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Finding Heteronormativity in the Gendered State
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In the contemporary era, France, like the United States, is often hailed as the archetype of a postmodern State that is leading the western world in eliminating gender-based inequity. From legislation that requires gender parity in politics, to quota-based gender representation on corporate boards, France’s commitment to gender equity seems unmatched in the Western world. In 2014, France adopted a set of laws considered to be some of the most comprehensive reforms enacted to advance gender equity. The “Act for Real Equality between Women and Men” (Loi No. 2014-873) is composed of extensive provisions that seemingly further gender parity. The act, also known as the “Gender Equality Bill,” focuses on equating the sociopolitical and socioeconomic spheres of men and women by alleviating the subordination of women. However, when critically analyzed through the framework provided by Wendy Brown in her article, Finding the Man in the State, the bill reproduces the same gender hierarchies it claims to address through its covert enforcement of heteronormativity.  I further extend Brown’s framework, which exposes the State as intrinsically masculine, to analyze how the dichotomies furthered by heteronormative assumptions always serves to subordinate women.

Although Brown uses the example of the United States (US) to theorize the postmodern “politics of protection” cultivated by liberal States, I believe that her framework can also extend to the contemporary French State (Brown, 11). While the French State does not claim to be gender neutral—it recognizes how women are specifically subordinated in French society—its refusal to acknowledge its perpetuation of heteronormativity ironically subordinates the very women it purports to empower. Male-dominated societies of the US and France are “bound up with the prerogatives of manhood” that stabilize State power which is intrinsically masculine (Brown, 8).

Concealing the heteronormativity that underlies social policies cultivates the “disciplined [French] subject” similar to the “disciplined” subjects that are produced by the State in the US (Brown, 12). The provisions of Loi No. 2014-873 attempt to address the diverse dimensions of “male dominance,” but ultimately further the liberal, prerogative, capitalist, and bureaucratic modes of heteronormative, masculine State power. While some of the goals outlined in Loi No. 2014-873 claim to address the diverse ways in which the gender hierarchy operates, the remedies provided inadvertently produce a gendered citizen that is further subordinated by subtle but pervasive State regulation of gender identities.

The Liberal Dimension of Power

The law’s progressive vision highlights the existing disparities between men and women but assumes that gender subordination only exists between these two groups (Loi No. 2014-873, Article 1). Claiming to be a “gender equality bill,” the law coerces its citizens to identify with the two, State-assigned genders of male and female.  The official title of the act itself provides an insight into how the liberal mode of the State functions to shape the gender identities of French citizens. Titled “Equality between women and men,” the State excludes gender-queer citizens who fail to fit within them.  Coercing its citizens to identify within the gender binary functions to normalize its existence as fixed and a “part of the human world” (Brown, 17). In this way, the gendered language of the bill coerces its transgender or gender-fluid citizens identify as either a woman (feminine) or a man (Masculine) to access the protective provisions provided by the bill.

Socially constructing two fixed, dichotomous genders allows the State to categorize its citizens within the liberal ideology of the autonomous spheres that exist as the “natural” world. Gendered citizens are constructed as naturally suited to the sphere of the private or the public. Citizens associated with reproductive capacities (some women) are “naturally” suited towards the private sphere, whereas citizens without these capacities are naturally suited for the public realm “civil society” (Brown, 17). The private sphere is then codified as one where men and women practice their reproductive capacities to produce a biological offspring, creating a “family” (Brown 17). Rights are conferred within the public sphere (where men reside), gendering the State as intrinsically masculine, but also as heteronormative in its insistence that a “family” is only formed by citizens of opposite genders.  

