“Gender” is difficult. Like the terms with which it most often travels (“race,” “sex,” and “sexuality”), gender is a complex and contested concept that, although used quite widely and more and more frequently in both academic and nonacademic contexts, means significantly different things to different people and across different institutional locations. Does it name an essential part of what it means to be a (particular) human being, a fundamental attribute that directs our sense of self and our outward presentation of that self, and that guides our interactions with others, especially our sexual attractions, encounters, and relationships? Does that description underestimate our agency, failing to allow for the possibility that we direct, guide, and perform gender, or that at the very least gender is malleable and fluid enough that our presentation of “it” is a combination of willfulness and inheritance (whether from the biological or the social/cultural or both)? And if much of the feminist scholarship produced by women of color over the past forty years has encouraged an intersectional approach to power, knowledge, embodiment, and subjectivity, what tools and collaborations are most conducive to approaching gender not monologically but as mutually constitutive with other categories of difference?

These are just a few of the epistemological and ontological questions generated by our efforts to apprehend, theorize, historicize, and denaturalize gender. While the questions may be unanswerable, at least in any precise way, there is great value in pushing at and experimenting with them. Indeed, some of the most exciting and generative work produced in Latina/o studies as a field— and as the rubric we often use to name a constellation of individual but related fields such as Chicana/o studies and Puerto Rican studies—indexes the importance and politics of racialized gender (Alarcón 1990; Saldívar-Hull 1991; E. Pérez 1999; Fiol-Matta 2002, 2017; J. M. Rodríguez 2003, 2014b; E. Torres 2003; Lima 2007; R. T. Rodríguez 2009). Because the frequent objects of analysis that drive Latina/o studies—including, but not limited to, nation(alism), migration, culture, racial formation, and racialized embodiment—necessarily require facility with gender as a category, Latina/o studies has much to teach women’s studies and gender studies about gender’s imbrication with other processes productive of difference and power, and about the different vocabularies and cultural registers through which gender and sex travel and signify.

As Chicana feminist poststructuralist theorist Norma Alarcón argued some twenty-five years ago in her path-breaking essay, “The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism” (1990), intersectional approaches to power, language, knowledge, and subjectivity have the potential to fundamentally challenge the persistence of the “gendered standpoint epistemology” undergirding “Anglo-American feminism.” As the title of her essay suggests, Alarcón was speaking not directly about Latina/o studies but about the kind of experiential and experimental “theory in the flesh” reflected in the watershed anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Radical Writings by Women of Color, co-edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1981, 23). However, because of that anthology’s utmost importance for feminist scholars working in what we now call Latina/o studies, and because Alarcón herself can be considered a key theorist in Latina/o studies, that essay’s interventions are relevant to this discussion of how gender has been taken up in the field.

For Alarcón, Bridge powerfully exemplifies that we do not become women in the same way: there is much variation in relation to the scripts, codes, experiences— including “psychic and material violence”—and processes that lead some to the category of “woman” (1990, 359). That difference compels more precise identifications, such as “woman of color,” and suggests that “one should not step into that category [of woman] nor that of man that easily or simply” (1990, 360). Such easy, simple identification ignores the epistemological and ontological lessons that Bridge offers us about difference, intersectionality, (dis)identification, and complex alliances that exceed the terms of binary oppositions. And if Alarcón complicates identification in this way—even posing the provocation, “But what is a ‘woman,’ or a ‘man’ for that matter?” (1990, 361)—she also complicates the subject of feminist theory (gender) and its related commitment to “gendered standpoint epistemology”—a system that emphasizes women’s supposed “sexual difference” from men through a logic of oppositional counteridentification. One of the many effects of taking women as “the common denominator” across difference, she argues, is that “since the subject of feminist theory and its single theme—gender—go largely unquestioned, its point of view tends to suppress and repress voices that question its authority” (1990, 359–60). This is why, according to Alarcón, in its first decade of circulation, This Bridge Called My Back had only a “cosmetic” impact on Anglo-American feminism (1990, 357).

