A queer exploration of all things gender

Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Smearing of feminism – a history through illustrations

Cartoons have been sources of entertainment, political point-making, and propaganda for centuries. When I think of the subjugation of women in this medium, it is often through sexualisation. Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit, Wonder Woman, the list goes on.

This little comparison has been doing the rounds on the internet lately, and it illustrates the point nicely.

The poster for the film ‘The Avengers’, as is.

Pose styles reversed. Iron Man – buns of steel, anyone?

Feminists however, for longer than the word has been in common parlance, have been the targets of predictable, oppositional lampooning. What is a little more interesting is how the styles and commentary used in the pictures have changed very little. I’ll be organising cartoons chronologically, or making the best guesses I can where I don’t know dates. To my knowledge, all images originate from the UK or the US.

A little background history first, though. Feminism is often said to have its early beginnings in the second half of the 19th century, when a fair amount of social and political reform was going on. Important earlier writers and politicians have been retrospectively labelled the forebears of the feminist movement (though to call feminism a single movement was even then, let alone now, rather inaccurate). Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill are important examples – for their works A Vindication of the Rights of Women and The Subjection of Women respectively, written in 1792 and 1869. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded (from the merger of pre-existing groups), and its members termed Suffragists. This group was non-militant and utilised pamphlet distribution, talks, and appeals to MPs, without using violence. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) split off in support of more radical action due to the lack of suffragist success. This group is more famous for its founder Emmeline Pankhurst  (and her daughters), and their groups members’ label by the Daily Mail as the Suffragettes.

So, this first picture is from 1906, and was showing ‘women of the past’ contrasted against ‘what women are becoming’. Smoking? Legs apart? Ties? Such an angry, unappealing expression on the face of the woman on the far right of the bottom panel? Obviously a bit tame by standards 106 years later, but the key themes are clearly that traditional women are more attractive, and more productive. All members of the top panel are embroidering or knitting, rather than daydreaming or scowling. The author is hardly ambiguous about what he (it’s got to be a he, really) considers the ‘better type’ of woman.

From 1910. Real anger from the woman in this comic, or at least, misanthropic nagging. The poor man is uncomfortable and forced to do everything by his overbearing, unfair wife. The look on his face harbours resentment. Clearly asking for the right to vote leads to domestic catastrophe, and unhappiness in the home. Whatsmore, this silly woman apparently doesn’t even know what she wants! Oh, when will she learn? Those wacky suffragists.

caption:

Millitant Suffragette – “I have smacked policemen, broken windows, assaulted Ministers, broken up meetings, done ‘time’, shouted myself hoarse – to prove myself a fit mate for you! Will you have me?”

J. B. – “No, thank you!”

1912. J.B. Refers to ‘John Bull’ – a personification of Britain, much the equivalent of Uncle Sam for the US. The violence of the image was reflected in the current climate, with Suffragettes smashing shop windows, burning, and even bombing buildings (though avoiding human targets). The feminist militant effort is lampooned as futile, because who would want to listen to angry, unpleasant women? The laundry list of offences likewise stimulates indignation and anger towards the movement.

caption:

“Mr. Wilson is lucky he is not a candidate twelve or sixteen years from now”

Also 1912, but from the US this time, during the campaign that would lead to Woodrow Wilson’s first term as President. This cartoon is a little unusual in showing hypothetical women with the vote, but – they’re considering whether to vote for Mr. Wilson off the most irrelevant of traits and topics! One can read women inquiring “I wonder if he is brave?”, “Do you help your wife with the dishes?”, “Do you adore Browning?” (EDIT: which most likely refers to the poet Robert Browning or possibly Elizabeth Barrett Browning – rather than the judge or firearms inventor as first sprung to my mind. Thanks  to Amelia in the comments section for this) and the inane comments “he has large feet” and “I never vote for brunettes”. The supposed frivolity and lack of awareness of politics in women is played off, in a similar way to the UK 1910 cartoon above. The supposed ignorance of women makes them unworthy.

 

I put these two together due to being so similar. We’ve seen these themes before. Harangued husbands, demeaned and debased in being made responsible for all domestic chores, causing strife in the home. I also can’t decide whether the wife in the image on the left looks more like an ogress or the terrifying girl from the film The Ring. But it’s comic, you see! Ugly, domineering women demanding they get their way about all things. Not equality, but selfishness. This may sound eerily familiar, if you’ve ever been exposed to contemporary criticisms of feminism, usually by men. See Rush Limbaugh’s comments, for instance. His term ‘Feminazi’ has even inspired right-wing T-shirts. 

This one’s quite famous. Maybe you’ve seen it in a school history lesson? Not much to it. Ugly women don’t get love from men, so they get angry and lash out at society about it. Of course.

It never seems to matter much in these smear campaigns that many of the arguments rest on painting the demonized with directly oppositional stereotypes. Suffragettes are simultaneously unmarried and unloved and angry, as well as bringing disaster to their husbands and children through their selfish refusal to do home chores. I actually have no idea if there was an official suffragette line when it came to household labour, though it wouldn’t surprise me if the ‘women who want the vote = women who won’t do anything at home’ idea was entirely fabricated for leverage.

