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Lived Body vs Gender: Reflections on Social Structure and Subjectivity

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Toril Moi has argued that recent deconstructive challenges to the concept of gender and to the viability of the sex/gender distinction have brought feminist and queer theory to a place of increasing theoretical abstraction. She suggests that we should abandon the category of gender once and for all, because it is founded on a nature–culture distinction and it tends incorrigibly to essentialize women's lives. Moi argues that feminist and queer theories should replace the concept of gender with a concept of the lived body derived from existential phenomenology. In this essay I take up and develop this suggestion, and argue that there are several advantages that a category of the lived body has over a category of gender for feminist and queer theories: (1) no nature–culture distinction is necessary but the body can be described as historically and socially specific; (2) it is not necessary to break out a gendered and “raced” part of identity with this category; (3) differences of sexual desire can be described without recourse to an “inner core” of identity or “sexual orientation.” I go on to argue, however, that it is important to retain a concept of gender for a theoretical purpose beyond that which Moi and those she criticizes conceive. In recent years feminist and queer theories have tended to conceive their theorizing as restricted to identity and subjectivity. How large scale social structures differentially position people in relations of privilege and disadvantage has been ignored, relatively. This essay argues then that theorizing structural processes and inequalities is crucial, and that a concept of gender is important for such theorizing. I propose three aspects of gendered social structure that are irreducible to one another: (1) a sexual division of labor (2) normative heterosexuality, and (3) hierarchies of power. In each case I illustrate the social theoretical work these categorizations of gendered structure can and should do.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Chicago

Publication date: 2002-12-01

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