Blog: Synthesis of Identity Construction and Feminist Pedagogy
Stephanie Sedberry Carrino
Female, white, feminist/anti-racist, mother, teacher, wife, daughter, sister, friend, homemaker, scholar, writer, middle-aged, capable, intelligent, spiritual, nurturing, privileged.
This list of words describes my identity, or at least select aspects of my identity at the time of this writing. Where did these ideas originate? Am I a social construction located in a physical body, or is my body part of the identity equation?
The focus of my “think-tank” group this semester was history, construction of the self, and psychoanalysis. The recurrent theme in the group readings and discussions was gender identity construction and schooling. How do we become gendered, and how does/might education reify or redefine these gender identities?
Much of the feminist literature in the area of gendered identity has focused on the “social construction” of gender – indeed, there appears to be a presumption among feminist writers that gender is, both historically and presently, constructed through patriarchal epistemologies. In the classic words of Simone de Beauvoir, “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman.” What she means is that “woman” and “man” are political and economic categories, not natural ones (Wittig, p. 14).
Many “social constructionists” appear to believe that people are born almost tabla rasa, and are defined through the language and behaviors of others, literature, images, media, and schooling experiences. The idea is that we then “perform” or enact our gender as enculturated – complete with clear ideologies about masculinity, femininity (Butler, pp. 62, 68-69). The argument is compelling, as illustrated by the following video created by a sociology student:
While we are clearly “defined” by our culture, and much of who we are is the performance of these powerful constructions, some scholars suggest that the construction of identity, at least gender identity, may be more complex than just “social construction.”
The Challengers – Identity as Embodied
There are a number of disciplines which appear to challenge this widely held notion of gender as social construction, or at least as only social construction. They argue for a more “embodied” approach to understanding identity (Lafrance, p. 263, Villaverde, p. 89). What they have to say can inform discussions of gender identity formation. Here are a few examples of disciplines which forefront the body in identity construction:
Disability Studies: Some who study people with disabilities and (dis)ability theory claim that the physical body cannot be ignored as a significant factor in identity formation, which “disturbs” contemporary feminist theories of identity (Lafrance, p. 265). Nancy Mairs, in Carnal Acts provides an example of this. She claims, “who I am and how I speak,” that is disability and voice, are intertwined (p. 393). She argues that the treatment of the “body” as an other, as a “thing” that we “have” does not allow for a complete view of identity. “I couldn’t write bodiless prose,” Mairs says. “No body, no voice; no voice, no body.” (pp.399-400).
Trans Studies: I find this area to be particularly interesting, because at first blush, it may appear that transgender studies support the idea of sexuality as socially constructed, or “normalized.” However, trans-theorists argue the contrary. Lafrance says that trans theories complicate the social construction idea, because bodies cannot be viewed as non-material (p. 266). I wonder how an intersexed person, constructed as either man or woman, could argue that they have been “incorrectly” constructed without input from the body.
Psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud is enjoying a resurgence of interest regarding identity formation. His object-relations theory posits that as infants, the mind and body are one entity – there are no distinctions. Our bodies, specifically our skin, provides us with meaningful information and boundaries. For Freud, “to be is to have ones own skin” (Lafrance, p. 269). So, psychoanalysis “has the potential to enrich how feminists think the subjective experiences of bodily life” (Lafrance, p. 263).
Theatre Studies/performance studies/dance – Wilcox provides an example of how our bodies think and utter thoughts from the realm of dance (p. 107). The author discusses a women-of-color dance company, the Ananya Dance Theatre, and the ways that their body performances facilitate understandings of justice issues, both for the dancers and for audiences. This is an example of how bodies function as “agents of knowledge production” (p.111).
Ananya Dance Theatre
In addition, the dicusssions surrounding the media video “Ghostcatching,” which depicts a body movement patterns, contribute to this discussion as well. The body movement patterns, though “disembodied” from the dancer, somehow do not appear as distinct from the persona of the embodied dancer. In other words, even lines in space cannot separate the mind and body of a dancer (Dils).
There are innumerable other stories from the voices of individuals that cannot be ignored when considering identity. The narratives of rape victims speak to the embodied effect of a bodily invasion. These lived experiences speak to the importance of the body and flesh to identity concerns.
It may not be that we are natural bodies, or constructed bodies, but maybe something in between. We need to consider the possibility of embodied gender identification.
The Lukewarm Response
A lukewarm response to these ideas of “gender as embodied construction” can be explained in a number of ways. First, it’s hard to question taken-for-granted assumptions – so the challengers have burden of proof. It’s hard to fight city hall.
Second, I believe some may fear that acknowledging the body as a part of identity returns us to the “biology is destiny” claim. This is not what proponents of “embodied gender” are proposing. The argument is not that masculinity and femininity are based on biology or biological sex, or that having testicles or ovaries makes one necessarily masculine or feminine. The crux of the argument is that by privileging the mind and gender as social construction, we are missing a piece of the gender identity puzzle. The argument is not for a “materialist identity epistemology” or that we can be “appropriately raced and gendered” because there is a universal maleness and femaleness, but that the mind/body binary needs to be transcended.
Finally, I believe we are so trapped in the structure of patriarchal thought, that we have a hard time seeing beyond hierarchical binaries. We tend to position mind over body, thought over feeling, doing over being, and masculine over feminine. This thinking leads us to see the body as “object” (a container for identity) and the mind as “subject” (constructed identity), rather than honoring the body as an actor in gender identity formation. One aspect of identity formation does not need to dominate the other.
