When people talk about gender and sexuality, they usually do so from within the context of a broad social narrative. Arguably the most popular gender narrative of the day is that we (in the West particularly) are in the process of weaning ourselves off of a particularly toxic and reductive understanding of human sexuality. According to this narrative, we have progressed from what was essentially a tri-partite model of human sexuality (straight male, straight female, and Other) to an N-partite model that allows not only for differences in sexual preference but variations in relationship models, different sexual practices and conceptions of gender that rely upon variables other than genital shape and chromosomal configuration. Under the logic of this narrative, a three-box understanding of human sexuality is repressive and so the more boxes we add to our model, the closer we come to a theory that reflects the enormous complexity of human sexual identity. In an ideal world, everyone would fit into their own universally recognised pigeonhole with nobody left puzzling as to how they fit in or who they are. Though giddily utopian, this narrative is not without its critics.
Back in the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault began to examine the different ways in which humanity has conceived of sexuality. He concluded that, far from being a historical reality, the above narrative was a construct of the 1960s and that, much like previous models of human sexuality, it contained the embryo of an intensely problematic political programme. Foucault argued that the urge to determine the ‘truth’ about a particular phenomenon and break it down into distinct categories tends to go hand-in-hand with a desire to control the phenomenon. For example, while most people do have a conception of race, their conception tends to be a lot less exacting that the systems created by governments intent upon dehumanising particular groups of humans. Thus, while most Westerners are now content to use the term ‘mixed race’ to describe people of mixed racial heritage, previous generations have used terms like ‘mulatto’ and ‘quadroon’ to determine not only which races were mixed but also in what proportions. Though pointless in the West today, these linguistic categories would have proved extraordinarily useful for societies that practiced apartheid, slavery or any other systematic abuse of different racial groups. Indeed, the first step towards the Final Solution was the creation of a legal framework allowing Nazi officials to ‘objectively’ distinguish between Jews and non-Jews on the basis of their parentage.
Though Foucault stops well short of drawing a parallel between how people used systems of racial classification and how people use systems of sexual classification, he does express profound concern over our assumption that more precise systems of top-down classification are somehow a sign of progress. After all, ‘Octaroon’ is a more precise term than ‘Black person’ but nobody in their right mind would consider it progressive to begin pigeon-holing people on the basis of their having one Afro-Caribbean grandparent. Systems of top-down classification require measurement and basing someone’s identity upon their ability to satisfy objective scientific criteria is intensely dehumanising… we see this not only in the Victorian and Nazi obsession with skull sizes but also in the grotesquely gynaecological language applied to the Trans* community when the need to fit people into pre-existing categories invariably devolves into discussions of genital shape and chromosomal configuration.
Kimberley Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry won awards and captured hearts by drawing the world’s attention to the real-life story of Brandon Teena, who was betrayed, raped and murdered by a group of friends who believed that Brandon had misrepresented his gender. When the film was first released in 1999, many people described it as the story of a woman who ‘passed herself off’ as a man in an effort to reconcile her desire to sleep with women with the universal homophobia of 1990s Nebraska. Since then, awareness has expanded and so most people now think of the film as a tragic story about how an intolerant culture treats transgender people. However, while both sets of readings say quite a lot about our need to impose clear boundaries on ambiguous phenomena, a better reading of the film is to take it as an attack on the process of classification itself.