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It’s okay because he loves me! – Why Twilight is damaging, and why it’s still popular

(Trigger warning: Some description of domestic abuse)

Spoilers: Twilight series, Angels in America)

That the Twilight series has been called ‘the new Harry Potter’ over its rise in public awareness I think is utterly depressing, even for those who weren’t that fussed about J. K. Rowling. The universal appeal of Rowling’s work and the skill with which they were crafted are insulted by being compared to the flimsy, clichéd, mewings of two-dimensional pseudo-romantic escapism that Stephanie Meyer has wasted trees on. Comparative multi-kajillion pound sales does not a comparative standard of literature indicate.

But why my harsh words, given I’m not a rabid potter-fanatic? Dear J. K. probably doesn’t need my support, writing from her home which is probably made of gold. It’s a point that has been made by others before me, but there is absolutely no ambiguity whatsoever that the relationship between Bella (often criticized as a Mary-Sue) and Edward is utterly abusive.

Surprisingly enough, I have a problem with literature (I’m being generous in using this word) which normalizes and excuses gendered violence to any audience, let alone the pulsating mass of hormones and peer pressure that are teens and tweens.

‘OMG Team Edward!’… ‘I want his sparkly babies!’… ‘My spine is being crushed…’

What is this violence you might ask? Well, in no particular order, how about:

  • Edward breaking into Bella’s home to watch her sleep is glorified as romantic, rather than pant-wettingly terrifyingly stalkerish.
  • The emotional manipulation and implicit blame placed on Bella by Edward through such choice (melodramatic) language such as “If I wasn’t so attracted to you, I wouldn’t have to break up with you.”
  • How about not only that after sex, Edward leaves Bella “decorated with patches of blue an purple” (because the word ‘decorated’ is hugely appropriate for describing the marks of violence, as if it were jewelry) but also that Bella tries to hide this because it would upset him to see. Such an empowering message for women right there.
  • When carrying their half-vampire baby (that was only conceived after marriage of course, Meyer being a good Mormon writer), the pregnancy causes Bella’s spine to break and so Edward tears open her uterus with his teeth to provide a supernatural caesarian.

Obviously (from the links) I’m not the first person to point these issues out either. Is Twilight a soft target then? I would say only in the way that George Bush was a soft target – yes a lot of jokes were made, but ultimately the man had (and has) a scary amount of support that ultimately got him into a position of huge influence. Spreading awareness of the critical inadequacies of large-scale yet damaging things is important.

A response often levied by fans in response to acidic criticism such as this:

‘Why do you have to be so analytical? That takes the fun out of it, it’s just a love story, and we enjoy it for what it is. Why can’t you just enjoy it?’

Okay. So without rhapsodizing too extensively on why normalizing harmful behaviour by accepting it as unproblematic is, well, problematic – this is a defense often used when one makes a criticism of something they like that has a millimetre more depth than simply saying what is immediately put in front of you. It certainly seems a little odd to me that the idea of putting a modicum of thought into something means you’re automatically stripping it of its ability to be enjoyed. To quote from a wonderfully useful article, this argument says nothing more than “I think people shouldn’t think so much and share their thoughts, that’s my thought that I have to share.” Nice work.

The problems with the book series don’t begin and end with the horrific but nonetheless simple ways in which Bella is harmed and manipulated. As far as I understand it, two themes that repeat throughout the work as justifications are that 1. What happens is justified by love, and 2. What happens is what Bella wants. It’s not that often in works of fiction that when one partner of a relationship does something horrible to another, the victim actually says ‘fuck it, I’m not standing for this’. It’s more ‘romantic’ for even extreme violence to be neutralized even through a literary tactic as banal as ‘well, he then felt really, really bad about it’. A great example I can think of that goes against the grain is Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, where the character Prior is abandoned by his boyfriend Louis, who can’t face the physical symptoms of Prior having AIDS. In the end, the two are shown to have a deep friendship, but not before the dialogue:

Louis: I really failed you.  But…this is hard.  Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving.  It doesn’t let you off the hook, it doesn’t mean…you’re free to not love.

