When it comes to gender, there are many big questions that people often get stuck on. On this episode of “What X?," Justin E. H. Smith asks Robin Dembroff, a professor of feminist and LGBTQ philosophy at Yale, to help untangle them. Justin and Robin start off by disambiguating sex and gender, with some help from the philosophical vocabulary of essence and telos. Gender, Robin argues, is the entire process of defining, classifying, and regulating people according not only to their body parts but on the basis of ideas of maleness and masculinity, and femaleness and femininity. The result: a set of norms and expectations that guide the direction of one’s life—and whose enforcement makes us miserable. If this is true, can any of these labels be salient identifications without limiting us? And if not, can we even imagine a life without gender?
And a special note from the host on Season 2: “I realized over the course of Season 1 that I'm not nearly as convincing a Socrates-figure as I had imagined. But this may be another way of saying I'm a better conversationalist than I thought myself to be. I find I generally agree with people, at least during the time I'm speaking with them, while afterwards their spell begins slowly to wear off and I recall all the more enduring commitments I have that are in fact in tension with all the things I was nodding along to just a short time before. This might seem contradictory, hypocritical even, to some who position themselves in the world as polemicists or fighters for some particular cause. But everyone believes what they believe for what at least they take to be good reasons, and it's worth learning what those are. Part of that learning is the effort we undertake in conversation to put ourselves in their position, and to see what things look like when we agree with them. So, while this podcast still strives toward a determination of Agreement (marked by the sound of bells), Disagreement (goat’s bleat), or Aporia (wind), the goat has turned out to be a rare character on this show. I make no apologies for that.”
Justin E.H. Smith [00:18]
Hello, and welcome to What Is X? with your regular host, Justin E. H. Smith. This is a podcast for The Point magazine. As regular listeners will know, on every episode we examine some X, where the variable is filled in by a particularly difficult concept, often but not always a concept of interest to philosophers. And we discuss the concept somewhat in the manner of Socrates and his interlocutors. And eventually by the end of the discussion, we try to determine whether we are in agreement, disagreement, or aporia. So today, my guest is Robin Dembroff. They are assistant professor of philosophy at Yale University, and they have a forthcoming book with Oxford University Press, probably done this summer, called Real Men On Top: How Patriarchy Weaponizes Gender. So you might have already guessed what X we're talking today—the X is gender. What is gender? So welcome, Robin.
Robin Dembroff [01:39]
Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.
Justin E.H. Smith [01:41]
So, it's difficult to know how to get started, how to work our way towards a definition. Maybe one of the best ways to start is by disambiguation, right, and to talk about some related notions that are perhaps partially overlapping, and perhaps often conflated with gender. And I think you might know the top of the list of these, it's sex, the difference between sex and gender. Many listeners will probably be familiar with the line of someone like Simone de Beauvoir, who tried to argue that there is an underlying fact about biological bodies of many animal species called sex, and then culture is what permits gender to supervene over that. Now that's been critiqued in various ways we might get into later on today. But do you think that's a good starting point? Do you think that's a viable distinction? And if not, why not?
Robin Dembroff [02:51]
Yeah, I'm happy to start there. So I actually think that the relationship between sex and gender is to start with another disambiguation, which is a disambiguation between body parts, or categories of body parts, and particularly reproductive body parts. And what I would call sex you might want to call social sex, which is the categories that we use to define people and regulate people as men and as women. The common terms for that are male and female. And the reason I think it's very important to disambiguate between those is because definitions of what it is to be male or female, and therefore a man or woman, have not been stable, those change over time, and they change over contexts. So people who have the same body across time and across contexts might be categorized as male in some contexts, and female in others, or in many cases of intersex people, not be able to be categorized at all. And that doesn't mean that they don't have body parts, right. So once we distinguish between those things, how I would understand the relationship between those three things, then, is that gender is the social process of defining and regulating bodies on the basis of their body parts, or what you might call biological sex. And part of that definition and regulation is defining them as male and female, which is the social sex that then gives rise to these social categories on the basis of which people can be regulated.
Justin E.H. Smith [04:15]
Mm. Gender is the social regulation of bodies in a way that maps on to, but only partially maps on to, biological sex.
Robin Dembroff [04:29]
It maps on to it in the sense that in the perception and interpretation of the physical body—at birth, usually, or now before, with new technology—is the thing that guides the social sex classification. That is a social classification—that means that you're going to have certain sets of norms and expectations placed onto you rather than another set, and they kind of guide the direction of your life as a social being.
Justin E.H. Smith [04:55]
Would there be a way, is there a conceivable way in any society, for sex to be salient in the way people are identified, but that doesn't limit their possibilities in society in any way?
Robin Dembroff [05:14]
Where by sex there you mean something like the perception of their reproductive capacity? Or what do you mean by that?
Justin E.H. Smith [05:20]
I guess, yeah, here we're already getting stuck, right. And maybe if I try to rewind a bit, I'm getting stuck because I'm trying to respect your usages. And I'm still a bit stumped by social sex. You've distinguished between sex, social sex, and gender. And I'm still a little bit confused about social sex. Right? Because it sounds like what I would call gender.
