Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘Feminism’

Book Review: trans like me – a journey for all of us, by CN Lester

I was honoured to be asked by CN to offer a round of feedback on the manuscript for this book prior to publication (with Virago Press). I inhaled the text in a single evening, despite generally dragging my feet when reading longer pieces on my computer screen. The research was incredibly thorough, but at no point did this become dry or stuffy. This book isn’t an academic text in the traditional sense, but it’s certainly a very educational one – I’ve already cited it in my own academic writing.

Once I got my hard copy of the book, I felt it had been a long enough time since that editing process that I should really read it again before reviewing – plus, it wouldn’t be fair to assess a pre-final version. Generally I struggle with re-reading books, as my attention often wanes as a result of half-remembering what I’m encountering and having to fight the urge to skim. I was surprised with trans like me, that I was touched more deeply second time around than the first. Divided into 15 chapters over 214 pages, Lester’s conversational style creates an intimate and effective sense of a meaningful conversation over coffee with a friend. Before the journey has really begun, they explain how “to learn how to learn about trans people, about the ways in which what we know about gender is shifting and growing, we must first unlearn” (p. 5); their experience as a teacher comes through (which we are explicitly told about later, through their careful threading of personal anecdote through the narrative), and an attentive, skilled one at that.

Lester effectively conjures compassion in their audience through beginning by engaging with the worst exploitation of the tabloid press. Their points are consistently reasonable, relatable, and simple. There is no sense of polemic, only kindness. They give of their personal experiences and history generously, but without allowing any reader to fall into voyeurism. Lester gets us thinking about who has the power to tell stories, helping the reader to understand the incredibly invasive expectations, demands, and groping hands trans people can by explicitly targeted with. While there is a partial element of autobiography, trans like me reads as a collection of interrogative, well-evidenced essays that are absolutely committed to an empathetic and intersectional appreciation of many of the central discussions and concerns that come up when trans is on the discussion table. How race and class are profoundly relevant and necessary in any understanding of trans people is also not lost or buried.

It wasn’t far into the book that I started marking ‘wow moments’ in my margins. Brilliant, succinct ripostes to some of the most dangerous and disingenuous (yet pervasive) myths about trans people and communities. These are not incinerated in a blaze of adjectives, but quietly and decisively collapsed. The book manages to do this in a way that is not only affirming to those already familiar with the subject matter, but accessible to those who are not. Lester’s anger is something that one would hope everyone can agree with – anger about bigotry, injustice, violence, callousness, unequal rights, access, and experience. Lester hits the nail on the head by centring empathy in their education and discussion.

I mentioned that I was touched more deeply second time around. For me, this was most profound on page 35: “a question I am often asked is why, as someone who wants to subvert gender norms, i would want or need an additional gendered label. Couldn’t I simply refuse all descriptors? Or, failing that, call myself a feminine man or a masculine woman?”. This made me think of a line from Alan Bennett’s History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”. Now I knew this wasn’t unique to me, but I remembered being asked by an exceptionally well-informed and sensitive friend “but aren’t you just a feminist man?” in relation to my own non-binary experience. The discussion that Lester unfolds in response to the rhetorical questions they use is far more helpful (and humble) than a discrete, essential ‘answer’. It made me feel better equipped to have these conversations when (and it is when, not if) they come about.

There’s no such thing as a perfect book. However from my perspective, any critiques feel embarrassingly trivial or unnecessary. When discussing how trans women have been portrayed in popular culture (“the victim, the freak, the joke, the threat” – p. 29) I felt a mention of Julia Serano as quite a marked absence – albeit undoubtedly many of the readers of this book wouldn’t be familiar with Serano’s work. Further, as an academic, while I was glad to see extensive references in the endnotes, I found the system of links listed by page a bit imprecise. These things say much more about me than about the book, and most certainly don’t detract.

CN Lester is one of quite a small handful of people capable of introducing so many aspects of trans lives so well. Doing so to a heterogeneous popular audience is doubly difficult. I can only echo Shami Chakrabarti’s back-cover comment that “I challenge anyone not to have both heart and mind a little more open after reading this book”. This is a book for everyone, living up to the title’s implication of ‘a journey for all of us’. I believe this book can make its readers both wiser and kinder, and makes an incredibly important contribution as a result, that I enthusiastically recommend.

Slurs – What they are not

If you look it up, a common-sense definition of a slur is simply an insulting remark, that might also harm someone’s reputation. This is over-simplistic, in that it doesn’t consider power dynamics. Often when we talk of slurs we’re talking about language used by those with power (which can mean being socially normalised, not demographically vulnerable to systemic forms of discrimination) to bash those without, in a hateful way associated with some kind of disenfranchised group. I would say minority group, though importantly women of course  experience all kinds of misogynistic language despite the size of the demographic (spoiler: because patriarchy). Most people can recognise and be suitably disgusted by a wide range of slurs, particularly racial ones. There’s also the conversations constantly happening within marginalised groups around the politics of reclaiming previously weaponised words as a form of empowerment – slutwalks, self-defining fags and dykes, and the now quite longstanding world of queer. But due to the (sometimes faltering, and certainly incomplete) progress that has been made through decades of social processes whereby more and more people get switched on to how language is used being something that matters, legitimate processes of challenging oppressive language have been levied as a rhetorical shield against being criticised, or even described.

I would argue there are two particular terms in relation to transgender people in particular that ignorant or prejudiced individuals like to claim are slurs or pejorative – cisgender, and TERF. Cisgender, or cis for short, comes from the latin meaning ‘on this side’ (whilst ‘trans’ means ‘on the other side’). It is a value-neutral descriptor for individuals whose gender identities align with how their gender was assigned at birth. TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminism, and describes people (usually women) who profess a feminist identity but do not consider transgender women to be ‘real’ women.

