Why I left gender studies

Published on 2024-04-13

At the beginning of "The Three Body Problem" (at least, the American version), Liu Cixin put in a pretty scathing review of the Cultural Revolution. In it, he imagined a professor being tortured on stage at a university by the Red Guards—his students. The Red Guards demanded that he denounce who they considered to to be the bourgeois scientists of the west—those whose international fame may be ascribed to their exploitation of the many working people labouring behind the scenes, building their microscopes, their computers, or perhaps doing their calculations by hand. The professor thought this was absurd. He, for example, rejected the idea that we shouldn't use Einstein's theory of relativity, because it was observably useful, and that we should remove Einstein name from his work, because he is indeed a smart guy who did a pretty good job at figuring the whole thing out (until, of course, our models demanded more uncertainty).

I found this subplot really interesting. The relationship between the "scientist class" and the people is pretty intensely in question in at least the first book of the Remembrance of Earth's Past series. I'd go as far as to say it has a pretty anti-scientist message (somewhat importantly, not "anti-science"). But that might be a story for another time.

I didn't really like Liu Cixin's critique of the Cultural Revolution, not because I like the Cultural Revolution, but rather because I found it deeply unconvincing. I've talked about my distrust of the scientific method before:

Scientific apostasy

But I think I can take that one step further: in general, I feel very distrustful of the way knowledge is constructed in academia. Specifically, it feels like trickle-down economics—pure knowledge in a lot of disciplines is often treated as a plaything for those who can afford to occupy themselves with it. Usually, that's fine. Like, people can have hobbies; that doesn't bother me. But I think because of it I don't hold most academics in the same regard as others in the university-ecosystem do¹.

When I first arrived at university, I was broadly planning on minoring in gender and women's studies. I was going to be the non-binary Donna Haraway, or Judith Butler with a computer. That was the dream, anyway. I did gender studies in my first year, but when it came time to declare my minor, I chose data science instead (and later, environmental science). I've wanted to write about that choice basically since I made it.

Quite a while ago, I wrote an article I also called "Why I left gender studies," though I never ended up publishing it. It was kind of a satirical piece. It had a fairly sincere message, but the gimmick was that the more you read, the more complicated the prose became, until it didn't really mean anything. I can't remember why specifically I never finished it, but I think a big part of it was the fact that this stereotype of "gender studiers write hard" doesn't fully encapsulate the problem I had with the discipline.

I ask a lot of dangerous questions as a university student, like, "what am I doing here?"

Academiology 0: On the willingness to know the value of university

I have this real vivid memory of my first year. I got really, vocally angry with someone—something I'm usually pretty good at not doing. They were going on and on about how silly they thought it was that people study the arts and humanities at university. They kept asking things like, "what are you going to do when you leave? Who'll pay you to be an art historian, or a sociologist, or an English major?" They kept bringing up that very tired metaphor about art school being a Ponzi scheme to get more people to teach art. Once I had my fill, I snapped, telling them that if they wanted a job, they should have gone to a vocational school. University isn't about getting a job, it's about acquiring and building knowledge.

I don't think I was being naive per se. I think I was right, but today I'd add an extra qualification: university isn't about getting a job if you have the money to not need to worry about those things. I wouldn't call going deep into debt for an arts degree with minimal job prospects a silly decision to make—it's one I'd probably make myself in the right circumstances—but I do think it takes a dangerous amount of optimism. More than anything, I consider people who fall into that trap victims. They're victims of a university that needs growth above all else, and dangles the comforts of one's passions on the end of a string. The university can take that life away from you basically on a whim, unless you have the means to finance your journey on your own.

So, I suppose that in large part, my decision to minor in data science was my admission that I'm here because university is, indeed, a vocational school.

I first approached Judith Butler's book "Gender Trouble" when I was in high school. Someone told me it was big and important and about gay and trans people, so I decided to download it. I can still remember struggling to read through their incredibly verbose addendum to the edition I had, rebutting critics who argued their writing was too inaccessible. But, I was a nerd who liked reading books way over their reading level, and so I pushed through.

At least, I pushed through like the first quarter before giving up.

In my first year, I picked it up again and made it a lot further—maybe like half way through. Taking very detailed notes as I read helped me to piece their arguments together. I still remember this one paragraph that really stood out. I read it, I re-read it, I re-read it again and I still couldn't figure out how the conclusion followed from the premises. The argument had to do with the idea of "biological sex"

Biogeochemical girl

Specifically, Butler was arguing that, despite the fact that biological sex is conventionally framed as this underlying, universal, "natural" and permanent fixture of identity, it intrinsically failed to serve the role because not everyone is biologically male or female. You know, intersex people exist. They're about as common as redheads. And so, biological sex must be a social construct, because there is no way to square the circle of "everyone is biologically male or female" and "biological sex is a spectrum"².

Importantly, this wasn't clear at all. At least, not to me. I have a friend who's also really into 1990s feminism and queer theory, so I sent him the paragraph and asked for his thoughts. Together, we teased out the meaning. I've always had the sense that biological sex was kind of bunk as an idea, but I think this might have been the first time I was ever truly convinced. And I think this was how a lot of my reading felt: it was difficult as hell to figure out what they were saying, but cracking that code felt a lot like drawing back your curtains and opening the window. I felt, for the first time, like I had this concrete system of metaphors to understand my experience and how it related to others.

Why I don't write arguments

I do owe a certain debt to the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway, and Meenakshi Gigi Durham, and the many other feminist theorists who occupy my e-reader. Their ideas are pretty deeply rooted in the way I see the world. But I think studying gender identity at university helped me to realize something else I probably already knew: beyond a certain point, I don't really need Judith Butler to tell me what it means to be transgender. All that knowledge is already locked up in my head, like a supercooled liquid, or a supersaturated air parcel, just waiting for something to cling onto. For a while, that was the value proposition of studying feminist theory, but eventually, I realized it didn't need to be. It could be computer science, environmental science, or better yet: both at the same time. Thus, my website and gemlog.

So I guess me leaving gender studies was equal parts because I didn't need it. I already had all the gender studies I needed.

I do still think every once in a while, what might have happened, had I ever stopped by my professor's office. They could have very easily persuaded me to switch my major at the time. I might have been a very different person today.


¹ I attended this conference at the local university in my town back when I was in high school, once. It was about research, and why people should go into it. I remember this one speaker who really fascinated me. He claimed that researchers weren't very highly regarded in society—specifically, that they were looked down on by the public. Somewhat importantly, this was a few years before the 2020 lock downs.

What was especially strange, was that he had the audience raise their hands if we felt that our parents would be proud of us for going into research. I raised my hand, another person raised their hand across the room, and everyone laughed. Really confused, I asked the speaker why he felt like researchers weren't highly regarded—I'd spent my entire life being told they were. He didn't really have an answer, and just dismissed my question. I have to wonder if he was talking about the wave of anti-science rhetoric (the dangerous kind) that'd really take form in the coming years. Maybe I was just too young to see it at the time.

² Let me take this one step further: as I talked about at length in "Biogeochemical girl," the problem is that biological sex isn't really a unitary "thing". The male/female dichotomy isn't really representative of what biologists would conceive of as the sex of the human body. It doesn't represent the full breadth of human variability. It doesn't have that much explanatory power. It does, however, have a lot of power to oppress transgender people.

Respond to this article

If you have thoughts you'd like to share, send me an email!

See here for ways to reach out