Thursday, April 30, 2009

Passing (again)

I'm still thinking about passing, and it seems to me like we're taught to pass in many, many ways. Many of these have to do with performing gender (whether we're cis, trans, or genderqueer) and some don't.

A co-worker of mine just announced in a somewhat apologetic tone that she's PMSing, after spending several stressful hours dealing with a student who's aggressive, disrespectful, and has a massive sense of entitlement. Attributing her stress and irritation to hormones is an example of one way women are taught to pass in our culture: it's unwomanly to be angry or irritated, even when provoked to the extent that she has been. I can't imagine a male coworker attributing his emotional response to a situation like this to hormones. Why would he? The hormones didn't cause the response - the entitled asshole did.

A student who recently won a mathematics award on campus semi-apologetically explained to us that her father and grandfather are engineers - as if she needs to somehow justify and legitimate her talent. I can't imagine a male student acting so self-deprecating and apologetic after winning an award like this. Why would he? Everyone (including himself) would view it as natural that he won.

My partner frequently has to defend his commitment to our kids to people who act kind of puzzled over why a father would feel such a strong need to spend time with his kids and be truly involved in their lives. I would never have to defend my commitment to them or explain why I feel compelled to spend so much time with them. Because for me it's supposed to be "natural."

But I'm not sure if this one has to do with gender or not. In several recent conversations with friends, I've remembered/ mentioned my experiences as a kid who had a strange gift when it comes to math. I'm one of those people who perceives many things that are ostensibly not math-related in terms of mathematical expressions. Almost everything can be expressed as a mathematical function in my head. Colors have numbers to me. I can perform fairly complex mathematical functions very quickly in my head. I've always been this way, and it seems normal to me. But I rarely ever talk about it. My friends often ask me how much to leave for a tip, if some random number we come across is prime, for mnemonic devices for remembering phone numbers and SSN numbers, etc. But I don't usually describe to them what number a certain color is, or how you would explain a particular social dynamic as a mathematical function. I'm not embarrassed by this feature of my cognition, and I'm not super proud of it. It's just sort of normal.

But the reason I don't talk about it much goes back to second grade. When I was in second grade I told my teacher that colors had numbers. He looked at me without a spark of interest or understanding on his face and said "no they don't." I got the message. In fourth grade we had a color-by-number math activity in which you calculated the fraction problem in each sector of the picture and then colored it in according to the number-color combos listed in the key. I told my teacher that these were the wrong colors for the numbers. She asked me to explain what I meant. I answered that, for one thing, the number that went with green was too warm, and red should be a prime number. (It's really hard to explain this stuff). She looked at me with a perplexed look for a long minute and then turned to admonish a couple of other kids to return to their seats. I didn't pursue the conversation any further. I could see where it was going.

So I didn't talk about this way I had of perceiving things, but I did learn how to negotiate the world without weirding people out about it. I learned that, even though it's tedious and mind-numbing, you have to write out all the steps on a math problem that you already did in your head when you first saw it on the paper. When they ask you to do long division, they mean it. And if you don't show your work, you not only won't get credit for the assignment, but you'll probably be accused of cheating. How else could a skinny little blond kid who doesn't fit our cultural ideal for what a mathematically gifted person looks like correctly calculate 30 long division problems in about 5 minutes without showing any work? She must be cheating. So I think many kids like this learn to stay in their seats and pretend to be working until their classmates are done with the worksheet or test. They learn to laboriously write out each step of the problem, even though that requires them to keep cycling back over it in their minds to remember what all the steps actually were. And they learn how to be invisible. They learn how to pass.

The fact that we often require people with unusual abilities like this to pass makes me wonder how often it happens that outliers are simply trained to hide their abilities and blend in. Just as we want everyone in a neat little gender box that will be easy to deal with, we want everyone to fit into our other conceptual boxes. Otherwise life is messy and complicated, and you have to treat people as individuals with unique talents and needs. Much easier to just force them to pass...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Video of the Day

So, I have to 'fess up to this little quirk of mine: I collect the songs "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "The Rainbow Connection." It started with punk and ska covers, and moved on from there. At this point I have covers of these songs in every musical genre imaginable. I love that so many artists feel compelled to sing these songs at some point in their career. So, for your viewing pleasure, here's Me First and the Gimme Gimmes:

And no, this doesn't have anything to do with feminism. I'm aware of that, and it's OK with me.

Moms in Film: A Device in the Story

From an interview with Alfre Woodard at the A.V. Club:

AVC: You were going to say something about playing moms?

AW: It’s so boring. I’m not even going to talk about the pedestrian writers. I’m only going to talk about the really good writers and scripts. Americans have a hard time writing moms. I’ll get a script and everything's really great, everything’s well-drawn, but the mom is like this character, like stock footage, they go and get that out. They plug it in, this idea of "mother." You could lift moms out of any script, no matter what the culture, what the neighborhood, what the economic status, even if it’s a period mom, and you could switch them around, and they’d be the same person. I think it’s because most people don’t really have a human idea, a specific life that they attach to who their mother was. Their mother was there for them, so it either gets deified, or the opposite. That Mommie Dearest kind of thing. We love them or we don’t, or we rebel, but we can’t see who they are. That they are a person in life with taste, with sexuality, with opinions, who is pissy also, who has a right to not be the big tit for you every time you want something. And then we leave, and we go off to college or off into the world to work—you really appreciate your mom then. But there’s that big chunk when you don’t know your mom’s faults, desires, wishes, distastes.