Cisgender exists in order to de-position the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as always being about people who are not trans (notice how trans men and trans women are always indicated by the prefix, but most of the time cis men and cis women are ‘just’ men and women?). When we say man, or woman, we don’t have any information about whether an individual is cis or trans, but for as long as cisness is positioned as the ‘default’, trans status is positioned as ‘not normal’, rather than minority. Transness is implicitly excluded from being ‘real’ men or women for as long as those words on their own don’t include a universal appreciation of the possibility and reality of transness.  This isn’t to say that cis people can’t and don’t experience tensions, discrimination, or negative feelings because of enforced gender roles. But they do benefit from being viewed as real, constant, stable, and never having to convince or confess to others what their gender is, because it’s taken at face value. Cis people broadly benefit from being ‘the default’, and from cultural practices of ascribing gender to people based on what we see, and this often being taken as ‘more real’ than what an individual has to say about themselves.

People who don’t like these words existing often try to claim that they’re slurs in order to delegitimise their usage. Because of the fact that oppressed individuals may sometimes, in understandable frustration at experiences of inequality express their anger through disparaging the oppressive groups. Compare TERF to say, racist, or homophobe. These are words that are used to describe people with a particular set of (discriminatory) beliefs, or who engage in discriminatory practices. In those cases, people called homophobes and racists tend to respond by going ‘no I’m not! (I have a friend who is gay!)’ – yet fascinatingly TERFs don’t say that they don’t think that trans women aren’t women, but that… it’s offensive to say they are? In more extremely hateful individuals one does see people defiantly, proudly proclaiming themselves as racist, homophobic, transphobic – because they believe it is right to be so. Those who don’t believe it is right to be so but don’t recognise the problems with their actions are now the bigger problem.

People can try to shut down descriptors which shake their ignorant worldviews. TERFs see themselves as ‘feminists’, men and women critical of ‘cis’ see themselves as ‘just men and women’ (I’ve never seen a trans person have a problem or make a critique of the word cisgender, which probably has a lot to do with experiences of having their genders systematically delegitimised).

It is a Machiavellian, political move to utilise narratives of oppression resistance in order to reject descriptive labels that function to make a minority less Othered (in the case of cis) or to describe a set of beliefs unambiguously, making it easier to see their failings (such as TERF). One can see it in other domains – take the descriptor of ‘Blairite’ – because support for the political ideology of Tony Blair has been criticised heavily, proponents try to silence their critics through tone policing and claiming those labeling them are being offensive.

The bottom line – it’s important not to confuse people being pissed off with a group of people described by a word, and the word itself having a disparaging meaning.



Insider/Outsider – The Politics of Who to Listen to

As someone who works on non-binary gender identities without unequivocally being an in-group member (though as previously discussed, it’s a little bit complicated), this is an important issue for me. There’s a long and unpleasant history, and not just relating to gender, of people speaking over the voices of groups they are not members of. Of speaking for or about people in ways those people did (or do) not like. This article is not a debate about whether this is a problem or not: it is. Recognition of privilege is something that everyone has a moral imperative to engage with – in part to simply avoid being an ignorant arse who doesn’t recognise hardships others face that they don’t, but also because oppressions are intersectional, which is best illustrated by the comic below – originally posted by Miriam Dobson here.

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However, whilst it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to in-group members telling you things about their group, especially when you’re not a member of that group, there are additional complexities that are worth recognising.

People within marginalised groups disagree.

This should be pretty obvious. Any population big enough to be associated with a social oppression (be that people of colour, queer people, trans people, women, etc.) is going to contain vast swathes of differing opinion. This raises two important points, that may seem a bit contradictory. Firstly, marginalised people can be wrong about things that pertain to the group they’re a member of. Secondly, issues can easily become complex enough that claiming there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ becomes simplistic or troubling all on its own. It’s important to add that the *possibility* of error on the part of a marginalised person doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use this to conveniently dismiss claims they don’t like. Especially those claims that come from direct experience. Experiences of different people can contradict, and don’t respectively erase each other. It’s a complex world we live in.

People new to marginalised groups don’t magically become experts immediately. Some never do.

I heard one transgender activist put it this way: ‘coming out is like saying you want to do a GCSE in maths, but then people start asking you advanced calculus all the time and expecting you to know the answer’. Each person is the authority of their own life. But that’s different to being equipped with an arsenal of political, academic, or activist language and nuanced understandings of what things can mean to different people. It’s different to an awareness of historical or cultural contexts, politics, precedents, or social structures. In some cases, it’s vital to remember that a marginalised person doesn’t need any of those things for their voice to still carry a weight and value that a non-marginalised person’s cannot – such as voicing experience. It’s also a problem to expect everyone to be an expert, as not everyone is or wants to be a scholar or an activist.

Whilst I would suggest most people don’t believe you need to be a member of a demographic to study a particular demographic, it’s a good rule of thumb that lived experiences trump theoretical awareness. Experiencing something doesn’t make someone an expert, but there’s a reason why many people who do experience an oppression do become experts – because they have a particularly powerful motivation to do so. We could of course ‘what does ‘expert’ even mean anyway?’ but that’s a different discussion.

Marginalised people can’t speak for all members of the group they occupy, because no-one can. But…

If a marginalised person says ‘we want this’ or ‘we experience that’, it is more likely to be a slight simplification, or a political statement with a particular purpose rather than something hugely problematic. Their social positioning to the political meaning of the statement is changed and charged by their in-group status.

Experiencing one oppression doesn’t mean someone is sensitive to other forms of oppression, necessarily.

You find racist gay people. You find homophobic disabled people. You find transphobic women. This can often have troubling implications, as if they’re highly politically motivated to fight for the rights and well being of their group, they’re almost certainly leaving someone out in the cold.



Often, if a scholar does work on a particular group of people, and many members of that group take issue with what they’re saying, it’s extremely pertinent to listen to the actual people, rather than the theorist. This is illustrated rather perfectly not just by history (it was the highly qualified, expert doctors who decided that homosexuality and transgender were mental illnesses, no?) but also by the continued work hate speech of scholars polemicists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys.

