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Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture.

Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture. By John M. Sloop. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004; pp. ix + 189. $80.00 cloth; $18.95 paper.

First, the untraditional review: You should buy this book. It is tightly argued with engaging prose, and deftly analyzes a fascinating set of five public controversies concerning gender trouble. It provides valuable insights about the way in which potential transgressions of bi-gender heteronormativity are prophylactically contained. The introduction provides a concise, readable summary of recent work on gender and critical rhetoric that would be useful in any rhetorical theory class, and the case studies would supplement any class in criticism or gender. In fact, Sloop provides an excellent model of how to write critical analyses of media coverage, making clear the precise circumference of his claims and carefully explaining and justifying his focus on the particular texts analyzed.

Second, the more traditional review: Public controversy over gender, sexuality, and sex continues to confound those who engage in and study it. How does one do queer argument? How does one argue about that which is queer? How does argument over identity function to stabilize and destabilize it? When we study moments that push at the boundaries, we often celebrate their transgressive potential. However, the argument and controversy do not stop at the moment of transgression. It is the response to moments of challenge that Sloop analyzes in Disciplining Gender. The book offers five trenchant case studies of "gender trouble," framed by a thorough introduction and precise conclusion.

Critics of argument and culture often focus on (and celebrate) those moments that destabilize our basic understandings and challenge the warrants on which arguments are based. However, as Sloop notes, these moments of transgression are not left unanswered by the dominant discourse. As he notes, each of the five cases,

rather than ... acting as an example of 'gender trouble' that encouraged reassessment of cultural assumptions about human bodies and sexual desire ... were more often positioned within the larger body of public argument as aberrations in nature's plan and hence worked to reify dominant assumptions about human bodies and sexual desire. (2)

In fact, Sloop argues that moments of potential transgression are not visible as such because "they are disciplined in advance to be understood through particular heteronormative understandings of the human condition" (23). He analyzes this prophylactic (rather than recuperative) response and reminds us that social change occurs at a pace that is "intergenerational rather than interpersonal" (19).

The book's introduction thoroughly summarizes gender theory and critical rhetoric. Sloop provides a dense, but extremely readable, summary of Judith Butler's writings, making clear that "gender is what we do rather than what we are" (6). His review of the literature on gender studies is comprehensive, smoothly moving from Butler to Kate Bornstein, to Judith Halberstam, to Jay Prosser. The survey of critical rhetoric is equally engaging. However, while the book often refers to public argument, this concept is not explored as deeply as other theoretical vocabularies. If this book has a weakness, this would be it.

Despite its under-theorization of argument, there is much of value in the book's analysis of the discourse surrounding what argument scholars could read as five public controversies. Interestingly, each controversy seems to reveal intersections of different spheres of argument. For example, in the John/Joan case technical/medical reasoning influenced, and was influenced by, personal understandings of gender and also influenced public understandings of gender roles. The five case studies work through distinct types of gender trouble: sex reassignment, transgenderism, sexual ambiguity, female masculinity, and male sexual relations with a preoperative transsexual.

The five case studies are extremely engaging. Although each could stand on its own, collectively they offer a compelling argument that gender is extremely difficult (but not impossible) to trouble. Chapter 1, "Remembering David Reimer," discusses what is popularly known as the John/Joan case, in which a twin boy was sexually reassigned to female after a circumcision error. Sloop does not analyze what the case proves, or doesn't prove, about the biological foundations of sex and gender. Rather, he examines what popular discourse about the case reveals about how rigidly sex, gender, and sexual orientation are interlinked. Sloop's analysis makes clear that, regardless of their political orientation, commentators did more to reinforce sex/gender/sexuality norms than to challenge them. Whether sex was approached from a biological or constructivist perspective, gender was still gauged in relation to a particular set of behaviors, and successful gender behavior was judged by indications of heterosexual desire.

The Brandon Teena case study explores how a transgender individual was described in media reports. A theme of deception runs deep: These reports went to great lengths to emphasize that Teena's female partners were unaware of his biological sex and thought they were having sex with a biological male. Thus, "one of the primary implied themes in discussions of this case is how to protest the sexual identity-and sexuality identity--of those 'fooled' by Brandon Teena" (67).

The chapter on media coverage of k.d. lang's sexual ambiguity offers yet another perspective. Analyzing media reactions before and after lang's coming out as a lesbian, Sloop argues that "a sexually ambiguous lang is more discursively troubling than the lesbian chanteuse lang" (85). The next chapter discusses public responses to Janet Reno as a form of disciplining female masculinity. The media were fascinated with Reno's size, physical toughness, family status and presumed sexuality. Sloop argues that Reno troubled femininity on these grounds and was ideologically disciplined as a result.

The final case study explores coverage of the murder of Army private Barry Winchell, who was murdered because of his relationship with a "preoperative" male-to-female transsexual. Public discussion tried to fix Winchell's sexuality; Sloop identifies "an overall cultural impulse to name and identify sexuality as stable in a way that reaffirms existing gender categories as the sole basis for sexuality and desire (i.e., to be heterosexual or homosexual implies a 'same' and an 'opposite' gender)" (129). Sloop challenges readers of the media reports not to be trapped by the very bi-gender heteronormativity that this case challenges: To label Winchell "as gay rather than queer, or as attracted to men rather than, for example, to a 'femme' style, is to trap him in a single inflexible category" (129).

The conclusion of the chapter on Winchell prepares the way for the book's conclusion:

The point here ... is not to show that change is an impossibility but to highlight the mechanisms by which cases of gender trouble, once publicly articulated, become marginalized and normalized by all of us, simply because, as humans, we have to rely on preexisting meanings and the power of the institutions we have in place in order to create our own understandings of the present. (141)

Sloop demonstrates that the power of arguments over gender/sex/sexuality is not determined solely by the power of the evidence offered, but is contained by a "profound alignment between institutions, legal structures, personal motivations, and the politics of meanings in mass culture" (141).

Perhaps this book's best feature is its constant reminder that although sexuality options are endless, public discourse surrounding the instances in which these options are displayed works doggedly to contain them by re-entrenching heteronormativity. Heterosexual/homosexual is as much a binary as male/female or masculine/feminine. The queering of gender/sex/sexuality is a constant even as the many ways in which dominant discourses resist this queering are revealed.


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Author:Palczewski, Catherine Helen
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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