Ah. But now a rapid leap, to 1995. This cartoon was published by the Utah County Journal in response to Voice, the Feminist group of Brigham Young University, staging an event highlighting violence perpetrated against women. The range of labels in the picture (Eng dept activism, R movies, anti-honour code, and Sunstone magazine) represent a range of organisations considered damaging by the conservative journal, and how together they’re causing trouble. Notice the disgusting mockery of violence/rape survival in the form of the armband on the muscular, unattractive Viking representation. In 100 years nothing more sophisticated than ‘women are ugly and don’t make sense’ has really been levied.

2012. You have have seen some of the news earlier this year, where after a young lady named Sandra Fluke gave a speech in support of mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives (citing a friend with a health condition that would be controlled by the contraceptive pill). Rush Limbaugh (yeah, him again) went on to say:

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

So this cartoon makes a (left wing) Feminist unattractive, stupid, angry, irrational, and morally dubious through slut-shaming. The shitty satire of Feminism hasn’t moved on for several reasons. Firstly, sadly, it’s effective. A blend of reductio ad absurdum combined with an audience ignorant of the issue being twisted and/or fabricated, and with some basic aesthetic demonisation is a recipe for most propaganda. Secondly, with a definition as simple as “a belief in equal rights for women”, feminism has become increasingly legitimised amongst anyone with half a brain cell of reason – even if different individuals and schools of feminism would enact this in very different ways. The fact that many more people find the label ‘Feminist’ problematic than actually consider its core principle unreasonable in parts reflects the success and ubiquity of this smearing.

Oh, and some of this stuff isn’t even to try and attack a political movement particularly. Some is a pathetically vomitous attempt at humour, such as the UK magazine ‘Viz’. It was seeing the character ‘Millie Tant‘ on the front cover of this cow pat of a publication whilst doing my shopping that made me think to write about this post. Here’s a picture of Millie.

Need I say more?

Well…actually, yes. When I was searching for an interesting spread of images, I found one that I felt was deserving of being saved until last. Much of Feminism (particularly second-wave Feminism of the ’70s-’90s) has been criticised for exclusively serving the needs of white, upper middle class women, reducing the experience of ‘woman’ down to a narrow narrative not experienced by many individuals, particularly economically disadvantaged women of colour. That said, the criticism of some part of woman’s suffrage in the image below seems quite ahead of its time, in commenting on the hypocrasy seen in white feminists exercising their power over black feminists through racism. Food for thought.

caption:

top: JUST LIKE THE MEN! bottom: Votes for WHITE women.

Book Review: Feminism is Queer – The Intimate Connection Between Queer and Feminist Theory by Mimi Marinucci

So the first thing I have to say about this book  is that I consider the title to be extremely misleading. I was – unsurprisingly – expecting a work that examined perhaps different areas of feminist thought and queer theory, and perhaps examined their tensions, agreements, and nuances. I think it’s generous to say that a quarter of the book does this. The final two chapters (7 and 8), ‘Feminism Explained and Explored’ and ‘Notes Toward a Queer Feminism’ offer a very accessible synopsis of a range of different definable branches of feminism (such as Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Marxist Feminism, etc.) without assuming any existing knowledge of other gender scholars whilst introducing a few in a baby-steps capacity. Even bearing in mind these two chapters make up only 22 pages (excluding notes and references) I would still say I found simplifications and generalisations that very unsatisfactory. For example:

Although there is some disagreement about whether or not the second wave is over, those who believe a third wave [of feminism] has begun…

I find it alarming that someone could purport to write a book focussing around feminism, whilst giving the impression to readers who may be new to this area that the existence of Third-Wave Feminism is somehow tenuous or in its infancy. Whilst distinctions between Second and Third-Wave Feminism can be interesting and/or open to discussion, this implies a poor exploration of the literature given that discussion of a Fourth-Wave of Feminism certainly exists. Another textual example (also from chapter 7) that concerns me concerns a stunningly oversimplified definition.

…womanism, unlike liberal feminism, addresses intersectionality. Intersectionality refers to the simultaneous impact of race, gender, and class on the lives of Black women.

(emphasis original)

(*Edit*: It is important to note – as both I, and Marinucci failed to do – that Intersectionality as a theoretical position and tool has its origins in black feminism, and was originally particularly associated with the Combahee River Collective and the statement they produced. This scholarship, nucleated in the experiences of women of colour, has since been used to consider how multiple sites of oppression [such as gender and race originally but then also sexuality, disability, age, and innumerable additional categories] interact and produce unique discourse rather than simply being ‘additive’.)

Okay, so yes, this is an example of intersectionality – but the definition implies that only the interplay between the three categories of race, gender, and class are considered, and worse, that this might only be in relation to black women. It comes off to me like saying ‘LGBT activism is the activism of gay men who live in Chicago’. I may sound like I’m nitpicking, but in a book that makes obvious efforts to be accessible to readers who are not already entrenched in queer or feminist literature, an opportunity was lost here to produce communication on a key concept. Plus, the short definition given doesn’t manage to be properly accurate.

Sadly other confusing errors have also entered the text – most noticeable for me being a short discussion of the evolutionary history of lactose intolerance, in relation to how social processes can impact on physical bodies. For someone without any background in biology, they could be forgiven for not knowing that lactose is not “the enzyme that digests milk sugar”. Whilst perhaps a typo of ‘lactase’, this one letter change causes the entire paragraph to cease making any sense.  This is on page 70, for anyone who ever gets hold of a copy. With a background in philosophy, my sense was that Marinucci has some problematic understanding regarding scientific methodologies and epistemological objectives. Just in using turns of phrase like “contemporary science acknowledges two basic sex categories” (chapter 4) strongly implies some ridiculous notion of ‘science’ being some kind of hive-mind monolith, able to declare objective facts, with further ‘fluffy’ discussion being an outside realm.

