Stranger Things: More normal than you’d think.

I’ve been trying to write some kind of review on Stranger Things for a while now, but every time I sit down to do it, I find I just don’t have the energy.

So here goes. Really gonna try this time. Definitely gonna contain plot spoilers. This is probably best read after you’ve seen all eight episodes.

There’s about a million reviews on Stranger Things out there, the vast majority of them are full of positive hype, much of which the show deserves. If you like a nostalgic retro-feel 1980s homage, this is your jam. It’s Super 8 meets Stand by Me meets ET meets The Goonies, complete with an awesome soundtrack, solid casting, and an engaging (albeit not terribly original) plot. And it’s creepy. I’ve been craving a creepy show, and it’s been hard to find one that isn’t one rung down from torture porn (Hemlock Grove, what a crushing disappointment).

However.

Stranger Things has some major shortcomings that made it cringingly hard to watch at times. As happens with most things I watch/read, at one point I said aloud, “If they kill Barb, I’m gonna stop watching this.” Obviously I didn’t. :P But that I found myself saying that at all points to ST‘s first major weakness: predictability.

ST is at its heart a reverential throwback, playing on all manner of (especially Spielberg-esque) 1980s movie tropes, which as The Atlantic‘s Lenika Cruz points out, is both good and bad. The nostalgic ambience makes for an immersive environment, on the one hand. But on the other, the temptation to fall back on, er, other historically relevant tropes certainly makes the show less relatable for some of us.

I wasn’t upset that they killed Barb because I believe characters should never be expendable. Rather because from the moment she appeared on screen, she is immediately recognizable as precisely the kind of character deemed expendable in 80s cinema, as well as the present: nerdy, not conventionally attractive, peripheral, marginal. All things that I (and many other people who don’t generally see themselves represented in media) can connect with. And all things that, in combination with being feminine, female-bodied, and/or a woman, can be lethal for a character. The giveaway for me was the short hair. “This girl’s a goner,” I thought. Man, I hate being right.

It isn’t merely that characters like Barb are pathetic tagalongs, tripping up the much more glamorous adventures of their more conventionally attractive (in all its senses) counterparts– in this case, Nancy. And it isn’t that they rarely-if-ever are the hero protagonists. It’s that they have to die. In Barb’s case, a gruesome on-screen death. “Unnecessary” doesn’t begin to describe it. The creators, the Duffer Brothers, felt the need to dismember Barb and then later show us her rotting body to reinforce this violence.

“But but but,” I can hear the refutations of the DnD ST fandom begin, “the four heroes of the story are nerdy, not conventionally attractive, marginalized characters. They’re always getting beat up by bullies, their only ally at school is the science teacher.” That’s wonderful. I’m glad the nerds/misfits/outcasts get to be heroes for once (except that this is arguably another 80s trope– à la Goonies, Weird Science, Bill & Ted). But all those heroes have something in common: they’re (cis)boys. Barb can’t be a hero, or even a hero tagalong, and in fact it’s okay to disembowel her– ’cause she’s a girl. It’s pretty straightforward misogyny, really.

“But but but,” another refutation may start, “what do you call Eleven, if not a hero? And she’s a girl.” Sadly, the most interesting character in the story becomes a martyr for the boy-heroes, but not before they play out their heteronormative fantasies playing dress-up doll with her. Cruz’s review is a very solid description of ST‘s failures when it comes to El’s plotline, so I won’t reiterate them here.

I suppose some might try to raise Nancy as a girl-hero, but whatever character growth she accomplishes is certainly dampened by her choice to stick with her abusive boyfriend. To be fair, her alternate love interest is also her stalker at one point, so…

At the end of the day, it’s the Duffer Brothers who mold the girl/feminine/female-bodied characters on the show and choose their fate. The Duffer Brothers play out their fantasies (and the fantasies of countless [especially nerd] boys) in ST, through boy and girl characters alike– oh, and it is really that binary. Friendships, adventures, romances, and heroism all revolve around the boy characters.

I had other issues with ST, including the treatment of madness, single motherhood, and the show’s overwhelming whiteness. It’s not perfect, but Stranger Things is entertaining, and a wonderful fantasy, especially if you’re a cishet boy. Who knows, maybe Season Two will have something for the rest of us.

Reblog: Dangerously Provocative

Feminist Philosophers

Jessica Wolfendale (co-editor of Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone)  is currently completing an article on sexual modesty. Her most recent article, “Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility,” is forthcoming in the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law. and now she’s just published a piece on being “dangerously provocative” here.

The provocatively dressed woman is dangerous. She is disruptive; a distraction and a temptation. She can lead good men to thoughts of infidelity; she can distract men and boys from the important tasks of work and education. The dangers posed by the provocatively dressed woman mean that she must be monitored and controlled. Girls must be forbidden from wearing provocative clothing to school, so that they don’t distract boys.[2] As a principal of a Canadian High School wrote in a letter to parents: “Girls wearing short skirts should think about how they sit and what is revealed when…

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Bisexuality: An Introduction

I’ve noticed that there is still a lot of confusion about the existence of bisexual folks.

Before getting too far in, I just wanna reiterate that I’m of the opinion (as I’ve expressed ad nauseam on this blog) that there is little evidence to support the validity of a male/female (and thus hetero/homo) dichotomy, scientific or social, and so the idea of ‘bisexuality’ as ‘liking both’ is also off the mark. But if you—or I, rather—go around telling people “I’m pan!” they probably don’t know what you mean, or do and are annoyed by the distinction. Fair enough. For the purpose of this post, I’m just gonna say “bi” and you can assume I mean a complicated version of “bi” that might be synonymous with “pansexual”. All right, here we go…

