Being Your Best Self: Authenticity, Morality, and Gender Norms (Forthcoming in Hypatia)
Trans and gender-nonconforming people sometimes say that certain gender norms are authentic for them. For example, a trans man might say that abiding by norms of masculinity tracks who he really is. Authenticity is sometimes taken to appeal to an essential, pre-social “inner self.” It is also sometimes understood as a moral notion. Authenticity claims about gender norms therefore appear inimical to two key commitments in feminist philosophy: that all gender norms are socially constructed, and that many domains of gender norms are both morally and prudentially bad. I argue that that this apparent tension is illusory. Concordant with existing trans narratives of authenticity, I articulate an existentialist view that understands authenticity as a socially embedded, constructive project undertaken in a non-ideal social world, rather than a reflective uncovering of a pre-given, essential self. I then show that authenticity and morality can come apart; what is authentic for someone need not be either morally good or good for them. I conclude that the authenticity of gender norms does not cut against the feminist commitments that I identify. This conclusion enables a theoretical space that is both respectful of trans experience and critical of dominant gender norms, an important liberatory goal.
PDF available through PhilPapers.
I discussed this paper with host Christiane Wisehart on the Examining Ethics podcast. Listen on the Examining Ethics website, on Spotify, or on Apple Podcasts.
Gender Together: Identity, Community, and the Politics of Sincerity.
Trans people often prioritize self-identification and self-determination when it comes to gender. We think people have a right to tell us who they are, rather than to be told who they are. But what does this really mean? And what should we do when someone self-identifies in bad faith--such as when the Club Q mass shooter (briefly) identified as nonbinary? I discuss these questions in a short blog post.
Written for the Blog of the APA (Women In Philosophy Series). Published January 12, 2023. Available at this link.
(Un)Radical Feminism: Gender and the Limits of Imagination.
I argue that the classic television show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine falls short of its own feminist ideals.
Published in To Boldly Stay: Essays on the Series that “Went” Where No Trek Had Gone Before. Sherry Ginn and Michael Cornelius, eds. McFarland Books, 2022.
Email me for a draft (rabell AT missouri DOT edu).
The Role of a Lifetime: Trans Experience and Gender Norms (Under Review)
It is a guiding principle of the social sciences that individuals become responsive to gender norms as a result of internalization; individuals are trained by their social contexts to become psychologically responsive to them. This is also an important commitment for feminist theory, as feminists hold that gender norms are socially constructed and assigned. Most prominent views in the metaphysics of gender assume that gender norms apply to individuals on the basis of their gender category; call this the category-based view. However, individual norm-responsiveness does not always track category assignment; many trans and gender-nonconforming people experience responsiveness to norms which were not assigned to them. I argue that a commitment to internalization does not entail a commitment to the category-based view. Instead, we should adopt a traits-based view. On a traits-based view, gender norms apply to individuals on the basis of their individual traits, rather than their gender categories. Internalization of norms is trained according to an association between trait and norm; individuals learn the gender-coding of traits, and understand that expression of those traits is associated with the relevant gendered standard. This view explains how gender norms are assigned on the basis of observed features, while also capturing the way individuals actually experience them as action-guiding.
"It's Just Science!": Thick Concepts and Hermeneutical Misfit (Under Review)
The literature on hermeneutical injustice tells us that power affects concept formation and uptake. I argue that "thick" concepts, which function to both describe and evaluate, are often distorted in ways that reinforce oppression. I articulate two related features of this distortion. First, I describe hermeneutical misfit, which occurs when thick concepts function to evaluate the world in ways which are not warranted by (do not "fit") the facts. These ill-fitting concepts make oppression seem normal or appropriate. Second, I describe descriptive misdirection, where ill-fitting thick concepts are deployed as if they merely describe and do not evaluate. For example, defenders of distorted concepts related to sex or race appeal to “mere science," suggesting that that these concepts are a matter of value-free natural fact, when really they are normatively laden. Thus, users of ill-fitting concepts smuggle in distorted evaluations, both reinforcing those evaluations and avoiding the possibility of critique.
Tag Yourself: Nonbinary Discourse and Gender (Under) Construction (Draft)
Nonbinary people on the Internet regularly engage in what I call e-gendering: the playful construction and self-ascription of “genders” that appear randomized and absurd. For example, users might label themselves as having a gender of “cactus” or “punk.” This is often interpreted as either a joke with no significance, or a marker of a concerning trend, wherein nonbinary people understand gender as a matter of individual choice or belief rather than a shared social reality. I resist both interpretations. Instead, I posit e-gendering as gendered play, in the sense articulated by María Lugones. Play can function as a kind of discursive labor for subaltern communities; when dominant worlds have no space for you, play can both allow you to move through those worlds without being crushed, while at the same time enabling you to imaginatively explore possibilities beyond those limitations. E-gendering is thus evidence that nonbinary people are constructing hermeneutical resources for ourselves within shared spaces, in an attempt to build livable lives in a hegemonically gendered world.
Much Ado About Nothing: Deflating Gender Identity (with E.M. Hernandez) (Draft)
Recent work in gender metaphysics tries to give a substantive account of gender identity, in an attempt to ground trans rights. We aim to unmotivate this strategy. “Gender identity” was coined by a cisgender sexologist and plays a central role in trans-antagonistic medical gatekeeping. It can have pragmatic value for explaining trans experience to cis people, but this prudential value does not suggest any metaphysical substance. We argue for a deflationary view, on which to have a gender identity just is to identify your gender.
Distorted Identities: Hermeneutical Injustice and Normative Social Roles (Draft)
Normative social roles help to shape our self-conceptions, to organize our social reality, and to make us the individuals that we are. We use shared social concepts to construct our normative social roles; and when those shared social concepts are warped by power relations, those normative social roles are also warped. I draw from the work of Korsgaard (2009) to understand normative social roles as constitutive of individuals, and argue that warped normative roles can distort one's construction of a coherent, autonomous self. I understand this as a function of hermeneutical injustice. If the available concepts which describe one’s experience are normatively flawed, one is a victim of hermeneutical distortion. When those concepts are embedded in a normative role, those who occupy that role are at risk of having their selves shaped by this distortion. I suggest that these normative roles can be repurposed as tools of resistance, provided that one identifies with them critically—that is, provided that one takes the associated norms as relevant to one’s conduct, but not normatively binding.
Papers in Progress
A paper on agency, gender norms, and games
A paper on marginalized experience and philosophical method