Ultimately, knowing who to listen to can sometimes be a complex ethical process, dependent on collecting and processing lots of information. But if in doubt (or even if not, in fact), listening to voices of experience is your best bet. The devil can be in the detail where contradiction comes up, but this only heightens the importance of education.

What Really is a ‘Pick-Up Artist’?

It’s a term some may never have heard of and others may have an inkling of the meaning, but it wasn’t until I did a little digging that I got some insight into the individuals who identify with this term. You might know that ‘pick up artists’ are guys who go about regularly trying to seduce women, perhaps with cheesy lines or a confident attitude. But it’s a little bit more involved (but not much, and in no good way).

Pick up artists, or PUAs – they really like pretentious acronym useage –  purport to use a range of (morally and technically dubious) techniques to increase their odds of getting given phone numbers, making out in a club, or getting someone to go home with them for sex. Learning these techniques and how to apply them is called ‘game’, and I’ll talk about the insidious misogyny even in just that name in just a minute.

One of the central ideas to many PUA’s ‘game’ is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. Tellingly, NLP is actually pretty difficult to define because of how ” those who started it and those involved in it use such vague and ambiguous language that NLP means different things to different people.” Wiki’s simple statement on it is that “Its creators claim a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (“programming”) and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life.” It seems to be a combination of two things. On the one hand, changing yourself and your mental processes through the use of language in a manner similar to self-hypnosis, and on the other hand, affecting other people in a similar sort of way to create a favourable situation for yourself. Which doesn’t in any way sound coercive or morally dubious. Nope.

It’s also quite crucial to note that Neuro-Linguistic Programming is now academically understood to be a pseudoscience. As this quote from the Annual Review of Psychology  highlights: “after several years of conflicting and confusing results, Sharpley (1984, 1987) reviewed the research and concluded that there was little support for the assumptions of NLP.” Being reviews of multiple pieces of research, this obviously isn’t a claim based on one simple piece of debunking literature, even though I only cite this here.

I mean, you can’t literally be this guy. But don’t be a pick-up ‘artist’. Please. If you happen to be the guy in the photo reading, you can be this guy.

The psychology underpinning the ‘seduction community’ ultimately rests upon claims that ‘nice guys finish last’. That to attain your goal of sex with women, you can (and should) take a systematic approach that will enable you to manipulate people and situations so that you can get laid. Doing this reduces women to puzzles or challenges that have to be cracked for the sake of male gratification. This isn’t a method that is sincerely offered as a way for shy men to overcome personal difficulties and establish meaningful connections, or even engage in casual sexual fun in an egalitarian and consensual manner. You have men literally competing to see who can collect more phone numbers, or advocating a ‘technique’ whereby a man is advised to grab a girl by the throat, put a finger to his lips, and go ‘shh’. Yes, this is part of ‘game’, for some at least. By calling these techniques ‘game’, it implies that sex is something that can be won, and that the process is all just fun, not serious, no real consequences.

That last one sounds pretty outrageous right? You may have seen the particular guy who sells this idea, Julien Blanc, in the news recently when he was forced to leave Australia after his Visa was cancelled, and his pick-up seminars cancelled.

That men like Julien Blanc are able to make a living from this also highlights another important aspect – the sad extent to which men are prepared to pay huge amounts of money to people who offer the ‘secrets’ of how to succeed with women, and ‘what women really want’. For a start it rests on flawed and highly simplistic (but also highly prevalent) assumptions that men and women think in intrinsically alien ways, and that all men and all women are two broadly homogeneous groups. Many of the devices used by pick-up artists (and really, I hate this term. There is nothing artistic about what these people do) explicitly buy into such narratives. For example, ‘negging’ – defined as a deliberate self-confidence undermining insult veiled as a compliment or offhand comment, designed to make women seek that man’s approval. Because that’s apparently what women do. The comic from XKCD actually captures the idea in its entirety.

Credit: http://xkcd.com/1027/

But people actually do this! Though whilst it looks like a joke, relatively harmless sleaze that no woman would fall for, many of the devices are less detectable. Like professional con-artists, devices don’t work so well if people can tell that you’re trying to be manipulative. You might not want to give this guy the YouTube hit, but this video discusses how to, in quite predatory terms, manipulate situations to allow men to touch and kiss women without worrying about that annoying little fundamental issue of consent. He also explicitly talks about how ‘it’s easier to work the situation around to touching and kissing her when you’re the one talking, but some women just won’t shut up. When they’re talking you [men] are thinking about how to get them to have sex with you’.

Whilst NLP has been debunked, whether or not any of the techniques used actually succeed in getting numbers, or sex, is really besides the point. The point is that thinking about women in this way is inherently sexist. Manipulating women in this way is inherently sexist. This is made all the more obvious by members of forums, or local groups (somewhat fittingly and creepily called ‘lairs’) actually discussing ways to shrug off the guilt. Some of these men convince themselves that it doesn’t matter because “The average woman is 10X, no 100X more conniving than the most underhanded, slimiest pickup sleazeball on the planet.” Others don’t even care, through either a complete lack of respect or empathy, being so engrossed in succeeding at their ‘game’ that they don’t actually stop to think, or some kind of Randian philosophy that rewards unapologetic self-interest.

I’ve framed this discussion entirely around men picking up women – because of social power relations between men and women, and the way in which power and sexuality are socially constructed, this overwhelmingly makes up the majority of ‘seduction communities’. However, at least one female pick-up artist exists, and has talked about her experiences and reasoning. Whilst unpacking this would take a lot more time and thought, I feel that the bottom line is that any kind of pick-up philosophy ultimately rests upon manipulation, and the idea of people being there as a resource for you to get what you want. Which is gross. I’m certainly not saying that people can’t enjoy casual flings, or making out in clubs and bars rather than simply looking to settle down in a traditional manner. But one shouldn’t – and doesn’t have to – craft a method around murky, underhanded, or abusive ‘tactics’ in order to connect with people sexually.


