Queer Theory, Gender Theory

Book Review

Throughout Queer Theory, Gender Theory, Riki Wilchins explores topics such as LGBTQ rights movements, politics of meaning and self, identity politics, feminism, and race. Wilchins analyzes the many complex concepts in such a crafted way, always being careful to never segregate a specific subject. By doing this, she points out that all aspects of gender and queerness intertwine with not only each other, but other social constructions as well. For the entirety of the book, Wilchins encourages readers to step outside of their own identity box momentarily to explore and question what gender truly means, what queerness truly means, and what identity truly means.

Her first few chapters are a very good way for readers to ease into the intricacy of gender and queer theory, but by the end of the book she is challenging readers by asking the big questions. Why has society created such strict binaries, of which we must follow in order to create an identity that others can easily recognize as an identity? Why is it so hard for society to deconstruct these binaries, and is it even possible to do so? How does power work, even within certain rights movement groups, and why does it always tend to create a hierarchy? She uses a range of well-renounced theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler in order to support her arguments, but she recognizes that the big questions she herself is asking are far too complicated to possibly answer. However, the book was not written to answer the big questions, but rather adventure into and expose the complexity of theory.

Riki Wilchins has written two other books and several essays and articles. Queer Theory, Gender Theory was written in 2004 and is her most recent book. She is a post-operative transgender woman, meaning she has had sex reassignment surgery. This can be offered up as an explanation as to why she first began her career as a leader in the transgender rights movement. In 1995, Wilchins founded GenderPAC, which is the first national transgender advocacy group. Her group, active for 14 years, strived to make public places safe and comfortable for those who did not conform to the traditional roles and attributes of the gender binary. In her writing, she works to examine gender in a post-modernist theoretical light, hoping to bring some of that theory into politics and activism.

Wilchins’ first three chapters are all about rights: women’s rights, gay rights, and transgender rights. Right off the bat, she states, “queer theory is at heart about politics−things like power and identity, language, and difference” (Wilchins 5). Thus, this sets the tone for not only her first chapter on women’s rights, but for the several chapters to follow. She makes references to the black civil rights movements and how it has been a big part of the foundation of the LGBTQ rights movements we see today. “For it is in the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that the familiar tools of modern civil rights movements…all come together for the first time” (5). This emphasizes the intersectional lens that Wilchins uses throughout the book to view gender concepts and constructs. She goes on to point out that although at times feminists can seem quite progressive, they often leave out groups of people, thus arguing that even those fighting for equality can get caught up in the power of the all imposing gender binary.

Wilchins then dives into the politics of meaning, which is what she titles chapter 4. She uses the philosopher Jacques Derrida and builds off of his ideology to come to the conclusion that “gender is a language, a system of meanings and symbols, along with the rules, privileges, and punishments pertaining to their use−for power and sexuality…” (35). Wilchins points out that language is flawed in the sense that it can only get us so far. There are certain things we can talk about with language and certain things we simply cannot, for “language favor the Same” (35). So, when people blur the lines of the gender binary, it’s difficult for us to talk about it as a society because language does not allow us that privilege. For example, a trans woman is often not seen as a “real” woman, but rather someone just trying to mimic a woman. Yet, as Wilchins later points out, how do we define a “real” woman? Furthermore, why do these categories of two genders seem to be so exclusive?

This leads Wilchins to dive into Foucault and his theories surrounding power. The authoritarian, end-all-be-all attitude of science often prevents us from obtaining true knowledge. “…the new Science was not interested in knowledge about Sex, but rather power over it” (53.) The discourse that our society has created around gender only allows us to make sense of two certain types of bodies (male and female), which often times makes people who push the binaries of “objects of discourse, not participants in it” (61). Wilchins speaks to repressive and discursive power, and their effects on our perspectives of queerness and what it means to be queer. Which further prompts Wilchins to question our perspectives on sex, something we have often thought of as set in stone and unchangeable. However, intersex people often fall into a very blurry category of sex, one of which our society does not know how to conceptualize, which has in turn led to doctors performing procedures on intersex babies at birth to give them a “real” sex.

Wilchins ties the binaries of race into the binaries of sex. Society has placed significant meaning on what it means to be white and black in this country, just as it has placed significant meaning on what it means to be a man and a woman in this country. “…a central problem for gender theory has been that no matter what telling points are made about gender, Sex lurks right behind, pulling everything right back in the direction of immutable biology” (84). It seems to be that one can just not deconstruct sex. It is an irrefutable Truth. However, Wilchins points out that if this was the case, then we wouldn’t have to teach children what their sex is. If sex were actually an irrefutable Truth, children would just know this about themselves. Wilchins argues that perhaps sex is just another way for society and science to apply cultural meaning to differences that may not be as different as we presume.

The last quarter of the book is quite dense. Wilchins explores post-modernism, its effects on queer theory, and the critiques of it as well. She then explores the deconstruction of race, and how it is much less widely acceptable to deconstruct race than it is to deconstruct gender. Wilchins describes that perhaps race is a “matter of identification created by shared experience and cultural memory” (111). She continues to intertwine race and gender by writing about gendering race and racing gender, stating that the two cannot be separated and by talking about one, you must always talk about the other. Then Wilchins introduces Butler and the problem of identity. The categories of man and women are troubling to both Wilchins and Butler, for “assuming commonality to any identity…can mean assuming a unity that doesn’t exist in reality” (124). So, perhaps Wilchins did answer one of her big questions. Women as a category and identity is something our society has created and bound to us, when in fact, being a woman is far too nuanced to condense into one group.

Throughout Queer Theory, Gender Theory, Wilchins carefully writes about and constructs extremely perplexing and layered topics. The single greatest strength of this book is the way intersectionality continues to come up again and again. It is never neglected, and Wilchins always acknowledges that these concepts must be viewed with several different lenses, in order to fully grasp the complexity of them. The way she writes about race and gender in conversation with each other is necessary for a book like this, but nevertheless still extremely intricately difficult. Wilchins makes sure to never let the reader forget that in order to try and deconstruct gender, one must look at nearly all aspects of our society. She gracefully points out to us that even spaces in which we may think of as un-gendered, actually still are gendered, for it is hard to escape the gender binary society has created. However, as prevalent as intersectionality is throughout this book, at times it was difficult to fully follow. I found myself questioning whom this book was directed towards, and if it was directed towards an audience of which does not identify as LGBTQ, then perhaps it could have been too dense for them. The book is a relatively quick read, however if one has not done previous research on queer theory, then Wilchins’ probably would not be a good introduction to it.

As a Gender & Sexuality Studies major, I very much enjoyed reading this book. It was written concisely and included several real life examples, which sometimes theory fails to do. The book was relatable for me, as I’m sure it was for many others. Wilchins included several philosophers and theorists throughout the book and framed them in a way that was easy to understand and apply to her argument. I believe it would be a great read for others studying queer theory, however as mentioned before, perhaps too dense for someone just introducing themselves to the topic.
















Works Cited

Wilchins, Riki Anne. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. Los Angeles:

Alyson, 2004. Print.