Assuming the female part : a critique of discourses of bodily normalcy

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

In this thesis, I examine the concept that discourses which utilise a stable notion of womanhood inevitably exclude some by the very boundedness of their definitions. Such definitions are premised by a notion of gendered normativity, and are often implicit and unconsciously evoked. Principally, I addess the reductive conflation of womanhood with specific biological parts, a common rhetorical strategy I identify as a particularly problematic form of synecdoche. Although feminisms are often highly attuned to questions of social difference amongst women, I argue that, too often, this awareness is not extended to deconstructing notions of 'natural' physical female identity. This can, in part, be traced to an historical feminist need to argue a distinction between biological sex and socially constructed gender, in the face of partiarchal oppression. This separation has done much to forge a space for the legitimation of women's rights, as it diminished the centrality of the body to the issue of identity construction. However, is associating the acquired effects of culture solely with gendered identity, the concept of 'the female body' has unavoidably become regulative, singular and naturalised. I use poststructuralist theory to demonstrate that, even when authors explicitly seek to address feminist issues of women's exclusion and marginalisation within patriarchal discourse, their recouse to an identifiable 'woman' paradoxically ends up re-inscribing these very issues for some women. Indeed, this is because the notion of a universally identifiable, stable 'woman' is a fiction.

Includes bibliographical references.