Interestingly, the term “gender” that Alarcón used in her 1990 essay to name the counteridentificatory limitations of feminist studies and its form of standpoint epistemology is the very same term that has been used optimistically by some feminist scholars and women’s studies (now “gender studies”) departments in their attempts to address those same, and related, limitations. That is, where Alarcón understands “gender” as a category of analysis to be structured through and through by a binary opposition (men versus women), with all of the homogenizing that entails, other feminist theorists have looked to “gender” as a flexible category of analysis—one that can better attend to the insistence by women of color on an intersectional approach to embodiment, subjectivity, and power, and one that can help challenge the primacy of “women” in the field of “women’s studies.” This optimistic and quite-familiar account of gender as the (newer) key term of feminist studies would situate it in contra-relation to the categories “women” (seen as at once too universalizing and narrow) and “sex” (conceptualized as the biological stuff of the body). In that women-to-gender progress narrative, gender functions as a corrective—one that is more capacious than “women,” encapsulating as it does masculinity, femininity, androgyny, butch, and femme, to name a few gendered forms, especially as those embodied forms are differently racialized (e.g. cha-cha femme, homeboy masculinity); more fluid than “sex” and thus more interesting as a site of transgression; and more available to the kind of intersectional analysis called for by many of the scholars traveling and traversing the interdisciplinary fields of “identity knowledges.” That narrative might also celebrate the much-deliberated and publicized name-changes over the past two dozen years that saw many “women’s studies” courses and units (whether centers, programs, or departments) become some variation of “gender studies.” However, as Alarcón’s 1990 essay suggests, and as Robyn Wiegman persuasively argues in Object Lessons, that progressive self-narrative might be too quick to laud the political and knowledge transformations that the newer object “gender” is capable of bringing about: the “well-rehearsed failure [of the category ‘women’] to remain conceptually coherent and universally referential for all women within the field domain of Women’s Studies has inaugurated a turn toward a host of new investments organized increasingly under the sign of gender…. [T]he term has come to collate much of what the category of women is said to exclude: from men, masculinity, and queer sexualities to trans and intersex identities and analysis” (2012, 38).

Likewise, the denaturalizing and destabilizing efforts to illuminate the ways that gender is produced by the repeated things we say, do, and perform may meanwhile unwittingly help stabilize sex as an indisputable fact of biology (Fausto-Sterling 1999). And even those attempts to unglue gender from binaries must recognize that we are increasingly expected to provide our “gender” on the countless bureaucratic forms we fill out—from medical intake forms to airline ticket purchases—by selecting one of two options (“Male” or “Female”). Moreover, gender can be harnessed institutionally in disciplining ways as something that we can be considered to fail at and as something that can be corrected. In 1973, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-3) infamously replaced the homosexual “disorder” with the gender identity disorder (GID). And the DSM-5 (2013) has replaced GID with “gender dysphoria,” to diagnose “individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender” (American Psychiatric Association 2013).

That Alarcón, Wiegman, and Fausto-Sterling— together with the DSM-5 example—remind us that there is nothing inherently liberating about “gender” means that we must continue to find ways of experimenting with and contesting its disciplining effects and how it relates to other categories—probably most especially to “sex,” a term with which it is variously conflated, used interchangeably, distinguished, or, in the case of Gayle Rubin (1975), positioned as two parts of the same “system.” One of the most important early explorations of the relationship between gender and sex was Rubin’s (1975) essay “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Suturing gender to sex as a “sex/gender system,” Rubin captures the ways in which the natural and the biological were intervened upon by human activity in order to produce gender. Brilliantly weaving Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological work on kinship with Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Rubin argues that while psychoanalysis may be maddening in its failure to call for new arrangements in light of its strong acknowledgment about the shame, humiliation, and pain of girlhood and womanhood (the shattering of the female ego), it is not only open to intervention by feminists, but indispensable to the study of gender. Likewise, Rubin’s work should be seen as a resource for Latina/o studies, indispensable and open to intervention, and vice-versa. Even the interrogation of the perplexing positioning of sex in relation to gender, a question to which I will return shortly, can be enriched by considering the ways that Latina/o studies and other bodies of critical ethnic studies scholarship negotiate the shifting meanings of—and relationship between—“race” and “ethnicity,” terms that are variously (and confusingly) deployed as either interchangeable synonyms or as coupled terms whose differentiation depends on an inherited notion that race is more associated with skin color, biology, and power relations (just as sex is associated with genitalia, chromosomes, and other received criteria of supposedly measurable embodied difference), while, in contradistinction, ethnicity (like gender) would appear to be associated more with the social and cultural. While race/ethnicity by no means operates analogously to sex/gender, the shared historical and political entanglements of signification of those two sets of terms remains unexplored.

