Tag Archives: heterosexist culture

Dudes and sexual violence, Part 2 « The Filing Cabinet

Dudes and sexual violence, Part 2 « The Filing Cabinet.

I wrote some stuff here, but mostly Meg has some great insights, thoughts, questions. When we each stop procrastinating from our PhDs, actually hand in the work we have due, and take a break, I hope we write more about this together. I think it would be really super if DUDE had an issue on sexual violence at some point in the future. There’s so much to say, to ask, to interrogate…

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You can do it!

check out my interview with Art about acquiring surgery not testosterone on DUDE 2 EXTENDED:

You can do it!

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Pronouns can be awkward

I like to think I don’t care which pronouns people use. But…I do. I guess I just like to be open about which pronouns people use because I don’t like stability, or being boxed in to something rigid. But the thing that disconcerts me is the reasons people use she/her/hers pronouns for me. Because if it’s just that they decide I am “female-bodied” – that’s not really cool. It’s true that I use and prefer he/him/his pronouns. And that my friends use them to describe me. But I do want to be cool with people using feminine pronouns. But I want to know what their reasons are for doing so. Leslie Feinberg is pretty awesome at being cool with people using different pronouns, so long as they’re in context:

Leslie Feinberg: For me, pronouns are always placed within context. I am female-bodied, I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian – referring to me as “she/her” is appropriate, particularly in a non-trans setting in which referring to me as “he” would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible. I like the gender neutral pronoun “ze/hir” because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met. And in an all trans setting, referring to me as “he/him” honors my gender expression in the same way that referring to my sister drag queens as “she/her” does.

I think for me right now, this is not the case: “referring to me as “he” would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible.” In fact, the opposite is true. But it does depend where I am. I grew up in a small town where strangers have pretty much always, and continue to, gender me as male and use masculine pronouns for me. I think this is because they don’t realise queer people, or specifically butch dykes, exist. That is, they’re not recognised. But in Melbourne, especially the kinds of places I hang out, I often don’t look male. So for me, Feinberg’s point would work when people use masculine pronouns for me – which I’m into.

I guess I feel my genderqueerness is unintelligible and that’s really tiring.

Judith Butler: To find that you are fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find you to be an impossibility) is to find that you have not yet achieved access to the human, to find yourself speaking only and always as if you were human, but with the sense that you are not, to find that your language is hollow, that no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor.

I lack the recognition (often but not always) to be intelligibly male.

Also  I’m often in places where it’s clear I’m not a teenager (universities, clubs), so I don’t get gendered as a teenage boy, which is the way I am most often read by non-trans strangers outside of these contexts. And as I’ve said before, I think one of the reasons people are so quick to gender me female and use feminine pronouns for me is because of the snaps from male-looking dykes offended at being called ‘he’ (which is fair enough, but also results in this kind of confusion.) So, seriously: ask what pronouns someone prefers. And just as seriously, don’t be offended by someone asking.

I went home for the holidays, and my parents, as well as many of my old friends, use feminine pronouns for me. I don’t want to ‘correct’ them. That seems wrong, because I don’t feel like I have some essential male being or something; that they’re wrong. But I do want them to know I prefer masculine pronouns, because I think they’d feel embarassed to know that was the case and I just didn’t tell them.

I guess I’d want to ask why people used feminine pronouns for me. And if their reasoning is: “You’re a girl”, “You look like a girl” or “Well I always have,” I don’t think that’s good enough. But I also recognise it’s up to me to tell them otherwise. But like, I’m tired.

Dean Spade: there is no innocence nor insignificance to the mistake of ‘she’ for ‘he’ when referring to a person who has chosen to take on a ‘wrong’ pronoun. even if it is done thoughtlessly, that thoughtlessness comes from and supports the two cardinal rules of gender: that all people must look like the gender (one out of a possible two) they are called by, and that gender is fixed and cannot be changed. each time this burden shifting occurs, the non-trans person affirms these gender rules, playing by them and letting me know that they will not do the work to see the world outside of these rules.