Prior: I love you Louis.

L: Good.  I love you.

P: But you can’t come back.  Not ever.  I’m sorry.  But you can’t.

“You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag…”

Whilst this clearly isn’t written as the same sort of dreamy escapism that is the big hook of Twilight, it’s a nice illustration that these characters have more depth to them than life having zero meaning whatsoever except for their one true love. How is this an attitude that receives admiration, anyway…?

To address the second point, what Bella wants is used as a justification for much of what happens in the stories that feminists have taken issue with. A main character who other than fawning over her undead boyfriend has no obvious hobbies beyond cooking and cleaning for her father? It’s okay, that’s what she likes doing. Meyer has claimed in interviews that because feminism is about choice, Twilight is a feminist book. But not one of the female characters in twilight work, or engage particularly with independent activity. An honest choice is not what is being made appealing here. The same idea is true when it comes to the issue of abortion. As a Ms. Magazine blog post states:

Edward, Jacob, Alice, Carlisle and the Quileute wolves are all against Bella’s choice to carry out the pregnancy–and understandably so, given she looks like a living skeleton. The fetus, as Carlisle tells her, “isn’t compatible with your body–it’s too strong, too fast-growing.” Yet Bella never considers not carrying out the pregnancy, even though her life is clearly at risk—something that would no doubt make those who propose “egg as person” laws and “let women die” acts quite happy. The life of the fetus is framed as more important than Bella’s, a sentiment that colors these pieces of anti-abortion legislation. And Bella is portrayed as a heroic martyr, the ultimate mother-to-be, rather than as a delusional lovestruck teen with a seeming death wish.

There are plenty of readers who are quite astute enough to realise all this for themselves. There’s no shortage of feminists who enjoy Meyer’s works. This seeming paradox is pretty common – there are plenty of film, TV and literature examples which we might enjoy, whilst also experiencing the nagging doubt in our minds that to be consistent with our politics, we really shouldn’t. Enjoying Twilight doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad Feminist, any more than enjoying a MacDonalds necessarily makes someone a bad fitness trainer. Just be aware about what you’re enjoying.

A Feminists Guide to Curing Yourself of Twilight-Mania offers some amusing resources, including recommending the fiction of Anne Rice and Laurel K. Hamilton. If vampires and love are your thing, these are definitely worth a try.

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Book review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender is an excellent book. From a neuroscientific perspective, Cordelia Fine meticulously unpicks prevalent gender stereotypes we’re all very familiar with, and lays out a detailed and well researched critique of the (often shoddy) research and writings that have propped these beliefs up.

The book is divided into three sections – ‘half changed world, half changed minds’, ‘neurosexism’, and ‘recycling gender’. Whilst I didn’t feel this sectioning was strictly necessary due to how all of the subject material and arguments are interlinked and related, they do help maintain a sense of ‘detailed introduction’, ‘analysis of scientific claims’, ‘detailed conclusion’, which is helpful. I felt that Fine draws the reader in from the start – with pithy, acerbically satirical (but importantly, inoffensive) humour on the very first page of the introduction. By page 9 of the first chapter, one is drawn in by proclamations such as the familiar ‘male/female’ check-boxes at the start of many forms in fact ‘priming gender’ and influencing how one then answers the form. Fine expertly achieves what is necessary for any popular science book – getting people interested in the questions, without scaring them off with the technical aspects. No biological background is needed to appreciate the critiques that Fine structures throughout the book.