It’s tough, because you’re always going to be playing moms. You really have to work to find the person, because they’re not really written a lot. You’re a device in a person’s life, a device in that story. In real life, most people I know are moms, but writing them, I could never reduce them to "mom." It’s like, she does this and this and this—oh yeah, and she’s got kids. They’re interesting, vital, crazy, fucked-up, wonderful, awful, really attractive, and also repulsive people doing wild things and mundane things. And we never see them on film or on television.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Profeminist Fatherhood

A friend linked me to this blog today, where I stumbled upon a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post on profeminist fatherhood. Some quotes:

3. How have your profeminist values changed over time? What is the impact of fatherhood on your profeminism?

Think about the implications: If a guy like me—who has every good intention and a history of profeminist activism, and who even served a stint as a stay-at-home dad—is failing at the task for forging a perfectly egalitarian family, then what does that tell us about the prospects of wider social change?


Here’s something I think progressive feminist folks need to understand in a deep way: Parents aren’t soldiers. We don’t take marching orders. And none of us is a general. You can’t tell your partner what she should want out of life, even, perhaps especially, when her decisions make you more powerful in the relationship. You can’t control the way the world thinks of you, and you don’t get to say what social and economic conditions you’ll face as a parent. This breeds feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, anger.

At the end of the day, your main task is to survive and support your family and raise happy children; how you respond to the things you can’t control reveals a great deal about your character, some of it good and some of it bad. You might discover (have you noticed my retreat to the safety of the second person?) a capacity for sacrifice and care that you never knew was there.

On the flip side, the dark one, you might also find yourself erupting with petty rage and misdirected resentment, eruptions that frighten you, your child, and your partner. In those scary moments, when our worst emotions take over and drive our ideals and aspirations over a cliff, it is easiest of all for both fathers and mothers to fall back on traditional patterns of dominance and submission.

What does that have to do with feminism? Everything, and nothing.

Pledging allegiance to feminist ideals doesn’t make you a good person or a good parent or a good partner, but it might remind you of the power you have—we always have power, if only over ourselves—and the need to restrain that power or share it with other people. It can also remind fathers of something that I think is crucial: There are alternatives; you do have choices, and your choices matter. You don’t have to be the man your father was; you don't have to be the idiots we see on TV; you can be a new kind of man, and you can help your sons become that kind of man.

10. Do you feel feminism has failed fathers and, if so, how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given fathers?

...I think a majority of feminists can foresee a positive role for fathers and, indeed, desperately want to see fatherhood redefined in a positive and progressive way. I don’t think feminism has offered a well-articulated vision of fatherhood, but that’s OK: It really falls to fathers to redefine fatherhood.

This is the great thing that feminism has given fathers: Its success has triggered culture-wide dialogs among men about what a good father should be and do. Feminists themselves are not always comfortable with these arguments, and certainly there has been much to criticize.

But, as an old Bolshevik once said, revolutions don’t happen in velvet boxes. They’re messy, contradictory, sometimes downright revolting—but usually also thrilling and necessary. Women have been rising for over a century, and only recently have men started to really change in response. From that perspective, it’s an exciting time.

This leads me to another thing (returning to the topic of the second question) that has surprised me about fatherhood and feminism: In a perverse way, fatherhood has strengthened my commitment to feminism. By revealing the limits of my good intentions and scope of action, fatherhood has pushed me to seek new answers to feminist questions I thought I had answered in my early twenties, on both personal and political levels.

Fatherhood has also reminded me, in a visceral way, of the inequalities that persist between men and women, and, in particular, the burdens carried by mothers. Those burdens and inequalities shape and poison our most intimate relationships whether we want them to or not.

Here again, feminism is useful for fathers and mothers: It gives us perspective, or it should.

It’s easy to be overcome by day-to-day difficulties and despair of the possibility of changing the balance of power between men and women. But if we lift our eyes and look at the sweep of the past through feminism’s eyes, we can see that the balance of power has changed, on this and many other fronts. History doesn’t stop just because we personally feel stuck. If we look at the lives of the people who came before us, we see that our actions in the present do matter, both our individual choices and the act of speaking out in public.

Kinda refreshing!

Happy Equal Pay Day

Let's say you're a woman who makes exactly the median wage as compared to the median wage for men: $.79 to their dollar. That means that if you both work 5 days a week at 8 hours a day, at about 10:30 on Tuesday morning, you catch up to their pay for last week. Something to think about...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Systemic Exclusion: History Edition

I often think that we spend a lot of time talking about systemic oppression and exclusion, but the concept remains kind of vague and fuzzy for a lot of us. So in the interest of de-fuzzing the concept and giving specific, tangible examples to refer to when explaining this to friends or arguing with those in denial, here's the first of many posts on systemic exclusion and oppression.

One critique that postmodern feminists have concerning the knowledge/power framework in place is that it engages in metanarratives which serve to norm the dominant groups and other those groups which are marginalized. Traditionally, a (usually white male) historian will tell The Story Of History as if it's all-inclusive and represents all the important things that have happened. Note in this book title we're told that this is "The whole story of man." This may be very well-intentioned and simply done based on custom and convention without a critique of what it means to be the whole story of man, or which persons are taken to be the important or central figures. From what I hear, this book by H.G. Wells is quite well-written and very even-handed. But the fact remains that telling one story, from one perspective, and representing it as all-inclusive is inherently othering to many.

First, the sort of God's-eye-view that this approach suggests is not possible. We're all humans who are fully situated in one time period and cultural context. We each have our own place in the overlapping network of hierarchies, and that position will inevitably inform our view of the world. Second, the project of telling a metanarrative itself suggests that there's just one history to which some figures are central while others are marginal or ancillary. In fact, there are many, many interlocking histories centered around many, many people. And the identity of the one(s) who gets to decide which history is The History will inevitably effect that history and permeate the story told with the privilege, cultural attitudes, and values of the teller. Thus the privileged traditionally own knowledge and history.

