Historically, the great boulevards of Paris have channeled not just pedestrians and cars, but also political passions and causes—especially when the Republic seems endangered. On Feb. 2, Paris once again became a vast political stage. One hundred thousand demonstrators had gathered, galvanized by a danger looming over the Republic. The threat was not, as in times past, fascism or Nazism, communism or totalitarianism. It was, instead, an ideology far more insidious and imported from, of all places, the United States.
A new specter was haunting France—the specter of gender theory.
In the United States, gender theory—embodied most notably, perhaps, by the work of Judith Butler at UC Berkeley—argues that gender is less a biological fact than a social fiction. Since the 1980s, gender studies has become a familiar part of the curriculum at liberal arts colleges. For the most part, though, the academy is where these theories have stayed, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine Americans protesting them. The current French scandal over this obscure branch of critical theory is a particularly bemusing example of the way in which certain kinds of intellectual goods get lost in translation: Not since their embrace of Jerry Lewis have the French responded so passionately to an American export we ourselves have never fully appreciated.
Behind the February protest were several political groups, uniting both traditionalist voters and conservative religious ones, that had organized massive demonstrations last summer during a vitriolic debate in France over the legalization of gay marriage. In May 2013, the Socialist government passed the law nevertheless. The battleground then shifted to a new proposed measure: an update to France’s “family law” that, among other things, stood to offer protections for reproductive assistance for gay couples. This year, many of the same protesters turned out again, their brightly colored pink and blue banners emblazoned with a battle cry: “Un papa, une maman: there’s nothing more natural.”
It wasn’t just the bill, however, that got the protesters out in force. The spark that rekindled the movement was, of all things, a grade school program called the “ABC of equality.” This experimental project, launched by the government in late 2013 in a handful of grade schools, encouraged children to consider that though some biological differences between the sexes exist, other differences are “constructed” by society, a product as much of stereotypes as of physical differences. According to its critics, the lesson plan was inspired in part by the work of American gender theorists like Butler.
As word got out about the program, rumors began to fly among conservative activists. One extreme right-wing website, Equality and Reconciliation, claimed that teachers were encouraging boys to be girls and girls to be boys, as well as inviting them to masturbate in class, none of which was actually part of the curriculum. Parents were urged to keep their children at home for a day in protest. As schools began to report significant levels of absenteeism, government officials scattered across the media to denounce the “folles rumeurs.”
It was to little avail: Enough people had become horrified by the new impact of “gender studies” that, in February, they turned out in droves. Nearly overnight, “la théorie du genre” was on everyone’s lips. Gender theory was the “obsession” of the Socialist government, one conservative news magazine declared. Activists contacted public libraries to demand that they pull texts tainted by American gender theory from the shelves.
As a result of all this, Butler suddenly found herself massively famous in France. She had established her reputation in the early 1990s with “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” a book that itself drew on French theory. Schooled in the work of Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, Butler argued that what we assume to be essential human characteristics are instead malleable traits fashioned by social habits. Rather than springing fully formed from our biological nature, sexual identity is sculpted by what literary theorists call discursive practices and what the rest of us call language, dress, and cultural conventions. Simone de Beauvoir had famously declared that one is not born a woman, but instead one becomes a woman. In essence, Butler doubled down by emphasizing the subversive as well as repressive possibilities in social constructions of the self.
Though a quarter century has passed since the publication of Butler’s book, barricades were never built in the United States to stop her. In part, this was because the liberal arts had walled themselves off with barricades of their own, with bricks of opaque jargon and cement of arcane subjects. Though Butler’s work became part of the canon of gender theory and queer theory on campus, few people outside the academy were concerned about the effects of a French-theory-quoting philosopher of gender. In France, her work was even more obscure.
Not anymore. Since January, interviews and summaries of Butler’s work have appeared in mainstream papers ranging from the Communist L’Humanité to the cosmopolitan Magazine Littéraire. In an interview with the culture magazine Télérama, Butler confessed she was struck, as well as frustrated, by the media attention. Rather than exploring the reasons for the protests, the press instead was scoring it like a “soccer match” between opposing camps. As she told me by e-mail, even reporters in France “do not very often try to learn about gender studies before they launch their polemical questions.”
More worrisome, though, for Butler are the reasons why a caricature of her work has gained such currency. Though she declined to comment on the recent protest marches, she suggested “the kinds of anxieties unleashed by the legalization of gay marriage in France strike at the heart of a national identity that is bound up with quite fixed and traditional accounts of the family, masculinity, and femininity.” Fundamentally, the fear that propels these protests, Butler said, is the fear of disorder. Gender theory, she suggested, had fused in the minds of its opponents with an “absence of rules,” and casting doubt on the biological verities of sexual difference created a void that could seem to threaten both the family and the nation.
In a way, gender theory for many in France is just another name for chaos. And some anxiety about chaos is, right now, understandable. With a floundering economy and faltering industrial base, rising unemployment and declining productivity, their borders besieged by globalization and their national institutions superseded by the European Union, the French have rarely been so divided over the identity of their nation and so demoralized over its prospects. (In a recent poll, scarcely 30 percent of respondents described themselves as optimistic over the nation’s future.) For Butler, France’s structural woes ratchet up the anxiety over sexuality and gender: Unable to stabilize the nation’s economy, protesters instead condense “those issues into the need to stabilize heterosexuality.”
The panic in the streets resonated in the corridors of power: Shortly after the “family-phobia” demonstration, the government delayed by at least a year a vote on its family legislation. For now, to the relief of those who took to the streets, the traditional family of maman and papa still stands, a last rampart against vast and disruptive global forces. If “gender theory” has been lost in translation, it may be, more than anything else, because of the desire of many in France to give those forces a name.Robert Zaretsky is a professor of modern French history at the University of Houston and author, most recently, of “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University Press).