On Throwing Out the Construct with the Bathwater

So a friend on mine shared a funny list of tweets taking aim at the idea of gender, in particular the gender reveal parties that many parents throw when they are expecting. My personal favorite went something like "colour-code your infants so that strangers know what their genitals look like." It's a lovely list of remarks ridiculing our sometimes overwhelming desire to know gender. As a parent, I have personally experienced what can only be described as a kind of moral panic in the face of gender confusion or misidentification.

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However, 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). Now, I understand that many people who take gender seriously treat it is a kind of natural or biological feature, and so arguing that it's a construct is a good way to take them on. Indeed, it's the die hard essentialism of the gender police that most troubles opponents. 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. This spells trouble for me, generally speaking, because most things we value are made up.

 

Now, one could argue that the whole list of tweets was just for funnies, a lark. But these one-off and admittedly smug "sorry to burst your bubble" moments have consequences. We must be careful in dismissing anything as a "construct." This line of thinking suggests that gender is a construct, which is to say made up, which is to say not real and so of no real value. Making the good reducible to some form of biological essentialism or even realism has a checkered past to say the least. I am much more interested in an argument that says gender is a bad construct. Justice is no more or less a construct than gender. Is gender as we know it a good construct or a bad construct? And for who? And when? A whole of host of interesting questions and contingencies present themselves when we start this way. Plus, it avoids the very biological essentialism that critics of these treatments of gender rightly want to avoid. William Connolly once argued, "social constructionism" shouldn't be the conclusion of an argument but an invitation to argue.