Feminist IR 101, Post #2….vocabularies for talking about sex/gender hierarchies

Nov 29, 2010

In the last post, I discussed gender as a system of symbolic meanings. People understood to be “men” are often expected to be “masculine” and associated with masculinity/ies; while people understood to be “women” are expected to be feminine, and associated with femininity/ies. Traits associated with masculinities and femininities are often also transposed onto ideas, concepts, and things, in everyday life and in global politics. Masculinities and femininities are often salient in political, economic, and social life.

But, like all good political “scientists,” you ask the “so what?” question – what does that matter? What does it tell us about how the world works? Most of the answer to that question will be in another post, but, to get there, you’ll need the punchline of the answer: because global politics (at the individual level, at the state level, and at the systemic level) is gender-hierarchical. To discuss that meaningfully, though, we’ll need to know a few more gender-words, and have a vocabulary for talking about gender hierarchy.

Sex hierarchy: the explicit or implicit valuing of people (or things, concepts, ideas, etc.) differently on the basis of their (perceived) sex difference(s).

Gender hierarchy:  the explicit or implicit valuing of people (or things, concepts, ideas, etc.) differently on the basis of their (perceived) gender difference(s), usually the valuing of masculinity/ies over femininity/ies. Any give gender hierarchy is not absolute or universal, sometimes gendered hierarchies value different gender-related characteristics differently in different times and different places. Still, the existence of gender hierarchy/ies is/are universal. Patriarchal gender hierarchies (or gender hierarchies dominated by (hegemonic) masculinity/ies are often described in terms of “gender oppression,” or “gender subordination,” indicating the devaluing of non-idealized masculinity/ies and femininity/ies as compared to dominant/hegemonic (Weberian) ideal-typical notion of what “a woman” or “the feminine” should be and what “a man” or “the masculine” should be. Different feminism(s) refer to deconstructing gender hierarchy differently, using those words, or “ending gender subordination” or “gender emancipation.” Note that none of these terms are explicitly about or exclusively for “women” (to be discussed in a later post).

Other terms describe important complexities, including …

masculinism (n.) – the social preference for masculinity/ies and/or the social exclusion of femininity/ies.

homosexual (adj.) – describes people (perceived to be) of a certain (biological) sex, having sexual preference for or exclusive sexual attraction to people who are (perceived to be) of the same (biological) sex.

lesbian (adj.) – describes people (perceived to be) “women,” having sexual preference for or exclusive sexual attraction to people who are (perceived to be) “women”

gay (adj.) – describes people (perceived to be) “men,” having sexual preference for or exclusive sexual attraction to people who are (perceived to be) “men”

bisexual (adj.) – describes people who are sexually attracted to “both” (“male” and “female”) sexes, regardless of their own (perceived, biological) sex.

heterosexual (adj.) – describes people (perceived to be) of a certain (biological) sex, having sexual preference for or exclusive sexual attraction to people who are (perceived to be) of the “opposite” (biological) sex

homophobia (n.)/homophobic (adj.) – describes (unreasoned) fear or discrimination against people perceived to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual

heteronormativity (n.) – the assumption of the normalcy of heterosexuality and the abnormality of “homosexuality” or “bisexuality”

heterosexism (n.) – the preference for or bias towards heteronormative personal, social, and political organizations and bias against (people and lifestyles classified with) “homosexuality” or “bisexuality”

transgender (adj.) – an imagined cross-gender community

transgender (n.) – people who do not appear to conform to traditional gender norms by presenting and living genders different than those which are assigned to them at birth and/or presenting and living genders in ways that may not be readily intelligible in terms of traditional gender roles and norms. Sometimes “transgender” is distinguished from “transsexual,” where “transsexual” refers to people who use hormonal and/or surgical technologies to alter their bodies in ways that may be construed as at odds with the sex assignment at birth or which may not be readily intelligible in terms of traditional conceptions of sex bodies (see Talia Mae Bettcher’s work on this). Others object to the reification of biology in separating “transgender” and “transsexual.”

FTM (adj.) and MTF (adj.) – signify directionality of “sex change” or “gender change” in trans- people (“female to male” and “male to female”). Some object to the use of these terms because they legitimate illegitimate biological sex categories.

transphobia (n.)/transphobic (adj.) – negative attitudes (hatred, loathing, rage, or moral indignation) towards (perceived or “actual” trans- people and/or transgressive gender performances.

cisgender (n.)/cissexual (n.) – people who are comfortable with and/or identify with the sex and/or gender one was assigned at birth and who experience their “physical” and “conscious” sexes as being aligned.

cissexism (n.) – the belief that trasngendered or transsexual identifications are inferior to or less authentic than those of cisgender or cissexual persons; including (in Julia Serrano’s words) trans-fascimiliation(viewing or portraying transsexuals as merely imitating, emulating, or impersonating cissexual male or female genders), trans-exclusion (refusing to acknowledge and respect a transsexual’s identified gender, or denying them, access to spaces, organizations, or events designed for that gender), trans-objectification (when people reduce trans people to their body parts, the medical procedures they’ve undertaken, or get hung up on, disturbed by, or obsessed over supposed discrepancies that exist between a transsexual’s physical sex and identified gender), and trans-interrogation (when people bring a transsexual’s identified gender into question by asking them to answer personal questions about their life story, their motives for transitioning, medical procedures they have undertaken, or when they obsess over what causes transsexuality – such questions reduce transsexuals to the status of objects of inquiry.

Sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism are iterations of gender hierarchies seen throughout the world, though they take different forms and play out with different empirical results over time, place, culture, and situation.

Still, only armed with these “vocabulary words,” one might think that the only people who should care about sex/gender hierarchies in global politics are the people on the “bottom” end of them – that is, women, persons of non-heterosexual sexual preference, and persons of non-cissexual sex/gender identification. One would be wrong.

to feminize (infinitive), feminizing (gerund), feminization (n.) – subordinating people, political entities, or ideas by associating them with values perceived as feminine. (In Spike Peterson’s words), not only subjects (women and marginalized men) but also concepts, desires, tastes, styles, “ways of knowing” …can be feminized – with the effect of reducing their legitimacy, status, and value. Importantly, this devalorization is simultaneously ideological (discursive, cultural) and material (structural/economic) … this devalorizaton normalizes – with the effect of “legitimating” the marginalization, subordination, and exploitation of feminized practices and persons.

In Catherine MacKinnon’s words (which I am sure I will get a lot of blog-spam for mentioning, but, whatever), feminization is something that can (and often does) happen to anyone – it is only that we assume that it is natural when it happens to women. Put another way (and key to the forthcoming discussion in post #3), gender hierarchy is operative in social and political relations not just when “men” discriminate against “women,” but in a variety of instantiations where associations with perceived genders/sexualities/gendered characteristics are mapped onto persons, states, and other entities in (global and everyday) interactions.


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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.