Can we merge the mind and body somehow to reconceptualize gender identity formation? Can we get beyond duality of mind/body? The body has knowledge — sensations, impulses, cycles, feelings, pleasures and discomforts. We ARE material beings as well as social constructions. We need to include the body in identity discussions.
Why it Matters
Why does all this matter? Is all this abstract “thought” about minds and bodies and “embodied gender identity” important? My answer is, of course, a resounding yes! In the study of gender identity, and the political, economic, and social ramifications of our gendered identities, it is important to understand how gender is formed, maintained, and challenged. We cannot interrogate “gender” without trying to understand where “gender” comes from.
In addition, as feminist scholars, we cannot ignore the work in progress in other areas of study which focus on identity issues. While we’ll never have “the” answer, our thinking does become more sophisticated when we expand our circle to include multiple voices. Villaverde (2008) says, “Feminist theory cuts across numerous ideologies and disciplines, recognizing a wide range of subject positions and connections. Comprehending these ideologies and paradigms allows us to ask more accurate questions” (p. 53). Haywood and Mac an Ghaill echo this idea when they claim that if we are to make sense of this notion of gendered identities, we need to understand the “continuities and discontinuities within different epistemologies of identity” (p. 56).
Links to Feminist Pedagogy
We cannot ignore the connection between “experience, identity and knowledge” and the ways our identities inform what we know (Sachez-Casal and Macdonald, p. 2). To explore identity formation is to explore knowledge itself. Regardless of perspective on identity formation, it is clear that “education institutions… impact upon the formation of identities” (p.50).
Wilcox talks specifically about knowledge and knowledge production and gender identity. In the article, Embodied Ways of Knowing, Pedagogies, and Social Justice: Inclusive Science and Beyond, she argues that knowledge is not an objective collection of ideas and theories. Instead, it is subjective, embodied in “sexually and racially specific bodies” (p. 106). When we treat knowledge as objective and disembodied, we are privileging a white, male way of knowing. “Through integrating and rethinking embodied ways of knowing, we can empower ourselves and our students to critique Eurocentric, male-dominated modes of knowledge production and, ultimately, to envision alternatives” (Wilcox, p. 188). By viewing knowledge “through our racialized and sexualized bodies,” we can make what counts as knowledge more inclusive (Wilcox pp.106-107).
How can we do this? Through the practice of feminist pedagogy. Villaverde says that feminist pedagogy is the “dislodging what was previously understood and envisioned” (p.121). Here are some strategies for dislodging limited notions of knowledge:
- Embodied exercises in the classroom: This can help women and students of color “more likely to feel included and be engaged in the classroom” because lived experiences are valued (source).
- Build a classroom climate of relationships, trust, and collaboration (Williams, R.).
- According to Sanchez-Casal and Macdonald, the following expand knowledge production: “decentering the authority of the professor, developing and foregrounding subjugated knowledges, legitimizing personal identity and experience as the foundation of authentic and liberatory knowledges (especially marginalized identities), discussion-based classes, emphasis on student voice” (p. 5).
- Creating earning communities, sharing authority, connecting content to context, and listening (Cervenak, et. al., p. 344).
- Williams and McKenna contribute the following: “Feminist classes have traditionally viewed personal experiences as important to learning both as content and method. Students are asked to make connections between their lives and the theories they are studying and encouraged to develop both a personal relationship to the academic material and a critical perspectives on their experiences” (p. 142).
My participation in this “think-tank” group on history, construction of the subject, and psychoanalysis has further convinced me that we, as feminist scholars, should consider embodied ways of knowing and being — including how social constructions influence the body and how the body influences the social constructions of gender. In this strange space, we may just discover richer explanations of identity.
Butler, J. (2006). Performative acts and gender constitution. The Routledgefalmer reader in gender and education (Routledgefalmer readers in education) (1 ed., pp. 61-71). New York: Routledge.
Cervenak, s., Ceapedea, K., Souza, C., & Straub, A. (2002). Imagining differently: The politics of listening in a feminist classroom. This Bridge We Call Home Radical Visions for Transformation (pp. 341-356). San Jose: Routlege,2002.
Dils, A. (2001). Absent/presence. Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader (1st ed., pp. 462-471). Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
Haywood, C., & an Ghaill, M. M. (2006). Education and gender identity. The Routledgefalmer reader in gender and education (Routledgefalmer readers in education) (1 ed., pp. 49-57). New York: Routledge.
Lafrance, M. (2007). Embodying the subject: Feminist theory and contemporary clinical psychoanalysis. Feminist Theory, 8, 263-278.
Sanchez-Casal, S., & Macdonald, A. (2002). Feminist reflections on the pedagogical relevance of identity. Twenty-first-century feminist classrooms: Pedagogies of identity and difference (pp. 1-18). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Villaverde, L. E. (2007). Feminist theories and education, primer. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Wilcox, H. (2009). Embodied ways of knowing, pedagogies, and social justice: Inclusive science and beyond. NWSA Journal, 21(2), 104-120.
Williams, R. (2008). Facilitating Smart-Girl: Feminist pedagogy in service learning. Feminist Teacher, 19(1), 47-67.
Williams, T., & McKenna, E. (2002). Negotiating subject positions in a service-learning context. Twenty-First-Century Feminist Classrooms: Pedagogies of Identity and Difference (pp. 135-154). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wittig, M. (1992). One is not born a woman. “The Straight Mind and Other Essays (pp. 9-20). Boston: Prentice-Hall.