A fresh look at art – Women and their understated part in history

This post was written for Gender Agenda, the Cambridge University Student’s Union Women’s Campaign termly magazine. Their website (where this and many other great resources and reads for women in particular) can be found here.


Whilst over the centuries it’s a horrible, abhorrent fact that women have had to struggle to be seen and heard in virtually all professional arenas, we are very, very lucky that art can endure. We are lucky that many women (though not as many as might have) dared to push against societal pressures by training in and executing their gifts in various times and places – when it undoubtedly may have been easier (albeit unhappier) to quietly run the home and children, and little else. Likewise it seems to me a further product of patriarchal systems that many female-dominated ‘applied arts’ such as weaving, embroidery, etc. are viewed with considerably less social significance compared to the historically male dominated ‘fine arts’. Embarrassingly, many fans of fine art may find themselves unable to name more than a handful of female artists. In contemporary terms Tracy Emin and Yoko Ono spring to mind though are often callously dismissed as ‘mad’ or ‘talentless’. To go back further chronologically, could I even confidently declare Frieda Kahlo and Barbara Hepworth as household names with the same confidence as Van Gogh or Michaelangelo? I sadly doubt it. The following list of artists was selected to represent a cross-section across different times, cultures, and styles – I really hope you’ll Google these women, as the effort it will have taken to produce their works only heightens their deservedness of an audience.

1. Claricia (13th Century)

One of the few positions in life which provided the freedom for artistic expression in the middle ages was in monasteries and nunneries. Claricia was thought to be a lay student at an Abbey in Augsberg in Germany where she illustrated herself into a psalter – her body swinging as the tail to an ornate capital Q.


2. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656)

The daughter of a professional painter, Artemisia was trained in her father’s workshop. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of the Arts and Drawing, in Florence. The vast majority of her work displays women in positions of power relative to men. Judith from the Bible in particular, who does some pretty knarly beheading of one Holofernes. Caravaggio painted the same scene, though if you compare the two paintings it’s Gentileschi who really captures a sense of brutal determination. Caravaggio’s Judith (here she is!) lacks this to me, perhaps because Gentileschi could better empathise with and capture such a sense in a woman. Caravaggio’s Judith comes across to me as a dainty flower who isn’t quite sure how she ended up with a sword in a chap’s neck.

3. Louise ÉlisabethVigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842)

Another artist whose access to teaching stemmed from having an artist father, Le Brun was painting portraits professionally by her early teens, progressed to be Marie Antoinette’s official portrait painter, and caused a scandal by breaking convention when she painted herself smiling showing her teeth.

4. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879)

Cameron can be regarded as a pioneer in photography, despite taking the art form up at the age of 48, when given a camera by her daughter. Some of her images are unbelievably crisp as a result of her perfectionism, given she was working in the 1860s. Cameron was neighbour and friend to Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the great aunt of Virginia Woolf.

5. Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907)

Lewis managed to obtain impressive success in her lifetime as a Neoclassical sculptor despite not only gendered barriers, but the fact that she was mixed race (Haitian, African, and Ojibwe Native American). Orphaned at a young age, Lewis made money with her aunts by selling Ojibwe baskets, and was able to attend college from the financial success of her brother. Through her determination Lewis was able to take herself to study in Rome, and later achieved hugely lucrative commissions and had the President Ulysses S. Grant sit for her. Many of her sculptures contain poignant messages on race.

6. Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)

A friend of Edgar Degas and a fellow Impressionist, Cassatt, whilst attaining tuition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after a privileged education around Europe, felt rightly restricted by the attitudes towards women (for example, being forbidden from studying nudes) so left without graduating and pursued her own study. She moved to Paris and applied to study privately with masters due to women being forbidden from the École des Beaux-Arts. Many of her paintings focus on themes of motherhood, and in later life she was committed to the cause of women’s suffrage.

7. Augusta Savage (1892 – 1962)

Beaten by her father who viewed her sculpture as ‘graven images’ until she sculpted a Virgin Mary which changed his mind, Savage was able to make significant money from her clay sculpture in her early life, but did not experience widespread financial success. Upon rejection in 1923 from a French art program due to being black, her civil rights activism was begun. In 1934 she opened a multiracial studio where she taught anyone who wanted to learn how to paint, draw, or sculpt.

8. Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954)

If the term had existed, Claude Cahun may well have accepted the label of Genderqueer. Settling with her partner (also her stepsister) in Paris before later moving to Jersey in 1937, both engaged in resistance during Nazi occupation. They would take English-to-German translations of BBC reports of Nazi atrocities, paste them into poetic formats, dress as German military officers so as to infiltrate military events and leave the poems where they would be read. Whilst arrested and sentenced to death in 1944, both survived the war.

9. Ogura Yuki (1895 – 2000)

Ogura specialised in nihonga painting, which is the utilisation of strictly traditional Japanese methods and styles. She painted much nude portraiture of friends and family throughout the 50s and 60s, in natural, familial settings. Only one other female painter (UemuraShoen) has received the Japanese Order of Culture.

10. Kay Sage (1898 – 1963)

Born in New York, Sage floated around Europe with her mother during her early childhood, exposing her to a variety of culture and also giving her an informal fluency in French and Italian. Whilst she spent 10 years married to an Italian nobleman she found this life deeply unsatisfying, and later obtained a divorce. She was exposed to surrealism in the 1930s and impressed André Breton (the founder of the movement), though he did not believe her paintings could’ve been done by a woman.

11. Rachel Whiteread (1963 – )

Gaining some fame as the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993, for a cast taken of an entire Victorian terraced house, Whiteread is also one of the artists to have a piece on the empty fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square – an upside down resin cast of the plinth itself, potentially the largest ever object to be made of resin. Her work often explores ‘negative space’ – the space inside an object not actually taken up by the object itself.

