VISIBLE

Gender and Capital

Throughout history, queer people have been marginalized and exploited. This oppression is a direct result of the necessity of cis-heteronormativity under capitalism which makes the sexual and gender oppression seen in America today not only possible but lucrative. Capitalism boasts that it ensures freedom and allows for democracy; however, in reality, it “creates the material conditions for men and women to lead autonomous sexual lives, yet it simultaneously seeks to impose heterosexual norms on society to secure the maintenance of an economic, ideological, and sexual order.”1 The restrictive gender norms that oppress the queer community today are a result of capitalism. Through understanding the cis-heteronormative division of labor throughout American history and capitalism’s unique ways of making very selective room for certain members of the queer community, it is made clear that capitalism works to oppress and exploit the LGBTQ+ community. 

Gender and Capital

From birth, heteronormativity and binary gender roles surround people. These influence sexuality and gender in a way that promotes a binary between men and women. Binary gender roles are essential for capitalists who are interested in encouraging the free labor of social reproduction, for “[t]he ‘woman’s role’ in unpaid domestic labor is essential to keeping the wheels of capitalism turning. That is why the capitalist system is enormously invested in gender roles and particularly in the unpaid childcare and housework that occur within the family sphere.”2 Capitalism relies on the rigid division of labor that the gender binary affords. Although these roles have become less rigid with the rise of feminism, heteronormativity, and the gender binary at large, they are still prominent and influential. In fact, through an analysis of ads depicting gender norms of their time, it is apparent that society’s understanding of the gender binary moves not linearly toward progress, but instead directly reflects the capitalistic needs of its time: “The capitalist ideological machine links particular gender presentations and performances to being productive citizens in ways that are linked to the needs of the labor market.”3 For example, the 1943 “We Can Do It!” poster meant to encourage blue-collar labor by women during World War II is often seen as a symbol of feminism. However, exactly a decade later, after the war ended and capitalistic society again depended on women to do the work of social reproduction at home for free, Alcoa Aluminum published an ad featuring a woman holding a ketchup bottle with the caption, “You mean a woman can open it?”4 These ads show that capitalism uses its power over gender expression to manipulate Americans to direct their labor exactly where it will be most lucrative for those in power, for living outside of the cis-hetero norms that promote economic growth for the Planter Class threatens those in power: 
LGBTQ+ demonstrate that people who are assigned female at birth aren’t necessarily women. People who are women aren’t necessarily attracted to men, and they aren’t necessarily nurturing mothers, biologically driven to tend a house. These inconvenient facts are why it is so important to capitalism to oppress and marginalize LGBTQ+ people by claiming that we are not “normal.”5

Queer people inherently threaten the structures that capitalism thrives on, and for capitalism to fall, these structures must also fall. Even in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels mentioned how the family as an economic and political unit must come to an end. In fact, the state encourages marriage through several incentives that queer people were not welcome to until 2015, and even the inclusion of queer people in state-recognized marriage was a tactic to channel our desires into institutions that maximize the preservation and growth of capitalism itself by the continued reinforcement of the nuclear family—even if that family now has two dads.

Capitalizing on Queerness

Since social movements that demand queer liberation have begun to gain momentum, capitalists have changed their behavior in one of two possible ways. They either alter the system enough to simply encompass LGBTQ+ people into the pre-existing structure as long as the queer people they include still uphold the capitalistic norms of that structure, like the example mentioned above. Another prominent example of this type of queer inclusion is the revocation of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Capitalism makes just enough room for white, cisgender, middle-class gay people to feel included only to involve them in an oppressive system that, in the end, still enforces brutal heteronormativity, perhaps less on the individual level, but still greatly systematically.

The second way capitalism has changed to make room to exploit queer people in new and innovative ways is by allowing queer people protection only through the use of capitalism. This means that queer people will be tolerated only if they contribute to capitalism in some way either through the use of queerness for entertainment or simply as a way to get well-intentioned consumers to buy a product with a rainbow on it.