I feel the concept of ‘neurosexism’ is a valuable one, which Fine has coined in this work. All too often, the prejudices of researchers can leak into supposedly objective work, because there is a prevalent attitude that scientific methodologies allows researchers to successfully remove themselves from influencing their results, even when undertaking interpretations – rather than recognising the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of this. Little to no acknowledgement of this happens inside or outside of the field, and so one can hopefully see how in combination with the simplistic (but again, virtually ubiquitous) attitude that ‘science = facts’ can cause a lot of problematic stuff to be taken for granted. It is a mighty claim for anyone to say something behavioural is ‘hardwired’, though this is a term I would hazard we are all familiar with through popular culture. Fine uses a great quotation from Anne Fausto-Sterling in the introduction which sums up her claim nicely:

[d]espite the many recent insights of brain research, this organ remains a vast unknown, a perfect medium on which to project, even unwittingly, assumptions about gender.

Throughout the book, an impressively thorough number of references are given (the bibliography is 39 pages long), though in the text there is a recurring focus on the work of a small handful of particular authors. In no particular order, ones that stuck out to me were:

  • Louan Brizendine – The Female Brain
  • Leonard Sax – Why Gender Matters
  • Simon Baron-Cohen – The Essential Difference (and other works)
  • Allan and Barbara Pease – Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps


These works were quoted and dissected, used as examples of poor methodology, untenable claims, and problematic stereotype support. What Ben Goldacre might term ‘Bad Science’ (another fabulous book, that you should read if you haven’t, incidentally). The reason I bring this up is because some might claim that the revisiting of these sources may imply there isn’t that much out there to criticise, that Fine may be picking on only a few examples to make her arguments easier to maintain, or to make strawmen of the cases presented.

I do not believe these potential criticisms to stand up, however. Brizendine, Sax, and Baron-Cohen are all respected neurologists, psychologists and doctors (With Allan Pease being the exception, his background being in sales before writing best-sellers on body language and communication with his wife), commanding a great deal of academic clout – making it all the more impressive that Fine’s meticulous research creates serious criticism that also remains accessible. There are a large number of differently sourced examples through the book that highlight how ingrained and accepted much insidious gender stereotyping there is throughout societal consciousness. None of the quotations chosen by Fine of works she casts a critical eye over appear unfairly cherry-picked, and indeed having also read The Essential Difference at least, I can confirm no misrepresentation or simplification of Baron-Cohen’s work, which is almost disappointing as one would not expect a Cambridge Professor to propagate such underdetermined claims that buy into a chronically anti-feminist state of affairs.

Delusions of Gender doesn’t restrict itself to an insular critique of those within the niche of neurobiology. By broadening discussion to how work in this field has influenced (or been influenced by) how people view personal relationships, single/mix sexed schooling, how people raise their children, advertising and media, and work on gendered behaviour in animals, Fine managed to create a work that covers so many important questions as to keep the non-scientist engaged from beginning to end, but without attempting an analysis in terms that are outside her area of familiarity. You won’t find any Judith Butler or Michael Foucault in the references. Nor will you find any meaty discussion of how trans* or non-binary gender experiences are related to the narrative of the science of sex differences. Fine obviously can’t be held responsible for the ubiquity of the sex binary within scientific discourse, though I feel exploration of this could have been a valuable and fascinating addition to the book. It is a delusion of gender to imagine that there are only two genders.

This is tame criticism however for a book that clearly sets out its area of investigation, and does so with precision and originality. I feel it would be a very small number of people who could read this book and honestly say they hadn’t learnt a lot. Make time for this book, even if you think it sounds too brainy.

Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – transphobia in feminism

Every August since 1976, a music festival has taken place near Hart, in Michigan. This festival is organised, built, staffed, and attended exclusively by women, and over the years has grown in size. It now receives a turn-out of thousands of women each year.

(Brief aside): The festival uses the word ‘Womyn’ rather than ‘Woman’ in order to reflect the feminist idea of female independence from patriarchal language structures. That ‘man’ is still used as an indefinite pronoun (eg. ‘It’s one small step for man’), alternative spellings such as womyn, wimmin, wom!n, etc., both highlight and resist reference to women from a male baseline or norm.

Sadly, due to the way the festival is run, what could be an empowering event for all women is actively discriminatory. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival is for ‘womyn-born womyn’ – excluding women who were DMAB (designated male at birth).