So one way to start eroding this system of exclusion is to consistently critique the metanarratives, and instead encourage particular, situated narratives. You can tell the story of your history, in your cultural and historical context, from your perspective. And that story will inevitably center your experiences and the experiences of people who share in your identity. But when combined with the stories of those of other backgrounds, we get a much more complete and multi-faceted picture of events, nobody's voice is privileged, and the norming/othering effect is greatly reduced.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Torture and Capital Punishment

The recent release of torture memos has given new life to the debate on whether or not torture yields any useful information. The idea behind claiming that torture, or "enhanced interrogation techniques," yields more and/or better info from the torturee seems to be that we could justify violating our laws, international treaties, and our national values in order to engage in torture as long as said torture was yielding information that makes us all safer. The ends justify the means sorta thing. As I was driving home last night and listening to a former interrogator being interviewed on NPR, it reminded me of an argument concerning the death penalty made by Jeffrey Reiman.

In the debate over capital punishment, there are two main arguments used to defend the death penalty: retribution and deterrence. Those who think capital punishment is justified by retribution point out that the criminal has done something very wrong and thus deserves to pay the price. Justice demands that the criminal give his life to pay for the taking of someone else's life. An eye for an eye and all that. Those in the deterrent camp point to the alleged fact that having the death penalty serves to deter people who might murder from actually doing it. So in this argument, capital punishment is a sort of stick hanging over the heads of the population that will come down on them as soon as they commit murder (or some other capital offense), and since everyone will know this, people will be less likely to murder.

Reiman enters the debate on capital punishment well after these two positions have been established and fleshed out, and he takes a different tack than trying to disprove either position. Instead, he begins by granting both claims. He says, OK let's grant that the death penalty is just because of retribution, and if it does in fact prevent people from murdering each other, it is useful as a deterrent. These two ideas do seem to be intuitively appealing. But there still may be other reasons not to support the death penalty. For one thing, just because somebody deserves something, doesn't mean we have to give it to them. After all, if we were totally consistent retributionists, we'd still be gouging people's eyes out and chopping off their hands. But most of us cringe at that sort of thing in a civilized culture. And second, there's no real evidence that capital punishment is any more effective at deterring violent crime than long sentences. In fact, in many countries and states where there is no death penalty, the homicide rate is significantly lower than in those that do. So neither retribution nor the deterrent effect seem to be compelling reasons that we have to have the death penalty.

Are there reasons why we wouldn't want to practice capital punishment? According to Reiman, YES. For one thing, by abstaining from the death penalty we reject cruel treatment of people (just as when we abstain from gouging out eyes and chopping off hands), and reaffirm the value of human life. Not just unborn human life, but human life in general. (That last bit was my little snark - don't attribute that to Reiman, please.) In addition, we can avoid the social injustice that seems to be inherent in the uneven sentencing rates by simply abolishing the death penalty. Obviously the social injustice inherent in unequal conviction rates will still have to be dealt with. But at least we won't still be executing a hugely disproportionate rate of minority and economically disadvantaged convicts. And that would reflect our commitment to bringing about social justice.

But where Reiman's argument really ties into the torture issue is here. Being a civilized nation entails that we turn away from cruel and horrible ways of treating people. We like to believe that we've evolved past the enjoyment of public hangings, drawing-and-quartering criminals, and displaying the heads of beheaded criminals on public fenceposts. But to evolve past this, we need to also move past the necessity to have executioners among us. What does it do to an individual to be the one whose job it is to kill people? Can someone who has this job comfortably live among others in a civilized nation? And what must our self-conception be if we're OK with the fact that our criminal justice system necessitates the existence of executioners?

So this thought led me to think about all those operatives whose job it was day in and day out to chain people to ceilings, almost drown them, slap them repeatedly as they're chained and helpless, lock them in little boxes, etc. When this is all over and they come home, what effect will this experience have had on them? Will they still have a sense of empathy and compassion for their fellow humans? How will they tend to handle conflict and stress? Maybe we want to abstain from torture not just because of what it says about us, but because of what it does to us. And it's hard to imagine the kind of information torture would yield that could justify giving up our values, our respect for human life and dignity, and our ability to live with each other in a civilized way. When you look at it this way, torture is far too costly to ever be worth its potential benefits.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Social Construction of Gender

I've been involved in a number of conversations lately about the social construction of gender, and it occurs to me that what it means for gender to be a social construct, along with the implications of a social construction theory of gender, is not clear to a lot of people. So here's an explanation that may clarify things a bit.

A social construction is something that doesn't exist independently in the "natural" world, but is instead an invention of society. Cultural practices and norms give rise to the existence of social constructs and govern the practices, customs, and rules concerning the way we use/view/understand them. In other words, we all act as if they exist, and because of our intersubjective agreement, they do.

The classic example of a social construct is money. Various cultures utilize paper, gold, silver, or other items as a medium for trade. To do this, we invest the object with value that we all acknowledge (we act as if it has value), and this informs our practices when it comes to money. But money is not a thing that occurs independently of human activity in the natural world. Thus it is a social construction. It's very real - calling it a social construct does not amount to calling it imaginary or non-existent. But its existence is dependent on our culture and our practices. This means that its definition, use, meaning, value, etc. is entirely contingent on culture.