Robin Dembroff [05:47]
Yeah, so the reason I think that sex is different than gender is because in even the social sex, social sex is different than gender. Can I use the language of like essence and telos, do you want me to explain those?
Justin E.H. Smith [06:00]
Absolutely. I love those. You might want to explain them for for other people, though. Yeah.
Robin Dembroff [06:06]
Yeah, totally. Okay. So the essence of something is the thing that we understand to make that thing what it is. If you have the essence of a dog, you're a dog, it's the thing that makes you a member of a category. The telos is our ideas about what the category is for, or what the members of the category ought to do. I think of social sex as the essence understood in the social sense. It is the social essence of manhood and womanhood, and masculinity and femininity as the telos of those people who belong into those categories. So you have maleness aiming towards masculinity, and maleness is the thing that makes you a man, and similarly for female and femininity and womanhood. So that's why I think—I think of gender as that entire process of classifying and regulating people on the basis of ideas of maleness and masculinity and femaleness and femininity, of which social sex is a part, but it is not the whole.
Justin E.H. Smith [06:56]
That makes sense. That makes sense to me. And I think I can proceed using your distinctions. Is this something that is new in your work, this usage of social sex?
Robin Dembroff [07:10]
You know, I actually haven't used the term social sex in my work. What I usually do is I just talk about body parts versus male and female, or body parts versus maleness and femaleness. Just to make it clear that the relationship between the two is not one-to-one, nor is it stable. There's this differentiation between those things. But I think that what I am bringing to the table in a lot of my work is making these distinctions in a particularly clear way that is characteristic of analytic philosophy, and also trying to do so in a way that is very much devoid of technical terms, or shibboleths of academia.
Justin E.H. Smith [07:51]
I want to ask you something that might be a typical, like, bingo-card question. In the sense that like, Oh, here comes this question again. But I think it's nonetheless one that remains important for me, as I think about the philosophy of gender. And that is, let's say, our broader phylogenetic neighborhood, right? When we look at whale pods, or elephant families, and we're just observing them as scientists, I think it's pretty normal to pick them out according to the distinction between male and female, and to talk about their social roles accordingly. And so one question is: Are we mistaken? Or is this story actually more complicated for animal ecologists than they generally realize? Or is there something about human beings that adds layers of complexity that we don't need to worry about when we're casually talking about other species as if they were just straightforwardly sexually dimorphic and their social roles flowed from that? Right? Do you get this question a lot?
Robin Dembroff [09:22]
Yes, in various forms, but it's a great question. It's an important question, because I think it's where a lot of people get stuck. A lot of people are like, there's like my dog, it's male or it's female, right? So what are you telling me?
Justin E.H. Smith [09:36]
And I confess, I get stuck here, and I'd love to be unstuck. I'd love for you to shovel me out here.
Robin Dembroff [09:45]
I think that one really important distinction between biologists and zoologists' classification of animals and their attempts to describe their social roles and so on, is that when humans do that to each other, there's normativity and enforcement. There's policing, there's retribution, there's marginalization. So these are not merely categories that are just descriptive categories of reproductive traits that we understand to correlate with certain kinds of social activity. Very far from that—these are categories that do the first thing, but for the purpose of creating a very stringent and thick and rigid set of social norms, and the enforcement of those norms, that creates massive suffering, for everyone, including the people that it materially privileges,
Justin E.H. Smith [10:30]
Be that as it may, and we can agree on that, and yet, we want to preserve the possibility of some kind of analysis of what human beings are up to that is analogous to the way we observe elephants—sometimes, right? Don't we so that, for example, if we are trying to be good participant-observers at a peasant wedding in, uh, rural Tajikistan, and we're surrounded by people who take the gender binary for granted as if it were written into the cosmic order of things, we're going to want to default, aren't we, to language that says: the males over there doing that, and the females over there doing that, right, for the following reasons, in the same way that we talked about allo parenting by grandmother elephants or something like that? You see what I'm saying?
Robin Dembroff [11:45]
So I think, though, there's an important difference between describing the scene from within the ideology of the people who are a part of that scene and describing it from the outside. So if you're describing it from the outside, you're doing what I do, right? That's what I'm doing all the time. When I describe patriarchy, what I'm trying to describe is gender as practiced to apply to people who are in that culture in our society, and that's very different than taking like a zoologist's perspective on patterns of behavior. What I'm doing is similar to that in that sense, but that's very different than being within that system, and thinking that that's the reality.
Justin E.H. Smith [12:24]
Would you describe your work—I think I've seen this phrase used in connection with or perhaps also by Kate Manne—as ameliorative analysis? Does that appeal to you? You're trying to analyze what categories are, but you're also kind of expecting that through this analysis, it might make some small contribution to the changing of categories.
