Berghausen.pdf

  11. According to definitions proposed by the Institute of Medicine (23), “sex” is a biological construct dictated by the presence of sex chromosomes, and in animals and humans the presence of functional reproductive organs. “Gender” is a cultural construct and refers to behaviors which might be directed by specific stimuli (visual, olfactory, etc) or by psychosocial expectations that result from assigned or perceived sex.

    In pursuit of scientific excellence – sex matters, by Virginia M. Miller. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol, published ahead of print February 10, 2012, doi: 10.1152/ajpheart.00073.2012.

  12. This discussion of language and the effects on women’s lives is excellent, thank you, ehungerford.

    That recent comment on Ginsburg is interesting, too. It’s not clear who ascribed that reason for Ginsburg’s choice of words. But it is important to remember that every woman who has to confront sex discrimination at that level has had to enter the very painful territory of realization that women are targets simply because of their biology. And the realization must include the conclusion — and full knowledge for oneself — that there is nothing women can do — or not do — to escape that reality.

    This flies violently in the face of the hope women have always harbored that they will be able to *do* something or *be* something that will enable freedom from the various assaults on women realizing and living their full humanity. Saying “gender discrimination” leaves some hope intact that it is merely how we are positioned that keeps us from that full status. Saying “sex discrimination” as a legal description is to take the blow fully in the face, knowing that one’s life and one’s hope and one’s belief in oneself will never be the same.

    Imagine thinking through the outcome for women of basing a legal argument on a word so fraught for women.

    What’s more, for a legal scholar to take such a position would be to invite endless targeting for daring to lay the issue bare. “Gender” is such an obfuscating word — as we now see — and is protection from having to take a stand in the same halls of public shame with Dworkin and MacKinnon. Ginsburg, of anyone, would be acutely aware of that reality.

  13. Hahaha, it’s a legal nerd story, naturally. 😉

    Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg brought gales of laughter at her old law school Friday when she explained why she started using the term gender discrimination instead of sex discrimination.

    “I owe it all to my secretary at Columbia Law School, who said, ‘I’m typing all these briefs and articles for you and the word sex, sex, sex is on every page,’ ” Ginsburg said.

    “Don’t you know that those nine men (on the Supreme Court)–they hear that word, and their first association is not the way you want them to be thinking? Why don’t you use the word gender? It is a grammatical term and it will ward off distracting associations.’ “

    http://articles.latimes.com/1993-11-21/news/mn-59217_1_supreme-court

    Once again, women must cater to men and male perspectives. Now we’re getting screwed in the process. But I don’t think Ginsburg could’ve foreseen that…

  14. Thank you for this thought provoking piece. Apologies in advance for bringing up a dudely reference but you’ve reminded me of George Lakoff’s book ‘Don’t Think Of An Elephant: know your values and frame the debate’ that I read back in my leftie days. In there he talks about how the right in the US has systematically worked to frame the terms of politics and suggests strategies for ‘progressives’ to claw back some ground through reframing using the same linguistic strategies that the right have so effectively deployed over the entire post war period. I’ve sworn off reading dudes for a while but may revisit that book soon in light of the issues you’ve raised here.

  15. hagocrat, I’ve heard great things about that book from my liberal leftie friends. 😉 (It’s not marriage, it’s GAY marriage.) Thanks for referencing it.

  16. I like everything, thanks! 😀 But think I’m gonna save this sentence, because it’s so perfect:

    ‘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.

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