This is probably where I want to be:

Dean Spade: if comfort was my goal, i could probably have found a smoother path than the one i’m on, right? i haven’t chosen this word ‘he’ because it means something true to me, or it feels all homey and delicious. no pronoun feels personal to me. i’ve chosen it because the act of saying it, of looking at the body i’m in and the way that my gender has been identified since birth and then calling me ‘he,’ disrupts oppressive processes that fix everyone’s gender as ‘real,’ immutable, and determinative of your station in life. i’m not hoping that people will see that i’m different, paste a fake smile on their faces and force themselves to say some word about me with no thought process. i’m hoping that they will feel implicated, that it will make them think about the realness of everyone’s gender, that it will make them feel more like they can do whatever they want with their gender, or at least cause a pause where one normally would not exist. quite likely, this will be uncomfortable for all of us, but i believe that becoming uncomfortable with the oppressive system of rigid gender assignment is a great step toward undoing it.

also, check out Dean Spade’s Pronoun etiquette I’ve re-posted here.

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Pronoun Etiquette

By Dean Spade
People often wonder how to be polite when it comes to problems of misidentifying another person’s pronoun. Here are some general tips:

  1. If you make a mistake, correct yourself. Going on as if it did not happen is actually less respectful than making the correction. This also saves the person who was misidentified from having to correct an incorrect pronoun assumption that has now been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.
  2. If someone else makes a mistake, correct them. It is polite to provide a correction, whether or not the person whose pronoun is misused is present, in order to avoid future mistakes and in order to correct the mistaken assumption that might now have been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.
  3. If you aren’t sure of a person’s pronoun, ask. One way to do this is by sharing your own. “I use masculine pronouns. I want to make sure to address you correctly, how do you like to be addressed?” This may seem like a strange thing to do but a person who often experiences being addressed incorrectly may see it as a sign of respect that you are interested in getting it right.
  4. When facilitating a group discussion, ask people to identify their pronouns when they go around and do introductions. This will allow everyone in the room the chance to self-identify and to get each others’ pronouns right the first time. It will also reduce the burden on anyone whose pronoun is often misidentified and may help them access the discussion more easily because they do not have to fear an embarrassing mistake.

From his guide to Making_Classrooms_Welcoming_for_Trans.pdf

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Born This Way?

The recent “Born This Way” episode of Glee, featuring Lady Gaga’s latest single of the same name, draws attention to the posited-as-postmodern fixation on so-called ‘body modifications’. The episode revolves around self-acceptance and, for the most part, asserts acceptance in opposition to body alterations via plastic surgery. That is, the fairly conservative view that plastic surgery and any desires for such are bad. In this way, Glee positions problems of self-esteem as individual and suggests they are to be conquered via changes to thinking, while plastic surgery is presented as self-hating and conformist.

Earlier in the series, Santana is vilified for having a boob job, and throughout this episode the gang rally to dissuade Rachel from having a nose job. There is no question that Rachel’s flirtation with plastic surgery is “a terrible idea” within the diagesis of the show. But while the gang all profess how much they love themselves, it is Santana — ‘the brutally honest bitch’ — who calls them out for lying to themselves (“As if there aren’t things you’d all change about yourselves”). Self-hatred is conveyed as highly unattractive and unfashionable in this hipster context (as opposed to self-hatred celebratory emo-culture).

The showchoir purport various reasons (other than self-hate) for their body modifications, such as the improvement of talent (Rachel) or trying to be in fashion (Tina), both of which are presented as highly unconvincing; mere excuses for a deeper-rooted and shameful self-loathing.

Rachel: “Look, I’m happy with the way that I look and I’ve embraced my nose, but say I wanted to have a slightly more demure nose, like Quinn’s for example. I would never change my appearance for vanity but the doctor said that it could possibly improve my talent…”

Against conformity

Glee sets up a dichotomy where self-acceptance is ‘good’  and conformity is ‘bad’ (in this case via plastic surgery). This has been the main aim of the show from its inception; the geeks and misfits of the Glee club are constantly juxtaposed to the bitchy cheerleaders and bullying footballers. This distinction is hardly complicated by a number of the popular kids joining the Glee club. There is also a reiteration of the idea that the misfits are ‘authentic’ and the popular kids ‘fake’ — referenced in “Born This Way” through Lauren Zizes comment to Quinn that she is “two different people”, as well as the character of closet-gay footballer Dave Karofsky. It is not coincidence that the two characters who are revealed to have had plastic surgery (Santana and Quinn) are cheerleaders: the archetypical high school example of popularity due to conformity.