Robin Dembroff [12:54]
So I'm going to start actually, I'm going to pull a philosopher move and kind of back up before answering that question, because I think the term "amelioration" and the idea of the ameliorative project has, unfortunately, become a politically divisive one in philosophy when it doesn't need to be and don't think it should be. So the thing that I would say is, I think that there are certain phenomena in the world that I am particularly interested in explaining. And in particular, I'm interested in explaining the phenomenon of people being miserable because of gender. Like, that's the thing that I want to explain. And I think that, given those purposes, that explanation can be really politically fruitful. If we can help explain why this is happening, then it helps us do something about it. And so that is the sense in which my theory is ameliorative. But it's trying to help us do something by better explaining a particular phenomenon in the world. But it's not like I'm just trying to, like, from the armchair, just be like, Well, I have this purpose, so what kind of concept can I just like gerrymander together that seems like it would help us serve that purpose? Like, it requires the hard work of actually detailing what the thing is you're trying to explain, and how to explain it, how to create helpful conceptual tools, or hermeneutical tools, for understanding what that thing is and why it happens. And that's not different than what not only other philosophers do, but all fields, that's what they do in the sciences all the time, right? Like this isn't something that's unique to metaphysics, much less the metaphysics of gender.
Justin E.H. Smith [14:26]
Imagine a hundred years from now, like, forget about all the really terrifying things like climate change and nuclear proliferation and economic collapse and stuff like that. Just focus on gender, right? Say things go your way and people are not miserable. What does the world look like exactly?
Robin Dembroff [14:49]
You know, I get asked this question a lot, and I used to try to answer it. And then I realized that the thing is that when you live in a society that is so steeped in these ideas, and they so deeply color our perception of other people, right? Like I log on to this call, immediately my brain is automatically categorizing you, as a man who has a certain age range, I already come to expect certain kinds of behaviors from you...
Justin E.H. Smith [15:15]
There's a bingo card!
Robin Dembroff [15:18]
All these things. And because of that, I don't think it's possible for me to access what it would be like to be in a human society that didn't have that automatic way of coloring other people. I do know that when I talk to, like, twenty-year-olds about gender versus when I talk to like seventy-year-olds about gender, there's so much more of a sense of freedom, and a disinterest in policing other people's expression and things like that, that I think is indicative of the direction it would go. But I can't imagine myself into it.
Justin E.H. Smith [15:58]
Right. But can we imagine, even in principle, forgetting about gender—I like to sometimes think about age as a kind of parallel class, right? We sniff each other out by age, and have all sorts of reactions on the basis of that all the time. And, you know, in a way, there's massive discrimination there that is so built into the way society works, that we don't even think about doing anything about it, right? Like, I'm too old to go to a nightclub. I'm definitely too old to go to a playground [laughter], you know, all sorts of things I'm not allowed to do, right, because people are sniffing it out. I mean, people are getting an immediate visceral reading of what my place in the world is. Now, with respect to age, all I can say is: eh, that's life. That's how it goes. I mean, that's just the way I'm gonna have to deal with things from here on out. I hate it. It's a drag. But yeah, that's how it is. So presumably, there are reasons why we should resist, in some cases, just saying, Ah, that's life, while in other cases, that's all we can do. Right? What is it about what gender does to us that makes us miserable that is different from age in this regard?
Robin Dembroff [17:36]
So the first thing I'll say is I don't think it's different than age, because I think that age is part of gender, and vice versa, right. So like older women, in particular, there's lots of conversations around the way that aging as a woman is incredibly difficult in our society, because it challenges the idea of what you ought to look like as a woman. And this kind of gets to something that's very central to my work, which is that, in my view, things like gender and race and those sorts of things are like a gestalt shift for looking at the same thing, which is a society's ideal of what the human ought to be, and the expectation that you ought to look like that. And we can look at that thing through the lens of gender and say, Okay, well, you're supposed to be a woman, this kind of woman or this kind of man. What do they look like? They're white, they're poor, they don't have intellectual disabilities. You can also use a different lens and say, Oh, they're supposed to be white. Okay, what else are they supposed to be like? Well, they're supposed to be either like this kind of [inaudible], you know. So you get to the same picture, kind of no matter which aspect of the thing you emphasize. So I think that when you're talking about like, age discrimination, I think that's a great place for people to, you know, if the listener hasn't thought a lot about gender discrimination, a lot of us, I think, have thought about age discrimination, if only because we've had the experience of being children.
Justin E.H. Smith [18:51]
Robin Dembroff [18:51]
The experience of being frustrated at our own powerlessness and our inability to express ourselves and make choices in our own lives in the ways that we want to. And so that's a good entry point for thinking about the way that these kinds of paradigms of what the human ought to be—which I think, in our society, there are two: there's like the real man and the real woman, you have to be one or the other, you're supposed to be one or the other. That's a great way for thinking about the way that that's going to negatively impact everyone. And I mean everyone, because no one actually is the paradigm. There's no one that is the real man or the real woman, right? If only because the standards for what you have to be like in order to be that thing are not only constantly shifting, they're also contested, and they're also hugely gerrymandered. Like, if you have a penis, you're not supposed to like pina coladas. What? Like, how do those two things go together? And no one's gonna be this ideal. And then just everyone ends up beating themselves up all the time.
Justin E.H. Smith [19:51]
Robin Dembroff [19:51]
That's what I see in so many of my talks.