My discussion so far has engaged only with the last two of eight chapters of this book for the most part. So what is the book about if not what the front cover indicates? This is covered in the preface, and caused my eyebrows to disappear into my fringe.

Introductory texts in gender studies, sometimes identified as women’s studies or feminist studies, address gender identity. Introductory texts in sexuality studies, sometimes identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies (or LGBT studies) address sexual identity. Unfortunately however, introductory texts situated at the intersection of gender identity and sexual identity are rare. This book attempts to fill that gap, and could therefore serve as a text for any course of study, be it in a university setting or in the context of independent scholarship, directed towards the examination of virtually any aspect of gender, sex, and sexuality.

This made me ask three questions:

  1. How is the sweeping claim of the (I think erroneously) conglomerated gender/women’s/feminist studies being about ‘gender identity’ justified?
  2. How can introductory books considering gender identity and sexuality be considered rare?
  3. How is Marinucci defining and differentiating between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’?

Gender identity concerns one’s sense of oneself as male, female, non-binary, without gender, or any other minority gender identity. I would not say that gender/women’s/feminist studies ‘address’ this per se, as if to imply this is ‘the’ central area of investigation and discourse production in these fields. This closed statement by Marinucci left me uneasy, as the book begins with a factually-stated premise which I not only find over-simplifying but problematic. Secondly, a good range of gender studies readers exist – such as this one, this one, and this one – which contain essays covering a broad range of topics, as probably the most obvious thing about gender studies (other than it being about gender) is that it’s very multi-disciplinary. Marinucci’s book was published in 2010. Feminism is Queer doesn’t quite hark from the era completely lacking in intersectional resources.

Thirdly, well, at no point in reading the book did I feel this question was properly addressed. The book is divided into four sections – I. Sexuality, II. Sex, III. Gender, and IV. Queer Feminism. The way this played out was a first section that engages with some tired old figures to discuss the Kinsey Spectrum and discussion of philosophy and social construction in chapter 1. Chapter 2 talks about social history, and I thought actually does a pretty nice job of discussing the interplay of the work of Foucault on power relations and D’Emilio on how capitalism and wage labour allowed for the emergence of sexual identities*. A lot of emphasis was also put on the works of Mary McIntosh (who wrote an article called ‘The Homosexual Role‘ in 1968) and Alan Bray (who wrote ‘Homosexuality in Renaissance England‘ in 1982), which seemed like odd resources to focus on. In the third chapter ‘Queer Identities’, a little more Wikipediable LGB history is recounted, a rather modest nibble at the meaning of queer is attempted in the form of more history, how binary constructs are avoided, and the philosophy of underdetermination.

Two big alarms went off in my head when reading chapter 3. Firstly, Marinucci uses language like “biologically unproblematic women and biologically unproblematic men” when referring to cisgendered people. I find it very unfortunate that such painful cissexism is slipped into given that in the preface, she rightly holds her hand up regarding her possession of race and class privilege. Marinucci also demonstrates an awareness of ableist language, and also states:

I resist the use of binary language by avoiding the gender pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and I resist the use of universalizing language by avoiding the plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’. I also resist oppositional language by avoiding such expressions as ‘arguably’ and ‘on the contrary’.

Sadly, this list makes me feel that whilst an effort has been made to avoid offending individuals, engagement with detailed scholarship of trans issues and language use are somewhat lacking. This feeling doesn’t come from this single example, but gnawed at me at various points throughout the book. Not least section II, which boils down to being on medical and social treatment of (binary) trans people. That Marinucci also claims in a note that:

Gender usually refers to constellations of characteristics commonly regarded as feminine and masculine, whilst sex usually refers to constellations of characteristics commonly regarded as female and male.

Left me with the sense that I was glad I wasn’t trying to make my first investigations into gender studies using this book, due to how ideas about biology, gender presentation, and identity are slooshed around together to give banality at best and downright erroneousness at worst.

I may sound like I am utterly damning every element of this book. I do not mean to entirely. Whilst each chapter was started with a fairly irrelevant Wizard of Oz quotation simply for containing the word ‘queer’ (the joke gets old after being used 8 times) and the appendix is literally passages copied verbatim from the main text, some of the metaphors used (particularly regarding philosophical concepts) were useful. Any even slightly technical language was defined in the main body of the text, which is certainly more useful for students than the assumptions made by many teachers. Being led by the hand a little too much is preferable to being shoved out alone in the dark, after all. But as this book made lofty claims regarding its importance and usefulness, I critique it in these terms. Not only would a book covering such a wide range of material be unable to do a solid job in only 100 pages, much of the text is relatively commonly discussed work or narratives that has been dealt with by a scholar who has left me unconvinced that she has a masterly grasp on the range of areas touched on.

Get this book out of a library and check out chapters 7 and 8. But perhaps spend your money on other works.

*Both of these scholars are big and important names, and it would be nice to talk in detail about both of them. I won’t enter discussion on them in this review for brevity’s sake, but at some point their work will be reviewed independently.

Camp in Culture – One man’s fabulous is another man’s poison

This article appeared in the Cambridge University Student’s Union (CUSU) LGBT magazine, No Definition, Easter 2012 edition. Enjoy!