With the exception of this one-liner,

Mercedes: “[T]he thing that makes you different is the thing people use to crush your spirit.”

the show really avoids the complications of trying to be different in an unaccepting social sphere; that there are costs to being different.

As Jack Halberstam reminds us: “the experience of transgression itself is often filled with fear, danger, and shame, rather than heroic self-satisfaction.” (Female Masculinity, 1998: 59)

Or, as Quinn puts it: “I pretty much have a warped sense of the world. Being a hot seventeen year old you can get away with or do anything you want, so I just kind of assume that people are always nice and accommodating.”

By revealing Quinn’s “size 2 teenage dream [body]” to be one obtained via various modificatory practices (rhinoplasty, extreme weight loss, acne medication, contacts, hair dye, as well as changing her name and moving schools), the show could be read as embracing both self-acceptance without plastic surgery and self-love via changing what you don’t like “when you look in the mirror”. When confronted with her ‘Lucy Caboosey’ past, Zizes suggests “So, you hate yourself?” to which Quinn retorts:

“No. I love myself, and that’s why I did all those things. I’ve been that girl and I’m never going back. I was a miserable little girl and now I’m going to be prom queen.”

Here, Quinn and Zizes offer a different reading of two perhaps similar looking people with starkly contrasted ways of living it. Zizes just gets off on her subversiveness (which is tied into her ‘badness’); that is, she embraces the ways she is different from dominant cultural expectations of femininity. Zizes clearly loves herself — which is highlighted when she is praised for it by the post-surgery, self-love professing Quinn. But, as Deb Jannerson remarks: “[it is troubling] that the writers didn’t come up with something other than ‘she used to be heavier and bigger-nosed.’ Don’t quintessential popular girls have issues with their appearances sometimes?”

This juxtaposition is perhaps more interestingly explored through the male characters Finn and Sam, each of which are often depicted as lacking in manliness because of their body mass; Finn not muscular enough and Sam obsessed with his musculature. These two can also be seen as representing ‘acceptance’ or ‘change’ in relation to body modification; Finn as self-conscious-if-not-hating of his flabbiness and Sam as obsessed with the constant militant eating and exercising regimes necessary for maintaining his stature. Hence, both ‘acceptance’ or refusal and change can be seen as ongoing systems of self-‘modification’. As opposed to Quinn’s which is seen as a classic before and after; that is, no ongoing work seems to be required.

“it is not enough to unquestioningly assume that conformity is bad  and transgression is good or to presume that such categories are stable, discrete, identifiable, and unambiguous.” (Nikki Sullivan, “Transmorgrifications”, 561)

The overwhelming ‘lesson’ of the episode remains that self-acceptance is — if not necessary at least — preferable to other types of self-modification: Tina concludes that as there are no Asian sex symbols, she should become one. This idea is reiterated in the ‘Barbaravention,’ where Kurt reminds Rachel that Barbara Streisand “refused to believe that beauty could only be defined by the blonde chiselled faces of Hitchcock’s beauties, so she redefined what beauty was and became the biggest female star in the world.” This possibility of reform is highly optimistic, but is in keeping with the show’s feel-good, idealistic raison d’être.

Conclusion

Glee itself purports to be transgressive and celebratory of diversity, but it presents a fairly palatable — conformist — type of diversity (see, for example, nyx mathews’ article on Glee and disability): all of Glee‘s self-congratulatory diversity is sugar-coated (with the possible exception of Lauren Zizes). Furthermore, the purpose of presenting difference as a result of being “Born This Way” disavows other forms of cultural representation and body-modification, rendering desires for such as less, if at all, legitimate.

Quinn’s self-acceptance is side-stepped in the narrative. Or rather, it is only considered in her relation to others: after the publicity of her alter-ego Lucy Caboosey, she’s still popular, adored by the masses (represented by the three identically-dressed fat girls) and her boyfriend, Finn. How she feels about herself after this ‘outing’ is not depicted. And neither is the reality of the suffering endured by rebelling against cultural norms, as Professor Xavier remarks in X-Men: The Last Stand: “Is it cowardice to save oneself from persecution?”

