Feminism assumes the common subject ‘woman’. With this assumption the binary of woman/man is altered to elevate the woman over the man. By making one subject (woman) pure, a hierarchy is established. The concept of feminism implies the purity of woman, delegating man as lesser. Setting up this concept of woman over man negates individuality.
Further, those that don’t fit into a binary of woman/man are labeled others, freaks. So what are the defining characteristics of a woman? Of a man? By differentiating the categories, a whole sub-category is created. You can’t limit the categories to a simple binary because there are many that fall between those categories.
Even within the category of woman there are degrees of womanness. In our society a fashion model is considered the ideal woman. Where does this leave the woman who is overweight or has buckteeth? Is she not a woman? Who defines what a ‘pure’ woman is? What a ‘normal’ woman is? Gender then becomes a performative act when a man sees a beautiful woman and says, “Now that’s a woman.” Society has constructed what a woman is, what a pure woman is, what normal is.
Here again we come to Sassure’s assertion that language is wild and complex, language is a process of naming. But if words are not attached to what they name then where do you find meaning? If we define woman as not man then once again we have the problem of hierarchy. The same holds true if we define man as not woman. So is there no definitive definition then for what constitutes a woman? The performative of “Now that’s a woman” constructs the idea of woman but the meaning is lost in the transportation of the word woman. Everyone is going to visualize the idea of woman in a different way.
The dictionary defines woman as “the female human being (distinguished from man).” The definition of man is “an adult male person, as distinguished from a boy or woman”. The definition of man also gets the distinction of being “an individual”. What a difference in the same dictionary! A woman is a “female human being”, while a man is “an adult male person”. Does this definition mean that ‘girls’ are also women while ‘boys’ are clearly not men? (as stated in the dictionary’s definition).
So we come right back around to language as a social construct. The problem in that idea is that who in the society gets to do the constructing? I believe what Jo said in class – that it is all a Bell Curve. Meaning is constructed by the majority, who are influenced by the past majority, who are influenced by their past majority. Change comes ever so slowly, we move away from this purity, this ideal of woman/man being sacrosanct, by minute degrees.
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2006