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

If there’s a single trait that causes the biggest divergence in opinion in gay circles, it’s arguably campery. Whilst it may not be obvious in generally none-too-extrovert Cambridge communities, historically there has been an overwhelming amount of hyper-masculine expressionism and performance associated with gay scenes and bodies. These ideas have been captured (and exaggerated to an eyebrow-raising degree) by the artist Tom of Finland, whose drawings encapsulate bodybuilder physiques, Village People attire, and absolutely no subtlety whatsoever.

Masculinity is enhanced if you can take an eye out on either of your nipples.

Whilst one obviously can’t say that such images are a reflection of our gay-to-day experiences (though who hasn’t seen more than a couple tank-top clad body worshippers at the local watering hole…), the more general idea of visible femininity being undesirable in gay men is all over the place. Whether people are declaring themselves ‘straight-acting’ or ‘only interested in men who are men’, I doubt I’m the only person to have heard the occasional queen declare how they cannot *stand* queens.

So I’ve been talking about masculinity and femininity, and whilst it has become pretty common for femininity expressed by men to be referred to as ‘camp’, this is very much a cultural shift the word has experienced. As with any essay, Wikipedia is our friend when it comes to historical backdrop. Originating from the French slang ‘se camper’ meaning ‘to pose in an exaggerated fashion’, campness is the creation of appeal and humour through an overstated ridiculousness. Think ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. For an early example, think the fruit hats of Carmen Miranda from the 1940s. Camp is the kissing cousin of kitsch, but with reference to performance (naïve or deliberate) rather than objects. It’s certainly true that ‘camp’ was also used to refer to ‘gay behaviour’ – particularly in the pre-stonewall era when effeminate behaviour and sexuality were even more conflated than they are now.

The very old social stereotypes concerning gay men behaving more ‘like women’ certainly played a part in the hyper-masculine cultural backlash of the 1970s and 80s. In the days when the argument ‘we’re no different from you’ was a popular part of the rhetoric in the important struggle for rights and recognition, some saw it as damaging to the ‘gay cause’ to present anything other than homonormativity (where typical heterosexual gender norms are assimilated into LGBTQ cultures) to the rest of the world.

This may go some of the way to explain why some gay men may have a discomfort with ‘camp’ – worrying that people potentially associate what may be seen as a screaming, extroverted, kitsch performance with your identity may be very disheartening. Likewise others may just not care for the style, just as others don’t care for rap battles or musicals. But what about when the word ‘camp’ is used more to describe feminine tendencies or behaviour in men (as it so often is), without alluding to the absurd performance oriented nature that was originally intended? Without drowning in the gender politics of Judith Butler, one wouldn’t call man-bags, fake tan, foundation, and an adoration of pop divas a ‘performance’ in the traditional sense. Indeed, it may be quite sweeping and unfair to consider such behaviour ‘affected’ or ‘fake’ as some LGBTers levy as a criticism.

These sorts of behaviours are all things that 1. don’t receive special notice or consideration when done by women, and 2. result in assumptions being made about the sexuality of men who do engage with any such behaviours. Often this isn’t even questioned, with the rather poor justification of ‘but it’s true!’ – whilst masculinity in girls is also policed it generally doesn’t experience the same level of distain. In the fantastic book ‘Whipping Girl’ by Julia Serano, Serano points out (tongue in cheek) that femininity is in fact a weapon, when she points out how far the average straight man will hold a handbag away from his body if given it to hold for a minute.

Nowadays, it’s a huge thing for someone to be accused of being a misogynist. People will leap to deny this label as quickly as they will deny being homophobic or racist, even when engaging with obviously unacceptable behaviour or language. Whilst it would be shockingly naïve to make any claim that repression due to being female wasn’t still very much prevalent, judgement against femininity is arguably aired more casually.

Masculinity and femininity are often treated (simplistically, and erroneously) as oppositional, and such ‘men are from Mars women are from Venus’ attitudes are linked in large part to gender stereotyping. Whilst masculinity is ‘honest’, femininity is ‘affected’. Masculinity – strong, femininity – weak. Masculinity stoic, femininity – emotional, the list goes on. When considered in these terms, masculine behaviour by women makes more ‘social sense’ than feminine behaviour from men, due to patriarchal structures that reward such behaviour (in the ‘right’ contexts such a work – this is clearly a book’s worth of discussion all on its own). Campness has an undeniable tie to femininity both due to the historical judgement of gay men and from the indulgence and gendered challenges presented by drag performance. Whilst not really admitted, the evidence is plain to see that exhibition of femininity commands less respect and demands less social capital and power, generally speaking. Mainstream social acceptance of male femininity has only really been in terms of when done clearly for fun in a false way – such as music hall of the war era, or pantomime dames. Femininity from men presents a social challenge, even with no political intention.

What has been loved about camp could fill a book as easily as the reasons for its problematisation. The escapism, the ownership of one’s gender presentation and behaviour, some might even experience a fondness based in tradition or community kinship. Whether loved or loathed, there’s a lot ‘to’ camp, which makes it fabulous in an entirely different way.

Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

GenderBen is now on Tumblr!

So I’ve finally started exploring the wonderful queer and gender-y nooks and crannies and communities present on Tumblr. I’m currently in the process of posting links on there to older blog works on here, but I’ve also found there’s so much good stuff (particularly images) that I want to share, i’ll be reposting lots of things on there that won’t actually be found here.