“The analytical category of gender presents particular methodological difficulties. Discuss.”

For those who found the last post to be a case of ‘tl; dr’, sorry that I’m simply putting up another essay again. In this one I discuss scientific methodology, and tensions between this and postmodern thinking, and feminist criticism of positivism.


This was written by 16th March 2011.


Every academic field has methods that are conventionally considered acceptable for use within that field. The use of unconventional methods ranges in acceptance and frequency in a field dependent manner, and broadly speaking the most ‘rigid’ research areas may be the so-called ‘hard’, or natural sciences. Here, the only acceptable methodology is the scientific method, deviation from which results in loss of scientific status. Science cannot progress without the collection of empirical data in a controlled and repeatable manner, which provides objective information on a given hypothesis or model. Models that are supported by evidence are only held with for as long as the evidence supporting it remains the best available. When better evidence becomes available, the model must be either modified or replaced. Models may exist that independently are supported well in the explanation of part of a system, but when considered together are not compatible. Two areas of physics (using this same methodology, but different methods) which blossomed during the twentieth century are quantum mechanics – the mathematical underpinnings of matter and energy on very small scales, and general relativity – which provides a description of gravity on very large scales. Whilst work done in both these fields are (now) uncontroversial and entirely embraced by the scientific community, these models of the behaviour of the universe break down when attempts are made to integrate them. The point I am making with this example is that the very nature of the knowledge we create through the use of different methods can result in total incompatibility with knowledge created in another way, even when the methods themselves are not particularly controversial – which of course is not necessarily even a stability that can always be relied upon in some areas.

Due to its multidisciplinary nature, the field of gender studies arguably attracts as many different methodologies as any given discipline can reasonably justify. There are scientists utilising quantitative methods resting on a positivist philosophy, social scientists using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods, and theorists who may use hermeneutics, discourse analysis or post-structural thought, to highlight some important examples. These different methods can be regarded as a toolbox, providing different analytical advantages and disadvantages which may be considered dependent upon both the researcher and the research question. Methodology is dependent on ideology (Keller 1985, p. 126), and thus the scientist approaching gender may completely reject the position of the poststructuralist and vice versa despite consideration of the same questions, using methods accepted within their respective fields. Such methods are both clearly used to explore questions about gender. The methodologies used within these schools of thought rest on different philosophical axioms which will be considered through the lens of gender in this essay, in order to examine their effectiveness and interplay. Consideration of the problems academic supporters of each of these methodological camps (natural sciences and post-structuralism) have with each other will be used to expose the weaknesses of each position. The defences of each position along with amalgamation of theoretical strengths will be then used to cross-examine the problematisation of methodology, using research done on gender as case studies.

Dispute over the validity of scientific methodology is not only seen when researchers use this school of thought directly to try and answer questions in the field of gender studies, but has indeed been critiqued more generally by some feminists who have argued that the scientific community, through being male dominated for centuries, is a construction of the patriarchy and that: “Traditional research contains more or less concealed expressions of sexism in its focus, its linguistic usage and its results. In this way the asymmetrical gender relations in society are legitimated and reproduced” (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2000, p. 210). Methods can therefore be problematized both when ‘science is done to gender’ and when ‘gender is done to science’. Before discussing real examples of methods used in scientific gender based research, it is worth further discussing what science actually ‘is’, what questions it can hope to answer, and how this relates to gender. This clearly involves very large philosophical and subjective questions that perhaps interestingly one doesn’t need to consider in order to do ‘good science’ (based on the fact that many successful, well published and well regarded scientists never explicitly address such questions within their careers).

The Nobel Prize winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger claimed that the two fundamental axioms of science is that ‘nature’ is both objectifiable, and knowable (Schrödinger 1967, quoted in Keller 1985 p. 141). The existence of facts or truths about the world is taken to exist independently of the consideration of any consciousness. It is understood that by collecting data in a manner that is independent from influence by the person collecting it, one does not subvert the results which arise from analysis of this data. It can be argued that for any topic on which empirical data can be collected and analysed in order to test predictions about the world, science can be done. In the natural sciences, the data that is collected is restricted to the ‘material’ (rather than the ‘social’ – this rather problematic distinction will be returned to later). Examples of two scientists who have used such a methodology related to the field of gender are Melissa Hines and Simon Baron-Cohen.

In Hines’ book Brain Gender, a large deal of scientific literature and experimentation is reviewed in order to attempt to answer whether biological factors contribute to behavioural sex differences and what the ramifications of this may be. The discussion references cognitive sex differences on measures of visuospatial abilities (Hines 2004, p. 12), and it has been shown that differences between the sexes may be large or negligible depending upon what abilities are specifically tested. Whilst this information on its own doesn’t bring us closer to answering Hines’ questions, it is possible to argue that the methods being used are indeed appropriate, and may be part of the construction of answers. Ability at particular tests done by men and women are quantifiable and analysable – objectifiable and knowable. The same can be said of doses of hormone and the physiological responses to such, which Hines also considers by studying how sex typical reproductive behaviour in the rat is affected (Hines, 2004 p. 47). The analysis of animal models is a standard and heavily used method of learning about human biological systems due to huge overlap as a result of evolutionary processes.

Fascinatingly, it has been shown that sex differences can be observed in non-human primates through toy preferences (Alexander and Hines, 2002). This provides evidence for a non-social component due to the animals having neither prior experience of the toys nor being influenced by peers or environment. Whilst there is clearly scope for further work to be done this has implications for a great number of gender based questions concerning the interplay of the biological and the social in men and women.

