Reconceptualising the Real in the Struggle for Gender: From Gold Standard to Fragile Accomplishment

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The conflict surrounding gender categories in Britain between proponents of immutable sex-based rights and those advocating for diversity and self-identification is, at its heart, a conceptual conflict about what gender means and is, with the “real” deployed on both sides to give authority and status to the claims made. This is largely a mainstream conception of the real as independent existence and truth. While it can support different gender politics, it is a conception of the real that inclines towards protecting and validating existing common-sense in ways that can impede transformative understandings. Does this mean, then, that the real should be dropped from progressive gender discourse? This article explores a different path; one that retains the real while reorienting its use. Focusing on the resistance that understandings of gender categories as plural, elective, and mutable face, it traces a conception of the real that can support rather than thwart the development and enactment of progressive institutional meanings – a project described as “conceptual prefiguration” (taking up meanings as if they were otherwise). To explore this revised account of the real, the article focuses on four issues: gender’s key qualities; the importance of imagining to gender’s realisation; the relationship between realising gender and other uses of gender, including representation; and the failed realisations and de-realisations that also contribute to conceptual prefiguration. In concluding, the article argues for the real to be jettisoned as a gold standard when it comes to what gender means and is - to focus instead on gender projects worth realising.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 3 Sept 2023


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