So if you want more gender fun, beauty and thought in your life, then follow:

http://genderben.tumblr.com/

Because this sort of thing is all kinds of awesome.

Book Review: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

So at the top of the GenderBen homepage there has been a forlornly empty tab dedicated to book reviews. Today marks the day when this emptiness is no more! This tab will be where links to any book reviews I write can be easily looked up.

It’s probably not normal procedure to open a review with a huge endorsement, but I will be very (and delightfully) surprised if I read any book as thought provoking, clear, useful, and important as this one for quite some time. With the subtitle ‘A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’, Serano utilises structural and stylistic devices in her book that make it a real breath of fresh air compared to many stodgy collections of gender essays and other works useful to scholars of gender.

An incredibly important element of the book which I thought was handled more masterfully than any other gender book I’ve seen was the clarity with which technical terms are used. Also the recognition of the different ways such can be used or understood by different people helps support not only her own robust arguments but also shine a revealing light on the assumptions, misconceptions and prejudices of others.

For example, very early in the book a distinction is made between transphobia, defined by Serano as “an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances, or behaviors deviate from societal norms.”  and cissexism, defined as “the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals.” This allows for an analysis that recognises differences in experience based on whether individuals identify as or experience being transsexual as opposed to transgender.

Whilst these are terms that are often used interchangeably (as are cissexism and transphobia), Serano uses the word ‘transsexual’ to refer to individuals who specifically were assigned a given gender at birth, and wish to transition from this (most often referring to MtF and FtM transitions, though appreciation of non-binary identities is also given). Transgender is used as a more general term to allow discussion of issues in a broader sense that may impact upon individuals who may identify as a cross-dresser, as butch, effeminate, queer, or any number of other non-conforming gender identities. The point is made though that “The focus on “transgender” as a one-size-fits-all category for those who “transgress binary gender norms” has inadvertently erased the struggles faced by those of us who lie at the intersection of multiple forms of gender-based prejudice.” Lack of commonality between individuals who may be described by the same terms receives the important attention it deserves. Serano manages to carefully define a large number of gender terms to allow for construction of excellent arguments and observations based on this without simplifying or invisibilising individual experiences as caveats and clarifications are also abound in the text without becoming overwhelming.

The second chapter offers direct commentary on the portrayal of trans individuals in the media, both in fictional and non-fictional circumstances. With films and TV shows covered including The Crying GameAce Ventura Pet Detective, Jerry Springer and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a perhaps controversially critical analysis is given yet it’s very difficult to fault. The only criticism I have of this section of the book is a small factual inaccuracy made when describing what happens in Ace Ventura. It is claimed that a large group of police officers proceed to vomit after having it revealed to them that the film’s villain who is portrayed as female throughout the film  possesses a penis and testicles. They actually all begin spitting – the ‘joke’ being that they have all kissed her at some point, in reference to her having kissed Ace at an earlier point in the film. This hardly makes a huge difference to the nature of the analysis in pointing out unambigous homophobia, and portrayal of a trans individual as ‘deceptive’, and ‘really a man’. The analysis of media output in this chapter rests on trans characters usually falling into one of two patterns, either ‘pathetic’ or ‘deceptive’. Whilst such a binary analysis may seem simplistic, its impressive (and alarming) point is disappointingly supported by a good range of sources cited.

The book repeatedly draws upon the author’s personal experiences, in terms of both how other individuals have responded to her gender identity and gender presentation, but also her direct experiences of dysphoria and ‘gender dissonance’, and the sensation of one’s hormonal profile changing. These accounts are not only very brave (and indeed an honour for the reader – it is a privilege to know the intimate details of an individual’s transition experience), but also tie in important discussion of biological difference to produce an argument that “socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist”. Serano is not only valuably situated as having experienced different gender identities in her life, but also possesses great familiarity with queer theory and the social sciences literature AND a PhD in biochemistry and a scientific career. Such multi-disciplinary scholarship coupled with vital personal experience packs a serious punch. In saying this I of course do not wish to imply that Serano’s PhD and scholarship makes her accounts and arguments on transgender politics and experience superior to the experiences recounted by other trans people. Serano however occupies an uncommon position in possessing such awareness of intersectionality, plus personal understanding of disparate academic and gendered experiences.

The largest chapter in the book is titled “Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism”, and gives not only an excellent historical overview but also challenges some methodological problems with scientific modes of inquiry (such as disconnection of the author from work done, or the assumption that some kind of true objective position is actually possible). Discourse on medicalisation, the cissexist declarations made by various feminists, and how masculinity and femininity are considered are tied together in an accessible manner. This leads into a chapter dealing with the dismantling of cissexual privilege which I found provided more clarity and focus than I had achieved through my own introspection, even given that I am actively engaged with trying to be the best ally I can be.

All of this, together with a most original chapter where the appropriation of intersex and transsexual identities in art and academia is critiqued makes up part one of two of this book. The sensation I had from reading each of these two parts was rather different. Part one contained a greater range of material, and had more of an ‘academic’ structure – unsurprising as this half of the book was subtitled ‘Trans/Gender Theory’ – whilst the second section (Trans Women, Femininity, and Feminism) is pithier and contains a greater sense of polemicism. Three of the ten chapters of this section contain only 4 pages each, but each has its place and each makes a point. I had a small sense that some material was repeated, giving me the sense that some chapters were written independently from consideration of the book as a whole, and I felt I gained more from Part 1 than Part 2. This is a book where each chapter stands alone quite well – not quite separate essays, but not a book that necessitates being read linearly from start to finish. Maybe it’s only because I did read it through from start to finish that made me wish for more of a sense of ‘wrapped up conclusion’, but these are ephemeral concerns. In writing this review it was difficult to not write condensed, reworded versions of every chapter, such was the importance of their contents that resonated with me. This book is too important to not be more widely read. One becomes a better human for reading this book.

