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There’s no such thing as Gender Utopia

April 3, 2011 3 comments

So, I’d like to address this whole “transcending gender” thing that crops up from time to time in discussions on gender and transgendered people. It’s very weird to me and I need to puzzle it out a bit. I’ve heard two roughly similar versions of this idea, one from feminists and queer theorists and one from within the trans community.

The first is based on the idea that gender is socially constructed (well, both of them are, but this one stresses the construction vs. being a “performance” or whatever else characterization), specifically a construction that serves to oppress women and/or queer people. Gender is equated with the trappings of social roles, and the recognition that the social roles favor heterosexual men. So in this view the only way to throw of the shackles is to remove gender (i.e. the social roles). This one is a bit tricky to parse because, on the one hand, eradication of prescriptive social roles based on sex/gender/genitals/whatever IS at least part of what will remove oppression of women and sexual minorities, but on the other hand it completely ignores people’s self perception. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that getting rid of social roles will get rid of gender. Look at groups of people who obviously don’t give a shit about socially acceptable gender roles–cross dressers, drag performers, genderfucks, anyone with a gender expression drastically different from the standard social stereotype–how many of them identify as men and women? More specifically, how many of them identify identically with how they are identified at birth (i.e. are cisgendered)? Most. Why should that be? If they’ve cast off the societal roles, why should they still have genders? Probably because there is more to gender than just the way one behaves. That’s not to say that gender=biology, that would be an oversimplification in and of itself, but it is my personal experience that gender has some intrinsic properties that cannot be escaped and I would assume that at least some other people have similar experiences. Plus, why should getting rid of something be the only way to fix problems? It is, in my mind, entirely possible to end gender/sex-based discrimination without getting rid of gender. The argument here seems to be that the only way to liberate women is to abolish them (and men as well, but still). It seems counter-intuitive to me. It really makes me wonder if the people espousing this idea have taken a close look at their own genders (maybe they have, but I honestly doubt they’d be so cavalier about getting rid of other people’s gender if they felt particularly invested in their own self-conception).

The second version, which is more insidious in my mind, is the one tossed around the genderqueer branch of the trans community. This again states that gender is oppressive, and that removing it will end all gender oppression. But more than that, it specifically declares that non-binary genders are the way of the future, that they are evolving out or that eventually everyone will have a non-binary gender and because of that we’ll live in a genderless genderfucking society. This is the idea that gave this post its name, because more extreme versions of it paint a picture of a magical world where every other person is a drag performer and everyone else is too busy being androgynous to bother with gender-specific clothing. It specifically states (as does the one above to a lesser extent) that non-binary genders are more radical and progressive, and thus better, than non-binary genders. This is one of the sources behind the ridiculous “transgender vs. transsexual” infighting that occurs in the community (the other source being “binary-only” ideas amongst some trans people, they kind of feed off each other). It bothers me immensely that a community that ostensibly takes “be yourself” as a primary maxim privileges certain self-expressions in this way: do whatever you want so long as it serves to “tear down the binary”, if who you are doesn’t look like it’s meeting that goal that you are at best trapped in the system and at worst actively keeping everyone else down. But what really frustrates me about this is that I don’t feel particularly like transcending anything, I like having a gender. Maybe this one doesn’t seek to eradicate my gender, given that I am non-binary identified, but I feel very strongly about my gender identity so even if it isn’t I shudder at asking anyone else to give up theirs either.

I think that instead of abolishing gender we should be working towards removing the value judgments placed on people’s genders, sexes, and gendered behavior*. Instead of trying to impose a gender-neutral androgynous society or “smash the binary” we should be seeking to expand the conceptions people have about gender.