Justin E.H. Smith [19:53]
I really like that expression gerrymandered in this connection, that really does fit. But I mean in a sense, here it's gerrymandered sets of expectations for the human species divided into two. But in fact, wherever you have a division, wherever you have a community, a particular fashion or musical subculture, a particular career, you also have all sorts of weird gerrymandered expectations, like all the lines of work I could never go into, because I don't want to play golf. Even though I don't see the intrinsic connection between that work and golf, right. And so, you know, maybe gender is just the most general level of that kind of arbitrary congeries of expectations, right. Is that fair?
Robin Dembroff [20:55]
Yeah, I mean, I don't know if it is the most basic one. I don't know if there is... So in terms of how I think about this, I think that there are features of people that correspond to patterns of systemic advantage and disadvantage. And what exact features those are, are going to differ across place and time. But I think reproductive features have been a very stable thing that tracks certain kinds of patterns. And then once you complicate that, and you start looking at those features plus melanin, plus your intellectual capacity, then the patterns get more complicated, right? You can abstract away from these very complex social patterns by focusing on different features rather than others, or different combinations of them, and so on. So I think that gender is very fundamental in that sense, that it does a lot of explanatory work in how people are regulated.
Justin E.H. Smith [21:45]
Yeah, yeah. Let's go back for a second to the rural wedding in Tajikistan, where people are just fully into the cosmological significance of the gender divide, and like, they just take it hook line and sinker. Part of this is because for them, like I think for most people in most places and times, reproductive roles are important for the maintenance of society. So it's hard to blame these people for putting reproduction front and center as a social value. And reproduction then does in most of these, in traditional societies, have something to do with the different biology of different members of that society, right. So to break with that is a break with the way human beings have operated up until now. Right? And it's a big break, wouldn't you say?
Robin Dembroff [22:54]
I don't think I'm advocating for that kind of break, though, because what I'm advocating for a break from is the enforcing and policing of those categories according to that value. I think reproduction is valuable. I think people having kids is great, I love kids, I have a kid, they're over there watching their iPad right now. [laughter] But what becomes different is when people value it in a way that causes them to enforce it, and force people into certain kinds of roles. And obviously, gender is much more complicated to them being forced into a certain reproductive role, what they're being forced to do is the gerrymandered set, right, all sorts of things that are much more complicated. And I want to acknowledge too, you said, like, they believe the gender binary is I can't remember the exact words, but something about, like cosmological significance—
Justin E.H. Smith [23:43]
Written into the order of things, yeah.
Robin Dembroff [23:44]
Yeah. And I, you know what, I also wanted to say that I think that there is something that is deeply true about the yin and yang, about the balance of masculine and feminine energies—what I don't think is true is that we should expect those energies to appear into only two kinds of bodies, not all bodies, only one of those two kind of bodies, and then we get to make sure that those people have to interact in certain ways, and only wear certain clothes and like all these other things. One of the beautiful things for me about being nonbinary is the freedom to know that there are both of those things within me—I have the masculine energies, I have the feminine energies, and I don't need to try to like, push away part of myself, because I've been told that, and everyone is telling me, that if I don't perform a certain kind of energy, then I'm failing as a human in some sort of fundamental way.
Justin E.H. Smith [24:36]
Maybe this is—I want to stick to the conceptual level and not to, let's say, current trends or the Discourse with a capital D. But some people have worried or maybe pretended to worry that there's a, if not an incoherence, at least a tension between what might be described as a sort of strategic essentialism about trans identity, so that you have lines like, "A trans woman is a woman full stop," right, as if to say there's no respect in which a trans woman differs from a cis woman, right? Or at least the full stop is so much as to suggest you're not in a position to address those other respects. But then the further layer of nonbinary identity makes it difficult to hold on to that strategic essentialism about trans women and trans men, because in fact, there are a whole other bunch of people whose very identity as expressed, and as I think you've just expressed it, is not definable in terms of man or woman, right? So how do you harmonize the simultaneous expectation of an essentialism with respect to the womanhood of trans women and a more fluid and flexible understanding of gender with respect to nonbinary people? Do you see a tension?
Robin Dembroff [26:33
So let me first say, I think that the term "strategic essentialism" should be unpacked a little bit.