As our culture changes, so do our constructs. Some constructs come into being and then fall into disuse and thus go out of existence. Others remain but change from one culture and historical period to another. Gender is one such construct. The traits and behaviors that are thought to be "masculine" and "feminine" differ dramatically from one culture and time period to another. Appropriate ways of behaving, the labor that's assigned to gender groups, beliefs about natural abilities and propensities, etc. change significantly. And this variation and adaptation to conditions and social pressures reinforces the idea that gender is a social construction rather than some sort of essence that arises from biology. Because if gender was determined by physical sex, then it wouldn't vary in this way, but would remain constant, just as other biologically determined attributes remain constant. Instead, gender varies with cultural change.

Generally speaking, gender is assigned at birth according to physical sex. Medical professionals look at the baby's genitals and announce that the baby is a boy or a girl (unless the child is intersex, in which case much work is done to force the child into one camp or the other). And then the work begins to socialize the child and teach them the script that goes with the gender they've been assigned. And most of us get to be pretty darn good at acting out the appropriate script. We learn which emotions we're supposed to display, which activities we're supposed to enjoy and excel at, and which ones we're supposed to avoid or suck at, how to talk to each other, how to manage our body language, which kind of work and hobbies we're supposed to pursue, etc. And for many of us it's not a great fit, but we manage, or we learn how to make those features of ourselves that don't fit the script less conspicuous (i.e., we pass). But for some of us, it feels wrong enough that we can't just fit in or pass. For transgender and genderqueer individuals, performing the other script, or a different script altogether, is the only way to make life livable. (For transsexuals, the issue encompasses more than gender, so they will have other issues, except insofar as they often also learn to perform "the other" gender script.)

So this description raises a number of questions. Why are there only two scripts, when bodies seem to come in more than two shapes? Why do we need these scripts at all? Why are we so committed to the idea that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between the two scripts we have and the two kinds of bodies we insist on believing people are born into? These are all good questions, and all things that feminists should be pushing on and tugging at the loose strings. A few brief answers:

We need the scripts and the clearly delineated categorical distinctions, because you can't build hierarchy without difference. Hierarchy depends on difference, so you choose some physical differences, like genitalia and skin color, and invest them with significance. Once you have groups which are thought to be essentially different, you can build up and justify your hierarchy on the basis of them. Making them essential, or biologically grounded, gives them immutability and God-ordainedness.

So then we need to maintain the one-to-one correspondence in order to maintain the stability and essential nature of the distinctions. We can't allow people to go around determining their own identity and position in the hierarchy will-nilly, or everything will fall apart. And we especially must maintain the gender-sex link because of heteronormativity. After all, one function of gender is to indicate to the world what kind of bidness you've got going on under your clothes. As an outward marker of physical sex, gender allows us to identify which individuals are potential mates for us, and avoid the oh-so-horrifying experience of being attracted to someone with (gasp!) the wrong set of genitalia.

So what follows from the view of gender as a social construction? First, it reveals that gender is not immutable or set in stone. Harmful aspects of our construction of gender can and should be discarded. But beyond that, if gender exists to support hierarchy, then gender, as it is viewed and practiced in our culture, is not only uncomfortable for many people, but a tool of oppression. So at the very least, driving a wedge between sex and gender, and putting pressure on the notion that everyone has to fit into some kind of neat binary or follow some kind of carefully delineated script, benefits everyone and serves to weaken patriarchal structures. And allowing every individual to navigate their own identity formation and locate their own spot on the gender continuum would lead to a lot less disonnance and uncomfortable performances, not to mention physical danger and stigma for those who don't adhere to the script to which they were assigned.

However, one thing that the social construction view of gender does not get you is a condemnation of trans people for "reifying gender." First, this view (espoused by some very vocal radical feminists, to the horror and dismay of other radical feminists) is based on a profound misunderstanding of social constructionism and reification. Second, the view is inconsistent in that it condemns one group (trans folk) for performing gender, but ignores the fact that all of us are performing gender all the time. If trans people reify gender by adhering to a script, then so do cis people. And even if this view was coherent, it shows a profound lack of compassion and understanding of the individuals. We are all of us born into a system that is already gendered, and our social survival depends on our learning how to perform the script. This is not an individual decision that's ours to make. So this is an instance where we ought to hate the game, but not the player.

And one thing's for sure: we all benefit by discourses and practices which drive a wedge between sex and gender. The loosening of these strict categories and binaries can result in a view of sex and gender which is far more fluid and flexible, allowing more breathing room for everyone.

Happy Earth Day

Monday, April 20, 2009

Punk and Body Image

This post might seem really random and out-of-nowhere at first, but bear with me.

This weekend some friends of ours had a benefit to raise money to cover their dog's vet bill after a little wrestling-with-a-train-and-losing episode. So they did the keg with live music (punk) and $5 at the door thing, and the party went really well. The police were not called, the neighbors did not complain, nobody passed out or puked on anyone else, and Crash (the most appropriately named dog in the world) is on the mend. But this party got me thinking. There was a day (pre-baby, of course) when I rarely missed a punk or rockabilly show. And yet, I don't have any interest in listening to pre-recorded punk or rockabilly. You won't find many punk tracks in my iPod or on my computer, and I have very few punk bands in my Pandora radio station. So why do I like live punk so much?

For one thing, of course I like the subversiveness of punk culture, although it irritates me to see it appropriated and commercialized at times. Second, I love the energy of the music. For some reason this doesn't translate for me when it comes to recorded material, but nothing compares to the energy of a live punk band. And third, the people at punk shows are endlessly interesting to me. You get such a good mix of misplaced people, angry kids, ironic gestures, and posing. You also get those few who are just exploring the identity and seeing if this might be their niche.