Defining Bisexuality

The etymology of ‘bi’ and ‘pan’ would seem to differentiate these two sexualities in that ‘bi’ refers to “two” or “double”, while ‘pan’ refers to “all”, “every” or “whole”. But as is often the case, we can miss the much more complex meanings of words if we take their origins at face value. It is overly simplistic to define ‘bisexual’ as “being attracted to or having desire for both genders” and ‘pansexual’ as “being attracted to or having desire for all genders”. Although bisexuality and pansexuality can and perhaps should be described as separate sexualities, let’s use bisexual and genderqueer activist Shiri Eisner’s tendency in Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution (2013) to use them together (not synonymously). Using bi/pan together suggests their (sub)cultural and political connectedness[1]. While different in many ways, both have subversive political, activist, and community-building potential. So, when I use the term ‘bisexuality’, this is not to say that it assimilates pansexuality in a way which erases its importance or uniqueness, but rather that ‘bisexuality’ is a kind of umbrella term for non-binary and “bi-spectrum” identities and sexualities (Eisner 2013, 28-29). What are non-binary sexualities? They are outside the realm of heterosexual/homosexual, which assume that there are only two sexes (male/female) and so there can only be three possible combinations for thinking about sexuality (male/male, male/female, female/female). We’ll talk more about those and bi-spectrum sexualities later. One other idea to mention upfront is ‘monosexuality’, which is the idea that an individual only likes/is sexually attracted to one other gender—for most people, the “opposite” or “same” gender. When contrasted with monosexuality, bisexuality can then mean that a person is attracted to more than one gender (their own, not their own).

Ways to Think about Bisexuality

Eisner gives us some useful ways to think about and define bisexuality. She argues that bisexuality shouldn’t simply be thought of in terms of sexual attraction. It could also be thought of in terms of romantic attraction (about love and not just about sex), companionship, and friendship. She also says that sexualities, including bisexuality, can be thought about temporally. Sure, you didn’t think you were gay when you were ten, but now you are. But then in your mid-twenties you met that girl and definitely felt something. So which is it, gay or straight? Hmmm… Eisner says that we can think about bisexual identities as extending over time and manifesting seemingly as other sexualities (ex: gay, straight, asexual).

But these ideas are quite recent. What does a history of bisexuality look like?

Some Really Interesting Dull History

For early psychiatrists and neurologists of the 19th century, bisexuality was thought to be an immature, predecessor-form[2] that would develop into either ‘healthy’ sexuality (heterosexuality), or ‘unhealthy’, ‘mal-developed’ sexuality (homosexuality) (Eisner 2013, 15-16) (Angelides 2001, 61). All humans begin their sexual existence in this variable, ‘primordial’ state, according to this view of sexuality, but inevitably develop ‘full’ sexualities, even if it is an unhealthy form (ie homosexuality). If bisexuality persisted into adulthood, or the ‘present’[3], this would threaten the stability of the notion of sexuality as binary (hetero/homo, healthy/sick). Because sexuality and gender were intrinsically tied together in this framework, binary gender would also be under threat. Gender and sexuality studies scholar Steven Angelides argues that “‘full bisexuality’ had to be erased from the present tense in order to avert the crisis of meaning for binary categories of man, woman, heterosexual, and homosexual” (Angelides 2001, 191). In other words, ‘primordial’ bisexuality could not be viewed as carrying over into adulthood lest it threaten the legitimate and developed hegemonic hetero/homo binary, which in turn might threaten the male/female binary to which sexuality is innately linked[4].

TLDR: Bisexuality was practically erased as a human sexuality back in the day, and that probably has some influence on how we feel about bisexuality today (ex: bisexuals are sick, bisexuals don’t exist, etc).

Nowadays

Recent research on bisexuality by sexuality and gender theorists and scholars has produced different, and differently stigmatizing, results. Anthropologist April Scarlette Callis describes three prominent themes in research on bisexuality: invisibility, illegitimacy, and (often negative) stereotyping (Callis 2014, 67).  In the first theme, mainstream assumptions of monosexuality lead to non-binary erasure. In the second, the very existence of bisexuality is questioned; bisexuality is “a ‘transitional’ phase between straight and gay”; or bisexuals are cowardly lesbians or gay men who cling to the label ‘bisexual’ because they are afraid of “losing their ‘heterosexual privilege’”. Finally, bisexuals are stereotyped[5] variously as hypersexual, deviant, nonmonogamous, vectors of STIs[6], promiscuous, flaky, and treacherous[7].

Lesbian and Gay Participation in Bisexual Exclusion (Thanks a lot, guys.)

Rejection, erasure, and stigmatization of bisexuals by gays and lesbians further highlights the problematizing effect of non-binary sexualities upon the hetero/homo binary as well as the monosexual spectrum. In his article, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure”, legal scholar and researcher Kenji Yoshino outlines three “strategies of erasure” employed by both heterosexual and homosexual contingents: class erasure, individual erasure, and delegitimation (Yoshino 2000, 397-399). These strategies manifest as the elision of bisexual as a category or class, which includes ‘lumping in’ bisexuals with lesbians and gays[8]; subsuming bisexual individuals within the categories lesbian or gay; dismissing bisexuals as “protohomosexuals”; and denigrating and stigmatizing bisexuals as “‘fence-sitters, traitors, cop-outs, closet cases’” and any of the other stereotypes mentioned in the above paragraph.

Why Bisexuals Make Everybody Nervous

Bisexuality has what feminists like to call “subversive potential”. The existence of bisexuality, along with other non-binary sexualities[9], suggests that binary sex, gender, and sexuality might not be fixed or even real. While this may feel threatening to the heteronormative[*] paradigm, and even to self-identifying homosexual individuals who have struggled for acceptance within this paradigm, the existence of non-binary sexualities open up possibilities for all sexualities—including those whose existences have not yet been recognized.

April Scarlette Callis talks about one of my favourite writers in her research: Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa. Anzaldúa wrote this amazing book of theory and poetry called Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, and everybody should read it because it’s awesome. Anyway, I digress… Callis uses Anzaldúa’s ideas about ‘borderlands’ to talk about non-binary gender identities and sexualities. Callis says that these sexualities exist within, or even create, a “sexual borderlands” (Callis 2014). Just as queer theorists have discussed the idea of ‘queer’ without defining it or by defining around it[10], Callis describes “borderland sexualities” like bisexuality as “almost impossible to read” (Callis 2014, 74). In short, she talks about borderland sexualities as lying between heterosexuality and homosexuality. I don’t really agree with this, because it reinforces the idea of bisexuality as potential transitional, and it keeps it stuck inside the hetero/homo binary, even if it’s a binary spectrum. Well, no thanks, I’ll pass. But she says other stuff that is potential useful.