Justin E.H. Smith [26:39]
Robin Dembroff [26:39]
Because the way strategic essentialism was intended by Spivak in that work, and as it's been picked up in feminist work, is the idea that—this kind of goes back what I was saying earlier—about you having a certain political purpose that calls you to explain a certain phenomenon or to create certain solidarity within a group. And then you come up with concepts that help you pick out that thing or explain that thing that helps us create that unity for doing that political work. And that's different than saying that someone has a gender essence in the sense that like, it's an essence of you, or it's essential to you that you are that thing. So I don't think there is a tension, actually, between that kind of strategic essentialism as a methodological tool of guiding our theory and there being nonbinary people, or genderfluid people, genderqueer people, etc. I am allergic to fundamentalism, of every stripe, so if someone said, "Trans women are women full stop," I would say, "No, I don't even think cis women are women full stop." Like, gender is so complicated, there's a sense in which there are women and men, and there's a sense in which there isn't, which is: fundamentally, we're just humans with body parts, categorized in certain ways. So I don't go in for any of those kinds of like, "this is how it is and that's the end of things." I grew up in a very fundamentalist, evangelical, rural homeschool—you know, just like, my allergy to fundamentalism was ingrained in me at a very young age. And I bring that with me, my loss of faith. I think one of the mistakes that people often make, and when they talk about things like womanhood, or manhood, and especially in the philosophical literature, is they think that to give an account of "woman" is to lay out the boundaries of that concept. It's to give if and only ifs, right, and there's a different way of thinking about it, which is that to give an account of these concepts is not to lay out its boundaries, it's to describe the phenomenon at its core, it's to derive the thing at its center. And I think that when we think about womanhood that way, yes, that thing at its center, that kind of like cultural paradigm of a woman, is someone who has XX chromosomes and female reproductive parts—you know, all those things. But then the question is: When, you know, no one is that ideal thing, no one's the thing in the middle, and there's all sorts of people that are going to relate to that paradigm in many different ways at different distances and such, and what are we going to take to be important in a context in terms of how we talk about someone and whether we consider them close enough to that paradigm to count, like how are we going to socially organize each other? And then when people say, I'm nonbinary, or a trans woman says, I'm a woman, what they're saying is: I want to be considered—in the case of trans women—I want to be considered part of that category. I'm close enough, I have the relevant kinds of similarities to that paradigm. And I think that's a shift of relevance. What that cultural shift to being trans-inclusive is, in large part, the shift [from] thinking that what's between your legs is the most relevant thing for your similarity to recognizing that because of the social impact of these categories, because of the ways that they infect our everyday lives in all sorts of ways, then maybe we should take people's own opinions about how they want to socially navigate the world more into account in many cases.
Justin E.H. Smith [29:58]
Right, right, right. Right, certainly, I mean, obviously, it's inevitable that when there's a question that's of tremendous philosophical interest, but also tremendously socially and politically charged, that there's going to be a wing of the social and politically engaged people who are not as patient with philosophical analysis as we might be, right? Or as those of us who are—
Robin Dembroff [30:30]
And that's on both sides, right?
Justin E.H. Smith [30:31]
Robin Dembroff [30:33]
People who are driving a bus around that says, There are two genders, XX and XY, those people are also not interested in the philosophical discourse.
Justin E.H. Smith [30:41]
Right, right. Right, exactly. But no, so the aversion to fundamentalism, is perhaps part of your upbringing, perhaps just the metier that you found yourself in. I grew up with liberal kind of wishy-washy parents who said, Believe whatever you want, and I also have this aversion to fundamentalism. Okay, so trying to rewind a bit, and trying to get close to a definition of gender, which is our objective today. I've been interested, having studied linguistics years ago, in the category of grammatical gender, or the way that this works, and I recall working with a linguist who was remarking on certain languages that have not just three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, but, you know, as many as eight or nine or ten. And some of them are for vertical objects, some for horizontal objects, some for living things, some for luminescent things [laughter], you know, and all sorts of kind of basic semantic categories. And that, you know, in the history of some languages, these get gradually collapsed into the neuter. Now, ordinarily, we don't think that the philosophy of gender has anything to do with grammatical gender as it interests linguists, but I've always kind of wondered, especially when you see the proliferation of—and I don't know how you feel about these sub-sub-subcultures, the ones that are kind of, I don't know how else to put it, inventing genders, like, you know, the famous cases that people love to mock from Tumblr circa 2013, like frostgender, and so on, you know, that looks mockable. But if you think about the long history of the way people in different linguistic communities have carved things up, it might be a way of recovering a scheme of looking at our place in the world, that's actually much more fine-grained and gives us many more different choices. Like, I'm going to join the, you know, the tree gender, meaning I'm going to join the category of social beings that affiliate under the notion of tree, because I identify with trees. Do you find all of that just too messy? Or going too far? Or do you suspect, like I do, that it's actually tapping into something that is deep-seated in the way we carve up the world?
Robin Dembroff [33:50]
I certainly think there's a deep connection between language and ontology. And the word that we use and how it is a guide to how we categorize and regulate things in the world. I think one of the questions that arises with respect to gender about that is: Do we go the direction of languages for English speakers? Do we go the direction of languages like Finnish, that have no grammatical gender? Or do we go in the direction of languages that have a ton of them, like you're saying, like eight, nine, ten. And I'm very open to persuasion in a different direction, but my current thinking on this is going in the direction of none. And that is because grammatical gender is something that isn't just words to refer to something, right. It's not just like having more nouns are more ways for people to describe themselves. It's built into the language in a way that makes it very difficult to do anything other than make a snap judgment about the thing you're talking about and then refer to them that way. It's very rare that you get to talk to someone about how they identify before you call them "he" or "she," right. You look at people and make a snap judgment. And so for that reason, I think it would be very hard to create more categories that had the thing that you're talking about, which is the ability to like move between them, to not be socially compressed into one of them. And so I think, for example, I think it would be worse if the English had pronouns that encoded both race and gender, or both like black and white and man and woman, however you want to talk about those, than if English had neither, right. So that's my own leaning. But I agree with you that there is something very interesting at the edges of gender play—which I think is a different question than the grammatical gender per se—which is just people coming up with new words, new nouns, new adjectives, things like that, to talk about different modes of playing with these cultural norms, these cultural ideals and norms of masculinity and femininity and so on.
