Who’s Afraid of Gender Theory?

vintage woman with arms in the air

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Emer O’Toole’s debut ‘Girls Will Be Girls’ for the Irish Independent. What I enjoyed most about the book, aside from O’Toole’s chatty style and unfailing honesty, was the accessible manner in which she weaves gender, performance and sociological theory with personal experience to illuminate the ways binary gender limits our lives.

I’ll admit: ‘gender theory’ and ‘accessible’ are words not often featured in the same sentence, unless the sentence also contains an expletive and a frustrated looking emoji.  As someone who has lectured in the field and who knows on a personal and intellectual level how transformative such knowledge can be, one thing I still grapple with is the perception that these ideas are too difficult, too navel-gazing, to serve any useful purpose outside academia.

This perception is not new and it is certainly not helped by the style of some academic writing, which can reduce even the most hardened scholars to slack-jawed befuddlement. Having said that, I find that so much of the gender theory I’ve been exposed to, both inside and outside  university, actively informs my activism and my feminist identity in an empowering way. Most importantly it equips me with the political weapons – to steal a term from Laura Mulvey – I need to navigate a hostile society that would much rather I just sit down and shut up.

Academic writing styles aside for a moment, lets consider the idea that gender theory/feminist research is removed from the real world. In fact, a hallmark of this kind of research is often an appreciation for the lived experience of subjects, that is the practise of acknowledging and respecting the humanity of those you are studying. The insights of Kimberle Crenshaw, Judith Butler and Laura Mulvey – just as an example – are all drawn from the real world. Crenshaw writes about women struggling to access domestic violence shelters in California, whose lives and choices are shaped by intersecting inequalities. Butler talks about the violence and hate directed at bodies and desires which fall outside the ‘norm’, while Mulvey looks at the treatment of women by one of the West’s most powerful cultural institutions, Hollywood cinema. The language used may be clunky, the theoretical lens complex, but the motivations are rooted entirely in the real.

The development of new knowledge, research methods, and models of critical reading have long been central to the feminist project, plotting a course towards liberated societies and challenging the patriarchal hegemony that has silenced women for centuries. It’s a mammoth job, an imperfect job but a vital one and much work remains to be done. Hell yes academic writing can be stale and obtuse but not all feminist/gender researchers write in that manner (hurrah!) and for those who do, there are excellent resources that break their ideas down in fun and informative ways, like this.

Thanks to the internet and to books like O’Toole’s there have never been more resources available to help feminists of all eras and stripes get to grips with whatever strand of theory appeals to them. While the latest papers are often pay-walled many of the key texts from second wave and third wave are just a Google search away. No one needs an MA in Gender Studies to appreciate powerful ideas clearly explained or to use them. Yes, it takes time to read and research this stuff. Not everyone can can find that time or access the internet freely while struggling to feed themselves and meet the responsibilities of a daily grind. However, if you can, it’s a solid investment in yourself and in your feminist belief system. In the end, knowledge is power and us feminist gals need all the power we can get.