The building industry – typically macho. Does this include architecture?

A friend of mine was in an architecture lecture recently, and the lecturer asked the class of approximately 60 students to perform a simple task: name female architects. At supposedly one of the best centres for the study of architecture in the country, the entire class were only able to name 3 women. Of these 3, my friend conceded that one was only known by her classmates due to being a teacher at the institution (Sarah Wigglesworth), and another was, in her opinion, mostly known through her partnership with her more famous husband (Denise Scott Brown, husband of Robert Venturi). The third is the extremely successful Zaha Hadid, whose award winning record makes her formidable in her field in anyone’s (sketch)book. She seems to be quite exceptional as far as I can see, rather like the Marie Curie of architecture. Not to marginalise the successes of other great female architects, but as just a couple of examples, no woman other than Hadid has ever won the coveted Stirling Prize, which she has won twice (the only person to do so). Hadid has also won the Pritzker Prize, which has only been won by one other woman in its history (who shared it with her business partner).

This, along with the results of a recent survey performed by the Architect’s Journal got my friend really hot under the collar on the subject. So what’s going on in this field?

Yeah, Mattel went there. Don’t think you’d see anyone wearing a skirt on a construction site though.

I knew next to nothing about the specifics of ‘architecture culture’ before beginning research for this post. I could really easily spend this quote listing statistics, that unlike the Architect’s Journal claim, are hardly shocking at all really. They’re not shocking because they ring true with many other professions that for the longest time were regarded as ‘male professions’ – such as engineering, or medicine (though this one has come on leaps and bounds).

Some points are worth mentioning though. If one looks at who is going into architecture, one can find claims that in many architecture courses the gender ratio is nearly 1:1. This doesn’t ring true with the numbers for qualified, practising architects however – in the UK, only 14% of architects were women 7 years ago, yet made up 25% of those architects receiving job seeker’s allowance – hinting that women tend to clump at the bottom end of the profession in terms of earning potential. Add to this that in that recent AJ survey, 47% state that their male colleagues doing the same or similar jobs still earn more.

 

One could be forgiven for thinking that it seems like common sense to intuit that perhaps the attitudes of other men in the construction industry are responsible for causing women to leave the profession. We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the wolf-whistling hard-hatted gorilla and his naked-lady calenders. This runs against the experiences of British architect Vanessa Bizzell however, who says:

“I’ve been asked interview questions about how I will cope being a women on a construction site, which seems to be fairly inappropriate … Actually, some of the contractors and engineers that I’ve worked with have stated a preference for a more gender-balanced design team on site as they felt that it contributed towards a less confrontational atmosphere when solving problems” (full article here).

Arguably the way in which women are treated with regards to potentially wishing to have children, or be engaged with a young family causes far more career problems. To quote again from the Guardian article which provided the ‘14%’ statistic earlier:

It might be a thrill for a 20-something graduate with no ties to piece together models at 4am fuelled by black coffee and a take-away pizza, but for a mother or father it can be impossible. “One night it was getting to 9pm and I told my boss I wanted to go home,” recalls one London architect and mother. “Two months later he made me redundant.”

She was the only woman in the office, the only one who resisted working late and the only one made redundant.

Whatsmore, a staggering 80% of women in architecture believe that having children puts women at a disadvantage. There exists a ‘macho’ culture of working crazy hours and sacrificing all other things in order to ‘get ahead’. Women (and indeed, men) are penalised if they do not engage with this status quo.

A fascinating insight into inequality within the world of architecture can be found in the writing of one of those three female architects that my friend and her classmates were able to name. Denise Scott Brown wrote a superbly nuanced account of her experiences, titled ‘Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture’. This piece was actually written in the 1970s, but kept relatively quiet due to its potential to impact damagingly upon her career. I wish I could quote the entire piece here, so I do urge you to take a look.

Some of the main points that Scott Brown articulates are that generally speaking, many fellow (usually male) architects and critics look to assign work to individuals, rather than partnerships or teams. It’s easier to wax lyrical about the design genius of a single mind, and also helps vitriolic polemics to retain a level of focus when aimed at one person. Despite both her and her husband’s insistences that their joint ventures be credited as such, time and time again she would find herself marginalised for stylised, condescending, artificial reasoning. It would even seem that one critic tried to argue that her husband’s ‘great art’ was being ‘led astray’ by his professional association with his wife – which in my mind rather echoes some of the sentiment of sexist male musicians within professional classical music circles.

It’s the same old tiresome story, when it boils down to it. There still exists parallels between the top level of (this) industry and mentalities which treat it as an old boy’s club. As Scott Brown points out, it will be extremely interesting as the dinosaurs begin to go extinct to see how this affects the willingness of corporations to be more reasonable regarding flexible working schedules, and equal opportunity that extends more than a begrudging, token nod in the direction of progress.

Can a man be a feminist?