Justin E.H. Smith [35:52]
You think that's what's happening, and I guess mostly these young internet subcultures where they're inventing categories that probably won't have a very long life, but that it's a kind of a kind of playfulness that is serving perhaps a more important purpose in their development anyway, right?
Robin Dembroff [36:15]
Yeah, I think the analogy here to thinking about theater is helpful. I mean, I'm married to an actor, so I often go to examples like this, which I find helpful. So like, if you're doing improv with someone, right, and you're creating a world together, you might create a category on the spot for just a certain kind of thing. And you're doing improv together, right. So you're like being social, you're collaborating. And so the other person takes that up to, like, "Great, this category is now part of our world." And you can keep doing that. You're doing improv with someone to get things, put more and more objects in place, have more and more categories, and more and more rules of your world and so on. And I think what people often don't pause to think about or don't realize is that that is what we are doing at a very massive scale all the time, right? Just because you can create a microcosm of it on a theater stage doesn't mean that all the world's a stage, right, like, that is what we're doing. And so one of the things that I think is really, really important about that particular kind of play is it's leaning back into that idea of like, we're co-creating things, we're co-creating our society, and we can make up categories and use them together, and then maybe we'll decide we don't want them anymore. But that doesn't mean they weren't real, right? We're doing this thing together, we're coordinating, we're interacting, we're creating relationships, all that's real.
Justin E.H. Smith [37:35]
This, I mean, this actually brings us to something that I assumed would come up one way or another, which is the broad field of when I was in grad school in the 1990s, went under the name of performance studies, and Judith Butler was a guiding light, but also earlier sociology people like Erving Goffman and “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” And, you know, the idea that gender is performance. But you seem to be keen on picking that line of thinking back up. Whereas my impression has been—again, and I'm not an insider here, I pay as much attention as I can—my impression has been that that is becoming less and less attractive to many people in accounting for gender identity in the present moment, that Butler-style performance studies is slipping away in favor of something that looks to me more like an essentialism about trans and cis identity in particular, and whether this is intended, whether it's strategic, as in Spivak's sense, or whether people just disagree, and there's a whole variety of views out there, I'm just really not sure. But am I wrong in perceiving a shift from the performance theory to essentialism? As we move over the past, say, twenty years?
Robin Dembroff [39:20]
Yeah, so, this is actually a much more complicated question than I think maybe you realize. So the first thing to say is that this kind of identity essentialism, the sort of "it's my brain chemistry that makes me a woman" or something like that—that is something that you'll find in popular spheres. Sometimes it's things that you'll find in things like New York Times articles that interview endocrinologists about what gender is, it is not something that you will find in trans theory or queer theory, including stuff that's being published right now, right. Like Talia Mae Bettcher from philosophy talks about trans identity in terms of existential identity, in terms of, like, the life plans you want to make, people like Butler talk about it in terms of performance, you have all these other ways of thinking about trans identity, that it is deeply relational. Across the board, people understand it as a relational and a culturally specific thing. And so that impression that there's this essentialism is one that is mostly coming from people who aren't talking to the people who are actually doing the academic scholarly work of thinking about this hard.
Justin E.H. Smith [40:33]
Would you agree that it's also coming from some trans people themselves? Who are exploring new ways to account for their identity, and are encountering other people who express it in essentialist terms, say in social media, for example—again, not to fault them, but just, you know, grasping for language to account for this, they don't necessarily immediately jump right to the sophisticated language of academic theorists.
Robin Dembroff [41:07]
Of course not, though also neither do the cis people around them, right? When you're at the margins of these gender categories, one thing that all of us experience is the constant demand for justification from people around us, the: What are you, tell me what you are. And you know what you are, but the language that you have to talk to them about what you are is a language that was not created to talk about people like you, it was a language that was created to talk about people like them. So what you do is you say: I just know, I just know that I am. And you use whatever language is trying to get you to the self-actualization, or the ways of being that you can get to, given who you're talking to in the moment that you're talking to them, right? So there's also just a sort of, like, pragmatism, too, that kicks in for a lot of us, where it's like, it's actually more often non-trans people than trans people who are the ones who are not ready to go into the more complex conversation about gender—surprise, surprise.
Justin E.H. Smith [42:05]
Yeah. I'm simply mistaken in my perception of a shift towards or a hardening into essentialism, at least when we consider academic trends.
Robin Dembroff [42:18]
Yes, yeah. Regarding trends in queer theory, that's not the thing.
Justin E.H. Smith [42:22]
Is there anyone who sounds that way? Are there degrees? Is there a more and a less...?
Robin Dembroff [42:29]
I'm just gonna level with you and say that I think that the idea that the perception that trans people are the ones who have this deeply essentialist, fundamentalist, hard-line view about gender is a projection from an abusive society that itself has that. Patriarchal society is the thing that has an essentialist, hard-line, black-and-white view of gender, and that is being projected onto us as a way of excusing us from or kicking us out of the dialogue and undermining our political movements.