From the vantage point of the mid-1970s, when Rubin wrote “The Traffic in Women” (first as part of an undergraduate thesis), these proposals were radical. She had essentially appropriated some of the vocabulary and insights from Marxist thought—historical conditions, human intervention—and called for a theory of sex-gender, one that would neither subsume sex/gender to economic conditions, nor divorce it from those con- ditions; one that had the historical breadth to investigate why the oppression of women predated capitalism; and one that offered some conclusions about how to change the social relations that (re)generate the oppression of women. Rubin’s own radical dream was “of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (1975, 204).

Whether one agreed with Rubin’s call for a genderless society (and many feminists did and do), her essay helped encourage the continued critical exploration of the relationship between sex and gender within the fields of feminist studies and (critical) gender studies. Such exploration has generated, especially since the 1980s, a rich archive of immanent critique, a practice that Judith Butler describes as “seek[ing] to provoke critical examination of the basic vocabulary of the movement of thought to which it belongs” (1999, vii). That self-reflexive process of experimentation has sharpened our understanding of identity, subjectivity, embodiment, power, performativity, intersectionality, and social relations—all of which are particularly apt sites from which to consider gender’s influence and influences. Aiming not at the “Truth” of gender, immanent critique approaches gender as a contested and dynamic construct because, as Joan W. Scott cautions in the opening to her influential essay, “Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis,” “Those who would codify the meanings of words fight a losing battle, for words, like the ideas and things they are meant to signify, have a history” (1986, 1053).

Given the incredibly rich body of primary cultural production by Latin@ artists, writers, and performers who innovatively experiment with the complexity of various racialized forms of femininity, gender fucking, masculinity, trans*, and gender policing, Latina/o studies scholars who analyze that material have much to teach us about the kind of history for which Scott calls. Largely because of the momentum created by This Bridge Called My Back, and together with the growth of independent publishing houses geared toward feminist and/or Latin@ publications, the 1980s was a particularly productive decade for culturally specific literary representations of Latin@ gender. One of the most important of these treatments is arguably Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street (1984), a collection of vignettes that reads as a novel and that in the most nuanced and three-dimensional ways depicts gendered curtailment of mobility in the lives of girls and women—as well as the burdens of racialized masculinity for boys and men. What makes this book a classic is Cisneros’s artful narrative technique: we learn about the world of Mango Street through the point of view of a young woman, Esperanza, who has not yet developed the critical tools and vocabulary for critically reflecting on the pleasures, injuries, threats, and desires that are everywhere across the book saturated with gender codes, policing, and hierarchies. This limited point of view allows Cisneros to hint at gendered violence, rendering it suggestively rather than explicitly. The upshot of this technique is that we, the readers, must fill in the missing details of stories, but also, more significantly, Esperanza’s youth— her naïveté and innocence—is clearly meant to bring into sharper (affective) relief the disempowering and confusing network of social norms and emotional and physical violations that circumscribe gendered life on Mango Street.

In closing, I want to reverse the usual direction of primary/secondary material by suggesting that Latina/o studies might approach the form and content of House on Mango Street not only as a rich collection of vignettes about gender, but as a model for how we might attend to some of the limitations I’ve been addressing in relation to the disciplining effects of gender. That is, Cisneros’s capaciousness—her refreshing willingness to refute the “Truth” of gender, her remarkable ability to allow gender as a category to be three-dimensional and unpredictable as a source of both pain and pleasure, her respect for her readers’ agency in inviting them to fill in where the narrator does not go—all of these can help us learn from the lessons that Alarcón is right to say we have been missing.

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