The heterosexual relationship that is formed within the private spheres of the family assumes that women, as the primary workers within the private sphere, hold the undue burden of household responsibilities.  Acknowledging these gendered roles, Loi No. 2014-873 outlines a goal to cultivate a “better work-life balance and the equal division of parental responsibility”(Loi No. 2014-873, Article 1). The provisions provided under this goal include an extension of six months of paid parental leave to incentivize a second parent to also take parental leave. The extended provision only applies if a parent who has not yet taken leave does so.  While this provision attempts to tackle the “sexual divisions of labor” that limit women to “household labor,” it fails to address the normative assumptions of liberalism that tie women’s identities to the privatized family (Brown, 17). Without alleviating the “multiple burdens” of household chores that extend beyond child care in a privatized family, the provision fails to adequately equalize parental responsibilities (Brown, 17).  

Even without the burdens of extraneous household responsibilities, women will always be unequally burdened with childcare due to their reproductive capacities. The “balanced sharing of parental responsibilities” that the law attempts to address can never be achieved under the two parent, heterosexual, family structure because women will always have reproductive responsibilities that men do not (Loi No. 2014-873, Article 1). This undue burden of reproductive labor will always fall on the woman in a heterosexual relationship.

Another provision provides for “child maintenance payments to improve the situations of persons who raise their children alone as a result of a separation or divorce” (Loi No. 2014-873, Article, 27).  While this provision provides monetary compensation to the “impoverished single mother” outlined in Brown’s article, it still covertly defines the boundaries of a family as a two-person household. An individual is only able to gain compensation if they have previously had a partner and are only a single parent as a result of the breaking of their relations with the partner. While the language of the provision does not explicitly mention the gender of each partner, it still assumes the heteronormative ideal of the two parent family structure. Defining the boundaries of motherhood as one that can only occur in the context of two-parent households, women who choose to be mothers through assistive reproductive technologies are excluded from this provision and thereby excluded from the State’s definition of motherhood.

State regulation of the boundaries of motherhood creates divisions between women who fit within the boundaries of the State’s definition and those who are outside of it (Brown, 9). In the same way that the gender binary forces gender-queer people to conform to its ideal of gender, this provision forces women conform to the State’s ideals of motherhood. Both of these provisions include language that implies gender neutrality, but disparately affect those with reproductive capacities (some women) more so than those without (men). The bill claims to provide welfare for citizens based on need, institutionalized protection demands that the most vulnerable citizens forgo their liberty in order to access it. Gender queer and transgender people who fall outside of the State’s definitions of gender must forgo their individual identities, while women who reject the privatized family structure must forgo monetary compensation. This politics of protection functions to regulate the most subordinated groups within society (some women and gender-queer individuals) because they deviate from the masculine State’s boundaries of the ideal citizen.

The Capitalist Dimension of Power

Moving along the same division between the public and the private, the capitalist dimension of power has commoditized “most elements of the private sphere” (Brown, 22). Like the liberal dimension, women’s work within the economy is underpaid, rendering women dependent upon the State for survival. A goal outlined within Loi No. 2014-873 attempts to address the devaluation of women’s work by “guaranteeing professional and wage equality” (Loi No. 2014-873, Article 1).  A provision outlined under this goal imposes a financial penalty on private companies with a poor track record of discrimination.  In doing so, the provision, at least minimally, claims to address the occupational segregation that systemically sorts women into lower paying, service sector jobs such as housekeeping, nursing and teaching, which mirror the reproductive unpaid labor done in the private sphere. However, without addressing assumptions tied to feminine gender roles, the provision cannot accommodate for normative behaviors that stagnate women’s value in the capitalist State. Stemming from the unpaid reproductive labor done by some women, the essentialist traits of fragility, nurturing, and caregiving are simultaneously seen “natural” to women and at the same time, devalued within the public economy. The heteronormative State presumes that all women must be in heterosexual relationships that result in the use of their reproductive capacities; therefore, all women are not suited for the competitive world of capitalism. Ironically, even heterosexual women who do engage in reproductive work but choose to embody the characteristics valued by capitalism such as assertiveness and dominance are constructed as deviants from womanhood.  The provision provided in Loi No. 2014-873 superficially ensures that private companies are financially retaliated against for overt discrimination but does not address the devaluation of reproductive labor that produces this discrimination.  Without provisions that allow women to “freely dispose of their [reproductive] labor as a commodity,” women will be consistently devalued the in capitalist economy that commodifies of all labor (Brown, 21). Without agency to dispose of their reproductive capacities, all women, regardless of their desire to perform reproductive work, will be economically dependent on the State in a capitalist society.