Justin E.H. Smith [43:08]
Mm hmm. That's interesting. Yeah, I guess, if you can help me here, the jolt that some of us who thought we were card-carrying social constructionists twenty years ago, the jolt that some of us have felt thinking that we kind of thought we had it figured out, that of course, gender categories are relational and are produced by ideology, and by what we expect of one another, and those expectations can change, and so on, and so on. Now, it really does—and again, it might just be that this is something that's in the culture that needs to be distinguished from what academic theorists are providing—but it really does seem like we've been left behind by a new expectation that we take categories absolutely seriously again, that we respect the demand for a full stop. I really appreciate what you're saying, but I also think that there is something in the culture or the message is not getting across from the academic theorists, from the queer theorists, to the people who are shaping the discourse, broadly speaking, and I've never really considered before that this is a kind of reaction or an obstacle by people who strongly you know, identify with the gender binary, but that could be right.
Robin Dembroff [44:51]
I mean, the term "gender ideology" is from the Vatican in response to feminist and LGBT movements.
Justin E.H. Smith [44:58]
Yeah, yeah, right.
Robin Dembroff [44:59]
Like, that is projection at its finest.
Justin E.H. Smith [45:03]
[laughter] Right. What are the most exciting developments in your view in the past five years in gender theory and queer theory? The past five years, so we get the freshest stuff.
Robin Dembroff [45:18]
Wow, what does that even mean—COVID makes time so I'm like, when was five years ago? Okay, since 2016. I mean, there's been really incredible work being done by trans scholars on the relationship between intersex variations and trans identity. Check out the work of Jules Gill-Peterson. There's a really good book, a new book, by Leah DeVun called “The Shape of Sex,” which is about the image of the nonbinary from biblical times to, I think, like the medieval period, or the early Renaissance, really, really fascinating book, love that book. There's super cool stuff being done on the relationship between race and gender. So I don't know if this is exactly in the last five years, but C. Riley Snorton's “Black on Both Sides." And also Gill-Peterson's book also goes into a lot of those racial relationships as well. So I think we're really at the intersection of discussing gender and intersectionality. There's all this new research that's being done with people who are now taking up the intersectional lens on gender and saying like, Okay, so now let's look at how are gender and disability intertwined? How are race and gender intertwined, or something like that. There's a lot of new cool work coming out in those areas.
Justin E.H. Smith [46:39]
What is your work bringing to the discussion, that's new, the weaponization of gender by patriarchy?
Robin Dembroff [46:49]
I think it's doing something that philosophers actually do very well, which is taking a lot of information from all over the place, and being able to create a general framework for putting all of that stuff in place, kind of understanding how it all goes together and the system it creates. So I'm gonna pause for a sec.
Justin E.H. Smith [47:12]
Robin Dembroff [47:14]
Justin E.H. Smith [47:15]
Robin Dembroff [47:17]
[laughter] They can't hear you because I have headphones in. Do you need something? I have to say a little bit more, okay. Buh-bye! [laughter] A moment of podcast beauty, right there. [laughter] I appreciate that. So what my work adds to it, so yeah, so let me start over now. I think that's something that analytic philosophers do really well, is provide general frameworks for taking lots of different pieces of information and seeing how it creates an explanatory system. And the thing that I am doing is I'm coming in and I'm like, okay, so we have from materialist feminism a focus on gender as material and being a system of injustice; we have from people who are interested in gender identity pieces about gender being something that has to do with deeply felt desires, and desired ways of being and things like that. We have from the people working on intersectionality, that this is something that is where racial features and disability features and class features all relevant for thinking about those other two things. And what I'm trying to do is create a high-level general framework for seeing how all of those things go together in a social system that holds people up, again, to these two paradigms of what the human ought to be, which can be understood through the lens of gender, as this historical process of regulating and defining people according to these paradigms.
Justin E.H. Smith [48:42]
Yeah. Do you want to say a few words about patriarchy? I mean, just from the subtitle, and I know you said that this was something of a title chosen by committee. But the title suggests somewhat that we could have a world of gendered human types—but patriarchy. And it would be okay. People wouldn't be miserable under it. But unfortunately, we've got patriarchy and that ruins gender, or am I misreading it? Could we have gendered human beings who are happy with their gender, if we didn't have patriarchy?
Robin Dembroff [49:26]
So I think I'm going to be annoying here and say that depends on how we want to understand gender. So I think there's one way of understanding gender where it's a little bit narrower and like—my initial thing I said in this interview, which was, it's the process of defining and regulating people according to their reproductive body parts, right. And in that sense, I think if you get rid of patriarchy, and unless that definition and regulation is like, pretty minimal, right? It's kind of like, you have this body part or not, and maybe that means you like should do certain kinds of checkups at the doctor or not, things like that, then sure, you could have gender but not patriarchy. But I think in a in a robust sense of that, if gender goes, then patriarchy is gone also. But there's another broader sense of gender, which is, I think, something that's like the even longer historical process, which is like: What are the categories that will grow out of that initial binary classification system? What are the things that could extend into in the future? How could it relate to the body differently? How could autonomy be more of an integral part of it, than enforced classification? And I think in that sense, you could have gender without patriarchy, because that's a historical view of gender that has an even longer scope than the one that I discussed originally.
