Behind the Hills, Into Shadow

In my last article I talked about some of the ‘sorrows’ of gender activism (and they could apply to activism generally, to be sure) centring primarily on how one knows when to do the right thing and how one knows when to stay the hand of one’s righteous indignation and rage.

Yet as any of us know, perhaps all too well, this is scarcely where the problems end and I would like to examine a few further issues through the lens of the Shadow as understood by Carl Jung, a very helpful psychological metaphor that I thank Sady Doyle for introducing to the conversation. Let us begin with a fairly acceptable Wikipedia definition of the thing in question:

In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts. It is one of the three most recognizable archetypes, the others being the anima and animus and the persona. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”[1] It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts,[2] which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.

According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to projection: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections are unrecognized “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object–if it has one–or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.” [3] These projections insulate and cripple individuals by forming an ever thicker fog of illusion between the ego and the real world.

Sady Doyle used this concept to suggest that what we as activists are most keenly aware of in others is often as not something we suppress and fear in ourselves, to the point where we- in essence- project the failure onto other people. The more virtuous we seek to be, the more we define ourselves against the evil in the world, the more likely it is that we will have a harder time seeing the shadow in ourselves. Or, to resurrect my own metaphor, to see the shadow being cast by our swords.

This often works in very particular ways in activist communities and is precisely at the heart of many problems we all confront; it is one of the reasons that being a radical activist always leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, that perhaps your real ‘enemies’ are your comrades at times. It is an interesting take on that old saw about the British Parliament: the Opposition sits in front of you, and your enemies are behind you. Yet while some people become disillusioned with activism for these reasons, for that ever pervasive sense of having to fight harder with your fellows than against the very oppression you’re purportedly organised against, the opposite has happened with me. It’s actually entrenched my radical trans feminism because what I see is not some depressing and noxious ‘truth’ about what feminism actually is but how it fails often to live up to its own ideals.

The issue is not feminism itself but the world in which feminism is necessarily situated. Our Shadows are internalisations of patriarchy itself that then become projected outwards into our work in bizarre ways. But they are not so bizarre that they are unintelligible.

At my university, for instance, I have dealt with some rather awkward situations with the faculty where a particular pedagogical vision held sway among certain members of the department: shock value and discomfort were important teaching tools. That the people who advocated this were white and cis did not matter as much to them as the fact that were feminists and radicals who sought to include everyone and criticise everything. Noble, mighty, swords of truth thrust defiantly into the air.

This, of course, leaves aside an important question: for whom does the shock have value?

When you have a professor telling a rape survivor to “suck it up and stop being such a baby” because she fears an assigned film with violent sex may trigger her, what does his feminism mean in that moment? It means something rather patriarchal, although he just won’t admit it. This is where every activist movement runs afoul with “the ends justify the means.” For this professor, his radical feminist project involves colonising the experiences of others, harvesting their emotions for the greater good and using them to teach. This comes at the expense of those who feminism claims to fight for, but never mind. There is a radical goal in mind and that matters most: to unsettle, to discomfit, to drag people out of comfortable illusions and delusions.

All well and good, never mind a woman whose comfort comes in precious islands of luxury that she struggles to hold onto.

What does feminism mean in this moment? It means there is a shadow of patriarchy being cast. If a white cis male Economics professor were doing such a thing to his students, perhaps this feminist man might well have a justifiable conniption fit and speak loudly and proudly (and truthfully) about the entitlement and privilege of that professor. But if the culprit is a gender studies prof? Well, he’s doing it for the right reasons.

The ends justify the means.

Radical fashion is a dangerous thing, and it exemplifies itself in the dominance of the privileged even in the spaces of the supposedly marginalised; how white middle class trans men so often speak for the whole trans community, how feminist men are feted and celebrated as if they’d landed here from Krypton, how academia remains hostile to anything but an ideological radicalism that comports with the latest intellectual fashions in the latest obscurantist Continental prose.

In 1992 Gender Studies Sailed the Ocean Blue

Let us take as our point of departure the way modern feminisms talk about trans people. I alluded to this in my prior essay:

…[F]or instance the never-ending struggle over women-only spaces and their tortured relationship with trans people. I have been told more than once that I have two choices. I either support a supposedly universal concept of womanhood and sisterhood that is fundamentally unable to include trans people, or I support a trans inclusive feminism that scrupulously makes little reference to “women” as anything but the most qualified and indeterminate of classes. They are competing Madonnas, visions of perfection I can never achieve. I will be a bad radical feminist if I fail to live up to the first, and a bad trans feminist if I fail to live up to the second.

There is a reason this happened and I did not expand on it fantastically in the prior essay. Now is the time to do so.

By the late 1980s after bruising feminist battles over competing visions concerning women in society, postmodernism in the French tradition had come of age and was rapidly being integrated into feminist discourse. Lois McNay’s Foucault & Feminism and Jan Sawicki’s Disciplining Foucault are thoughtfully complex negotiations with the (in)famous queer Frenchman who got everyone talking about things like ‘biopower’ and ‘discursive regimes of power.’ These early adventures prefigured a growing debate about the role of postmodernism in feminism.

