Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘sexism’

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.

 

 

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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.

 

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: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can a man be a feminist?

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

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

Bill Bailey

Photograph credit: Fawcett society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classical music and gender – instruments, orchestras, and stereotypes

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Vienna sausagefest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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