Another goal seeks to “ensure women have control over their sexuality, including access to contraception and voluntary termination of pregnancy” (Loi No. 2014-873, Article 1). Outlined under this provision, the law removes the stipulation that required women to wait seven days after requesting an abortion. However, underpinning women’s access to full “control over their sexual identity” is the heteronormative presumptions that identifies women’s sexual identities as heterosexual (Loi No. 2014-873, Article 1). Explicitly stating the modes of sexual autonomy as “access to abortion and contraception,” the provision furthers women’s autonomy in the context of granting women autonomy from reproduction. The provision does not state the need to provide alternate forms of sexual health protection for non-heterosexual women, defining sexual identity as a strictly heterosexual one.

A second provision aims to “strengthen the fight against the prostitution system” with goals to eventually eradicate all forms of prostitution in French society also exemplifies the State’s regulation of sexual autonomy (Loi No. 2014-873, Article, 1).  The provision imposes fines on the clients of sex workers. While shifting the responsibility of fines from sex workers to their clients deploys an innovative framework, the stigma of sex work is still perpetuated to restrict women. Placing a provision that seeks to eradicate prostitution under a goal that ensures sexual autonomy clearly delineates the State’s ideal woman who deserves sexual autonomy from the deviant women who do not. Women who do not desire to express their sexual autonomy through sex work are wholly liberated while women who engage in sex work are restricted from doing so; good women who do not engage in sex work deserve sexual autonomy, whereas (bad) women who engage in sex work do not. Like unpaid reproductive work, sex work, is sequestered from the public domain of the capitalist wage economy. In this way, women’s ability to freely dispose of their labor, and exercise their full autonomy is restricted, rendering them dependent on the masculine, heteronormative state.

The Prerogative Dimension

Exemplifying the “gendered” prerogative power of the masculine State, the goal outlined in Loi No. 2014-873 further entrenches the gender hierarchy to regulate the boundaries of womanhood. The goal to take “preventative and protective actions to combat violence against women and attacks on their dignity” seeks to address the physical domination of women and ironically imposes State sponsored domination on women (Loi No. 2014-873, Article 1). Presuming that violence against women is one that is always perpetrated by a single (male) agent allows the State to ignore its own modes of violent power that dominates women. By wanting to “protect…women’s dignity,” the State appoints itself as the “watchman” of women’s lives (Article, 1). Like the patriarchal figurehead in the privatized household whose superiority is dependent on [his] “supposed ability to offer protection,” the State offers protection to ensure its own superiority.

This surveillance further materializes as the law suggests that:

“in the event of serious danger threatening a person who is the victim of violence by his or her spouse, cohabiting partner or partner who is bound by a civil solidarity pact, the public prosecutor may award the victim, for a renewable period of Six months and if it expressly consents to it, a teleprotection device enabling it to alert the public authorities.”(Loi No. 2014-873, Article 36)

Expressing itself as a mode of protection, the “teleprotection” device seeks to free women from the domineering physical violence inflicted by an individual agent but ironically bounds women to the violence of State surveillance. In addition, although the provision itself does not explicitly State that this violence must take place between two individuals of the opposite sex, it perpetuates the heteronormative narrative of dominating masculinity and vulnerable femininity. In addition, alluding to provisions that protect women’s “dignity” the state furthers the sexist norms that dictate a woman’s value as tied to their sexual chasity. This goal implicitly defines women who are survivors of sexual violence as those who have lost their dignity and are uaable to be protected by the State.

