Are they taking the piss?

The EHRC piss protest is the perfect example of how gender functions

Artillery Row

Here is a quick quiz: what’s your first thought when you see a masked male person outside the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, surrounded by bottles of piss and pouring another bottle over themselves?

Is it: a) what a remarkable expression of anger at the arbitrary boundaries enforced by cisheteronormative society, perchance referencing Kristeva’s concept of the abject and Bakhtin’s carnivalesque?

Or is it b) what a boorish expression of male entitlement, referencing The Boy Who Piddled in His Grandfather’s Slippers?

To feminists, gender is not dressing up or being fabulous

Think carefully about your answer. If it’s (a), then congratulations, you understand that “protests can be enjoyable, they can be theatrical, they can be exciting, and they can be full of rage”. If it’s (b), then sorry, you are a “conservative dullard” who just doesn’t understand art. 

Earlier this month a trans activist group calling themselves Pissed Off Trannies decided to stage a urine-based protest outside the EHRC offices in Westminster. As Vice gleefully reports, “one member pissed herself in her bejewelled gown, before pouring bottles of urine on herself and the pavement outside the building, all the while shouting: ‘The EHRC has blood on its hands and piss on its streets’”.

This is because the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has had the temerity to restate the law as it stands, which is that trans people may be excluded from single-sex spaces unless they possess a Gender Recognition Certificate. This means, for instance, that people with boring old female anatomy have more of a right to access female toilets than people with fabulous dresses and an ability to do targeted pissing. 

Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of this, the response to the protest itself has been illuminating. Are you the kind of person who sees wee flung about and thinks “art”? Or are you the kind who’s reminded of the horrors of potty training and wonders who’s going to clean up afterwards?

Are you on the side of the people dressing up and making a mess — so edgy! so cerebral! — or that of the boring old skivvies? The answer to this — and the fact that there are two such very different interpretations — says a lot about what gender is and how it functions.

To feminists, gender is not dressing up or being fabulous. It is not the manner in which one understands, constructs or expresses one’s inner self. 

Gender is a social hierarchy facilitating the transfer of labour and resources from one group (females) to another group (males). Within such a hierarchy, males get to piss around — whether they do so with pipe and slippers, or with bejewelled dresses and bottles of wee — because females can be relied on to deal with the aftermath. One of the ways in which this exploitation is justified is by suggesting that females are too stupid and unsophisticated to do anything else. 

The presumption of moral superiority is recast as intellectual inferiority

This is not a particularly new observation. Second-wave feminists wrote extensively about the way in which dull, repetitive domestic work, often related to bodily excretions — what the narrator of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room calls “shit and string beans” — is not just loaded onto women, but then used to justify their lowly position in relation to men. Women do the shitwork because they want to, and they want to because their minds aren’t equipped for the kind of meta-shitwork that turns defecation into protest. 

In For Her Own Good, their study of “expert” advice given to women, Deidre English and the late Barbara Ehrenreich note that women’s “loving and giving nature” is “itself taken as evidence of lower intelligence”. The presumption of moral superiority (“you’re so much better at care work!”) is recast as intellectual inferiority (“you wouldn’t understand my art!”). Fundamental to how gender operates is the idea that female people can’t deal with anything more complex or abstract than “talk about diaper rash”.

Hence the argument, so frequently heard today, that many women — particularly older women, those most weighed down by the accumulation of domestic and caring responsibilities — are too thick to grasp the latest scientific research into biological sex or why Drag Queen Story Hour is going to save us all. We’re so dumb we haven’t even worked out why “your bathroom at home is gender neutral” is the ultimate gotcha to anyone demanding sex-segregated spaces. 

We’re too mired in our “old” understanding of gender, which ties it to dirty underpants, years of unpaid labour and reproductive exploitation. That such things haven’t gone anywhere — that someone is still required to deal with the practicalities of being human — is neither here nor there. Gender has moved on without us. Or rather, it’s the same thing it always was: male people finding new ways to float above all the embodied shit they shovel onto female people.

I cannot begin to say how bored I am with smug males churning out books and articles explaining why their personal fascination with glamourous, glittery femininity is set to smash the gender binary. Or with the idea that male people’s unequal contribution to domestic labour is more than compensated for by a few of them getting dolled up to read one solitary picture book to a bunch of toddlers. Or with the male of the species pissing to mark his territory being treated as a rejection, as opposed to a reinforcement, of the dominant power structure.

In essence, I am sick to death of the insistence that female people will be liberated from gender norms by ramping up the degree to which male people are permitted to do whatever the hell they like. “Shit on me, I don’t care”, as Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl puts it, or, in this case, urinate on me. Only a conservative dullard would see the same old male effluvia. The true progressive sees the fall of the patriarchy in a puddle of piss. 

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