For Callis, borderland sexualities are embodied; they can be located in physical places and times. Her ethnographic research with queer and nonmonosexual communities describe borderland spaces and moments in which non-binary and nonmonosexual individuals are interpellated variously as straight, gay, masculine, feminine, trans*, and so on, depending on place and time. The notion that borderland sexualities are embodied has been problematic for bisexual individuals with intimate partners who make them ‘look gay’, or ‘look straight’; bisexuality, unlike heterosexuality or homosexuality, is forever invisible because we can only think about sex and sexuality in terms of male/female, hetero/homo.

However, Callis also describes borderland sexualities as ‘cracking’ and complicating this hegemony. While there may be distinctive ‘borderland sexualities’, in reality all sexualities are affected by the presence of the borderlands:

Though the sexual borderlands can be viewed as containing only non-binary sexualities such as bisexual and queer, in reality they touch on every sexual identity. Individuals of all sexualities react to the sexual borderlands, by crossing them, inhabiting them, fortifying against them, or denying them. In these actions the sexual borderland becomes an integral way of defining the sexual binary, just as the sexual binary provides the boundaries of the borderland. (77)

Now if that’s true, it becomes easier to see why bisexuals make people nervous. They feel less secure in their own sexuality (hetero or homo) thanks to the presence of bisexuals. Whims, feelings, longings, passing thoughts, fantasies, even dreams about sexual stuff involving people we’re not supposed to be attracted to (whether we’re gay or straight) suddenly take on potential meaning, or we feel threatened enough that we work to suppress those ideas and emotions.

What Bisexuality Threatens

Nonmonosexual, non-binary, and nonmonogamous identities continue to be marginalized and stigmatized even within LGBTQ communities, and yet at the same time it is not unreasonable to suggest that the existence of sexual borderlands is threatening to hegemonic genders and sexualities—that is, man/woman, hetero/homo. What is it, exactly, that bisexuality and other borderland sexualities is threatening? Elisabeth Däumer’s “Queer Ethics” indirectly responds to this question as it attempts to “[devise] alternative, non-oppressive ways of responding to alterity” (Däumer 1992). In her article, Däumer recounts a conversation she held with a lesbian-identified friend about the possibilities of lesbian-identified, male-assigned individuals having relationships with lesbian women, potentially in which neither individual self-identifies as ‘woman’ or ‘man’. Would this not be considered ‘lesbian’ “in the utopian feminist sense of the term” (ibid, 95)? Däumer’s friend responded that individuals claiming such identities would “efface her own identity as a lesbian, and, by stretching the term beyond any intelligible, useful boundaries perpetuate lesbian invisibility in new and dangerous ways” (ibid, 95-96).

It seems that the threat of bisexuality lies in its subversion of identity categories—a problem which, interestingly enough, might be resolved if homosexual “allies” of bisexuals would simply make room for a ‘bisexual identity’. And some self-identified bisexuals would no doubt seize the opportunity for in-group acceptance and recognition. However, to do so would be a denial of the potentiality of borderland sexualities.

I agree with Callis’ idea that sexual borderlands, and bisexuality, will not necessarily destroy the hetero/homo paradigm. The outward pressure which the borderlands are exerting serves to make room for new identities while not necessarily collapsing the binaries within and between which they exist. Even so, it seems inevitable that binaries under pressure (like hetero/homo) eventually fracture, rarely in straight lines, and always in unpredictable ways. Perhaps the fissures which borderland sexualities like bisexuality create will split open into new and unforeseen queer sexualities and identities.

For the sake of simplicity, when I’m asked I just tell people I’m bisexual. If it seems likely they know what it means, I prefer to say that I’m pansexual. But these are both inaccurate. There is hardly a human being who feels sexual attracted to all or most of any gender; hardly any self-identified man is attracted to all women, and hardly any self-identified woman is attracted to all men, and this is also true for gay folks. And I’m willing to bet that there is nary a bisexual who is attracted to everybody. Give me a break. But at least for me, gender/sex is not an accurate predictor of who I like, find attractive, am aroused by, want to be in a relationship with, want to be physically or spiritually or emotionally close to, etc etc. It gets even more complicated and interesting when you think about how the individuals that we’re attracted to think of themselves—has society identified them as male, but they perceive themselves as female? Or as both? Or as having no gender at all? Rather than thinking about bisexuality as confusing, it seems better to think of it as…interesting.

My sources, which are stuff you might find useful if you are interested in this kind of thing:

  • Angelides, Steven. 2001. A History of Bisexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bedecarré, Corrinne. 1997. “Swear by the Moon.” Hypatia 12 (3): 189-197.
  • Callis, April Scarlette. 2014. “Bisexual, pansexual, queer: Non-binary identities and the sexual borderlands.” Sexualities 17 (1): 66-67.
  • Däumer, Elisabeth. 1992. “Queer Ethics: Or, The Challenge of Bisexuality to Lesbian Ethics.” Hypatia 91-105.
  • Eisner, Shiri. 2013. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkley, CA: Seal Press.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.
  • Sullivan, Nikki. 2003. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press.
  • Yoshino, Kenji. 2000. “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure.” Stanford Law Review 353-461.

Footnotes and Endnotes

[1] It is also important to point out that, of the research which has been done, bisexuality is by far the most extensively researched of the non-binary sexualities (Callis 2014, 66-67).

[2] Alienist and neurologist James Kiernan called this the “ancestral type”, claiming that “the lowest animals” are bisexual and/or hermaphroditic (Angelides 2001, 23). The physician Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) similarly attributed bisexuality to “the lower animals” (Angelides 2001, 44).

[3] Steven Angelides discusses the ‘present’ in terms of the human species (evolutionary ‘present’) as well as the human individual (individual lifetime ‘present’) (Angelides 2001, 48).

[4] To clarify, I am not connecting ‘hetero’ to ‘male’ or ‘homo’ to ‘female’, but rather I wish to make clear that the ‘scientific’ consensus among early psychologists (psychologists who ‘invented’ bisexuality) was that healthy sexuality was predetermined by sex—healthy men have an inborn desire for women, and vice versa.

[5] For more on stigmatization and delegitimation of bisexuality, see Yoshino 2000, 395-429.