Justin E.H. Smith [50:42]
Right. Right. Right. That makes sense. Yeah. Yeah. One more challenging question for you. And then we'll try to see if we can wrap this up and see how much we agree on. What do you say to a person—this might just be more a question of strategy than, you know, than your philosophical views, because we all have to learn tact, right? But what do you say to a person—say, take an elderly person, take a grandmother who insists that gender has not made her miserable, that in fact, she has thrived in a world that divides us up in these ways? And finds that it would be really not the sort of world she would want to live in where we would get rid of this? I mean, there's such a difficulty here—I mean, there's always a difficulty, isn't there, for, you know, people who want to change the world, when they encounter people who don't want the world changed, of course, but here, you're not just—this doesn't look to me like a case of, say, the oppressed working classes rising up against the plutocrats. Because this content grandmother here doesn't look to me analogous to the plutocrats. She looks to me like someone who has inhabited a form of life that she values for reasons one shouldn't dismiss. So how do we deal with that?
Robin Dembroff [52:22]
So many thoughts, but I think a kind of an initial, maybe the simplest place to start is to say, if that's someone's experience, if someone tells me that's their experience, I believe them, and I value their preferences and their experience, but I don't value it more than I value other people's values and experiences, right. And so if someone says, I want there to be this rigid binary system, because it's worked really well for me, I'm gonna be like, Okay, but a lot of other people are really suffering because of it. And I have to care about what they say too. But another thing is that I think a lot of the times people who are the most insistent on the binary, the people who really care about enforcing it, are the people who it does make miserable, but who are invested in not admitting to themselves that it's made them miserable, because they're afraid that that means they've like, made bad choices, or they've somehow, they must have made so many mistakes, because they made so many choices according to what they thought they ought to do as a man or a woman, that to now say that they didn't need to have done that is kind of undermining their own story. And I see that a lot. And one of the things I really care about getting across in my work is that you're never too old to stop holding yourself to these unattainable ideals that don't work for you. You don't, like, age out of that.
Justin E.H. Smith [53:45]
Right, right. It remains. Yeah, it doesn't change in that regard.
Robin Dembroff [53:51]
You can still go to the playground, just bring, you know, bring a couple other older people with you. [laughter] That's the beauty of a social movement, you find a few other people who feel the same way you do. And you get together and you do something about it.
Justin E.H. Smith [54:05]
Yeah. You know, it's interesting, I'm trying to wrap things up here. What I find, when I talk to you, is, as philosophers—you know, philosopher to philosopher, right—I see almost nothing I can point to and say, We disagree in our conceptual analysis, right? I find there's a difference of personality type, maybe, or of character or of just existential outlook, where I am resigned to a kind of...thrownness, to talk with Heidegger, where, like, I got thrown into this world in this role. I don't know if I identify with it or not, whatever, I'll just ride it out. And similarly, I got thrown into the world, I'm getting older and older, the range of things I can do is narrowing all the time. And I'd rather put my energy into other projects than fighting that thrownness. Right? Whereas someone else, and this might include you, wants to put their energy into saying, No, the world doesn't have to be that. Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Robin Dembroff [55:41]
I do. But I think I will, again, make a distinction between resisting the thrownness in the social and political world and resisting the thrownness within yourself. And I think that people are never too old or too tired, because honestly, it's exhausting to hold yourself to gender ideals and norms. There's so many of them, it takes so much brain space, money and so—you're never too old to stop judging yourself by these ideals of masculinity or femininity, and there's so much relief, I think, that comes with that.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:13]
Robin Dembroff [56:15]
And also getting a few people together, older people together and going to a playground isn't like organizing a protest. It's just doing something fun, because why did they get to control you, you know?
Justin E.H. Smith [56:24]
[laughter] Right. Well, listen, maybe I'll actually come through on that and report back.
Robin Dembroff [56:33]
Send me a picture.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:33]
It's a hilarious idea. I had no idea we would end up talking about something like that when we started today. Listen, but I mean, in general, it's fascinating to talk to you, I feel like it shines a big light on a lot of difficult issues. I think, I mean, it's hard to say. [laughter] Today I feel like we're neither agreeing, disagreeing, nor are we properly aporetic because I feel like again, we see eye to eye on the conceptual issues, but I still feel like there's a difference there that I'm having trouble pointing at or identifying, putting into words. Super interesting, super interesting, but we can call it something like a hybrid, nonbinary half-agreement half-aporia [laughter]
Robin Dembroff [57:39]
Yeah, maybe maybe the difference is just that your reach exceeds your grasp more than your...
Justin E.H. Smith [57:45]
[laughter] Right. Right. Could be, could be. Super fascinating to talk to you, and I hope this won't be the last time
Robin Dembroff [57:54]
Yeah, me too, thank you so much for inviting me this.
Justin E.H. Smith [57:56]
Once again. You've been listening to What is X with Justin E. H. Smith and I've been talking to Robin Dembroff about gender and what it is, and I hope you will join us here again. Bye bye.