He couldn't smash patriarchy without it.

Enter a brilliant philosopher named Judith Butler and a troublesome book about gender.

To her eternal dismay the book Gender Trouble became famous for its very brief discussion of drag queens as exemplary of transgressive/transformative parodic gender that exposed the underlying pageantry of all gender. This was not the point of the book, nor its central argument. But it transfixed readers (perhaps because it was one of the few perspicuous points in the book) and became the central theme of early ‘Butlerian’ thought in the women’s/gender studies establishment.

Transgender people had at last been discovered.

Or, I should say, rediscovered and rehabilitated. The cis people within the gender studies establishment were now determined to move on from the crassness of people like Janice Raymond who didn’t understand trans people like they did. Now there would be new, dense, opaque theories lardered with new multisyllabic words about these strange people and their strange ways.*

There is another intersection to consider here that is vital to this story and it has to do with one of the actual points of Gender Trouble and the historical moment in which it was situated. It was during this particular period in gender studies that the question “who is a woman anyway?” became especially pitched and urgent. Almost two decades of repeated interventions by Third World women, women of colour, lesbians, and yes even trans women, as well as kinky women, sex workers, intersex people, and on and on had forced women’s studies to seriously reconsider Woman as a universal subject position. Like most such arguments it quickly became polarised.

On the one hand there were those who advocated the continued use of Woman as universal banner around which to organise. On the other were the postmodernists who said women were too different from one another to cohere around any common understanding, however duly individuated and complex, for there to be any real adherence to the concept of ‘woman.’

This is where Gender Trouble entered the debate, and it is where modern women’s/gender studies approaches to trans people begin. For it is here that we were colonised as evidence for the latter side in this argument. Look at us trans folk, they will say, we prove that we cannot even define women as sharing a biological basis. This is true enough, as it goes. But the argument goes further to then say that we may not organise as women for precisely that reason.

Guess who this puts trans people (involuntarily, more or less) into direct conflict with once again? The old guard radical feminists who believe passionately in organising around the concept of ‘woman.’

This is a long but often untold story. It is a story about how the most modern, the most enlightened, the most academically in-vogue feminists have simply reenacted scholarly colonisation for the sake of an argument that they desperately need to win. When I am told that I must side with them because I’m a trans person, because they’re nice enough to accept me as a woman, they are also reenacting the patriarchal strategy of divide and conquer. What’s more I’m having my politics tacitly dictated to me by cis people who know what’s best for me. Echoes of the patriarchal medical establishment and its colonisation sound sonorously here as well.

And there are shadows everywhere.

The concept of Woman as an organising principle is quite important to me personally; politically and theoretically. I do not appreciate being told, in this backhanded way that undermines my self-knowledge, that  the idea of Woman is not for me. When one of my professors says “what woman, which women, where are they?” in response to the use of the generalised form of ‘woman’ I want to say “Right here, in your class, sitting in front of you.”

The Jungian Shadow here is one where certain well meaning people, again with ends in mind that justify particular means, enact a certain patriarchal narrative: that of colonisation and dictation. What these people so deplore in others, so readily (and rightly!) castigate in their foes, they end up doing themselves with trans people because a certain interpretation of us is convenient for a given paradigm.

Unintelligible, That’s What You Are

Regrettably postcolonialist perspectives have a long shadow cast over them as well. Edward Said’s legendary book Orientalism gave its name to an entire school of understanding how (white) Europeans have fetishised and exoticised the “mysterious East” into this universal melange that stereotyped real Asian people out of their own realities and marshalled them instead into a performance for Europeans. Asians, this still-common Eurocentric ideology held, are ‘inscrutable’ and beyond understanding, beyond knowledge and are so incredibly exotic and mysterious. There, somewhere in the Orient, is the eternal Chinese puzzle box of ‘Eastern’ culture.

The racism in this vision is blisteringly obvious, and its dominance is one of the wages of colonialism still being paid out with interest. It is a hegemonic vision in many Western nations that bears down on vastly disparate groups from Central Asians to Muslims to Farsi-speaking peoples, to Japanese, to Korean, to Chinese, to Pilipino, to Pacific islanders, to Subcontinental peoples.

To recognise this difference and to pay it its due, long overlooked in dominant colonialist discourse, the language of relativism developed as an appreciation of the heterogenous nature of culture. Again, in and of itself, this speaks to a truth through a counter-discourse that now militates powerfully against things like Orientalism. But because of internalising the very thing they fought against, relativists in the academy have stepped on a very particular landmine and ended up doing the very thing they criticise in colonialists. Fetishising non-Western cultures as so irretrievably Other that they cannot be understood.

