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The 'Vampires in the Sacristy': Feminist body theory and (socio)biological reductionism into the 21st century

Roarty, Lynn Ann (2009) The 'Vampires in the Sacristy': Feminist body theory and (socio)biological reductionism into the 21st century. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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What happens when feminist body theory and reductionist theories of biological sex difference are brought together? In this work I take as my starting point the increasing ubiquity of appeals to biology as an explanation for ‘human’ and ‘woman’s’ nature on the one hand, and the reactive and reflexive distancing of biology within feminist body theory on the other, to begin to question the middle ground. I aim to constructively dissent from taking up either of these positions in order to confront the question: what if the reductionists prove to be, even partially, right? In acknowledging that possibility, I am interested in whether/where there is potential for feminist theory to be more relaxed about biologically sex differentiated attributes.

I position myself as a women’s studies scholar taking a walk across the campus to see what evidence is being produced by ‘the opposition’. To place my walk in context, I first briefly explore various feminist approaches to the problem of biological sex differences, and the continuing difficulties surrounding binaries and binary thinking. Next, in the main part of the thesis, I review the historical and contemporary reasoning and claims made within three areas of reductionist science that are aligning at this time, and which have been reproached for promoting a return to a more biologically determinist social environment. I then take a brief excursion off campus to demonstrate the dangerous aspects of these scientific enterprises when their interpretation into popular culture is not carefully monitored. Finally, I return again to my own side of the campus to look at some of the ways feminists have already begun the work of overturning outworn and contested conventional theories about biology and human nature in conversation with reductionist theory.

Having done this, was it worth the walk? My assessment is that while, in some cases, feminism’s defensive antiessentialism is warranted, there is work being undertaken within these reductionist sciences that is less rigid and reactionary than some critical interpretation would suggest. I conclude that there is a certain futility in feminist body theory’s oppositional stance to biology, and that its utility is put at risk by a continued investment in one side of a binary. Further, my walk across the campus leads me to believe that, while perhaps not imminent, there is every reason to expect that the scientific pursuit of an unequivocal genetic basis for specific sex differentiated behaviours will succeed. That being so, there are spaces where the insights of both sides might be productively brought together so as to avoid the worst excesses of biological determinism and, at the same time, loosen the grip of binary thinking on approaches to biology and the body.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Media, Communication and Culture
Supervisor(s): Thiele, Beverly
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