[6] See also: Yoshino 2000.

[7] See also: Bedecarré 1997.

[8] This may be one of the dangers of acronyms like ‘LGBT’, which on the one hand has become emblematic of queer community, yet on the other simultaneously hierarchizes identities (queer monosexualities/bisexualities/trans* identities) and merges them in a way which centers certain identities (gay, lesbian) while obscuring the others.

[9] Examples of non-binary sexualities include people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, heteroflexible, trisexual, panromantic, polysexual, omnisexual, anthrosexual, and so on (Eisner 2013, 29).

[10] In A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003), Nikki Sullivan quotes definitions provided by Chris Berry and Annamarie Jagose: “‘Queer is an ongoing and necessarily unfixed site of engagement and contestation’” (43). She also quotes David Halperin’s “definition”: “‘[Queer] describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance’” (43).

[*] Heteronormative means that we assume everybody is or should be heterosexual and that society should be based around this idea. In America, that means our culture is centered around one relationship idea: a man and a woman who are (ideally) married, who have kids, and who are the core of the nuclear household. And we should all be striving to achieve this ideal relationship. Obviously, relationships take on many more forms than just this (ex: people who don’t get married but live together or have children together, queer relationships, non-monogamous relationships, even childless couplings fall short of this ideal), but they don’t tend to fly in our culture—because we’re heteronormative.

Telling as Woman

Most of my choice to not self-identify as trans* has resulted from what I now know to be clinically-derived and perhaps unfairly “psychological” conditions (or, according to psychology, “symptoms”), primarily gender dysmorphia, which by most people’s definition usually includes body dysmorphia. I will not claim to never experience ‘dysmorphia’: I have, at various times, been uncomfortable with and even resentful of aspects of my gendered self, particularly my physical self, including my breasts and much more frequently my hips, butt and thighs. No, male-identifying friends, your comments that my figure is womanly, that I have a nice butt, that it is only natural for a woman to have hips [like mine?], that certain clothes are flattering in a feminine way, etc. do not improve my self-image or make me feel better about my body. Feel me? Female-identifying friends who assure me I’m not fat, I know you mean well, but we are trapped in this constant-body-analysis thing together, the thing where we worry about our bodies more for how they translate in the eyes of others than for our own Selves. And it’s because we are trapped in this together that leads me to my next reason for not self-identifying as trans*.

By being myself but also associating my Self with that category Woman, I think I (and others like me) are consciously doing two things: 1) we are decisively stating that Woman is not something to fear, resent, or despise. ‘Woman’,  whatever that is (and I’ll get to that) deserves recognition, deserves to be loved and embodied. Woman is not Lesser Than, Woman should not be shied away from. Woman should be confronted, thought about, challenged, forwarded. 2) We are demonstrating, with our bodies, minds and spirits, that there are many ways to do Woman, many ways to be It. There are so many ways to do and be It that one must wonder what the necessity is of having the category Man, at all. All of those things which can be done, embodied in Man can be also be done in Woman. Maybe Woman/Man are too essentialist, universalist, generalized, specified to be useful anymore. Maybe we need a different way of understanding, thinking about, talking about and being human. These categories feel spent, outdated and inaccurate.

Yet. They still shape our realities in unwelcome and harmful ways. So while we are working towards a new conceptualization of Human, I will choose to associate my Self with Woman. This is not to say that I do not value trans*; I consider Trans* extremely important. Trans* is transcendent. But let me clarify my feelings about Woman.

Culture is not finished shaming and hating Woman. I think a huge difference between Woman and Trans* is that the latter is much more Self-aware, much more politically conscious, and much more active in terms of that consciousness. Their ball is picking up speed fast. Woman’s ball, however, will sometimes gain momentum and then be kicked in a different direction, hit walls, keep going, roll to a stop. Women who self-identify as such (as Woman) are still invested in hating and confining Woman. Woman hates ItSelf, and unlike Trans* does not understand why this does not need to be.

Thus it is a conscious decision for me to associate myself with Woman. Do I self-identify as female? Not particularly. Do I call myself cisgender? Absolutely not. But is an embrace of Woman necessary to end Its Self-hatred? I believe so.

I realized this at the same time I realized I do not clinically want to be seen as trans*; I do not want to feel shame and hatred towards my body, I do not want to look at my body and say it is Not Woman (because I will not look at it and say it is Man– or Not Man). This is the only body I’ve got; culture has attempted, as it will, to shape it in terms of its conception of binary sex/gender, but I have moved beyond this. Culture’s binary sex/gender construct is inadequate for describing me and other people I know (and others I don’t know). I do not need to alter my body to more closely align with this construct, or even to move away from it (eg towards Trans*).

The body is a terrific, awesome vessel for transversing this reality. It holds my Me-ness, in many ways it is my Me-ness. Without it, I couldn’t fathom my Self, and probably neither could anyone else. We are living in a very interesting and pivotal time in which binary sex is being confronted and it cannot withstand the pressure of this. Gender is all kinds of confused. Yet we’ve not thus far reached a point where we can even begin to dream of calling our culture ‘postgender’. Gender is still very relevant and meaningful. Can I do both: can I stand inside of Woman but also self-identify as not a woman (or as a man, or as trans*)?

I think we can, and in fact I think they compliment each other. We can simultaneously embody something that we feel is other-than-Woman, but we can also tell our Selves as Woman. If you self-identify as a man and have a penis and have never had a period, will you suddenly, by telling your Self as Woman, know what it feels like to shed the lining of your non-existent uterus every month? Will you suddenly know how it is to carry a baby to term, or to be fired from a job because you are pregnant? Standing within Woman is not the same as being Woman. I will never carry a baby to term and when I dress as a boy I am relieve of being sexually harassed on the street, but I can and do choose to stand within Woman. Many women do not have breasts or uteri or ‘typical’ levels of estrogen or even xx chromosomes, yet they self-identify as women and culturally ‘read’ as women. And I promise you, if you read as male but tell others you’re Woman (are Woman, as a distinction from ‘are a woman’), you will know not only know some of the feelings of being Woman, but also some of the feelings of being Trans*.