How do the organizers of the festival justify this? Below I tackle some of the most common arguments I found for the trans woman excluding policy.

Photograph by James Cridland

1. ‘Trans women don’t grow up being read by people as girls, and so don’t have an embodied experience of the patriarchy in the same way as womyn-born-womyn.’

One woman’s experience of oppression is never going to be the same as that of another woman, I think we can agree. Everyone’s life experiences are unique, and there is no clear, unifying ‘female experience’. The closest thing one could reasonably claim to be shared by all women is the possession of a female gender identity – which trans women have. Many trans women indeed have declared that they have felt their gender identities in this way for their entire lives, though I think it’s important to note that one’s gender identity isn’t made ‘less legitimate’ through being questioned by oneself at any particular time (would a cis woman be any less of a woman if she has questioned her gender identity at any point in her life?). Women of colour, disabled women, and other groups besides will experience ‘being women’ in different yet entirely valid ways to the white, upper-middle class, cis, educated narratives that dominated much of the discourse of second wave feminism from whence such a philosophy originates.

Also, many trans women do have much direct experience of sexism and patriarchy, through being read as cis women by those around them. Based on the arguments above, this should not be read to imply that a more normative, ‘feminine’ appearance is to be viewed as a more legitimate form of woman. Trans women often face horrendous barriers to being taken seriously as women, which involves interplay between patriarchy and cissexism. This cannot be meaningfully separated out, and thus there is serious room for the argument that all trans women have an acute embodied experience of the patriarchy.

2. ‘Trans women have experience of male privilege.’

So do trans men, and yet they are welcome at the MWMF. Oh yes. These are individuals who identify as men, present as men, are men, and are afforded male privilege, yet still have access to the festival. This not only makes the claim of the festival being for ‘womyn-born womyn’ downright false (at best, it’s for ‘womyn-designated anyone’) but also firmly undermines the arguments put forward in points 4 and 5.

Experience of a particular type of privilege isn’t someone’s fault, it is simply something to be born in mind. A white womyn should bear in mind her race privilege. Able-bodied/minded womyn should be aware of their privilege compared to disabled womyn. If a person was not always (seen as) disabled, does that make them ‘less disabled’? No. This is an imperfect comparison, and is purely illustrative – certainly one cannot simplistically claim that how a person has been viewed by others strips them of the legitimacy of their identity. This is to erase their identity, using one’s own privilege to do so. Does the genital configuration of one womyn give her the right to claim womyn who are different to her are not womyn? No. And indeed, doing so is the very definition of ‘cis privilege’ – where sex designated at birth is presumed more legitimate than that which is identified, and lived.

3. ‘Oppressed people have the right to make their own safe spaces in the way they wish, without explanation.’

Well, that depends on where you are and what you’re doing. For example the extreme-right wing, racist, sexist, and homophobic UK political party the BNP was forced to change its constitution to accept people of colour. This was an obvious example of a group discriminating (illegally) against racial minorities. Whilst MWMF may not have breached Michigan or US law, this is still an example of a privileged majority (cis women) excluding a marginalized minority. The fact that cis women experience marginalization and discrimination doesn’t justify their performance of oppression in the name of safe space creation. The argument rests on viewing trans women as not being ‘real’ women. The very existence of the identity category ‘womyn-born-womyn’ makes the political statement that there are womyn who weren’t ‘born womyn’, and that they are therefore ‘other’. This ‘othering’ sets up a false dichotomy, that there are two distinct categories, those ‘born womyn’ and those not, and that your validity as a womyn is decided based on which category you fall into. I have written about the flaws with attempts to define identity based on biology here.

Lisa Vogel, the founder of MWMF has said this about the festival:

Supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn of color space is racist.

