The Biopolitics of Gender

Watch this easily digestible review of Foucault (about 8 minutes).

The gist: Foucault says institutions which we deem “progressive” may instead be, at best, different shades of the same violent and oppressive practices of the past or, at worst, mask even more horrific behaviors under the guise of civility or kindness. So, that’s inspiring.

Then skim this Wikipedia summary of biopower.

The gist:

  1. We no longer have a king telling us what to do; we are controlled by invisible, decentralized, “rational” institutions.
  2. Unlike a tyrant king threatening us with death, these decentralized institutions control us by regulating life.

Read: the government and the bank decide who lives, who dies, and who gets to reproduce using “rational” means (like science and medicine).

EXAMPLE: When the criminalization of abortion is thwarted in court, bureaucrats can instead lobby for the extreme medical regulation of clinics that perform abortions, thus achieving the same outcome under the guise of a rational legal system invested in prolonging life (for capital gain). Then it becomes law and we all have to deal with it. And those at the bottom of the economic ladder get dealt the shittiest hand. Tricksy. This is biopolitics.

Then read the Introduction and/or Chapter 6 of Jemima Repo’s The Biopolitics of Gender.

Repo’s work builds directly upon Foucault’s by tracing “the genealogy of gender.” The whole book is basically one long keyword presentation.

 Her main argument is that the idea of gender performativity did not arise from radical feminist theories; rather it was developed by doctors and psychologists to classify and thus control instances of gender non-conformity. Therefore, Repo asks us to think critically about how we engage in gender discourse, given this shady origin. Keep in mind that Repo is not challenging the concept of gender performativity nor is she advocating for essentialist feminism; rather, she is pointing out, as Foucault did, that when you define a concept (like sexuality or gender), it opens the door for that concept to be used, misused, disciplined, and punished in ways you perhaps did not intend.

If you lack the patience for theory-language, this LSE Book Review gives an excellent breakdown of the two chapters most relevant to our reading.

Then think about ways to apply it.

  • How do some of the works we’ve read participate in this kind of “classify and control” discourse? Do they present us with “liberated” characters only to reinforce (intentionally or unconsciously) the need for control over female or non-binary bodies?
  • How do some of the works we’ve read undermine or manipulate this “classify and control” discourse? Do authors or narrators ever refuse to define the behavior of their characters and/or their queer subtexts, and thus leave them free from biopolitical control? Is that even possible??? (real question–I don’t know)
  • How do politics and economy come into play? Science and medicine? Think big –how might the works we’ve read be part of a larger “genealogy” or origin story that represses or liberates female and non-binary bodies?