Is Rachel still pandering to social pressure, just that of her friends rather than the greater school community? And where does that leave the characters who have undergone plastic surgery? While it is not highlighted within the text, I think both Quinn and Santana characterise a get-what-you-want attitude that challenges the timidity of refusing change. Quinn’s self-acceptance revolves around not hiding the fact that she changed a lot in order to get where she is, regardless of the stigma attached to cosmetic surgery. And I’m into that.

If only Santana and Quinn had (been allowed to) own it and sung a girl power encore, like Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” or Madonna’s “Express Yourself”.

Glee cast perform “Born This Way”:

Lady Gaga’s original “Born This Way”:

Quinn and Rachel sing a mash-up of TLC’s “Unpretty” / West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty”:

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“That’s called coercion”

On Vampirism Part 2, On Daddy Power Part 3

see Polyamory & Power Part 1 & Part 2

In the opening scene of the third Twilight film (Eclipse), vampire Edward is trying to convince human Bella to marry him:

“Marry me,” he says.

“Change me,” she replies.

“Hmm, I’ll change you…if you marry me. It’s called a…compromise.”

“That’s called coercion,” she astutely responds. Kissing him, they smile at each other.

Coercion here appears to be set up at odds with “love.” That is, because these two people love each other, even the possibility of coercion makes no sense: it’s a lark. But a closer reading of the text reveals that really love (or the façade of such) figures as precisely the basis on which sexual coercion takes place, and takes place repeatedly with almost all of characters and most of their relationships.

Even the title “Eclipse” can be seen as a veiled reference to coercion; meaning figuratively ‘loss of power or significance’ or, as a verb, ‘to deprive.’ This idea of deprivation makes little sense to the plot: the conflict surrounding Bella’s transformation into a vampire (being deprived of her human life) is deferred to the following installment (Breaking Dawn), and the deprivation that makes up Edward and Bella’s sex life is a constant theme in the entire series.

Rather, the main plot thrust of Eclipse is a territorial one: Victoria vs the Forks community/ Bella, the werevolves vs the vampires and, of course, Edward vs werewolf Jacob. The focus is very much on possessiveness and control, aspects of relationships which are at best unseemly, and at worst abusive.

In this way, the idea of ‘deprivation’ can be read as a comment on power and the interplay of the ways in which persuasion moves to coercion, and the differences between pressure, coercion, harassment and abuse.

Throughout Eclipse, all three of the main characters: Edward, Bella and Jacob exert force – whether physical or emotional – over each other in ways which are coercive. That is,

  • Coercion: the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation, trickery, or some other form of pressure or force. Such actions are used as leverage, to force the victim to act in the desired way.

Jacob to Bella: The most obvious example of Jacob’s use of coercion takes place after he discovers Bella’s engagement to Edward: he threatens her with his own life (that he will endanger himself unless she “gives him a reason to stay”) and none of her pleas that she loves him and doesn’t want to lose him suffice. He wants her physically, and clearly cares more about getting what he wants then the fact that it’s not what she wants.

This is exacerbated by the narrative cornerstone that Bella loves both Edward and Jacob (but Edward more), and that Jacob knows she loves him, while she ‘refuses to admit it.’ This works to reaffirm the adage that women don’t know what they want (which in itself suggests that when women say no they mean yes).

Sexual ‘misconduct’ is hinted at when he kisses her after she has told him explicitly to “stop.” This occurrence problematically attempts to differentiate “actual sexual assault” (visible and unacceptable) from “sexual coercion” (invisible and acceptable); while their first kiss is “wrong,” their second kiss is somehow less so.

Edward to Bella: As the opening of this article – and the film – suggests, Edward’s proposal to Bella is, at least in part, coercive. Throughout the film, and even after she agrees to marry him, it is implied that he will still refuse to turn her into a vampire.

Furthermore, Edward’s stalking is a fairly classic way of exerting control over another, and one which much has been said about.