The use of scientific methods can also be constructive in disproving commonly held gender-based misconceptions. For example it is a commonly held social conception that high levels of testosterone result in increased aggression. However, in Hines’ discussion, a metaanalysis demonstrates a small correlation which may itself be overstated due to there being evidence to suggest that positive findings may be overrepresented (Hines, 2004 p. 135). This highlights a problem with the concept of peer review, which will be returned to when critiquing the use of scientific methods.

If obeying a positivist philosophy, then claims that this is so problematized as to deny useful conclusions to be drawn may be considered solipsistic. However there is great academic scope for multiple levels of problematisation as related to gender which shall now be further explored.

Methods, broadly speaking may be thought of as being systematic processes by which data are collected and then analysed. But what if your data are statements, arguments, or even other methods? Post-structuralism provides tools for doing this by the deconstruction of arguments which can allow new information to be revealed or new conclusions to be drawn, which hidden or ignored biases in the existing methodology don’t account for. Post-structural thought could potentially be regarded as anti-methodological (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2000, p. 184) however I would argue whilst being used systematically to problematize other methods; it unavoidably becomes a methodology itself with paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis examples of methods used within semiotics and deconstruction (Prasad 2005, p. 99). The central ideas that the ‘self’ as well as elements of society (including sex and gender) are socially constructed as well as the importance of what a reader understands from a piece of work in contrast to what the writer necessarily intends are of great importance.

So why deconstruct scientific methods when the logic – that is, to control extraneous variables and not allow the quest for truth to be coloured by personal biases – may appear to be an effective way to answer questions of gender, particularly given that there are results that have independently been found to be repeatable? Because it can be argued that despite best intentions and efforts (that are never always going to be there in every piece of work), political, cultural and social influences will insidiously impact upon the scientific enterprise (Begley, 2001 p. 114). An example relevant within gender studies is how the model of human conception has changed over the past fifty years. It was once thought that the sperm was the ‘active’ and the egg the ‘passive’ agent in conception. Language used within the literature on this topic reflected this and was clearly influenced by social parallels drawn from preconceptions of the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ despite research existing which demonstrated active roles for the egg cell (Begley, 2001 p. 117). Larger scale historical examples where hindsight has demonstrated that attempts at a scientific enterprise were clearly distorted by personal beliefs and preconceptions include the damage done by the field of eugenics, and the rise of the anti-Mendelian ‘Lysenkoism’ of the Soviet Union in the 1930s (National Academy of Sciences 2001, p. 112).

Furthermore, one might argue that it is in fact impossible to separate the biological from the social. As Hines herself says “All of our psychological and behavioural characteristics, however, have a biological basis within our brain. No matter whether hormones or other factors, including social factors caused us to develop in a certain way, the hormonal or social influences have been translated into physical brain characteristics, such as neurons, synapses, and neurochemicals. Thus, the distinction between biological and social/cultural causes is false.” (Hines, 2004, p. 213-4). Given that the social must be experienced through the material in the two-pronged sense that all thought originates in the complex but materially finite brain, and all experience of the world is through biological, sensory perception. There are thus good arguments suggesting that science attempting to stand independently in the production of new information is at best hampered and at worst fundamentally flawed.

The monolithic monopoly on being able to effectively create knowledge through scientific methods is thus well challenged given that social context can change the results discovered. This may be a problem with the cognitive visuospatial sex differences discussed by Hines, as according to one of the very metaanalyses she references “partial support was found for the notion that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years…it was found that the age of emergence of sex differences depends on the test used” (Voyer et al. 1995). Given that the differential biology between men and women have not changed over this time frame, and that there has been no clear methodological upheaval in more recent studies being done, it is implicit that the change in the magnitude of the results is a result of the time and cultural attitudes the studies were performed in.

There are a number of responses that defendants of the methods used to collect the data presented in Brain Gender may argue. Firstly and most obviously, empirical results are real. Deconstruction may allow for greater understanding of problems that may be inherent in research, but the explicit results of scientific research that have been shown to accurately model elements of the world including relevant issues to gender (our understanding of physiological differences, for instance). It is important to recognise that peer review exists in order to attempt to catch such methodological problems. Also when utilising a scientific methodological approach, one is really attempting to create models that usefully reflect the world, rather than necessarily state an essentialist truth about the world which can be readily problematized.

Historical context is also important to better appreciate how gender and methodology are related, by considering past interaction and discussion that has gone on between the scientific community and post-structuralists (Oakley 1998, p. 708). The 1990s saw a series of intellectual arguments known as ‘the science wars’, involving the criticism of scientific objectivity by post-structuralists, with the rebuttal by the scientific community that their critics lacked both intellectual rigour, and an understanding of what they were critiquing. An important event was the ‘Sokal affair’, whereby a professor of physics was successful in getting an article published in a post-structural journal despite then revealing that he was testing to see if they would: “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions” (Sokal, 1996). This clearly problematizes post-structural criticism as a method of academia with forward motion a great deal. It is commonly argued that post-structuralism has a lack of constructivity, and does not offer alternative explanations to the hypotheses which it problematizes. As a result of this, it clearly isn’t a methodology that can exist independently. In order to have meaning, the deconstruction that is posited must have a structure to act upon which is near exclusively the result of alternative methods.

By beginning a deconstructive critique with the a priori assumption that the structuralist position is inherently flawed can result in a lack of engagement with the position under scrutiny. This can lead to misunderstandings and oversimplification of the subject matter at hand leading to a far less convincing and less useful output. For example, the argument that has been put forward suggesting that ‘science is the masculine’, ‘nature is the feminine’, and that knowledge acquired by science from nature is a form of rape (Oakley 1998, p. 709) and that subsequently Newton’s Principa Mathematica can be characterised as a ‘rape manual’ (Begley 2001, p. 115) demonstrate a lack of engagement with the purpose or methodology of science, whilst simultaneously abusing the sensitive term ‘rape’ in a manner that does not empower or usefully critique. Such dramatic language use is also likely to inspire a (deliberate) reaction in readers, which is another important dimension related to all methodologies which will be returned to.