But what I really love is how punk (mixed with a little alcohol or pot) puts people in this place where their body issues kind of fall away. When you watch how people dance to other genres, it seems like there's always this element of self-awareness and self-censoring. People are acutely aware of how they appear, how hot they look, how trendy their "moves" are, etc. But at a good punk show, nobody cares anymore. People cut loose and dance any ol' how, and it always strikes me as this really freeing thing. So maybe it's just me, or maybe it was the tequila, or maybe it's the fact that I'm just now finally emerging from the year-long just-had-a-baby-and-rarely-go-out-and-party-with-friends stage, but to me it's one more thing to like about punk. Because everyone could use a little break from body issues, even if it's just for a few hours.

Feminism 101: Definitions Edition

Gender: The constellation of socially constructed behaviors, roles, characteristics, appropriate activities, propensities, etc. that correspond to "masculine" and "feminine."

Sex: The (somewhat artificial) binary of physical and biological characteristics thought to distinguish male from female.

Gender Identity: The psychological aspect of gender - the way one identifies oneself, which may or may not match the gender and/or sex assignment at birth.

Cisgender: A person is cisgendered if their gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth based on their physical sex.

Transgender: A person is transgendered if their gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth based on their physical sex.

Cissexual: A person is cissexual if their gender identity matches their sex assignment at birth.

Transsexual: A person is transsexual if their gender identity does not match their sex assignment at birth.

Genderqueer: A person is genderqueer if they reject the gender binary by blending aspects of both genders or forming a third gender identity or simply trying to live without being defined in terms of gender.

Intersex: A person is intersex if they don't fit neatly into either the "male" or "female" categories. This may be due to ambiguous genitalia or a mix of typically male and female reproductive and/or sexual anatomy. Traditionally, intersex individuals have been surgically altered to fit into the gender categorization that's assigned to them. However, intersex is slowly being recognized as a normal condition that has been problematized by the rigid sex binary required by our cultural attitudes and gender binary.
*Note: "hermaphrodite" is generally a pejorative term used to describe intersex

Social Construction: Any contingent phenomenon that is created by a society. Social constructs exist only because the members of a society implicitly agree to behave as if they do. Generally speaking, there are conventions around social constructs that guide our behavior regarding them. The most common example used to illustrate this is money. Paper and gold money would be worthless if it weren’t for our practices and conventions, but because we all agree to invest money with value, it is valuable. Saying that money is a social construct doesn't imply that it doesn't exist or that it's not real. It's very real and exists as a social construction; it's just not a "natural fact" about the world independent of human activity.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Silencing Mechanisms

  1. Bursting into tears during a rational discussion and claiming that your opponent's valid point that was neither a personal attack nor overly-confrontational is really hurting your feelings. This is manipulative and generally a way to avoid either responding to their point or conceding that their claim was compelling. (I realize this one may be a bit controversial...)
  2. Accusing your antagonist of being politically correct as a way to avoid acknowledging the ignorance or hate or privilege behind your words that your antagonist has just pointed out.
  3. Attributing the claims of another participant in the discussion to emotion or hormones in order to avoid addressing them.

Light a Candle for Angie

More info here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In the Grip of a Patriarchal Picture

Bear with me for a minute, cause I'm gonna get all philosophical on ya. I promise it won't hurt.

In philosophy, those of us who've been bit by the Witgenstein bug like to use the phrase "in the grip of a picture" to describe the way human thought and interpretation tends to mold itself to the currently dominant paradigm. The way this works is that, in trying to conceptualize something, you come up with various models or "pictures" that help you manipulate and explore the topic. But after using one particular model for awhile, you become committed to it. It shapes your thinking and your perceptions. You're less likely to notice or take into account data that doesn't fit into your picture (anomalies), and the things you observe that do fit into your picture take on more significance for you. Thus you're "in the grip of a picture." Occasionally the anomolies build up and become so significant that you're sort of forced to abandon your model for a new one that involves less conflict. This is known as a paradigm shift. Some famous examples of paradigm shifts are the Copernican Revolution, the move from a Newtonian view to Relativity in physics, and the Keynesian Revolution in economics. But your worldview has probably undergone a number of paradigm shifts over the course of your life. Do you remember the day when it occurred to you that your parents weren't perfect? Did you experience an "aha" moment that "converted" you to feminism, or a particular political stance, or a particular view of human nature? These are all examples of personal paradigm shifts.

But generally speaking, human cognition seems to follow a conservative pattern- we'll go to great lengths to preserve our paradigm and shore it up rather than undergoing a shift. This is why the phrase "in the grip of a picture" is so compelling. It seems as if the model we're currently committed to has really sort of grasped us and it takes a lot of work to tear ourselves away from it and see things from a different angle. And when there's something at stake socially, we're even less inclined to abandon our picture or acknowledge the anomalies that challenge it. So for the purposes of this post, I'm going to refer to this as "cognitive conservatism."

In a similar vein, humans have a tendency to project. We look at non-human objects and creatures and interpret them in human terms. We personify and anthropomorphize everything from song birds to tornadoes to supernatural beings. One of the "pre-socratic philosophers," Xenophanes, captured this tendency when it comes to the way we conceptualize God/the gods perfectly in this fragment:

the Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and dark, Thracians, that theirs are grey-eyed and red-haired.