That this way of behaving is diagetically justified further represents control and coercion as acceptable. His stalking results in his “saving her” twice (Twilight) from situations in which we are lead to believe she would not have been able to protect herself (from a car crash and a group of young men).

Bella to Edward: Bella’s initial pitch to Edward as to why they should have sex seems an argument in persuasion rather than coercion: she reminds him that after she becomes a vampire she’ll want blood more than him. Perhaps because we are so used to seeing teenage boys pressuring teenage girls into sex, it seems as though the reverse is impossible. But Edward makes it clear that he doesn’t want to have sex with Bella, and that doesn’t stop her from trying to coerce him into it.

Various minor characters, too, work to focus the narrative on possibilities of sexual coercion: Jasper’s origin story reveals that he was turned into a vampire after being deceptively sexually enticed; Rosalie’s flashback depicts the exertion of social pressure by her fiancé, which quickly turns to rape and murder; and Riley is clearly sexually coerced by Victoria into creating and organizing her army through promises of her love.

As I said in my last post, the way in which vampire violence is justified comments on how we think about power (and its abuse). The depiction of coercion (a type of violence though it fails to be portrayed as such) in Eclipse is troubling because it is well and truly tolerated, justified and, rather straightforwardly, accepted.

Suffice to say, sexual coercion should really not be a part of the way we relate and communicate with each other, and especially not with people we love.

Extended version available at The Scavenger/Sexual-coercion-abounds-in-Twilight

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The Power of Politeness

Being gender ambiguous means that I don’t get the opportunity to interact with people the way most people do. Nothing is a given. In every (however minimal) social interaction – from ordering in a restaurant to asking for directions – I’m clocked as abnormal. Androgynous, queer, trans, a gender pirate: people decide whether that’s ok or not, and treat me accordingly: well or ill. It’s a subtle kind of mistreatment, but a constant one. With each polite or kind interaction (of which there are many), I’m relieved. But the relief never lasts.
Feminist sexual politics demands a certain nonchalance in regards to “female masculinity“. Hence, I can’t mind if people think I’m a boy or a girl so much (though I clearly have a preference). Mostly I’m seen as genderqueer “first.” And it is this gender ambiguity that precipitates the unkindness of strangers. This is a form of social sanctioning that acts to preserve the boundaries of gender; individuals are punished or rewarded according to our adhesion to social expectations (especially of gender). We’re taught early and persistently that transgressing these stipulations is punishable by humiliation, violence (including sexual violence) and death.
I don’t think it’s ok that women and people with female bodies are forced to look a certain way in order to get by; that it’s not ok to look queer. I also don’t think it’s ok that maleness and (for the most part) masculinity are reserved for people with certain body types and/or assigned “male” at birth. Men should be able to be as femme as me; I should be able to be read as male. But feminist movement has shifted gendered expectations (rightly) so that women, too, should be able to look like me (and they do). So, really, what’s a boi (like me) to do?
All those dirty looks, short replies and general rudeness hints at the possibility of more severe mistreatment, suggesting that such mistreatment is justified; that the violation of gender deserves punishment. In order to resist these stringent concepts of binary gender (and a gender hierarchy), all you need to do is stop playing a part in policing it; be a little kind, considerate, polite.

Historically, manners evolved as a way to make social interactions less awkward. Everyone knew what to do: shake a man’s hand, kiss a lady on the cheek. Things are certainly different now, and there have been important critiques of the cultural and gendered privileges and problems that come with this type of  “appropriate-behaviour” manners. But politeness in a more general sense remains a valuable, and too often overlooked, way of communicating.

Politeness can also act to disseminate power. Rather than one party taking control of a situation (with rudeness) to put down someone else, politeness given and politeness returned can level a playing field of power. This doesn’t mean people should get away with behaving badly, not at all. There can (and must) remain space to call people out. But being critical doesn’t need to be rude, and being rude is a pretty poor way to be critical.

Kindness and politeness can pad over more than just social awkwardness and anxiety. As I’ve been arguing, greeting gender ambiguous people with politeness (and respect) actively resists the social regulation of gender (stability and “coherence”); allowing a space for gender (and social) transformation.


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