Except this draws a false parallel… unless you refuse to accept trans women as being women at all. It’s more like supporting a women of colour space that decides that women of colour with one white parent don’t count, because their appearance and experience may be different. Attempting to say ‘oh you are a woman, but you don’t fulfill this sub-definition we’ve created for inclusion in our space’ fundamentally discriminates against a minority, rather than providing a safe space from a majority, or oppressive influence.

4. ‘Many womyn-born-womyn have been the victims of sexual assault and rape at the hands of men. These women may feel threatened by the presence of trans women.’

This argument could implicitly rest one any of several potential meanings. One interpretation may be ‘these women may feel threatened by trans women who possess penises and are capable of penetrative rape, or cause triggering  simply through the presence of the organ’. At MWMF, phallic sex toys are visibly for sale, and there are workshops pertaining to much sexual activity, ranging from masturbation to fisting. As has already been mentioned, trans men are allow allowed to be present who not only may possess a penis but may also present entirely unambiguously as male. What this therefore says is that trans men are not a sexual threat in terms of their ‘maleness’, but that trans women are. This erases the legitimacy of both group’s gender identities – trans men are ‘other’ from cis men by this understanding.

This claim could imply that a cis woman’s discomfort is more valid than a trans woman’s right to be recognised. This would sound utterly unacceptable if presented in terms of race – ‘a white woman who has received abuse at the hands of a black woman may feel threatened by the presence of black women’ is not a reasonable argument for the exclusion of black women, and that’s without the fact that one is implying that trans woman = man = rape.

Is the implication that one can ‘spot’ a trans woman through their appearance, which could be ‘male and threatening’? I’ll let the images below cover this one.

            

Jenna Talakova, and Buck Angel. Guess which one would be allowed entry to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival? Hint: it’s not the woman. How the festival actually establishes the men they allow entrance are trans, I have no idea. Also to my knowledge, neither Jenna nor Buck have ever had any association with MWMF, and this point is purely illustrative.

Note: I’d like to reiterate that appearance is not a good justification for legitimizing or erasing a person’s gender identity. The images of the people above who experience and exhibit being female and being male in visually normative ways simply help to highlight the absurdity of the classification system used by the organizers of the festival.

The account of Alice Kalafarski tells of a trans woman’s experience at MWMF, highlighting how upsetting and offensive WBW arguments really are – and can be read here.

5. ‘Allowing trans women to enter would allow men to put on dresses and claim a female gender identity and enter the space.’

Men already enter the space. This is apparently okay though, simply because they were designated female at birth. Accommodation is also (rightly) made for male children, so long as they’re 10 years old or younger. Crucially though, this argument rests upon a ‘slippery slope’ based logic (or lack thereof). This is the assertion that:

If we allow A to happen, then B will happen too! Therefore, A should not happen.

This does not address the issue at hand, but derails the voice for trans women to be recognized as much as cis women by shifting attention to a hypothetical claim with no basis for concern.

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

As Alice Kalafarski’s account details, MWMF does seem to form strong, laudable policies regarding acceptance and awareness of race and ability. That there are apparently plenty of people who attend the festival and make a point of sporting ‘Trans Women Belong Here’ T-shirts and buttons doesn’t seem to have changed the situation, and in my eyes only problematises the sincerity of a trans ally who will declare a disgust with policy and yet still willingly engage with it. I will leave you with a powerful quote from the ever-eloquent Julia Serano:

My female identity is regularly reduced to a “debate” by non-trans queer women who would rather spend a week with their friends in Michigan than examining their own cissexual privilege. What’s even more disappointing to me is that there are a lot of FTM spectrum people out there who do the very same thing. They hypocritically expect their friends, families and co-workers to respect their male- or genderqueer-identities for 51 weeks out of the year, then for that one week at MWMF they take advantage of cissexual privilege (which presumes that one’s “birth sex” is more legitimate than one’s identified and lived sex) in order to enter women-only space. Their insistence on “having it both ways” marginalizes me as a trans woman: it delgitimizes my female identity in both the lesbian and the transgender communities of which I am a part.

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!

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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.

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