Last Updated on September 21, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Postmodern Feminists argue that both men and women need to be liberated from the idea of heteronormativity: the idea that heterosexual male and female gender identities are the norm.
Historically, the idea that there are just two simple binary heterosexual identities comes from men and is one of the ways in which male power over women is maintained, with everything male being linked to the public sphere and everything female being linked to the domestic sphere.
For postmodern feminists, there isn’t a simple divide between biological male = masculine and biological female = feminine. Rather, everything about sex, sexuality and gender identity are fluid, and all gender identities are equally valid.
However, the dominant binary heterosexual male-female discourse makes it difficult for people who don’t ‘fit’ into ‘normal’ gender identities to be themselves, and raising awareness of the oppressive nature of the concept of ‘heteronormativity’ and celebrating gender differences and diversity are two of the main focuses of postmodern feminism.
Postmodern Feminist Philosophy
Postmodern feminism can also be called poststructuralist feminism or ‘cultural turn’ feminism, reflecting the shift away from structural and materialist theories and towards post-structuralism and cultural theories more generally from the mid 1980s onwards.
It was developed mainly by academics in the humanities rather than social science academics or feminist activists and it is much more philosophical than previous feminisms.
Postmodern Feminism is associated with a radical social-constructionist position which holds that there is no reality beyond social construction: discourses (what is discussed) shape the ‘realities’ people experience.
For postmodern feminists discourses are created by powerful groups of males and it is possible to identify and expose male-centred discourses.
Five examples of postmodern feminist thinkers include Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous.
The central focus for these thinkers is the ways in which female ‘subjectivity’ is constrained by textual and cultural forms defined and dominated by men.
One of the main focuses of postmodern feminism was to challenge thinking in dyads such as male-female and challenge the stability of dualistic ways of thinking, which it sees as repressive and to posit instead a liberating condition of the instability of all categories and truth claims.
In the condition of post modern liberation, men and women are free to choose to be a man, woman, gay, straight, trans or anything else, and identities are never fixed, they are fluid, multiple and fragmented.
Postmodern Feminists are especially critical of science’s dominant role in contemporary culture and its drive to fix gender and sex categories, which is seen as oppressive because this limits people’s capacities to shape their own (gender) identities.
Because of its focus on diversity, Postmodern Feminism is critical of Liberal and Marxist Feminist notions that we need to focus on politics for social change, and of Radical Feminism’s claims that there is a universal sisterhood with shared interests. Rather, there are diverse people who each need to be freed from the tyranny of truth so they can decide on how to shape their own gender identities going forwards!
The rest of this post will explore the work of Irigarary, Butler and Harraway in more depth.
Luce Irigaray argues that all that is known in mainstream society and culture about women and sexual desire is known from a male perspective, resulting in a vision of women she calls ‘masculine feminine’.
One of Irigaray’s aims is to overturn this male perspective, so that women are seen in their own terms, or as the ‘feminine female’.
Throughout the history of Western thought, women have been depicted as not-men, as negative entities which are lacking.
Women’s identity and sexuality are represented in this way because of ‘phallogocentrism’ , the patriarchal view of the world expressed in and through language as defined by men, a vision which tries to ‘freeze’ the meaning of ‘female’ and represent it in negative ways.
The task of theory is to liberate women from seeing themselves in such a way, and to realise that their own sexualities have plural dimensions which have the power to change female identities and escape the grip of phallogocentric culture.
Judith Butler claims that there is no such as sex. More specifically, she means that the sex categories of biologically distinct ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not exist in the real world, these categories are just mental constructions, part of language (discourse), but not real.
In other words, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are just people who have been labelled ‘men’ and ‘women’ they are not, in reality, biologically distinct from one another. We just think these labels refer to real, distinct entities.
This goes beyond feminist theorising in the 1970s, when feminists such as Ann Oakley generally thought that sex and gender were two different things with biological sex being fixed at birth (male or female) and gender being the cultural norms. we attach to these two sexes (masculine-feminie). For feminist theory in the 1970s, liberation meant changing gender norms, but sex-differences were generally seen as something determined by nature, so not up for discussion.
Butler challenges these earlier feminist ideas , by arguing that the idea that there is a natural biological divide between men and women is also a construction of patriarchy.
For Butler, both sex and gender are not just attributes people ‘have’, they are what people ‘do’. People ‘perform gender’ through what Butler refers to as ‘stylized repetition of acts’ enacted through the most mundane day to day body language, movements and general deportment that when taken together give the impression of a fixed ‘gendered self’.
People become a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ through the acts they perform, they aren’t already a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ at birth.
Feminist criticisms of science
Donna Harraway criticises the patriarchal organisation of science and the gendered categories it produces, which are disseminated through society.
Harraway is critical of the positivist view that science is objective and value free, instead arguing it is a product of capitalism, militarism, colonization and male domination.
Scientific knowledge is no less ideological than other forms of knowledge (or discourse).
Harraway argued that scientific knowledge emerges out of social practices, and is influenced by the backgrounds of scientists, the knowledge created is contingent on them and would be different if constructed by other people in other societies.
She analyses a series of experiments carried out in seventeenth-century England, emphasising that those networks were made up almost entirely of white, European, upper class males, and the male bias within those networks influenced the connection of male to active and female to passive, ideas which have continued to be a central part of patriarchal culture ever since
She also examined how the scientific study of primates was a key development in the political ordering between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘male’ and ‘female’ and ‘science’ and ‘ideology’.
However, because science is social in origins, it is not inherently patriarchal, it could potentially be reorganised to assist in female liberation.
Evaluations of Postmodern Feminism
Much of Postmodern Feminism isn’t grounded: it is not based in empirical evidence, rather it is based on freewheeling philosophy.
Deconstructive methods are purely negative, there is little positive about what we should do beyond criticising dominant discourses.
Signposting and sources
This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of the family, usually taught in the first year of study.
Inglis, D (2016) An Invitation to Social Theory