By Mark Abraham
Accepting her Video of the Year award at the 2015 VMAs, pop singer Taylor Swift, surrounded by the women who appear as weapon-toting warriors in her victorious video “Bad Blood,” said she was grateful that “we live in a world where boys can play princesses and girls can play soldiers.” That same night, writer Adam Fleischer posted a review of the awards titled, “Taylor Swift said F—k Gender Norms with Her Video of the Year Speech” to MTV.com.
But did she? Twenty-five years after Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and the queer turn, and smack dab in the middle of a rapid cultural reassessment of gender as trans celebrities become more visible, Swift’s post-essentialist but not-quite-unessential lip service that girls can do “boy” things and vice versa seems fairly quaint. It’s what many constructionists would call “modified essentialism”: the “girl” and “boy” things we can play at are socially constructed, but the majority of bodies—even the potentially subversive ones Swift is valorizing—still belong to “girls” and “boys.”
Serendipitously, Swift’s speech was followed by a performance by pop singer Miley Cyrus, who was surrounded by thirty drag, burlesque, and trans performers. This was, in a way, a constructionist response to Swift’s soft constructionism: that the lines between “girl” and “boy” things are especially porous, and so girls and boys and everybody can play, period. Cyrus’s performance suggested that there are girls, boys, and individuals who reject that binary in part or in whole, but bodies don’t define an identity, and the things that we can play at are a wide range of activities that aren’t rooted in much beyond historically-changing ideas about how “girls” and “boys” should act. Intentionally or not, Cyrus took Swift’s identity politics and threw them down a constructionist rabbit hole.
Of course, MTV.com highlighting Swift saying, “f—k gender norms” and not Cyrus suggests that this rabbit hole is still an unnerving place for many people. And since I believe history classrooms are a great place to unnerve, owing to the ability of historical methodology to lay bare the complex and diverse ways identities, ideas about culture, and ideas about nations are socially produced and culturally mediated over time, this juxtaposition between Swift and Cyrus got me thinking about my own teaching. It is generally easier to teach soft constructionism: that ideas about class, race, gender, sexuality, age, and (dis)ability are socially and historically produced and applied to various bodies through structural oppression. That these ideas create difference, and said difference creates hierarchies that typically privilege the bodies of white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied men. That these hierarchies are then defended with essentialist arguments that those privileged bodies are somehow more rational, active, and actualized than other bodies, biologically-speaking, making white men “natural” leaders. Or good at sports. Or whatever.
If it’s only the things we can play at that are socially constructed, constructionism becomes an easy sell: nobody should have to play in a way that they don’t enjoy. Nobody should be oppressed or privileged or defined because they have assumptions about their style of play foisted upon because of how other people might perceive their bodies. But it’s also an easy sell because soft constructionism is, at heart, essentialist: it assumes that players are just trying to be themselves, despite game rules. With respect to gender, it assumes that most people are one or the other, “girl” or “boy,” even if some boys like Jem and the Holograms and some girls ride motorcycles. There are no hegemonic processes involved in ruling the game; there’s just an arbitrary sense that somewhere there’s some out of touch white dudes keeping score.
So it’s the things we do that are at the mercy of social construction. The things we are…aren’t. Because how do we define ourselves if they are? Which is, frequently, the question we’ll get if we follow Cyrus down that rabbit hole in the classroom. Butler’s argument, for example, is that if we accept that gender that is constructed—as soft constructionism does—then we must also accept that sex is constructed, because gender is built into the very conceptualization of sex. Butler argues that our interpretations of our bodies are the result of each of us attempting to accept or reject constructs provided by “the vocabularies” of gender “that we did not choose.” We do this to make ourselves “intelligible” to the world around us. We’re trying to fit in.
To be fair, Swift is celebrating unintelligibility. But what her argument leaves out is Butler’s assertion that we are all, when and where we struggle to fit in, implicated in the maintenance of structures of oppression. With that in mind, this juxtaposition between Swift and Cyrus brought something into relief that I’ve always felt ambivalent about: every time I say something like, “it’s okay if you’re not 100% onboard with this provocative idea”—even if the reason I’m saying that is a pragmatic attempt to temporarily ease the minds of students who are struggling with the suggestion that their pleasures, experiences, and desires are constructed—I’m letting students off the hook.
