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Book Review: Riki Wilchins “Queer Theory, Gender Theory. An Instant Primer”

One thing I have often asked myself while studying culture and gender-related topics: This is all very well, interesting and enlightening, but how can I explain this to my friends and family that are not studying in these areas?

Naturally, I have the desire to promote the eye-opening discoveries I make whilst reading feminist theory beyond my circle of academic friends and acquaintances. In fact, no one is safe from my feminist convictions if they confront me with related topics, neither friends nor co-workers nor the obnoxious drunk at the subway station. But making provocative statements is one thing; if someone actually wants me to explain my views I start to ramble without really getting my point across. The subject just seems too complex and broad to be summed up in a short conversation and people are likely to lose interest after listening to my long-winded explanations of theories that I had to read two or three times to really understand.

Now I have found a better solution. I just give potential disciples a book to read:

Riki Wilchins’ Queer Theory, Gender Theory. An Instant Primer.

Wilchins’ book is the perfect introduction to Gender and Queer Theory, even for people who haven’t previously encountered these topics in their lives. The book was written in 2004 and remains very up-to-date. In fact, it doesn’t omit any of the recent discourses and addresses issues that are still controversial.

At 170 pages, it is a quick but dense read. While Wilchins’ book features chapters about highly complex theorists such as Derrida, Foucault and Butler, it doesn’t attempt to briefly introduce and sum up their thought (which would naturally lead to failure) but instead outlines their importance for gender theory and the feminist discourse in academia and beyond. Therefore it would be a stretch to claim that one will understand Derrida after reading this book, but one gets an idea about the theoretical influences of gender and queer theory and how they shaped feminist thought.

At the same time, Wilchins occasionally uses little stories and situations from her life to illustrate the points she makes, without becoming too anecdotal or personal. People who identify as part of marginalized groups, such as homosexuals or transgendered, will most likely find their own experiences represented by these anecdotes, but even those who don’t belong to any minority will surely observe that they have encountered gender issues in their lives as well. However, many of them might not have given it much thought as they often don’t realize that these issues are systemic:

“Sometimes, doing gender activism feels like doing therapy,” Wilchins writes. “Almost all of us have stories […], but because gender is such a personal thing, we think our experience reflects our own personal shortcomings. We were ridiculed for being a geek or a fag or for throwing “like a girl,” or we were too aggressive and athletic or too old to be a tomboy.

When these things happened, we assumed the problem was us, not the gender system. We kept it to ourselves and we felt shamed. Because gender expression has never been framed differently, that it ought to be a civil right, never occurred to us.” (p. 19)

Wilchins goes about introducing the method of deconstruction, which she then applies to the categories gender, sex and even race. The case of intersexed people, meaning human beings whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female, becomes her prime example to illustrate society’s shaky claims for universal categories.

Even though Wilchins is a devoted third-waver, her book cannot be described as unreflected praise of postmodernism’s benefits. The chapter Postmodernism and its Discontents reveals some major flaws within postmodern thought, especially when it comes to reconciling its distrust of shared norms and structures with the need for political action:

“[…], it [postmodernism, my insert] is unable to propose any notion of group action that is positive and rewarding. Such freedom as postmodernism envisions is the purely negative freedom found in isolation and separation, in strictly private acts and meanings.

[…] In this, we realize that postmodernism is still lacking any vision of constructive social engagement and political action. Indeed, it is innately suspicious of mobilizing communities for political action. For activists whose task is organizing for political change, this is a serious shortcoming.” (p. 100-101)

However, Wilchins herself seems to have found a way to reconcile the two within her own life. The last chapter of the book is devoted to her personal political activism. In it, she describes how she founded GenderPAC (the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition), what goals this organization is working towards and what problems they encountered along the way. Again, Wilchins is critical and reflective, even concerning her own actions, but throughout the entire book she doesn’t lose her sense of humour, thereby emphasizing Judith Butler’s statement that “laughter in the face of serious categories is indispensable to feminism.” (Gender Trouble)

Wilchins’ attitude towards the future is hopeful and optimistic, especially when looking at today’s youth. While I might be slightly less enthusiastic than her, I absolutely agree with her final statement which should become my final words to whomever I shall have a discussion about feminism and gender issues with:

“This is a movement whose time has come. Join us. If you’ve read this far in the book, it’s an issue that speaks to you too. Don’t let gender rights stay “just theory.” Get involved. Because gender rights are human rights, and the time for them is now.” (p. 157)

[Riki Wilchins: Queer Theory, Gender Theory. An Instant Primer, Los Angeles 2004.]