Having discussed the work of Hines, the way in which scientific methodology can be used to study gender can be better understood by a comparative examination of the work of another scientist and his work’s implications and problematisations within gender studies – Simon Baron-Cohen. The premise of his book The Essential Difference examines the theory that: “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems” (Baron-Cohen 2003, p. 1). Baron-Cohen’s methodology rests upon the use of two tools which he is responsible for creating, the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and the Systemizing Quotient (SQ). These are questionnaires where points are scored dependant on answering ‘strongly agree/disagree’ or ‘slightly agree/disagree’ to a range of questions of which some are scored for positive answers, some are scored for negative answers, and some do not affect the final score of the test at all. The results that he has found show that on the SQ, people with autism score higher on average than men who score higher on average than women. On the EQ this pattern is reversed. How then, is this methodology problematized by the analytical category of gender?

Firstly, the way in which language is used to express the research is somewhat problematic. The summary on the back cover of The Essential Difference begins with “At last, leading psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen confirms what most of us have long suspected: male and female brains are different”. Then on page 8 of the book, the subtitle “Your Sex Does Not Dictate Your Brain Type” is used. If sex does not dictate brain type (in that the differences he is referring to are statistical averages, thus allowing for the existence of, within his model, women with ‘very male’ brains and vice versa) then this raises the question of why he has chosen to refer to the brain types as ‘male’ and ‘female’ given this clearly obfuscates his point. This requires him to explicitly demonstrate to his readers that he is aware of and receptive to the need of “not perpetuating the mistaken attitudes of former generations by assuming that sex differences imply that one sex is inferior overall” (Baron-Cohen 2003, p. 10). Demonstrating this is clearly no bad thing,  however it can be argued that it is at best an ‘unscientific’ (that is, obviously subjectified) approach to discuss the hypotheses in these terms. The choice of language on the back cover was clearly designed to be simple and catchy, to increase the appearance of significance and therefore readership, and status.

Baron-Cohen’s methods are also critiqued by other scientists. An alternative model has been proposed with ‘Machiavellianism’ and EQ offered as a more accurate dichotomy than EQ/SQ (Andrew, Cooke and Muncer 2007). It is argued that the EQ and SQ have “not been strongly validated”, and that “the relationship between empathising and systemizing is still unresolved”. Some of the criticisms levied against the EQ/SQ model are not particularly complex. For instance: “One would expect that if these were two contrasting cognitive styles that showed such a clear pattern then there would be a negative relationship between them. This has certainly been proposed by Baron-Cohen, but seldom strongly supported by research which has generally shown a weak negative correlation between the two styles. Furthermore, some research using other proposed methods of measuring systemizing and empathizing has found no significant correlation.” (Andrew, Cooke and Muncer 2007).

These are problems that if truly using an objective approach, one might expect Baron-Cohen to address more explicitly, however the reasons this does not happen are easy to understand. All academics clearly have a vested interested in the value of their research contribution due to impact on their reputations and by extension, career success. Discussion of further work needing to be done is common, but self-criticism of methods is very rare due to the fundamental uncertainty this then places on the value of the whole work. The process of peer review and intra-disciplinary competition does provide a policing of research to limit the impact of the avoidance of this level of self-criticism (which is not unique to natural scientists of course) however should the work being criticised have been written by someone ‘eminent’ and published in a ‘prestigious’ journal it is unlikely that the problematisation will receive as effective a voice on the academic landscape.  This may also be regarded as a problem from a feminist perspective when considering arguments that men may have more active and effective voices than women in many circumstances in society, which relates this problem directly back to gender.

What is most interesting methodologically is that whilst number of individuals taking the test, their sexes and their scores can all be quantified and analysed, how is the wording of the questions that form the main methodological tool performed ‘scientifically’? There is an implicit and unavoidable subjectivity here, and it is difficult to claim a firm authority on ability to do this. Gender further problematizes this question by the fact that all researchers are gendered, and arguably cannot disconnect their ‘selves’ from the words they choose to use in the construction of their methodological tools. Based on the discussion of post-structuralism that has already been engaged with this position may regard this only as a flaw or disadvantage; however there are potential benefits that this may also bring despite it being common that a lack of discussion occurs on such points within scientific literature. Scientists are not robots; by acknowledging that subjective traits that do not yield to rational analysis such as creativity, integrity and curiosity do influence research (National Academy of Sciences 2001, p. 111) constructive dialogue can be opened in order to create a more nuanced understanding, such that research validity isn’t jeopardised by neglect of such.

These critiques have partially alluded to an important approach in considering scientific methodology through a gendered lens – feminist epistemology. This approach (or approaches) involves examining the ways in which gender affects the acquisition of knowledge. There are a great many ways that feminist methodologies may be developed because there are a diverse number of branches of feminist theory (Rosser 2001, p. 126). An interesting dimension to the problematisation of scientific methodology are the different conflicts that can arise out of these positions, which will be related back to the work of Baron-Cohen and the potentially unavoidable subjectivity in science just discussed.

The first of these positions I shall consider is that of liberal feminism. A simple summary of this would be the belief that women suffer unjust treatment in society in comparison to men, and that this is unjust and equal consideration with regards to sex is a social ideal to be aimed for. There is no incompatibility with the hegemonic, objectivist approach to scientific research as ideally it is believed within this framework that gender biases in science can be consciously uncovered and removed (Rosser 2001, p. 129). It is not saying that science has successfully been performed in a de-gendered manner. A simple example would be a consideration of the social consideration of the hormones testosterone and oestrogen. Whilst both of these hormones are found in men and women with numerous and complex roles and effects, one is very much gendered as male and the other very much gendered as female, with a huge emphasis being placed on their roles in the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The reasons behind this could be explored, but from a social perspective it seems that due to the simplicity of this description and the fact that everyone learns this basic concept in secondary school biology, the trickle down of scientific research into education and the gendered implications this has results in a propagation of relatively ubiquitous and basic ‘engenderments’.