Addressing seemingly different aspect of society, the Loi No. 2014-873, Artilce 1 states an idealist goal of “prevent[ing] and combat[ing] sexist stereotypes.” Under this provision, the law bans the organization of beauty pageants involving children under thirteen years old. Ensuring that the organizers, rather than the children, are regulated provides a unique burden-shifting framework that promises a feminist liberation. However, the application of this law further entrenches assumptions about specifically feminine bodies, as most beauty pageant contestants are women. Essentializing feminine bodies as sexual, the State seeks to once again, protect young women’s “dignity” (Loi No. 2014-873, Article 1). Heteronormative assumptions that objectify the female body as available to men also condition it as being vulnerable. The ban may address one form of sexism that objectifies female bodies but it also perpetuates the sexist narrative that reduces women to their sexual purity, denying women agency over their own bodies. The State ironically protects feminine bodies from the violent, sexualizing gaze of men only to reinforce its own dominance through regulations that unduly affect feminine bodies.

The Bureaucratic Dimension          

Addressing women’s unequal access to political capital, the Loi No. 2014-873 outlines a commitment to “promote equal access for women and men to electoral mandates and elective functions, as well as positions of professional and social responsibilities” (Article, 1). Provisions strengthening financial penalties for violations of already enacted gender parity laws provide an emancipatory vision to “transform the masculinism of bureaucracy”(Brown, 11). The enacted gender-parity quotas require that an equal number of “men and women” candidates be listed in almost all election ballots. A facade of true gender parity, the language of the bill excludes transgender and genderfluid citizens from accessing its provisions. In an attempt to equate the political sphere by reducing “gender parity” to the two dichotomies of male and female, the gender-parity law and provisions for its implementation fail to “transform the masculinization” of the bureaucracy. By excluding individuals of different gender identities and experiences, the provisions further stabilize the gender binary and reproduce the same gender hierarchies within the political sphere. Advancing gender-queer individuals political representation within the bureaucracy would have exposed the limitations of the two State-assigned gender categories, and by extension, gender roles that are socially constructed by these categories.

Without provisions that understand “gender parity” as more than the existence of two State-assigned genders, women will always enter the political sphere on “socially male terms” (Brown, 20). The same hierarchical foundation that underpins the gender binary to subordinate women also creates the foundation of the bureaucratic order. Within the context of this provision, women entering the political and bureaucratic State will always be socially constructed with the “false essentialization of femaleness as caregiving” (Brown, 27). The gendered nature of the public and the private split that is stabilized by the gender binary functions so that even a mass proliferation of women in bureaucracy will only serve to perpetuate male interests. The agencies of the masculinized bureaucracy, such as the Ministry for Women’s Rights (MWR), effectively become an “instrument” of masculinity through the introduction of legal codes which further heteronormativity and stabilize the gender binary. As I have previously outlined, the provisions of Loi No. 2014-873 by the MWR furthers “male-dominated” interests even when introduced by a bureaucratic office that specifically seeks to address the issues of gender inequality.


Whether in the United States or France, postmodern liberal States’ claims to gender equity remain a façade to perpetuate masculine domination. Idealist legal provisions like the French “Gender Equality Bill” purport to alleviate the subordinated positions of women but often reproduce the same gender hierarchy through their assumptions about the gender binary. These assumptions serve to permanently subject women to socially constructed identities that define their roles in society in opposition to, and less than, men’s. In order to liberate women from masculine domination it is imperative that feminists pursue sociopolitical projects that deconstruct heteronormative assumptions about gender and sexuality. Feminist projects and policies that aim to advance women’s rights must also advocate for the advancement of gender-queer individuals through a coalitional model that destabilizes the heteronormativity and the gender binary.

Juli Adhikari is a junior at the University of California, Berkeley. She intends to graduate with a double major in Political Science and Gender & Women's Studies. She hopes to combine her interest in policy and law to find pragmatic solutions to close social inequities. She currently serves as an appointed commissioner for the Commission on the Status of Women for the City of Berkeley. Her work includes conducting research for a Boalt Law Professor and facilitating civic engagement workshops for the non-profit, IGNITE National. 


Works Cited

Brown, Wendy. "Finding the Man in the State." Feminist studies 18.1 (1992): 7-34.

Ministry for Women’s Rights. “Act for Real Equality Between Men and Women.” National Assembly. (2014)

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