Kathleen Lennon and Rachel Alsop (2020) Gender Theory in Troubled Times, Cambridge: Polity Press

What was intended to become a second edition of their book Theorizing Gender (2002), Gender Theory in Troubled Times overwhelmingly exceeds Lennon and Alsop’s initial ambition. The result is a bold new work which, whilst revisiting many of the same concerns covered in Theorizing Gender, does so in the context of our contemporary ‘troubled times’. Lennon and Alsop characterise this trouble largely as the return of gender essentialism within feminism and feminist theory, particularly around the topic of trans rights, and the rise of right-wing populism across the globe, the discourse of which is ‘visibly anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, conservative, nationalist, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-democratic’ (p9 quoting Kantola & Lombardo, 2019, p3).

The authors’ main intentions are to provide an account of some of the key debates in contemporary gender theory: those concerning biology, psychoanalysis, intersectionality, De Beauvoir’s theories on ‘becoming’, and Butler’s arguments around performance and queerness. They are candid about their position that ‘there is no single authoritative set of conditions which determines sexed identity’ (p3), just as there is no single truth about being a man or woman. However, neither do they dismiss the importance of gender – even if gender is not ‘essential’, it maintains personal, cultural, historical, and societal significance. It is this significance that provides the book’s jumping off point. In what ways gender is significant, where is sexed difference thought to be located, and how do we become gendered in a variety of ways are the questions that underpin the book. It is at once an overview of the theories of gender and a response to what the authors view as the transphobia inherent in contemporary gender-essentialist feminists.

The first chapter The Data of Biology discusses contemporary searches for the determining biological factors that categorizes ‘men’ and ‘women’, paying specific attention to arguments regarding sex hormones and sexed difference in brain structures. They unpick key assumptions that the binary division of bodies into male and female is part of a natural order and that this division is accompanied by other differences, which have consequential effects on social positionality (p23). This chapter also provides critiques of evolutionary psychology, as well historicising the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ and their evolving meanings. The authors do not reject the importance of the body, rather pointing to new materialist perspectives and suggest that the materiality of the body is one component part of how we become gendered. They also urge for a more ‘complex and subtle account’ of biology itself (p39 quoting Grosz, 2008, p24), one that acknowledges the entanglement of nature and culture.

The second chapter Gendered Psyches: Psychoanalysis and Sexual Difference tackles the development of gendered subjectivity using the ‘theoretical resources’ of psychoanalytic thinkers. They highlight the essentialism inherent in the psychoanalytic accounts of Freud, Lacan and Luce Irigaray. For these psychoanalysts, sexed difference is regarded as a fundamental and unavoidable aspect of the self, whilst simultaneously recognising other aspects of subjectivity, such as race/ethnicity, class and (dis)ability, as being ‘contingent and historically explicable, but not inevitable’ (p70). If this can be true for race, the authors argue, why should it not be true for sexed difference. 

The third chapter Historical Materialism demonstrates how gender structures the material, social and economic worlds in which we live. They chart the development of Marxist feminist theory where any analysis of capitalist production needs to take account of the unpaid and waged work in the production of surplus value (p79). The authors point out the racism inherent in focusing on an abstracted class/gender dichotomy that ignores how gender, class and race are mutually constituted, thus resulting in the theoretical erasure of the experience of black women. 

Chapter four expands on the second chapter’s discussion of psychoanalysis by examining Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of ‘becoming woman’. Lennon and Alsop chart the movement from the historical materialist stance that gender is rooted in material conditions to the post-structural turn, which emphasises the role of language and discourse in the construction of sexed difference.

The fifth chapter is dedicated to the multiple theories of intersectionality, exploring the role of (de)colonialism as well as the history of intersectional feminist thought that predates Crenshaw’s coining of the term. Here Lennon and Alsop demonstrate their commitment to ‘internationalism and localism’ as being ‘key to any feminist agenda, interweaving feminist and LGBTQI+ concerns internationally with those of migration and borders’ (pvi). The history of feminist scholarship is critiqued here as being primarily shaped by and for white, cis-gendered, middle class women, and the authors demonstrate how these assumptions have and continue to underline the development of feminism. 

Chapter six explores Judith Butler’s theories on gender performativity, the precariousness of these performances and the queering of gender categories, which is examined further in the final chapter ‘Making Sense of our (Gendered) Selves’Lennon and Alsop emphasise the importance of trans narratives of gender and the body in the face of some contemporary feminists positioning the rights of transwomen as being a threat to the safety and welfare of so-called ‘real’ women. The authors astutely point out that trans-men are rarely, if ever, taken into consideration here.

Alsop and Lennon’s new book makes a vibrant and vital contribution to the field of gender theory and to feminist scholarship, articulating complex theories with sophistication and clarity. Their approach to anti-essentialism ‘recognises our complex entanglements in the material world, kinship relations, economic structures, myths and imaginaries, and practices of bodily training’ (p207). Their concluding chapter reaffirms the premise that there is no overriding truth to gender, rather that the story of gender theory is one of entanglements. They end with a call to action: in order to make visible the workings of power and tackle ‘gendered’ issues of toxic masculinity and violence against women, a politics of coalition in required. Feminism, they argue, is not ‘a security blanket to put around people just like ourselves, but a politics where we respectfully learn to work with differences rather than to police boundaries’ (p209).

By Andrea James, University of East Anglia

Andrea James is a PhD Researcher and Associate Tutor in the School of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where she is researching online misogyny and student experiences of gender violence in higher education. She holds a BA in Culture, Literature and Politics and an MA in Media and Cultural Politics.

Reference List

Alsop, Rachel; Fitzsimons, Annette; Lennon, Kathleen and Ros Minsky (2002) Theorizing Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press

Kantola, Johanna and Lombardo, Emanuela (2019) ‘Populism and feminist politics: The cases of Finland and Spain’, European Journal of Political Research, 28 February

Lennon, Kathleen and Alsop, Rachel (2020) Gender Theory in Troubled Times, Cambridge: Polity Press