Why is this good, or useful? I believe empathy is a powerful tool, an element which is not just human but which shapes Human at its core. Maybe we are interesting, naked social hominids who we need empathy to survive within human culture, and to survive, at all. Let’s take empathy and extend it beyond survival, into cultural transformation.

Addendum: This ‘Statement‘ was recently brought to my attention, and it illumined another aspect of ‘standing inside of Woman’, for me. I take it as further evidence of the validity of Woman as a subversive, radical and activist identity in that trans* people are also firmly included inside this ‘category’. Self-identifying trans* women and men can both comfortably assume a place within Woman, should they choose to. I imagine there are those who are concerned with this conception of Woman: how generalized can it become before it loses all meaning? I would argue that I am not attempting to broaden or generalize Woman out of existence, in fact I am not broadening Woman in an unproductive way. The way in which Woman has traditionally been used within whitestream feminisms implies a unity and universality that is pure fiction, and (as pointed out in the aforementioned ‘Statement’) remains incredibly transphobic and queer-phobic. Such a category has long been discussed, forwarded and reconstructed always within the Binary and ever in opposition to Man. How subversive is it to critique, deconstruct, reconstruct inside the Binary? We are always operating on the Binary’s terms if we continue to determine eligibility for entrance into Woman based solely on a traditional, whitestream, or oppositional view of Woman. Thus, I am more interested in the capacity of Woman to turn the criteria for eligibility on its head, and through this, to expand our gendered consciousness beyond Binary thinking, (perhaps idealistically) gendered and otherwise. In the same vein of the Statement, I question the stability of the identity known as “woman”, and wondered what new paradigm awaits us as our consciousness transforms.

Humanity has reached an incredible and transformative period in its life, one in which those of us who question, reject or simply do not “qualify” for membership in the oppositional Binary (or even Binary spectrum) are feeling the pushback of those who are invested in its maintenance and propagation– or should I say survival? Some of this pushback has even come from my fellow feminists (“feminists”? [Feminism only serves to aid women?]*). Some feminists seem to be highly invested in Binary (e.g. sex binary, race binary, etc.) for its ability to distinguish between oppressed/oppressor, but as intersectional feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins have argued, identity is not simply black/white, literally or figuratively. If we really want to make progress on issues that matter before it’s too late, we are going to need to overcome the false sense of security and comfort we derive from the Binary, and one stepping stone along the many paths to accomplishing this is a rethink of Woman.

*One might also argue that investment in the Binary has long appeared in a seemingly unlikely place: parts of the trans* community.

How We Read

Today at work, while I was running the register, a girl of about 6 or 7 wondered aloud to her mother, “Is that a boy or a girrrrrl…?” Since this has happened to me about a million times (to be fair, Cambodia about tripled my score in this count), I was neither offended nor caught off guard, but I did do something a bit different than I have usually done. Before her mother could scold/shush her, before she could apologize to me, I smiled slyly and said, “What do you think?”

“Ummm…” said the girl.

“It’s okay, you can take a guess.”

“Ummmm…. A girrrrrrl?” posed the girl.

“Close enough,” I said, “It’s not that important, really.”

The girl, whose named turned out to be Moon (it wasn’t actually, but to protect her identity I’ve swapped it out for something equally celestial), seemed quite delighted and gratified. What surprised me, though, was her mother’s reaction. She was neither embarrassed nor angry, not awkward, not anxious. She seemed perhaps relieved, or even glad. She said, only mildly apologetically, “When she wants to know something, she just asks!”

I praised Moon for her bravery in asking questions, and encouraged her not to be afraid to be curious. They went off to have their breakfast.

Later on, while making coffee, I got to have another short conversation with Moon and her mom. I said I liked her name, it was quite unique, and mentioned that I coincidentally had a friend named Sky, which really got her excited. She confided loudly that there was a boy at her school named Creek (also not his real name, but similarly earthy), and that he liked her and wrote her love letters. But she didn’t like these love letters, she exclaimed! She always threw them away, but he wrote her persistently, anyway.

“You don’t have to put up with that, Moon,” I assured her. She assured me that she could stand up for herself. I believe she can. Remarkably, through most of the conversation, Moon’s mother let her talk for herself, occasionally contributing but never overriding or trumping Moon’s voice.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t mind ambiguity; in many ways, I despise it. But in reading the works of feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa, Donna Haraway, and Riki Wilchins, I am more and more interested in the power of ambiguity to disrupt and confuse our cultural tendency towards binary thinking, dichotomous worldviews. Dichotomies relieve the frequently awkward, at-times painful tension of ambiguity; much of our modern-day logic wouldn’t function without what Patricia Hill Collins calls “either/or thinking”. Everything in our world should generally be called one thing, or another, but it must be one or the other and it certainly cannot be both.

Every human being must be male, or female, but they cannot be both and of course cannot be something else entirely. Why are we so utterly disturbed by this notion? Why is any transcendence of the binary sex construct considered heretical, perverse, unnatural?

Why are children more easily able to cope with this ambiguity? I didn’t give Moon an answer; I let her think what she wanted to think, which could have included not making up her mind, or not caring. For most adults, not making up our minds or not caring are quite implausible in regards to sex/gender: we need to know, we need certainty. A lack thereof, the presence of ambiguity is weird, disconcerting, frightening, even angering.

I’m not going to suggest that ambiguity in all situations is positive or appropriate, but I will say that most cultures could do with a higher tolerance for it. After all, the notion of the ‘false dichotomy’ is sort of redundant in the sense that most dichotomies are false, perhaps the most pervasive of those being ‘male/female’ and ‘black/white’. For Moon, I fell into enough of a grey area that it prompted her curiosity; her reaction was neutral, or maybe even positive by some views, but unusual, regardless. What if more of us were curious about the grey area? What if more of us embraced living in the grey area? How might that begin to affect the currently [harmful] dichotomous worldview we insist on passing down to future generations?

Guest Blog: The Manifestation of the New Age Hippy

Guest blog by Ellen Ripley.

