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April 20, 2009

Recuperating "Heteronormativity": It's Not *Just* About Heterosexuals!
By Trevor

If you've ever taken a class on "Queer Theory," you've no doubt been introduced to Michael Warner's now-ubiquitous concept of "heteronormativity." It's an oft-cited term that I think often gets misinterpreted and misconstrued, so I wanted to take a moment here to attempt to recuperate the term from the hands of some academics and activists who have lazily misinterpreted it to mean something much less interesting than it was intended.

Let's begin by laying out what I think is the meaning of the term that I understand Michael Warner to have intended, and the meaning by which I see it often misused:

1) The Original Definition: Basically, Warner was attempting to theorize the set of power relations through which sexuality becomes normalized and regimented in our culture -- and how idealized heterosexual relations become institutionalized and equated with what it means to be human. It's not just intended to describe how gays and lesbians are marginalized, but how monogamy becomes inscribed as the dominant mode of socio-sexual relations. It's normalized sexuality.

2) The Misinterpretation: Because "hetero" is the prefix he uses, many folks simply read Warner as describing the ways in which heterosexuality is privileged over same-sex relations. I understand this to be "heterosexism" -- not heteronormativity.

While it may appear to be a rather trivial point, I think misinterpreting heteronormativity as heterosexism proves to foreclose a much more interesting analysis and politics that might stem from Warner's original conceptualization. In the original sense, it doesn't just implicate prejudice against homosexuality, but also the enormous set of social pressures that serve to construct idealized sexuality. This includes not just sexual-object choice (gay versus straight), but also race, class, gender, and sexual practices.

To help illustrate this, let's return to Michael Warner's "Introduction" to the 1993 anthology, Fear of a Queer Planet where he first coined the term. In this text, the bulk of his analysis rests on a "reading" of Carl Sagan's diagram presented to NASA to be etched onto the side of the satellite Pioneer 10. Here I've provided that very diagram so you can follow his analysis:

Pioneer_plaque.png

So let's now turn to Warner:

They depict... a man and a woman. They are not just sexually different; they are sexual difference itself. They are nude but have no body hair; the woman has no genitals; their heads are neatly coiffed according to the gender norms of middle-class young adults. The man stands square, while the woman leans one hip slightly forward. To a native of the culture that produced it, this bizarre fantasy-image is immediately recognizable not just as two gendered individuals, but as a heterosexual couple (monogamous, one supposes, given the absence of competition), a technological but benign Adam and Eve. It testifies to the depth of the culture's assurance (read: insistence) that humanity and heterosexuality are synonymous (xxviii).

As this is his primary example to illustrate what exactly he means by "heteronormativity," I think we can use it to illustrate a few things about his concept. What he proposed back in 1993 as "heteronormativity" was clearly marked not simply by heterosexual practice (that is, women and men having sex), but rather an ideology that normalizes a heterosexuality that is marked by race, class, and gender relations. The etched couple are not just of relevance because they are simply of a man and a woman, but because they are "sexual difference itself"-- "a technological but benign Adam and Eve" (xxviii). The man is postured assertively with his hand held high, while the woman's hip is cocked, looking passive. So he's pointing out here how it's not just about any old man and woman shacking up, but about an assertive man and a passive woman. They're also both represented as white, with their hair coiffed in such a way as to suggest a middle-class sensibility. Again, not just any heterosexual couple, but the kind found in the grass-lawned suburbs.

All of these things suggest that Warner was not attempting to describe how man-woman relations are embedded in our social institutions, but rather how sexuality is produced through a regime of normalized sexuality that is embodied in the white, middle-class, and appropriately gendered heterosexual couple. This is a critical and important point, because usurping "heteronormativity" to simply mean a benign distinction between hetero and homo misses his point entirely. Sexuality as we know it is not just the product of homophobia, but of a whole host of normalizing regimes (racism, sexism, class relations, and moralizing discourses on sexual practices) that serve to constrain and define what kinds of sexuality are appropriate -- and what kinds are decidedly inappropriate.

In this way, I see Michael Warner's "heteronormativity" as a kind of updated version of Gayle Rubin's "Charmed Circle." She proposes this idea in her 1984 essay, "Thinking Sex: Notes Towards a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sex," Rubin outlines a series of binarisms that construct cultural notions of idealized sexuality ("the charmed circle" versus "the outer limits"). I've reproduced her diagram here (click to embiggen):

rubin_charmed_circle_84.gif

Thus, what we see in Michael Warner's "heteronormativity" and in Rubin's "charmed circle" is an attempt to demonstrate how sexuality is constructed not just through a distinction of the gender of the person you're having sex with, but through a whole host of social norms that are rabidly policed and enforced. I turn to Gayle Rubin for a closing, who describes the implications for theorizing sex and sex politics through this lens:

In Western culture, sex is taken all too seriously. A person is not considered immoral, is not sent to prison, and is not expelled from her or his family, for enjoying spicy cuisine. But an individual may go through all this and more for enjoying shoe leather. Ultimately, of what possible social significance is it if a person likes to masturbate over a shoe? It may even be non-consensual, but since we do not ask permission of our shoes to wear them, it hardly seems necessary to obtain dispensation to come on them.

If sex is taken too seriously, sexual persecution is not taken seriously enough. There is systematic mistreatment of individuals and communities on the basis of erotic taste or behavior. There are serious penalties for belonging to the various sexual occupational castes. The sexuality of the young is denied, adult sexuality is often treated like a variety of nuclear waste, and the graphic representation of sex takes place in a mire of legal and social circumlocution. Specific populations bear the brunt of the current system of erotic power, but their persecution upholds a system that affects everyone.

The 1980s have already been a time of great sexual suffering. They have also been a time of ferment and new possibility. It is up to all of us to try to prevent more barbarism and to encourage erotic creativity. Those who consider themselves progressive need to examine their preconceptions, update their sexual educations, and acquaint themselves with the existence and operation of sexual hierarchy. It is time to recognize the political dimensions of erotic life.

Amen.

PERMALINK | Posted at 12:19 AM | Post a Comment (2)

2 Comments

Nice piece. Clear distinction well put. And I could never find the source of 'heteronormativity' before, so now I'm going to have to read Michael Warner's book. In an early draft of my thesis, I used the term heterosexism, but was unsatisfied with that b/c it didn't seem to implicate the social structure itself, but could include individual animus, which was not what I was trying to measure.
Ended up using the phrase 'normative heterosexuality' and defining it myself as "a societally endorsed view of gender and sexuality that consists of the assumption that adult reproductive heterosexuality is the most valid context for sexual expression and interest.
This assumption relies on another assumption that is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is not frequently identified: that people are either male or female, and that they should be male or female in all aspects of their lives.
By using the phrase societal endorsement, I what to make a clear distinction between what any individuals views may be and the dominant understanding of gender and sexuality in a given social context."

Author Profile Page billandtuna User Profile | April 20, 2009 11:37 AM

Thanks, Bill, for your kind words! I'm glad it was useful, and helped you locate the term's origins.

The text it originates from is actually an introduction to an anthology, but the other essays in the text clearly grapple with this issue.

Yes I think it's definitely clear that heternormativity depends on binary gender -- despite some feminists who have critiqued it to say that it does not (which I take to be a gross misreading).

Author Profile Page Trevor User Profile | April 20, 2009 8:15 PM


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