So here we have two human patterns: the tendency to anthropomorphize non-human things and cognitive conservatism. These two human tendencies come together in a tragic-comic way when it comes to the ways we impose hierarchical and patriarchal structures on the animal world. The inimitable Twisty Faster posted on one instance of this today in the tongue-in-cheek All-girl ant species sends shockwaves through ant community. Among other things she points out that, contrary to reporting in the MSM, these ants aren't the only known species to reproduce asexually, and that it's strange that we automatically label the ants as "female" since they cannot mate due to genital degeneration. Why does the MSM report so selectively on asexual reproduction? Because they're in the grip of a picture. It's called patriarchy. The tendency to essentialize and "naturalize" hierarchical relations in our culture by interpreting all kinds of animal behavior in anthropomorphized and hierarchical terms is indicative of both cognitive conservatism and projection.

Other examples of this abound in the study of animal behavior. One of my favorites involves the depiction of primate sexual behavior. For one thing, it's only in recent years that scientists have been openly acknowledging the abundance of "homosexual" mating and pair-bonding behavior in a number of species, including primates. If these animals have been behaving this way all along, why weren't we seeing it and including it in our accounts of them? And my favorite example of selective observation/skewed interpretation involves the sexual behavior of female primates. Most people still believe that primates tend to form social groups comprised of one "alpha male" and his "harem," who all mate with him exclusively and whom he dominates completely through physical force, right? That's the picture you were taught in 8th grade biology class. The thing is, this picture turns out to be completely inaccurate for almost all primates. Even in primates who do form social groups like this, the females are generally very promiscuous. They sneak off and mate with whatever males are lurking around all the time. In fact, recent DNA tests have shown that it's often less likely that an infant in the group will be the offspring of the alpha male than of a peripheral male. This is explained as an evolutionary strategy in which the female can increase the chances that a new male who manages to successfully challenge the "alpha" male will accept her child as his. If she's slept with all of them, then they're more likely to believe that the child is theirs.

So why did it take so many years for scientists to become aware of this whole range of female primate behavior? A couple of things. Science has been a male-dominated field for a long time. And the men who were observing primates were in the grip of a picture in which females were passive objects that the active and dominant males acted on. So whole swaths of female primate behavior were practically invisible to them. Thus the common pop mythology that men have a "biological imperative" to spread their seed as far and wide as possible, while women just want to stay at home and nurture their young and be faithful to one man. Riiight. So as science has changed, and more women have entered the field, more of the female behavior has become visible. Of course, female scientists have also been socialized in a patriarchal culture, so much of their observation and interpretation of animal behavior will conform to the patriarchal picture as well. But as feminism and other ideologies which challenge hierarchical social structures become more influential, it begins to occur to people that our human social structures may not be the immutable "natural" things they've always been portrayed as. So the paradigm gradually shifts and becomes more flexible, and as it does, new phenomena become visible to us and new interpretations of our observations occur to us. Of course this is a very slow process, and not at all the kind of paradigm shift that the Copernican Revolution was. But it is a shift, even if it seems to be agonizingly gradual.

Addendum: in comments, Michael pointed out to me that I didn't explain the duckrabbit illustration I used (the first pic in this post) so here it is. The duckrabbit is often used to demonstrate the way simple paradigm shifts happen. If you look at the picture thinking it's a duck, then you don't even notice it can also look like a rabbit, and vice versa. Because you're "in the grip of the picture" that you're looking at a duck. But once the idea occurs to you that it could be a rabbit, that's how you perceive it, and there seems to be no trace of duck left in it. And you can make it switch back and forth, thus experiencing a simple paradigm shift in your head in real time.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Zero-Sum Construction of Masculinity

All the recent discussion of masculinity and anal sex, combined with a recent interaction I had with a couple of male friends, has gotten me thinking about the way masculinity so often seems to be constructed as a zero-sum competition in our culture.

In the ever-fascinating world of game theory, a zero-sum game is one in which the victory of one player is counterbalanced by the loss of another player or players. So if you add up the gains and losses of all the players, the sum is always zero. Some real-world examples of zero-sum competitions are territorial gains, which always result in a reciprocal loss of territory for someone else, marketshare competition, and coercive economic situations where the party that is profiting does so at the expense of others, as in the case of cutting wages to increase profits and appropriating resources without proper compensation to the rightful owners. In each of these cases, one party is enriched at the expense of the other.

So what does this have to do with the way our culture constructs masculinity, you ask? Everything. OK, maybe not everything, but a lot. In the case of anal penetration, the conventional construction of it was that the man who finds himself being penetrated loses social standing while the one who penetrates him gains social standing. Similarly, the man who gives oral sex to another man loses standing while the receiver gains. The gains and losses are reciprocal. Thus you have derogatory terms like "cocksucker" and "fucked in the ass." And thus gay men are generally imagined in hetero culture to be either the debased "woman" or the slightly more acceptable "man" in the relationship.

This explains the jokes and insults among straight men that center around a man being penetrated or being reduced to sucking another man's cock. To insinuate that a man became another man's "bitch" in a situation is to feminize and devalue him while valorizing and honoring the dominant one. So one wins at the expense of the other. And pointing out any weakness or vulnerability in another man elevates the one who points it out, so that most social gains that are made among men are made at a reciprocal cost to another man.