And honestly, we will never have true gender liberation. With women perhaps, because there are roughly the same number of them as men we could get to a point where they are socially equal, but unless we give everyone born without a uterus a transplant then we still will have a source of extra burden placed on some people** (not that I think childbearing automatically disprivleges women, but pregnancy is something half the population will never have to think about and that isn’t insignificant). But with transgendered people and those with non-binary gender identities? Tiny minority, and all the baggage that comes with that. Even a population that is entirely accepting of non-binary genders and makes no assumption about other peoples’ identity will have issues when there is a strong majority (personally knowing people who are similar to you is one thing that I consider to be part of cis-privilege and isn’t something that’s going away unless we magically make there be more of us, for example).

I don’t believe that people espousing a “transcend gender” philosophy will meet their goals, and I don’t think that’s altogether a bad thing.

*I define this term to mean activities traditionally associated with gender, for example traits categorized as “masculine” or “feminine”, though not exclusive to those categories.
**I originally wrote women and then remembered that they aren’t the only ones who can be born with uteri, just that they make up the bulk of those people

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Why is “woman” an insult?

August 17, 2010 2 comments

If you’re active on or knowledgeable about the internet at all, you will probably know about the popular criticisms of one Justin Beiber. If you’re not (lucky you) then basically it boils down to the following joke: lol beiber looks like/is a girl lol. This is somehow supposed to be a criticism of him and a reason as to why we don’t like him (beyond things like subjective musical taste, message, and skill). The “Justin Beiber Sucks” group on facebook lists he “sounds like a 5 year old girl” as a reason as to the aforementioned suckage. There are even facebook groups suggesting Beiber should be seriously injured. In other professions questions like this can potentially cost you your job or reputation.

If you think these jokes are funny or harmless, think about what it means in society when a man or male-identified person is called a woman. The most common sentence I’ve heard is “stop being such a woman”. It implies weakness, often emotional weakness. It is always an insult. It is occasionally tied up with the implication that someone is gay, that of course also being intended as an insult. The “you’re a woman” insult is often applied to gay men, or men perceived to be gay, or similar statements of “you want to be a woman” or “you behave like a woman”, also intended to be insulting or provoke anger. The phrase “chick flick” is generally used to be condescending to a film, though not always (there are people who use the label “chick flick” to refer to movies that they like, but most of my experience with the term is that it is intended to be negative). The childhood insult “sissy” began life as a diminutive of “sister”.

Now what happens when the reverse occurs, when a woman or woman-identified person is called a man? Is there any stigma in being “one of the guys”? “She’s the man.” These are good things. Even when harassing women over “manly” characteristics, “man” is never used as an insult (except for with a few radfems and the deliberate misgendering of transwomen). A woman is more likely to encounter “dyke” used as an insult, the harassment being an attempt to force stereotypical feminine behavior on women. It’s the same intent as in the above paragraph, but instead of the connotation that those characteristics are bad, it carries the meaning that those characteristics aren’t for you. Instead of “you’re weak for being like that” it’s “stop that, go take your (assumed*) vagina and go play with the lacy things”. Similarly, lesbians would never be accused of being men or wanting to be men, because the implications of the harassment is that they ARE women and as such should behave certain ways (in this case, sexually).

(*Because not all women have vaginas, even though we sometimes pretend they do.)

Criticisms about a woman’s appearance may focus on how certain “manly” characteristics are unsexy, i.e. the infamous “man hands” (this stands out to me because I saw a Seinfeld commercial when in middle school that centered on this very concept, for some reason it’s really stuck with me). There’s nothing wrong with being turned off by large hands, really, but given that the hands are attached to a woman, should the phrase be “she has big lady hands”? A woman who does not shave her legs, armpits, or pubic region may also be considered unattractive because body hair is “manly” (even though ALL people grow hair in these places as a sign of sexual maturity). But again, the criticism is not that these characteristics are bad or “weak” in any way, as “woman-the-insult” tries to imply, but that the woman in question should not have them.