The Manifestation of the New Age Hippy

I thought that the perfect decade to live in would be the 60’s, so that I could have lived in San Fran, experienced the summer of love, etc. I had always admired the counterculture of the hippies, black panthers, feminists, punks, and others, and how, for the first time in history, minorities were able to impact the world around them. However, let’s fast forward to 2013– what the f happened to these social movements why was peace and love not enough to change the world more concretely? Well, after I had the opportunity to actively do some unintentional field work in Northern Cali (fyi I am not a trained anthropologist but I’m sure you can get over that, haha), I have come to some realizations. Feel free to disagree or downright scream at me for my view points, but it’s just how I saw things go down. Where to start… Well, first off, the hippy movement is still alive and kicking in Northern Cali but the culture or core ideologies have shifted as even they realize that smoking and listening to music, however good, was not going to impact the world in the way they once hoped. In 2013, the street hippies have their own code of ethics, which in many ways is contradictory to what the movement was supposed to be all about.

For one, let’s talk about the legalization of marijuana, which you would think would be supported in full since most of the people I talked to on the streets and at the music festivals believe this drug will save the world, has healing power and so forth and so on. With this concept in mind you would think they’d say, yeah, legalize it. Not so, however, because most of the people growing make a shit-ton of money and are small farmers. If it just got legalized, they would lose profits– yes, that’s right, this drug that they seemingly full-heartedly believe will heal many diseases is better kept restricted so they can keep their capitalist scheme going. Speaking of capitalism, I have never met a group of people more prone to capitalist ideology– and I grew up in the Big Apple, so that’s saying something. Anyways, I’ll stick with their profits from growing medical marijuana as an example. They could easily figure out their costs and what a reasonable profit would be for the risk, etc., keeping in mind the Feds still can come in and chop down the crops even though Cali has legalized it (America has not). Instead of doing this, they apparently see no incentive to make sure that it’s affordable to the masses. Rather, they make somewhere in the range of about 500 percent profit– yeah, really that high. Once again I must question their claim that this is a drug that can really heal; I can tell you, if I had a drug that I thought could really heal in Cambodia, I would be trying to find a way to make it affordable for the masses while being able to sustain my livelihood, but 500 percent profit is not what I had in mind.

This is just it though, it does not stop at farm products. Much of their livelihood comes from going to festivals around the country, selling things like shirts, crystals, herbal remedies, jewelry, art, beer and food, etc. Why I bring this up is that while spending a weekend at one of these festivals I realized how quickly they price gouge each other and I am not sure why that is, as they will talk about corporate greed and supporting local people. For example, I was with a group of people who bought beer from a big liquor distributer thus making the beer cheaper than if you buy it at a convenient store somewhere. Never did they sit down and talk about what a fair profit for the work would be. Instead they wanted to get the most they could for said beer, once again at a range of 500 percent profit (cha-ching– capitalism!) at one point someone in the group was thinking 5 dollars for a beer which only cost them about 70 cents. That was one of the few times I could not control myself and had to say, well, you could, but should you? I get it: maybe it’s human nature that we want to get the most resources we can for our own survival, but according to the hippies’ code of ethics, this goes against half the shit they are always talking about.

More ironically is that they do this to each other but then they talk about a Utopian world of peace and love to me, and how human nature is inherently good, and if the world was to end and restart with them things would be different despite history proving otherwise. But that’s pointless to bring up to a majority of people who are already abusing their own system for greed and profit. The system is another hot topic I heard brought up a lot but they are so out of touch with how much they depend on the system that they are no better than the people who started the exploitation of people in the first place.

I should mention what form of currency they use, which will explain a lot about their persona and overall appearance to the rest of society. Instead of hard cash or dollars, experience is their currency. For instance, that whole look of “dirty hippy” is actually a form of power dynamics that creates yet another hierarchy in society. How does this yield them power? The dirty look means they are coming off the streets or out of the forest and this makes them more real, and it’s assumed that they also have more experiences and stories to tell other people. Thus the thrift store look, which they say is a statement and doesn’t make them materialistic, is actually the same as some soccer mom buying her Chanel bag: it gives them power over other people in their social circle. Another staple of being a “true hippy” is having a dog at their side, but it can’t be just any dog, no, it has to be a wolf-looking dog which some of them have specially bred. Yeah, no lie, they let dogs at the pound die so they can wield power in the subculture if hippyism. A wolf-dog, which they will often try to pass off as having been found in the woods or in the street somewhere out of sheer luck, is another sign of their “amazing” life experience, but once you get them talking about said dog, more often than not it was no lost dog on the street or the forest, but came from a dog breeder and cost lots of money.

My main point being is that every system has a currency and the commodification of experience is used as a form of security to gain and wield power in this subculture. This had me wondering: why are most of them still in America, why not move to another country that is extremely impoverished? For one, they don’t want to acknowledge their own privilege or have to deal with anything negative at all. They justify said behavior by reverting to very neoliberal perspectives, eg tend to your own garden and I’ll tend to mine, that we ought to all have the same level of responsibility for ourselves, thus the the world will be a better place. This ideology is often extremely Amero-centric and when someone such as myself comes along asking them to defend this ideology outside the American context, they often could not and would seem pretty annoyed at me. This reminds me, though: when they do leave the great US of A, they often head down South of the border to South America. They seem to place a lot of value on those cultures, specifically Peruvian culture. I am not quite sure why this is, but this is my best guess: it’s a safe place to go and “rough it” enough to come back with stories, but not enough to shatter their views. Plus, often times they already know someone who has gone there so there is less to figure out for one’s self. It also seems that if said hippy has made it to South America, the power they gain from this will often allow them to have some sort of superiority complex. It was from this that I first realized that experience is currency.

For whatever reason, I came off as threating to certain people in the hippy community I was around and I could not figure out why, as I mostly stayed quiet, followed them around, and just sort of went with whatever. It was not until I realized all of the above that I understood that it was not what I was saying, but the very fact of my presence and that I had exceeded their limited time in South American culture by living in Cambodia. The ironic part about this is that, once I realized that experience was currency, I did not really feel they were “worthy” of my currency, so to speak. I did not feel the need to use power over them, so I decided early on to keep my day to day life quiet, as I did not want to feed into their system.