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute” – Rebecca West

I have never really been able to find out precisely what feminism is either. I’m inclined to think this is because it isn’t ‘one thing’, any more than being a woman is. Personally, I like to think of feminism in its most simple terms – that people defining as women should experience the same rights as people defining as men. Thus I can sometimes find it difficult to understand why anyone would not define as a feminist. Yet, it would be at the very least inflammatory for many to suggest that the antonym of ‘feminism’ is ‘sexism’. Of course it’s pretty obvious why the majority of feminists are women, but it’s interesting to consider why many men do not identify as feminists (other than simple lack of awareness, or sad, persistent misogyny) and indeed, whether they can.

Bill Bailey

Photograph credit: Fawcett society

It has been argued that being a feminist is more than an intellectual agreement with a set of principles that then influence a person’s behaviour. It has been argued that having not lived a woman’s experiences, and/or the fact that men possess an inescapable degree of social privilege makes it impossible for men to truly identify with female struggles. Some also consider that for a man to take the label of feminist allows for the co-opting of a feminist identity, potentially resulting in less power for women themselves and the silencing of female voices. This has led to some men taking on the moniker of ‘profeminist’- agreement with feminist goals and politics, without claiming inclusion within the group of ‘feminist’ themselves.

Problems with this arise in several ways. Firstly, this understanding rests entirely on a binary model of gender with no obvious way to resolve the inclusion or exclusion of those who exist outside of this framework, or have moved transitioned from one group to another. Trans men have often lacked male privilege and have experienced a ‘female’ narrative based on how they have been treated before transition, yet do not identify as female. Likewise trans women will be experiencing a female narrative after transition, but have also arguably been privy to male privilege at some point in their lives. This reduces acceptability into the group of ‘feminist’ based on both bodies and on how gender is expressed (that is, whether one appears adequately ‘male’ or ‘female’ to ‘pass’) which is clearly problematic as infertile women, ‘masculine’ women, and indeed any other variation one cares to mention does not in any way invalidate their membership of the identity category.

One can call into question whether this argument of needing to have direct experience of ‘a woman’s narrative’ is indeed valid, as what is a woman’s narrative? As the feminist writer bell hooks (deliberately not capitalised) points out that “the insistence on a “women only” feminist movement and a virulent anti-male stance reflected the race and class background of participants”, that whilst bourgeoisie white women experience sexism, they still retain more social privilege and particularly in historical contexts would be less likely to be exploited than poor, uneducated non-white men. To attempt to simplify narratives such that the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality aren’t considered to shape the idiosyncrasies of identity experience may only serve to alienate various (poor, non-white, etc.) women from such a feminist movement. A blanket-exclusion of men also implies that experience of male privilege by men is a homogeneous thing, as is enforcement of patriarchal systems, both of which are (hopefully) patently untrue. Men (and sometimes, women) can repress and marginalise men, too. Power is sourced in more than sex.

An interesting historical perspective can be considered when examining the quest for women’s rights and recognition before feminism was established as a term or identity. The philosopher John Stuart Mill co-published the paper ‘The Subjection of Women’ with his wife in 1869. His empathy, intentions, and actions were not invalidated by his gendered position. Likewise the acts of the male abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rogers, and Henry Stanton to sit silently with the women (who were forbidden to speak) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1849 was a clear refusal to accept this element of male privilege, challenging the patriarchy in a way that is not dependent on gendered identities or bodies of the social actors.

Parker Pillsbury, 1809-1898. Pillsbury was another important early male feminist, who co-edited the women’s rights newsletter ‘The Revolution’, founded in 1868 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There also exists the problem that the exclusion of men from the group ‘feminist’ places the tasks of this movement as an exclusively feminine task, arguably a hypocritically sexist circumstance. This argument clearly cannot be extended to the occupation of women-only spaces by men, as marginalised and oppressed groups have a requirement of, and a right to safe spaces. However, men certainly have at least as much responsibility in battling sexism and patriarchal structures as women, and to attempt to do this in a political environment with an extremely dubious (as race relations have taught us) ‘separate but equal’ policy, does not best serve either group.

The distinction then, between profeminism (or pro-feminism) and feminism is a construct that arguably echoes an inflexibility regarding the nebulous nature of gendered identities, as well as the interplay that exists between different facets of an individual’s personal, social identity. The complexities that exist in then grappling with the differences in stance that various interpretations of feminism can hold are another question entirely. However, I am proud to call myself a feminist, and accept with the use of that label the social reactions and judgements that follow.

Classical music and gender – instruments, orchestras, and stereotypes

There are fricking loads of stereotypes everywhere you look in society related to gender and sexuality. The most basic things like the choice of colour of an object can cause people to make all sorts of judgements on things such as ‘how you act’, or who you like to take to bed.

It fascinates me how some straight males behave as if they’re all magnets of the same polarity. Also that more than 6 square inches of physical contact with another man will irreversibly lead to sodomy. Just call it queersteria.

Arguably, one of the stranger realms into which these stereotypes penetrate is that of music. I want to focus today on looking at two sides to this – sexism encountered in professional classical music, and gendered associations with instrument choices.

When I talked to a few musicians (professionals and students) about this, on at least three separate occasions I was asked “you’ve looked at the Vienna Philharmonic then?”. Seeing as I was just vaguely musing on that it was an interesting thing to consider at that point I had not, but I now have. With a reputation as one of the finest orchestras in the world, they had a policy of women not being members until 1997. Today, they have progressed to have a depressing 6 women…out of 138 members.