Saying “she’s manly” is often synonymous with “she’s ugly”, while calling a man a woman questions his integrity, strength, and attacks his sexuality. Both are bad, but while one speaks to personal taste (and simultaneously sexualizes the woman involved, even if it is to say that she is undesirable sexually), the other is more often used as a personal attack and implies that a good half of society is undesirable in some way and that the desirable half should not be like them. In essence: man good woman bad.

This is really the MO of the patriarchy: 1. All characteristics fall into discrete groups (masculine and feminine). 2. All people fall into discrete groups (men and women). 3. The groups are associated and exclusive (men are masculine, women are feminine) and any deviation is bad. 4. One of the groups is better than the other (masculinity and by extension men). All of these steps are fundamentally wrong, but it is the last one that is at play here with the “you are a woman” insult.

There are exceptions of course. A friend of mine who is very heavy into drag queen subculture calls pretty much everybody “girl”. The words “bro” and “dude” are often used to make fun of a certain male stereotype, and one transperson I know of uses “bro-dude” to refer to misogynistic behavior. But the overarching trend is that being called a man is good, and being called a woman is bad (unless they’re referring to your appearance, in which case being called a man means you’re an unfuckable troll and therefore worthless).

Repost: Michfest

July 22, 2010 1 comment

Oppression for the Sake of Removing Oppression: doesn’t work.

(Note:  I am not Muslim nor do I identify as female, so if I have screwed up anywhere in this please correct me.  Nicely.)

I had something else I wanted to talk about, but that can wait a few days.  This is about an article I read this morning in USA Today.  France, it seems, along with several other nations, is attempting to place a ban on niqabs (otherwise known as “the veil”) and burqas.  There are several reasons given for this, but the one that sands out to me most is that they are “a symbol of the oppression of women.”

Here’s the thing about that:  yes, sort of.  In a number of nations hijabs and/or other coverings are required for women in public.  This requirement is a symbol of oppression of women, justified through religion-based patriarchy.  Forcing women to cover is oppression.  But are women in France being forced to cover?  One might argue, given that many European Muslim communities operate in their own neighborhoods similar to Chinatowns in cities in the US, that they are under social pressure to do so by their family and neighbors.  But I have a little story for you.

There is a girl attending my university who wears a niqab around campus.  This is a liberal, American, predominantly Christian university.  What social pressure could possibly be influencing her to veil?  The general social pressure likely is in the opposite direction.  So why do it, if the act is so intrinsically oppressive?  Certainly she has been brought up with it, being taught that it is a symbol of humility or devotion to god or similar.  But is that really much different than my parents teaching me from a young age not to wander around with my shirt off?  (Note: I possess no sexualized organs that would be covered by a shirt, so I feel the covering is comparable and only a matter of degree.)  Perhaps it lacks the religious motivations, but is that sufficient to define oppression?  Because this girl CHOOSES to cover, regardless of her immediate surroundings.  If one person chooses this, others must as well.  And that is what marks oppression, lack of choice.

So these laws being voted on, what are they?  Because if forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do is oppression, what would you call forcing someone to not do something harmless that they want to do?  I call it oppression.  These measures, being partly justified by the removal of oppression, are oppression in and of themselves.  You are taking something women choose to do and saying “you clearly can’t know what’s good for you, because this is oppression, I will figure it out for you.”  It’s in the same vein as radical feminists who think women who want to be homemakers are oppressing themselves.  Yes some people are forced into it, but it is that act of forcing, not the activity (I am referring to both veiling and homemaking at this point), that is oppressive.

There is only one instance where a law against face covering makes sense: identification.  In air travel and for government ID facial recognition is generally required.  But that doesn’t justify a wide-spread ban (France would ban facial coverings in public places), or even a ban in airports and similar.  Here’s how it should go:  “Ma’am, please remove you veil while I check your ID.  Thank you, you can put it back now.”  About the same as if I was wandering through an airport with a mask on.

Edit:  I can’t find the original article I read in USA Today online (it was on 10A though, if you have a hard copy).  I did find these two artcles on the same topic.