This dovetails back into my earlier discussion of postmodern abuse of trans people. One of the central plinths in the ideological argument about how women can never be understood as a group is that women in “other cultures” (presumably in misty and inscrutable far off lands) are so different from “white Western women” (because the only women in the West are white) that we cannot speak of women as a group. Nevermind the feminisms that have proliferated right around the world around the very concept of women (which includes things like that ‘Ni Putas…’ poster I used in my prior article). Relativism is used to excuse this, to say that these ‘women’ come from such different cultures that we cannot possibly understand them as women with any claim to any sort of recognisable feminism.

They are presumably too inscrutable to do so.

What I am suggesting here is that this species of postmodernist relativism is actually the Shadow of Orientalism and other thought forms like it. Ironically, in the name of rightly fighting such colonialist ideas, we have become them in a way.

This is not to dismiss excellent academic work by postmodernist women who have thought through some of the difficulties I describe. Linda J. Nicholson’s paper Interpreting Gender charts a middle path forward through the muddle using a version of coalition politics that builds on women’s distinctions as a base rather than on a presumed universalism. Unity by other, more complex means. Her edited volume Feminism/Postmodernism also contains many thoughtful and intricate discussions of the debate. Jan Sawicki’s book, mentioned earlier, is still another thoughtful negotiation of the shoals that more people in gender academia should take to heart.

But it is to say that too often, outside of the spaces of free-ranging complexity that academic papers allow, the discourse too often tilts towards this shadowy discussion of how “we” (you know, us Europeans. Even though I’m actually Latina, but never mind) cannot understand “them.” Therefore there’s no ‘women’ and we cannot go on about them. And hey, look, Quinnae’s a tranny who proves the argument, isn’t that terrifically convenient? We’re just so performative, aren’t we?

What trans people realise, all too often, is that while everyone performs gender, that isn’t how it’s conceived of publicly. When we use drag queens and other transgender people as the sine qua non of performance it reiterates, again via a backdoor, the idea that cis genders are less ‘performance’ (and thus more real) than trans ones. Butler herself would bang her head against a wall at this utter misreading of her work, and I know it is one of the popular misreadings of it that so vexes her. She has my sympathies for this, it’s not really her fault. But it is an idea that’s taken on a life of its own on the back of postmodernism, that shadow of Victorian academic colonisation, and that must be addressed.

"How can I possibly make everyone happy with my academic theorising?" (Image Credit: Pathfinder RPG)


I am under no illusions that this is a suitably thorough examination of the complex topics involved. It needs to be said that these counter-discourses developed for very, very good reasons. It also needs to be said that these counter-discourses have oftentimes been used very well, often by those of us who are supposedly not able to speak. But it is to say that there are Shadows to which we must pay attention here, critical issues that our reflexivity too often excludes, and ways in which these newest, freshest of scholarly ideas actually key into ones far older and far more patriarchal than they seem at first blush.

There is no doubt that Second Wave feminism got a fair bit wrong in conceptualising women: trans women were burned extremely badly by this. But there is also no doubt that variants of their concept of ‘women’ have gained a lot of traction, even among especially marginalised women, for precisely the reason that the Second Wave kicked into gear in the first place: because we live in a patriarchy. As I have demonstrated, the important postmodernist questions of “whose x?” and so on are often asked at the wrong times and ignored when they need to be asked. As the professor who called a rape survivor a cry baby should have wondered: “whose political space is this? For whom is the shock valuable? Who is learning at whose expense?” These are vital questions that poststructuralist and postmodernist interventions (adding to extensive work done by the interventions of women of colour and trans women) have given us that should enhance our reflexivity and should cast light on the shadow.

We need to be prepared to ask them. We also need to be prepared to know when those questions do more harm than good and when they deny obvious reality. When you are asking “what women?” it is worth wondering whether or not the very marginal women you claim to be speaking up for are not, in fact, excluded and erased by the question.

Trans women in particular have been speaking for themselves and it is worth considering what we have to say about being women.

I will close by relating a small anecdote that is worth considering with regard to the inscrutability question. I linked Sady Doyle’s article to a friend of mine who was raised in an Indian-American household as a strict Hindu. She empathised powerfully with Doyle’s relation of her Catholic upbringing, the guilt and moral paroxysms it had left her with. I as a Puerto Rican woman empathised with Doyle’s reality about her Catholic childhood despite her being white. Yet my friend found just as much comity despite her coming from a culture that, as some relativists would demand we remember, is so “vastly different” and “non-Western” and so on. She too found that in her Hindu upbringing there was a lot of internalised guilt and moral absolutism that bedevils her long after she gave up on the faith. What does this mean? It means that difference and sameness weave into one another, that where there are distinctions there are also commonalities. This is crucial to remember, and it’s why there are women of some sort everywhere.


(*) I should point out that, as readers of this blog and my friends know very well, I am a huge lover of multisyllabic academic argot and dense prose. You see how this Shadow thing works? I sound peeved about it and yet it’s probably because I do it so much myself. You know who gets wet talking about discursive regimes of power, epistemological hegemony, and ontological x, y, and z? This gal. So take my critiques as you will.

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  1. You have such a beautiful way of expressing profound and enlightening analyses. I turn to you, foremost, when I really want to feed my head… and heart.

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