It's important to note here that I'm not trying to demonize any individual men, or suggest that men as a group are somehow morally deficient. This is simply the mode of interaction that men are socialized into from the time they're young boys playing together, and they replicate it throughout their adult lives. For example, this weekend we had a number of our friends over, and several of the interactions I observed really struck me as conforming to this model. In one conversation, almost everything negative that was jokingly said about a particular man (we'll call him T) boiled down to calling him a woman, or using feminine adjectives to describe him, or suggesting that he was gay. And all of these pejoratives served to highlight the respect-bordering-on-awe that is collectively felt in this group of friends for the man who was issuing these insults (we'll call him J). It's as if J's elevated position in the group is inextricably coupled with the belittlement of his peers. And in this particular dynamic, he's often not even the one who's instigating the zero-sum game, but instead it's become this recurring theme that everyone accepts and replicates even in his absence. And the jokes and insults that seem to be the funniest to men (and not just this group of men, but also other men I've been friends with) are the ones that insult and denigrate one man while building up another the most. The female friends in our group seem to sort of tolerate this dynamic for awhile, but eventually become bored with it and drift off in different directions until the conversation shifts and becomes interesting again. I think we've always thought of it as this kind of immature "boy talk" that our otherwise intelligent and interesting male friends seem to fall into at times.

But I think it's significant that this throwback to little boy culture is so prevalent in adult male interactions. And I think it's indicative of underlying attitudes toward women and homosexuals. In this regard, I think adult hetero males inhabit a world that's deeply conflicted and full of subtle tensions. Consciously, I suspect most adult males think of women and gays as equals. There's certainly a lot of explicit societal pressure on them to at least act as if they do. But at the same time they're navigating this context which implicitly devalues anything that's not-masculine and awards reciprocal honor to the masculine, or not-feminine and not-gay. Even the fact that everything is defined in terms of what it's not (masculine=not-feminine) reveals the zero-sum nature of this social construction. So I think this is one aspect of patriarchy that hurts men too. Inhabiting a world that's so tension laden, and constantly being stuck on the hamster-wheel of one-upping and denigrating your peers in order to maintain your status can't really be good for you. And it's certainly very bad for those who serve as the negative and devalued analogue (i.e. women, homosexuals, etc) that these kinds of comparisons depend on. So given the fact that it doesn't appear to benefit anyone in the long run, there doesn't seem to be any reason to maintain this construct. I vote for change.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter

From my kidlings, who are among the smartest, funniest, most creative, talented, and beautiful girls in the world. And I wouldn't lie about this.

Shii - The Wii for Women

Cause everyone knows women don't enjoy "conventional" video games...

And did I mention that the inclusive pronoun "we" doesn't include women?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Identity, Defensiveness, Privilege, and Other Stuff

Today Monica of TransGriot asked the following question in the comments section of this post:

if they hate the transgender community so much, why do these wannabe rad fems bother coming on our blogs?
Similar questions have been posed and have occurred to me many times before regarding Defenders of Male Privilege who comment on womanist/feminist blogs, Defenders of White Privilege who comment on POCs blogs, Defenders of Ableist Privilege who comment on blogs that take on issues surrounding disabilities, etc. It seems like whatever issue you're dealing with on your blog, you'll attract some individuals who are not interested in constructive dialogue or learning or growing or working together in any way. They're simply there to preach at you about how wrong/evil/disruptive of society you are. Since it's so clear that neither of you is going to change your position at all based on this interaction, you wonder why they keep coming back? And why do they often have to be such assholes about it and interpret everything you say as a personal attack against them? For one thing, this view is incredibly narcissistic. But more interestingly, I think it reveals a deep insecurity and problem within their own personal identity.

In the comments on a recent post here, Erin recommended Gender Treachery Homophobia Masculinity and Threatened Identities by Patrick Hopkins, which I'm obviously going to have to read. Erin summarizes Hopkins main point as follows:

He posits that the reason some men have so much vitriol towards other men who display any feminine characteristics is that they have so much of their identity tied up in notions of 'masculinity' (defined simply as NOT a woman), that any threat to traditional definitions of masculinity is a threat to personal identity.
I think this is actually a really helpful way to think of it, and I think it applies to many identities beyond just male. It seems to me that a lot of people, especially those who are somewhat insecure and lacking in maturity, see the stability and value of their identity as linked to the negation of the validity or value of the other. So if they're male, being clearly demarcated from the feminine and devaluing femininity is of utmost importance. If they're somewhat insecure about their gender identity, then it's important to them that gender be maintained as this essentialist, "natural" thing, and therefore they feel threatened by genderqueer and trans people. And so it goes with all of the binaries we're so fond of in our culture: gay/straight, white/colored, cis/trans, able-bodied/disabled, young/old etc. The existence of each as a discrete category depends on the negation of the other, which often also involves devaluing the other. And it seems to me that the more insecure a person is, the more important this distinguishing from and privileging your own over the other identity is to you.

But I think that understanding this has changed my response to the insecure identity defenders. For one thing, understanding the dynamic makes me more likely to see them as scared and insecure individuals rather than just hateful assholes. It's true that their behavior is hateful and need not be tolerated by anyone. But my dismissing them as assholes is somewhat lacking in compassion. After all, something(s) must have happened in their lives to make them so insecure. What kinds of experiences have they had in our culture, which can be terrifically brutal at times, to make them become this way? And how can I, a person who is very privileged in this way, condemn them for being this way? In this sense, I'm incredibly privileged. I am a very secure and well-balanced person largely because of factors I had no control over. I had the good luck to be born to parents who were thoughtful, mature, and intuitively good at parenting in a way that fostered confidence and high self-esteem without arrogance and self-centeredness. I was fortunate enough not to be physically or emotionally abused by the adults in my life or rejected and belittled by my peers. But I did nothing to earn the security and well-adjustedness that allows me to be more open and compassionate. I don't feel threatened by others largely because of the environment I just happened to be born into. In this sense, it is privilege. So for me to write these people off as hateful assholes is to refuse to acknowledge that I'm lucky not to be plagued by the insecurities that drive them to behave this way.