One would expect the idea of gender roles in hippy culture to be questioned and long gone, but in fact this is pretty far from the truth. The days of free love and sex seemed to be long gone, maybe it was the HIV or STI rates, but nevertheless it seemed monogamy has taken its place. Most of the people I met who were, let’s say, over the age of 23 where all in a serious relationship but the dynamics of them were not of a romantic type but more of some sort of partnership in a business-sense, as most of these relationships support a livelihood of selling that require two people to support it. Moreover, the males seem to believe they need to play a protector role. I brought up gender roles with them, and it did not seem to register, as this once again would make them question things and they don’t like to be critically aware of their habits and behaviors.

Who Writes the Rules

Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex?

The short answer is, the People at the Top. You may not be surprised to discovered that, in patriarchal cultures (which describes most cultures), this is men. We can be more specific, however: bottom-to-top position in this hierarchy is determined by many things, and the closer one gets to the top, the richer, more educated, and lighter-skinned these men get. Upon discovering that the People at the Top are predominantly wealthy, white, Western males, understanding gendered rules and expectations becomes a lot easier. Patriarchal hierarchies of dominance vary from place to place (and even time to time), but the patterns of wealth, education, skin colour, ability, age, sexual orientation, and so on are fairly consistent.

As many people have discussed, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race and other categories, the People at the Top do not actively and consciously determine and define gendered rules, necessarily; rather, it is largely through their mere existence as Normal and Best (or Default, as some say– I like that) that definitions of other persons are shaped relative to them. Male equals normal, female equals abnormal or deviant; male equals default, female equals Other.

That’s the short answer, but it’s not whole answer. The more accurate, complete, and much longer answer is: everybody. We all decide what gendered rules and expectations will be, by following them. And perhaps even more importantly, by punishing those who deviate. It comes so naturally to us it seems biologically innate to call the boy in your eighth grade class who was caught wearing toe nail polish a fag. Hatred and fear of deviance, however, is not innate; it is learned. We are taught early and often that deviation is bad, most appreciably by being punished, ourselves. Normal/good little boys do not play with dolls; they pretend to shoot each other. Normal/good little girls do not pretend to shoot each other; they sweetly and passively care for their dolls. Full-grown men do not cry. Full-grown women do not have double mastectomies. Et cetera. This is reinforced to us all our lives. We witness what happens to those who deviate, and we learn to participate in their persecution, be it in the comments section of Youtube or NPR, or on sports teams, or in ballet class, or in our classrooms, or within our own families (this is often referred to as gender policing). If you are not doing the persecuting, chances are you might be persecuted– so which side would you want to be on? This is the question faced by every single person who lives within the confines of patriarchal culture.

The next time you hear someone tell a young man “boys don’t cry” (or “you throw like a girl”, or whatever), call to mind the question: Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex? You do. Either through your inaction or by validating that young man’s feelings, you are helping to decide what the rules are.

In order to contemplate the rules and think about how you’d like them defined, they first have to be recognizable. For most people, gender rules are normative and it would never occur to them to question them. Those who do are said to be “challenging Nature” and pushing “unnatural ideas”. Challenging our conceptions of “natural” is a good place to start.

The End of Men (…or not.)

A friend got me Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men a couple of months ago (thanks, E!); here (at last) is a review.

Rosin’s book has a rather pejorative title, no? But don’t fear, penis-bearers, she doesn’t intend it in as antagonistic a manner as it sounds. Rather, this book could serve as a warning for those stuck in antediluvian concepts of gender, family, and work. The most pitiful “characters” in TEoM are those guys who have lost– wives, jobs, hope for the furture– because they refused to adapt to a new and different kind of gendered environment.

Rosin suggests that there is a shift taking place in American society, one that finally puts ‘feminine’ concepts in a positive light, particularly in the workplace. It would behoove men, she says, to adopt more traditionally (and stereotypically)-feminine traits and qualities in order to move ahead in the workplace, as their traditionally-masculine traits and qualities are no longer so beneficial– and, indeed, may be hindering them.

She points to this shift as the reason for Women’s Rise, which presumably means more money-making and keeping capacity, and associated benefits: more power in family decision-making, higher status in the sociocultural realm. I enjoyed her in-depth analysis and interviews of women in managerial positions, as well as her observations of women on other up-and-coming career paths, like the pharmacy business.

The most important and provoking lesson that I took from this book, though, is that this may be the End of Men, but it is certainly not the End of Patriarchy: I was struck by how patriarchal the “successful” women featured in this book truly were. Their competitiveness, desire to achieve status and status-lending commodities, aggression and even violence– yes, women of the past were “kept down” by the Patriachy, but our liberation from It does not signal the demise of It. No, we have only obtained more power to participate in the system in a different way… And participate we do.

Nor does the End of Men free women from the oppression of Patriarchy, as the “career women” feature in Rosin’s book still very much adhere to culturally-dictated norms of sexuality and gender.

Nevertheless, TEoM provides hope, too– for women, and for men. It’s a fast read and inspires fun discussion; read it!

Grow a Pair

Patriarchy is often consider a feminist (or should I say feminazi!!) conspiracy theory: the idea that all penis-wielding entities are somehow in on the maintenance of a worldwide phallocentric hegemony. Well, understandably this is how it looks sometimes before you read the literature. Some feminist assertions do sound rather like conspiracy theories when there is no “hard evidence” to back it up. After all, suggesting that men around the world not only benefit from but seek to perpetuate, whether consciously or unconsciously, Patriarchal hegemony in its various manifestations (e.g. gender norms; sociocultural and political hierarchies based on race, sex, etc.; rape culture; Sex Binary Construct; etc.) sounds, well, like the Patriarchy: it is a sex-based and thus sexist proposition, for one thing, but also sounds a touch crazy– penis-carriers from around the world subconsciously and/or actively participate in systems of mass control (i.e. dominance hierarchies), even perhaps with the knowledge that they are submitting to a position within such systems, themselves, as a way to make gain?

I admit, that does sound a little X-Files-y. But there is more substance to this theory than readily meets the eye. Something that has become more and more prominent as a concern for the Modern Man is testosterone.

This ad is used to promote testosterone supplements.