It amuses me that the Google search ‘sexist orchestra’ gives the Vienna Philharmonic Wikipedia page as the first hit.

It’s a Vienna sausagefest.

The reluctance that this orchestra, and many others have exhibited in their hiring of women players  has been pathetically defended in terms of fluffy claims about the ‘soul’ of the music, and importance of a ‘unified, masculine aesthetic’. In 1996, a radio interview was held in Germany that included 3 members of the Vienna Philharmonic along with a Viennese sociolgist, who were defending “the priority of musical results over all other concerns” (The full article on this, and other issues discussed in this post, may be found here). Some of the gems they stated included:

“So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers.  It is a racist and sexist irritation.  I believe one must put it that way.  If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant.  Therefore, I am convinced that it is worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards.”

“Pregnancy brings problems.  It brings disorder.  Another important argument against women is that they can bring the solidarity of the men in question.  You find that in all men´s groups … And the women can also contribute to creating competition among the men.  They distract men.  Not the older women.  No one gives a damn about the older ones.  It is the younger ones.  The older women are already clever, they run to you!  But the 20 or 25 year olds…  They would be the problem. These are the considerations.  In a monastery it is the same.  The alter is a holy area, and the other gender may not enter it, because it would cause disorder.  Such are the opinions.”

Men are musicians because they don’t get emotionally worked up about silly little things, like women being musi- oh wait.

So they argue that women shouldn’t be allowed because either men get too distracted by their wicked feminine wiles, or basically that women don’t play with the same emotional control as men do.

I would say this was bullshit, except that they do a pretty good of this themselves through their actions. Let’s see how.

  • The Vienna Philharmonic, like many orchestras, has a female harpist. She wasn’t recognised as a ‘member’, but played with them for 20 years. It was okay though, because she sits *near the edge*.
  • More and more, and since as early as the 1940s and 1950s, various orchestras have been using ‘blind auditions’ in order to remove racism and sexism from the auditioning process. The lead to a 50% increase in female audition success rate. This rather blows the claim that women ‘naturally’ produce an inferior sound out of the water.
The painstakingly slow entry of female musicians into these old-school bastions of white male tradition have predictably not been easy. When the Berlin Philharmonic allowed entrance to its first woman (Sebine Meyer, a clarinetist), she was rejected after her probation period, with a vote of 73-4. This was apparently due to her ‘musical tone’ not being a woman. Funny how at rehearsals she was made to feel as welcome as  flatulence in a lift, as other members would literally move their chairs away from her, as if she’d give them music-cooties.
I can be quite a simple creature. I was amused that these three options fit with what happens in an orchestra.
To give a bit of comparison with UK orchestras, this neat little piece from 2003 gives an illustration:
A random sample of five British symphony orchestras suggests that gender ratios vary wildly: the Hallé and the BBC Symphony may not do badly (the Hallé has 45 men and 38 women; the BBCSO 55 men, 37 women), but orchestras such as the London Philharmonic and Bournemouth Symphony trail, splitting at 52-23 and 45-26 respectively. And the London Symphony Orchestra, widely regarded as being the country’s most successful, has 77 male members to 22 female.
In relation to gender division between instrument choices, she adds:

And, if you sweep your eye over any orchestra on stage, you will notice a particular phenomenon: women players are concentrated among the string sections, with fewer appearances in the woodwind. They are almost absent from the brass sections, traditionally orchestras’ laddy, hard-drinking outposts. Meanwhile, you will rarely see a male harpist.

To be fair, this reflects a cultural fact that parents are more likely to give their daughters a nice, “girly” instrument such as a violin or a flute than the galumphing, “unfeminine” trombone or tuba. And to suggest that your boy plays a harp might seem akin to some parents to encouraging an encyclopaedic knowledge of show tunes and a taste for interior decoration.

And yet despite this social stereotyping (which I found echoed when snooping on a classical music forum), virtually all professional/soloist/famous flautists are men. It seems like whilst on the one hand a lack of women playing particular kinds of instruments such as those in the brass section will be due to the social encouragement that high-pitched, soft, delicate sounds are more appropriate/desirable/’feminine’, on the other hand there’s still a worrying smattering of old-school sexists smattered around this particular industry.

In that much of the musical professional world is connected through who has played with who, who has been taught by who, who went to what conservatoires and met who, etc. This network-oriented system reinforces similarity. It was politicians that caused the much needed change in the Vienna Philharmonic’s policy rather than musicians.

Shameless little mini-plug, but it involves a lot of my voice, so.

Last night by a string of happy coincidences, I was invited to be part of a panel answering questions on issues of welfare and gender in Cambridge! It was super enjoyable, so thanks to the lovely people who got me involved.

For those who also may know her, the other guest speaker on the show was the wonderful Ruth Graham, feminist extraordinaire and currently Women’s Officer for Cambridge University Student Union.

The show can be heard by clicking here.

The link should be active for the next six weeks or so, I guess until 22/03/2012.

Scroll down a little bit, and look on the right for the box labelled ‘Listen again’. Click the link that reads ’20:00 08/02/2012′ and there you go!

The show also features a really brilliant interview with Sarah Brown, Cambridge City Councillor and the only openly Trans politician in the country. Another small interview with Sarah can be read in Diva magazine from last year, here.

Tag Cloud