The Trouble with Gender Studies

Last summer the trustees at New College of Florida—of which I am one—voted to abolish the gender studies concentration. It is perhaps the first time a gender studies program has been ended in the United States, the first I’ve heard of, anyway. 

Gender studies programs have kept their special, protected status, no matter how few undergraduates actually major in the field. Even as schools have for years downsized or shut other humanities departments as those units have seen enrollments dwindle, no dean or provost moves to trim gender studies—not unless he wants to kill his career. If he did, professors would make his meetings hell, reporters would call and email, and gender-queer kids would crowd his office. The victim narrative still holds, and the allegation of “heteronormativity” remains fearsome. Deans are deferential.

Not at New College. At our first trustee’s board meeting last January, we fired the president and suspended the college’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices. After that, we hired a president who struck many locals as a DeSantis flunky but who has brought extraordinary and underreported improvements to the campus. We also blocked early tenure for five faculty candidates in the spring. Our act against the gender studies concentration came off as yet another outrage.

It shouldn’t have done so, not to those with a bit of institutional memory. Gender studies has become such a dominant force in academia that it’s easy to forget that it originated in the late ’80s with wholly different aims. I remember first hearing of it around that time when I was a graduate student and wondering what it was about.  

The very first thing that struck me when attending a gender studies lecture and reading gender essays in the quarterlies, however, was not the content of gender theory but the demeanor of the theorists—their ethos. They weren’t like the older theorists, such as Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom, who loved the Ivory Tower even as they posed daring challenges to traditional ways of interpretation. The first gender theorists cast themselves, instead, as radical tests of the deepest premises of academic study itself. 

They were gadflies and troublemakers, not institution builders, as the opening pages of the most influential book of them all, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), makes clear. They critiqued the bourgeois family, they dismantled the regime of heteronormativity, and they targeted the academic order, too, whenever it appeared to uphold that regime. They were out to undo, not create. They were conducting a guerrilla campaign against bourgeois hegemony.

The keywords of gender studies that became commonplace during the 1990s laid bare its project: “subvert,” “queer,” and “transgress.” From 1975 to 1985, the Modern Language Association International Bibliography counted only 55 scholarly items focused on “transgression.” From 1986 to 1996, the tally jumped by an order of magnitude to 522.

Queer theory, too, exploded during those years, making the act of “queering”—shaking up something’s supposed nature and meaning, usually in non-heterosexual directions—into a standard critical gesture. The binary opposition of male and female was subverted during thousands of seminars by examples of figures that didn’t fit the mold: cross-dressers, the subjects of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and other types of “sexual dissidence.” Over and over, theorists attempted to expose natural and biological realities and practices as socially constructed and performative. Things made to seem normal and given within traditional culture are not really that way, according to the queer theory project, which destabilized some of the foundational norms of American society. The more uncertainty they could produce, the better.

Again, this took place as a self-consciously rogue incursion. I remember the mischievous manner of academics tossing those transgressive terms into their presentations as if they were stepping across a line dividing scholastic propriety from racy irreverence. In 1990 there were still enough aged professors dedicated to traditional study for these nervy theorists to don the mantle of minority misfits. They happily accepted the identity of the small and valiant insurgency. The imbalance was instrumental. Gender studies earned its edginess precisely because of the giant edifice of middle-class convention that was believed to block it. Gender theorists in the ’90s thought of themselves as bohemians in 19th-century Paris or beatniks in 1950s America: a renegade few unsettling the conformist many.

At that time one could accept this upstart critical school as a worthy check on conventional thinking. We might concede that this roving skeptic role made some sense. It’s good to have a few dissidents in the room; they keep complacency at bay and decision-making prudent. Institutions inevitably slide into routine, and academics do, too. Radical notions from out of the blue can have a sanative effect—not because they are right, but because they keep the old ways fresh. In a deliberative body, a contrary minority is good for the majority.

This dynamic presented gender theorists with a difficult prospect, however. They wanted to thrive, but if they actually triumphed, if their outlook became
mainstream, what would become of their queer condition? Would success spoil them? To their credit, many ’90s theorists understood the dangers of majority power. It wasn’t that they feared too many subversives in the room would breed chaos. Rather, they anticipated an opposite outcome, a very un-queer system, namely, a new queer normativity. The old story of revolutionaries turning into authorities and then into authoritarians might apply to them as well. If sexual dissidents managed to claim space in the establishment—for example, rights of same-sex marriage—it could lead to a normalization of those very queer people and practices. To the liberal mind, that sounds just, but to the radical theorist it would produce a loss of force.

So, what would become of the radical queer impulse if there was no longer a conservative hegemony to oppose? If there was no more dominant convention to undermine, what would they do? No longer could those people perform their creatively subversive work. They would themselves become normative. Hence the title of Michael Warner’s 1999 book, The Trouble with Normal. As two theorists said in 2015 in the feminist journal differences, “normativity is queer theory’s axiomatic foe.” 

Which raises the question of today’s institutional triumph. “Queer” is a core concept of gender studies. It is supposed to excite conflicting reactions. This summer, though, just before the trustees at New College decided to end the gender studies concentration as a separate academic unit, the school faculty endorsed a statement insisting on the preservation of the program. Everyone approved this message of support for gender studies; there were no negative voices. The unanimity was revealing, but not in the way the professors thought. It might seem to have proved the unquestionable value of gender studies, but in truth, it undercut the field’s trouble-making, problematizing character. How could everybody, everybody, back a field that from its start was critical of such uniformity of thought, especially relative to controversial matters? Such support would certainly have displeased one of the fathers of gender studies, Michel Foucault, who would have discerned a coercive element in the universal backing. If a deviant social or sexual concept no longer incites contentious feelings, it has been normalized. Gender studies is the establishment.

Hence, we were right to dis-establish the field. When we ended the gender studies unit, the damaging effects of letting a subversive formation dominate the terrain also stopped. Transgressive personalities exercise power transgressively, and that can’t last for long. Queer foundations are, by definition, shaky. Revolutionaries have a hard time shifting from overthrow to governance. In their rise to the top, they destroy the grounds on which the ancien régime stands and have no replacement but arbitrary will. Too many times, I have seen theorists assume leadership and treat disagreeing parties as if they belonged in permanent detention.

This is why studies programs based upon “troubled” and radical concepts should never be stand-alone academic entities. Gender work belongs within zones of convention and tradition—the very things it shakes—like a jazz trumpeter improvising on a Broadway tune, stepping out from the musical structure here and there but always mindful of the set chords. Take away the original song, and you get the tiresome bedlam of free jazz. Set gender studies at the top of the academic heap, and you get the tedious and contradictory flow of one transgression after another, plus the banishment of conscientious objectors.

No, the rise of the radical hasn’t done the humanities any good. It has coincided with the steady diminishing of enrollments and majors. When dismantling and deconstruction become the dominant practice in a discipline, both the traditional and the radical decay. As with other post-structuralist creations, gender studies is a pernicious enterprise when it becomes the prevailing opinion—when it has the power of dogma. The destabilizing sallies belong within the stable sides of the traditional disciplines of history, English, and sociology, where activist, tendentious gestures are negated, and its occasional insights are absorbed into sound academic study.

A tragic paradox is at work. Marginalization is an unhappy condition, but it is from the margins that radical voices now and then do some good. As soon as the counterculture conquered mainstream society, it became a bore.

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