The use of queerness for entertainment can be seen everywhere. From the Met Gala’s 2019 “Camp” theme where majority straight celebrities paid $30,0006 to dress up in a style invented by queer people of color, to the Netflix show Queer Eye that makes gay people out to be only useful for helping straight men with their poor fashion (typically through encouraging consumerism), LGBTQ+ people are meant to articulate light-hearted gay jokes without ever really stirring the political pot. Queerness as entertainment works well for capitalists not only because cis-heteronormative society views queerness itself as an oddity meant to be stared at, but also because it is easy to distract people from the discrimination their LGBTQ+ neighbors face by making all representation of queerness shallow and amusing. RuPaul’s Drag Race would not have lasted 11 seasons if the queens were reminding society of their oppression rather than making their audience laugh. 
Pink capitalism is a marketing strategy used by companies typically around the time of Pride—June in the U.S.—where a company will include a rainbow or other LGBTQ+ affiliated symbol meant to attract queer and allied consumers. While companies claim to be helping make social change by normalizing their pro-queer products, in reality, pink capitalism merely uses queer identities to attract consumers with no benefit for the LGBTQ+ community. In regards to the consumerism found in Pride movements, the book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex states: “Just a few decades later, the most visible and well-funded arms of the ‘LGBT movement’ look much more like a corporate strategizing session than a grassroots social justice movement.”7 This corporate strategizing effectively steals autonomy and agency from the queer people these companies claim to be helping and just turns Pride parades into advertising opportunities. 
A noteworthy feature of capitalism’s selective inclusion of queer people in preexisting systems like marriage or the military or new systems like queer media and LGBTQ+ focused consumerism is that only white, middle-class, cisgender, and straight-passing queer people are protected under these systems. Broadly speaking, anyone who dangers capitalism’s carefully-crafted gender roles and separation of labor is viewed as unsuitable for even the systems that exploit queerness. Instead, queer people of color, poor people, trans folks, or people simply deemed too outwardly gay will not be exploited by capitalism. This leaves them vulnerable to harassment and violence that is a symptom of a society brainwashed by capitalism’s gender roles. Is it any wonder that Neil Patrick Harris is worth tens of millions of dollars and Pete Buttigieg is gaining popularity in the polls while at least 22 trans people were killed in the U.S. in 2019 alone?8

Reinventing Gender

Like with most social issues, aiming for reform within an exploitative system is futile when it was built by those in power to oppress and disenfranchise others. Capitalism is a system that was built by cisgender, heterosexual men who use their power to oppress anyone who threatens their lofty position in society. So while reform is often the route discussed by those seeking change, reform within capitalism does nothing to break down the system of oppression that has isolated and exploited the queer community for centuries. The destruction of the gender binary and the capitalistic system of cis-heteronormativity are necessarily for queer liberation:

Marx argues in German Ideology, the promise of communism is the promise of the lack of commitment and the freedom to dabble. It will make it possible “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Perhaps this freedom will also apply to our genders and sexualities: a butch dyke by day, a drag queen by night, and a dominatrix on the weekend. As the need for gender roles dissipates with the abolition of the family and the socialization of reproductive labor, and as we gain more and more free time, the possibilities for our genders and sexualities, for our gender and sexual liberation, become endless.9

Moreover, while perhaps most of society has no urge to become “a dominatrix on the weekend,” it is fair to assert that most of society would benefit from the normalization, and even encouragement, of gender and sexual exploration free of the capitalistic pressures to spend all ones time producing and consuming with no room for self-discovery. A society free of the demands of capitalism is a society that is free to divide labor as it wishes or not at all. It does not rely on arbitrary roles to ensure social reproduction. It does not exploit the culture and talents of the disenfranchised for capital gain. It encourages honest self-expression. 

References

  1. Sherry Wolf, “The Roots of Gay Oppression,” International Socialist Review, 2004, http:// www. isreview.org/issues/37/gay_oppression.shtml
  2. Tatiana Cozzarelli, “Queer Oppression Is Etched in the Heart of Capitalism,” Left Voice, 2019, https://www.leftvoice.org/queer-oppression-is-etched-in-the-heart-of-capitalism.
  3.  Cozzarelli, “Queer Oppression Is Etched in the Heart of Capitalism.” 
  4.  Cozzarelli.
  5.  Cozzarelli.
  6. Valentina Zarya, “Met Gala By the Numbers: Quantifying Fashion’s Big Night Out,” Fortune, May 07, 2018, https://fortune.com/2018/05/05/met-gala-cost-numbers/.
  7. Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2015), 16.
  8.  “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2019,” Human Rights Campaign, 2019, https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender -community-in-2019.
  9. Karl Marx, “A. Idealism and Materialism.” The German Ideology. https://www.marxists. org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm, quoted in Tatiana Cozzarelli, “Queer Oppression Is Etched in the Heart of Capitalism.” (Left Voice, 2019). https://www.leftvoice.org /queer-oppression-is-etched-in-the -heart-of-capitalism.
Björkstén

Björkstén

Björkstén (they/them) is an anthropology and film dual-degree student at American University, and they are currently the co-president of VISIBLE. They believe art and storytelling have the power to change society for the better, and they aim to use their films, designs, and all creations for activism. You can find more of their work at bjorksten-studio.com.

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