I haven’t posted a blog post that wasn’t just an image in ages (and this might be how I’ve started a half dozen blog posts in the past), but my friend Nathaniel posted a nice response to this Buzzfeed list of 22 Jokes about Gendering Babies that I thought I’d share and respond to. In short, this list (which is hilarious, btw) shares tweets and other social media posts responding to parents and others who are absolutely obsessed with the gender of their baby. The image I’ve seen circulating the most (and that’s gotten the most responses in my social networks) mocks the idea of “Gender Reveal Parties” (straight people are weird):
In a post that sort of reads like Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter, where she pretty much says, no, no, no, y’all misread Gender Trouble, Nathaniel challenges the “social construct” discourse prevalent in these tweets and posts:
there is a trend across these tweets that troubles me, and that’s the use of the language of “social construct” or “construct” as a kind mic drop moment in debates about gender (and other things beside). Typically, the invocation of “construct” is used as the argument against a concern or interest in gender. That is, people in these tweets typically say things like “gender is a construct” full stop. They generally go no further, as if establishing that gender is a construct is in itself an argument against gender (or an argument against caring about it so much).
He continues to critique this “mic drop” move:
But interestingly enough, in critiquing gender as a construct, opponents partake of the same biological essentialism they are taking issue with. Opponents of gendering babies argue that gender is a construct and so not real, which is to say not grounded biologically. The implication here is only that which is biological is real, and, furthermore only that which is real is good. Gender is a bad concept because it is made up, this mic drop moment suggests.
In short, this sort of discourse, he explains, rests on a realistic epistemology that dismisses anything socially constructed as not real, not valuable, and to be ditched. It’s an essentialist discourse, he argues—one that pretends that there’s a real self that exists before social conditioning that we can discover. Ok, Nathaniel doesn’t quite go that far, but I will. As he suggested, following William Connolly, we shouldn’t make the argument that something is a social construction our conclusion, but rather a starting point in order to make arguments. The problem with these sorts of tweets—if we take them as truth claims—is not solely that they rely on essentialism, but also that they rely on a realist notion of the self outside of norms and power. This was one of Butler’s important points in Bodies That Matter: People misread Gender Trouble believing she was offering a form of agency where we’re free to choose our gender. Gender isn’t something you wake up in the morning and decide to don like a t-shirt. No, it’s much more embodied, not freely chosen. Just because something is a fiction doesn’t make it any less real.
So, if we’re gonna take these posts as truth claims, that would be my response. But I’m not so sure we should take them as truth claims. And Nathaniel admits they’re jokes too, but, as he writes, jokes “have consequences.” What are the consequences of these jokes? I’d say they’re less epistemological (this is truth, this is reality) and more affective—as Nathaniel notes, they’re smug. Perhaps we should be concerned about the “sullen superiority” of these tweets, to quote Mallory Archer. Though they’re not so “sullen”—they’re delightful. And they’re delightful in that they’re ruining (or attempting to ruin) others’ happiness. I’m reminded of Sara Ahmed’s discussion of feminist and queer killjoys in The Promise of Happiness. What marks a killjoy is that they ruin others’ happiness by calling attention to how that happiness is actually structurally dependent upon the domination or oppression of others. And what I absolutely love about these tweets is that they take delight in mocking those who take delight in gendering a baby—as if something that shits itself really cares if the clothing it shits itself in is pink or blue.
I have multiple “favorites” of these posts, but one of those is the Tumblr post that reads:
“you’re too young to know what your sexuality is” said the straight person to a queer teenager
“he’s such a ladies’ man” said the straight person about a 6 month old baby that doesn’t know what a lady is
What this post, and others like it, do is not, I think, stop at the conclusion that gender is a “social construction,” as Nathaniel claims. They go further: That social construction, as it currently plays out, is ridiculous and anti-queer and oppressive. There are multiple enthymemes informing these posts, but among them are that queer epistemologies of gender and sexuality are always questioned, whereas heteronormative ones are always taken as normal and natural. By refiguring babies as punks, dinosaurs, goths, and swarms of wasps, these posts refigure gender as play, rather than biological essentialism. Gender is, after all, delightful and productive in how we can play with gender norms (in addition to how those norms are incredibly harmful). And maybe one delightful way to play with gender is to imagine babies as little monsters—punks, dinosaurs, goths, swarms of wasps—rather than as budding boys and girls.