Sexism within the scientific community as a result of subjectivities connected to gender has been documented and studied. A paper published in the prestigious journal Science (claiming to have demonstrated that the corpus callosum in the human brain was larger in females than in males) was examined and shown to have methodological flaws by the neurophysiologist Ruth Bleier. She performed her own study, which, with conscious methodological improvements, resulted in no differences found. Her group’s paper was however rejected by Science, with a reviewer rejecting her arguments seemingly for tending “to err in the opposite direction from the researchers whose results and conclusions she criticizes” (Spanier 2001, p. 369). One might argue that whilst this may indicate problems already discussed with difficulty in criticising scientific results that have attained a position of privilege, it has been shown through empirical study and statistical analysis that nepotism and sexism exist within peer review (Wenneras and Wold 2001, p. 44). This raises the important point that it is demonstrable that both methods and methodologies that were created and near-exclusively used by men for a long period of history can be used by women to demonstrate clear evidence of need for adjustment to attain equality. I avoid saying ‘the need for the empowerment of women’ due to the potential for positive discrimination to result (in theory at least) merely an inversion of the problem. The crux of this evidence within a liberal feminist framework is the need for equality.

Baron-Cohen’s conclusions and assumptions have been faulted in detail on a methodological basis within what could be described as a liberal feminist framework (Nash and Grossi 2007). One might find it problematic that faults with work that (in theory) endeavours to remain objective is criticised on grounds that are immediately political in nature through a lack of relevant connection. However, concurrency and legitimisation are maintained by working within the same methodology as the research itself is performed under, which adds voice to the feminist position. Various books have been written which could be considered under this framework, including those which deal with Baron-Cohen’s work directly such as Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, and Pink Brain Blue Brain by Lise Eliot.

Marxist feminism is markedly different in that knowledge is viewed as a construct resulting from the human endeavour of production that is tied to a proletariat/bourgeois dichotomy. This creates a methodological space for the argument that research questions about both sex differences and biological causations of sexuality or gender identity would not be valid research questions if society was free from inequality (Rosser 2001, p. 131).

Essentialist feminism provides an interesting difficulty to be resolved philosophically and politically when considering gender research. This position is compatible with positivism, and holds that biological differences may mean that men are superior in some physical and mental aspects, and women are in others (Rosser 2001, p. 133). This can arguably lead to reinforcement of a potentially harmful and restrictive binary, though by focussing on the ways in which women are believed to be ‘superior’ to men may be useful in the empowerment of women within a patriarchal system. Obviously the interactions between methodology and this interpretation of feminism may be problematic because of the argument that this constructs barriers to individual freedom based on a socially constructed categorisation. Such ideas of social construction resulting in ‘othering’ as a result of social perception of biological differences (which alone don’t necessarily imply an inequality) are found within existentialist feminism which was explored by Simone de Beauvoir: “The enslavement of the female to the species and the limitations of her various powers are extremely important facts; the body of woman is one of the essential elements in her situation in the world. But that body is not enough to define her as woman; there is no true living reality except as manifested by the conscious individual thorough activities and in the bosom of a society. Biology is not enough to give an answer to the question that is before us; why is woman the Other?” (de Beauvoir 1974, p.51).

This range of categories of feminism makes methodology a difficult area to agree on, because the underlying principles vary significantly even if the general aims (equality for women) are the same. This highlights the importance of the relationship between philosophy, epistemology and methodology when considering research through a gendered lens. This remains true whether actively attempting to answer questions that directly contribute to gendered debates (sex differences, etc.) using scientific methods, or researching topics that are not obviously directly contributing to such debate but still have subjective elements which require conscious and careful language use and analysis to avoid contributing to any level of patriarchal maintenance, repression or preconceived engendering. Some feminists believe that the use of quantified methods is not compatible within an honest and emancipated feminist research methodology. Ann Oakley discusses this in terms of objections against positivism, power and p-values (Oakley 1998, p. 710). In this discussion, Oakley deals with the unequal power distribution between the ‘knower’ or researcher, and ‘known’, the subject – who under a scientific method is properly made to be an ‘object’, arguably removing any agency. However qualitative methods which are sometimes held up as an alternative are subject to these same methodological difficulties, especially if considering any post-structural consideration of language problematisation. The underlying social reason that is given for these attitudes rather than a legitimate superiority/inferiority relationship between methodologies generally is that “Feminism needed a research method, a distinct methodology, in order to occupy a distinctive place in the academy and acquire social status and moral legitimacy” (Oakley 1998, p. 716). In other words, the field required its ‘niche’, in the same way that individual researchers require this in their field. Originality is the key to success and respect within the academy, and this must be achieved not just with subject but also with methodology to some extent.

There are therefore a great many ways in which difficulties can be encountered when considering even just quantitative methodologies and the analyses that may be applied to them in the consideration of gender. What it means to be ‘scientific’ is contentious before considering how language affects results, how unavoidable subjectivity can arguably permeate even the best controlled systems and work – but that fortunately if one can utilise a multifaceted and open approach, engaging quantitative methodology in dialogue with political and social theory can be constructive rather than irrelevant or overcomplicated. Self-expression is as much a part of science as competently collecting one’s data is.  All published academics must consider how to do this, yet this is a stage of the research process that can go relatively un-critiqued despite arguably being strengthened by a systematic element of the consideration of the implications of how and what is being said. This could potentially be regarded as the invisible element of methodology, though this provides good evidence for the usefulness of criticism of methodology from outside of the immediate community or system. Ironically enough then, despite the sometimes polemical or highly subjectively motivated attacks that have occurred on and between quantitative scientific methodologies, post-structural thought and feminist methodologies, the exchanges temper and strengthen all of these so that the complete toolbox can be used to more convincingly express understandings of the world.


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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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