One often hears about the falling levels of testosterone among the modern male population, especially in “developed” countries. Stories and blogs and conversations about and from men claim that they are emasculated, that society has stripped them of their Manhood (capital ‘M’); there are even commercial ventures which benefit from playing off this fear of limp-dickedness (and they sell it with lines like, “when we were still cavemen, we knew how to get what we wanted even if it meant dragging women by their hair into our caves”). The backlash to emasculation often expresses itself, frighteningly, as violence…especially violence against women and marginalized groups.

The flipside to this coin of the Modern Male is that the vast majority of violence is perpetrated by men, against men. Testosterone has long been linked with violent and aggressive behavior. Yet rates of violence have not decreased with the apparent drop in levels of testosterone. Why should this be?

The link between testosterone and aggression is somewhat of an overstated one: there is, in fact, little evidence to support this link in humans and our close relatives (via Nature, Eisenegger 2009). Rather there is a link between testosterone and dominance behavior (which in humans does not usually mean aggression, or “behavior intended to inflict physical injury” [Booth, et al.; Testosterone and Social Behavior, 2006]), which is impacted by sociocultural environment (e.g. ‘social perception, previous experience, propensity for specific behavior’, etc.) in combination with genetic, physiological, and other environmental factors (Booth, et al. 2006). Thus, links between testosterone and dominating and aggressive behaviors are highly individualistic. In general, there does appear to be a causal relationship between higher testosterone and more frequent expression of dominance behavior, but trends of higher testosterone and violence (including perpetration of violent crimes) must be considered on an individual basis that accounts for social, environmental, and physiological factors. In humans, there is little firm evidence correlating increased testosterone and aggression (and, it’s interesting to note, decreased testosterone and reduced libido).

Thus, while dominance behaviors may decrease as a result of lower testosterone,  a drop in testosterone does not necessarily mean a drop in violent behavior. That violence is influenced by so much more than biology, alone, possibly supports the idea that men who feel emasculated tend towards violence as a way of regaining masculinity. Indeed, it could be that the very suggestion of emasculation, such as a drop in their collective, “manly” testosterone, increases a man’s aggressive or violent behaviors.

I have often heard men complain about how Politically Correct their world has become, and how much they hate it. They can no longer make sexist jokes. They can no longer openly sexually harrass women. They jeopardize their jobs and risk being socially ostracized by failing to be “PC”. I also hear [American] men complaining a whole lot about how much women are complaining about how much control they’re losing over their reproductive health and bodily autonomy. The justification for this often goes something like, that’s the way it goes because women are the baby makers. (Or they may mention Eve, which really goes too far… Sort of kidding.) Similarly, many American men don’t seem to understand why women desire things like equal pay and equal employment and equal, uh, rights. Why should they need those things when they have men to Provide for them?

Modern men in Developed countries seem to be at the brink. They feel out-of-control, emasculated– like they are losing, have already lost their Manhood. They feel like they’re going soft, and that women are far too dominant over them. They feel that they are under attack, that they can’t be Real Men anymore. Some of them are seriously pissed off by today’s gender bending. Some of them may feel like they can get Manhood back by acting out violently and aggressively, by asserting power or by intimidating and threatening.

This escalating trend of men complaining about losing Manhood and being emasculated, which has really been going on quite a while now (probably quite a bit further back then I recognize) and may be coming to a head, is very strong evidence of Patriarchy. Not a global, organized network of men from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds who actively organize to promote their agenda, but an agenda it still is. And men from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds recognize the benefit of maintaining this agenda. When the agenda begins to slip out of their firm control is when the Patriarchal structure that underpins all societies in its various forms begins to manifest itself. Really, Patriarchy works best when it’s taken for granted, and on the DL.

The idea of society being anything but phallocentric terrifies a lot of men. Many places in the world still loathe female leadership. It is unnatural. Even in a family, my male Cambodian compadres tell me, there may be “equality” but there must always be a head…and that head should be male. It’s really a law of nature.

But let us not forget the role that women play in Patriarchal hegemony, as well. Their role is really crucial, in fact– without their cooperation, Patriarchy would quickly collapse. Women must believe in the naturalness of sex roles– of sex itself. And most women buy willingly into Patriarchy because they, too, benefit somehow. Patriarchy is not a totalitarian regime, but a very cleverly, seemingly organically-built construct that is adaptive and flexible. It would not have lasted this long if it were a pure slave state. The slaves must believe in their own subordination to perpetuate such a state for as long as Patriarchy has survived.

So when women mock men who are too feminine, or talk about how they want a Real Man, or really when they do anything to promote the Chicks-from-Venus-Dicks-from-Mars notion…they are reinforcing their own degradation. And really, the degradation of all humanity. Patriarchy is degrading for all of us.

Fresh Bites

Olympic archery is cool!

Kawanaka received a bronze model for her part on the women’s team in archery.

The commentators…not so much. One of them (a Brit whose name I haven’t been able to lay my hands on) kept referring to Kaori Kawanaka of Japan as “the Japanese girl”, while her Russian competitor was simply “the Russian”; yet all of the male archers were referred to by their, er, names (such as Marco Galiazzo, Michele Frangilli and Mauro Nespoli of the Italian team, whom he called by their last names).

I thought commentators received training about that sort of thing? Not that it’s needed; most people probably don’t notice it as it’s so taken for granted.

From ESPN, a great article on the hypercompetitiveness of kids’ sports. Since ESPN is kinda an authority on these things, I appreciate their position: kids should be having a least as much fun as they are focused on winning.

Also, people really really do not know what rape is. Really. Men who rape, women who rape, the people who are raped, and a large number of bystanders– people are very confused about how to define rape. (That’s why I’m glad I have such a simple, straightforward definition, though admittedly rape is much more than a physical phenomenon.)

Pussy Rioters get jailed in Russia for blaspheming god Putin and being feminist (which really are the same thing, in fact).

A fun post on English language idioms.

Michiganians compete in the London 2012 Games!

An interesting blogger with a knack for limericks.

The Guardian has this cool chart which shows LGBT equality/lack thereof in the States.

And queers are going Alice Paul on MI politics in metro-Detroit.

(I know nobody cares except CELTA trainees and applied linguistics nerds, but this phonemic chart “keyboard” is so neat! And it’s saving my life, since MS Word is stupid and doesn’t have all the necessary symbols for writing in phonemic script, unless you know all the magic key combinations.)