Expanding the feminist movement beyond heteronormativity
With the internet as an amplifier, feminist discussions reach a wide audience. However, many discussions of feminism in these circles of the mainstream only concern straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied women. The discussions around this issue are often called heteronormative.
Heteronormativity is the cultural bias that assumes that being straight is the norm, and prefers heterosexuality over other sexual orientations.
Many gender and sexuality experts claim heteronormativity is applied everywhere, especially in schools. Jane Ward, a gender and sexuality studies professor at UC Riverside, and Beth Schneider, a sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara, claim heteronormativity oppresses youths and encourages low self-esteem and depression among those who identify outside of it.
Kate McCullough, a professor at Cornell University, studies queer and gender theory as applied to American literature. She said the way for feminists to be inclusive is “the more dialogue that happens, the better.”
The most typical response when talking about queer issues and feminism, McCullough said, is “Why are we still talking about that, we’re over that now, aren’t we?”
She also said feminist theory “has been justifiably criticized as being heteronormative, which is to say being implicitly focused on a heterosexual subject.” She said this can often result in being critical of society through a heterosexual point of view.
Colin Danby, an economics professor at University of Washington, points to heteronormativity particularly in feminist economics. In an “Political economy and the closet: heteronormativity in feminist economics,” published by Feminist Economics in 2007, Danby noted that when feminist scholars write about the “family,” it’s often described as a heterosexual cisgender couple as the model for analysis. “These texts assume a social order in which people grow up, get married, and settle down to raise children,” Danby writes.
There is also a fair amount of mainstream feminists who distance themselves from the queer community, in part because of the “man-hating lesbian feminist” stereotype.
Christina Scharff, a lecturer at King’s College with a PhD in gender studies, analyzes this response of feminism through a lens of queer theory, which analyzes society by looking at how it constructs gender and sexuality.
In Young Women’s Negotiations of Heterosexual Conventions: Theorizing Sexuality in Constructions of ‘the Feminist’, a 2010 study published by BSA Sociology, Scharff writes, “Queer theory critically interrogates ‘a priori relationships among sex, gender, and sexuality.’”
Scharff was interested in how the idea of a feminist was constructed. She interviewed 40 women between the ages of 18 and 55 to explore what the image of a feminist is to women. Scharff investigated the reasoning behind three stereotypes of feminists: hating men, being unfeminine and being a lesbian. When asked why the lesbian stereotype came to mind, some women alluded “to a perception of lesbians as somewhat non-human by arguing that “‘they are not looked upon as people.’” In the study, when a woman was describing this phenomenon, she could barely even say the word “lesbian,” because it was such a taboo to her. Scharff found that lesbianism often had “abject-status” in the discussions with these women. This means that in these discussions, lesbians were placed with a negative, unpleasant connotation.
Queer women, and lesbians in particular, are also seen as a threat to “the heteronormative patriarchal order,” according to Scharff and other queer theory scholars. This is the order in which social norms and societal standards are based on a heterosexual family structure, with men being dominant. Women who are not heterosexual do not support this family structure, which threatens to collapse these gender roles altogether. This fear of not being taken seriously because of association causes some feminists to distance themselves from queer women.
Natalya Cowilich is the head of Spectrum, a group at Ithaca College dedicated to discussion of LGBT issues within the community. She said she has encountered feminists who say, “I’m a feminist, but don’t worry, I’m not a lesbian.” Cowilich said this effectively almost puts down the queer community.
When she brings up feminism or queer issues in feminism in conversation, Cowilich said she often encounters people who claim she is being confrontational, but they eventually discover they actually agree. “It’ll just be phrased in a way that will seem conflicting, though we’ll want the same thing,” Cowilich said. This ‘same thing’ is a concept of feminism driven by equality, which means recognizing queer women within the framework of feminism and expanding the movement to include all women, not just white, straight, cisgender women.
Jessica Saideman is a freshman cinema and photography major who is so over feminism that focuses on white, straight, cisgender women. You can email her at [email protected].