Theresa De Lauretis’s analysis of gender as representation raised a number of interesting points that both agreed and contrasted with my personal experience as a transgender woman.
First, I found the notion that all gender systems are inherently dualistic, with only two extant genders more or less rigidly corresponding to biological sex, to be both somewhat outdated and exceptionally Eurocentric. I personally know a number of individuals whose identity lies completely outside of the binary gender system, and in many cultures, including Native American and South Asian cultures, the concept of a “third gender” has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years.
I did find the notion that, “The construction of gender is both the product and the process of its representation,” to be somewhat compelling, as I am well aware of the ways in which our society reproduces gender roles and creates a normative image of what a “man” or “woman” should be. However, I do not agree that gender is merely a constructed representation of genital or chromosomal sex within a given society. If that were the case, someone like me could not exist, as my genital/chromosomal status would preclude me from identifying with the “feminine” side of the Western gender dichotomy.
Indeed, my upbringing did everything possible to dissuade me from acting in a traditionally feminine manner, and yet I still found myself identifying with female characters in media and longing for the ability to engage in feminine-coded activities, regardless of the fact that my physical body had masculine characteristics. Even the harsh rebukes from my parents (especially my father) whenever I acted in the least bit “feminine” only served to force me to hide my identified gender instead of actually changing it altogether. This suggests that there is another factor at work in the process of alignment with a given societally-defined gender than simple genital/chromosomal sex.
The mention of the bureaucratically-enforced male/female distinction (e.g. M/F checkboxes on a form) also jumped out at me, especially De Lauretis’s assertion that, “It would hardly occur to us to mark M. It would be like cheating or, worse, not existing, like erasing ourselves from the world. (For men to check the F box, were they ever tempted to do so, would have quite another set of implications.).” Every time I was forced to check the “M” box on a form (and write in my masculine-coded name), I would struggle desperately between the fear of social reprisal if I checked the “wrong” box and the disgust I felt at misrepresenting my true identity, to the point where I would sometimes check the “F” box, fill out the rest of the form, and then change it quickly back to “M” before I actually submitted the form. In light of those experiences, I agree with the notion that representing one’s own gender is a critical component of entry into the sex-gender system, but wish to point out that the process of self-representation is not always so effortless as De Lauretis suggests.