Why would I do that? Beyond theoretical complexity, teaching the full breadth of constructionism carries its own problems, particularly if we don’t take the time to fully break it down. Butler’s argument that sex itself is constructed, or that sex is gendered, can easily be misinterpreted to mean that constructionists are saying that there is no unfabricated meaning that can be derived from gender or sex. This is a position that is acutely insensitive to transwomen and transmen who are frequently told that their gender is a performance (as if any gender isn’t), or, as we’ve most recently seen with Caitlyn Jenner, that their efforts to be themselves somehow reinforce gender oppression. This is also a position that suggests that any person who derives meaning from play as a particular gender is kidding themselves. Consequently, teaching constructionism and structures of oppression also necessarily means teaching intersectionalism and structures of privilege to avoid potential misinterpretations, especially where those misinterpretations might exponentially multiply the moment you add cultural appropriations to the mix.
The very idea of that can be overwhelming, especially if you’re standing in front of 80 students who are waiting for you to get to a point, if you’re aware that their opinions about these ideas will inevitably vary no matter how carefully you present them, and if you don’t want to spend too much time in abstract, theoretical trenches because, y’know, you have actual history to cover in a history course. For all of these reasons, engaging students with soft constructionism can seem like a useful—even pragmatic—shortcut. More provocative constructionist arguments can simply be referenced and left to hang in the air like a curious puzzle that more adventurous students might choose to solve.
There are two problems with this approach. First, though history provides plenty of opportunities to discuss how social structures have changed over time, there’s really no point beyond provocation to simply unveil the inherent inauthenticity of those structures. These structures still held (and hold) power, which made (and makes) them “real.” The only analysis that gives these unveilings purpose is one that demonstrate the endless ways that players enforce, affirm, game, or break the rules of the game they’re playing.
Second, it has been my experience that students who already have advantages in that game often want to take Swift’s soft constructionism and run with it. After all, it provides a theoretical framework in which they can reject the structures of oppression that offer imperatives on how they should act without asking them to interrogate the various ways that they interpret their own pleasures, experiences, and desires. In other words, soft constructionism runs the risk of replicating the very structures of power that students employ it to resist, because a) it really only targets the oppression that they face individually, b) it highlights the ways they are “different” and celebrates that “difference,” and c) it does not force them to interrogate any privileges they might enjoy that reinforce and reaffirm the oppression of others. It hates the game; not the players. And while “masculinity” and “whiteness” are constructs like any other, simply pointing that out does not excuse the profound function they perform in structures of oppression and privilege or the role they play in the elision of intersectional identities.
This is a clause I never thought I would write, but the 2015 VMAs have catalyzed my recommitment to not letting students off the hook. It is entirely possible within constructionism to assert that social constructions are socially produced, and that bodies are constructed through that process, but also that any given individual has the right to give to, take from, and invest meaning in certain social constructions if it suits them—this is what every single body in the world is doing anyhow—as long as what “suits them” isn’t the marginalization, oppression, or misappropriation of others. Because the point of constructionism is not that our pleasures, experiences, and desires are fabricated. The point of constructionism is that the circumstances in which we can possibly interpret those pleasures, experiences, and desires are fabricated. The revolutionary potential of constructionism lies in locating the only power that any social identity should possess: that which is determined by an individual who defines their pleasures, experiences, and desires through it; who is not limited, narrowed, or excluded because of it; and who is not limiting, narrowing, or excluding others by it. Everybody can play, but everybody should be able to play by the same rules, which should really be a lack of rules, outside of sensitivity and kindness. Demonstrating that requires deconstructing all players.
Mark Abraham is a cultural historian of bodies, genders, and sexualities in U.S. music, fashion, dance, and performance. He is a sessional lecture at Ryerson University, and is working on a new project about various things like Y-Pants, Twyla Tharp, Meredith Monk, and Jem and the Holograms.