Does this mean that their behavior ought to be excused or tolerated? No. Just understood in a new light and empathized with. Nobody should have to tolerate the hateful and vitriolic words that are often thrown around regarding these topics. Everyone should feel safe and able to care for themselves. But I think I'm done dismissing people as hateful assholes, because doing that requires that I remain blind to my own privilege in this sense. From now on I intend to be critical of the behavior but compassionate (or at least tolerant) of the person.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Revolutionary Idea

...treating older people who need assistance in their daily lives as people, real people, with their own interests and preferences and hopes and concerns.

As a feminist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how people are othered based on their gender, race, physical ability, sexual orientation, conformity to beauty standards, religion, etc. But the othering of elderly people in nursing homes never occurred to me until my grandfather, who had been in relatively good shape, had heart surgery and went into a nursing home for several months for his recovery. There his life was fully institutionalized overnight. He became a "patient" rather than a person. Various care providers came and went throughout the day caring for his physical needs, and his day took on a routine that revolved entirely around these needs. My family watched as he took on a look of complete helplessness and detachment over a period of just a few days. He had gone from being a vibrant man, interested in electrical engineering, weather forecasting, religion, western novels, playing card games, and growing as many flowers as physically possible on the small deck of a condo, to a man who wouldn't even pick up the books and magazines we placed by his bed or dial a number on his cell phone. It seemed to me like the loss of autonomy and the shift to a complete focus on his physical needs had killed his will to live.

According to Dr. William Thomas, this change of personality that comes with institutionalization is fairly typical. After med school, Dr. Thomas went to work in a conventional nursing home for several years, and what he observed there led him to advocate for sweeping changes in the way we provide care for the elderly. These changes have been realized in The GreenHouse Model of care, which sees its clients as "elders" who have multifaceted lives rather than patients whose physical needs are primary. By moving away from the institutional culture and top-down administrative style of nursing homes and focusing on creating an environment that honors the individual autonomy of the elders and gives great flexibility to care providers in working with the elders to create the kind of home they would prefer to live in, Greenhouses have already demonstrated that a much higher and comprehensive quality of care can be provided at a similar cost to conventional care. Greenhouses are developed based on the philosophy of the Eden Alternative, which focuses on "creating a life worth living" for those in their care rather than merely working to keep their bodies alive.

Being reduced to a patient with a constellation of physical needs is othering and dehumanizing. Additionally, it leads to chronic over-medicating and the use of restraints intended to render the patients docile and easily managed rather than focusing on how to help them flourish and maintain as much continuity with their pre-institutionalized lives as possible. It's great to know that somebody is working to revolutionize our treatment of older people to help them retain their dignity and sense of self even as they undergo significant life changes. The Greenhouse model has been referenced as a promising element of health care reform by the Senate Finance Committee. If or when legislation comes through calling for support for this model, I intend to strongly encourage my congressional representatives to support it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Thin Path

I read this post, MOTHERS Act To Drug America's Moms For Fake Postpartum Depression, over at blogHer this morning, and I've been thinking about it all day. I've got several things to say about it, but I'm a bit wary about saying them. This is a super-sensitive topic for many people, and I'm not out to step on any toes. BUT...there are some things that need to be said. So here goes.

It seems to me like there's a simple binary presented here. On the one hand, you could wholeheartedly support the Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act and refuse to question the financial interests of the pharmaceutical companies that back it or the cultural views and social contruction of women and motherhood that are entailed by it. This is the view that the author of the blog post supports. On the other hand, you could oppose the legislation on the basis of the claim that every diagnosis of postpartum depression or anxiety, postpartum OCD, postpartum psychosis, or depression and anxiety during pregnancy is fraudulant and that this bill is just an elaborate hoax on the part of big pharma to make more money.

So these are your two choices. Either collude with the pathologizing of women's experiences or tell them "it's all in your head." The thing is I sympathize with both perspectives here. But I reject them both. It's true that there's a long and rich history of pathologizing women's experiences, attributing their behavior to those mysterious hormones, and drugging them when they display "unwomanly" behavior. Oh yes, believe me, it's a long and rich history. It's also true that the pharmaceutical industry has it's dirty little hands in all kinds of legislative pies, and anytime you see that a bill is backed by or written by big pharma you should be very, very suspicious. Very.

On the other hand, there's also a long and rich history of dismissing women's health concerns and telling them that their experiences are "all in their heads." When women have tried to describe their real lived experiences, medical professionals have often dismissed whichever portions didn't fit into their carefully delimited categories and instead imposed their own understanding of the situation in their diagnosis and treatment, even if that was deeply inconsistent with the actual experience of the patient. So the author's fear that opposition to this bill amounts to dismissing the experiences of women as "fraudulant" is not unfounded.

But in reality, we're not forced to make a choice between these two options. We could reject them both in favor of some other view. And, if I had my say, that view would require a lot more detail and nuance than either part of our original binary possess. For instance, what is actually entailed by this bill? A quick skim through the bill itself seems to back the claims of those who fear that big pharma is using pregnancy as a platform for screening women for a wide range of mood and anxiety disorders that would result in millions of new lifelong customers for the industry. Many of the disorders screened for don't seem to relate to pregnancy or childbirth at all. Then there's the additional fact that congressional support for the bill comes from politicians from "pharma-rich" districts. Seems a bit shady.

Other concerns center around the screening process. I personally feel a bit resistant to any kind of mandatory mental health screening I would be exposed to simply because I was pregnant. But I have some fairly strong anti-paternalist tendencies. While I was pregnant I actually was asked on several occasions whether I was feeling anxiety or if I was depressed or "tearful." On each occasion I truthfully answered "no" and the subject was dropped. However, one concern is that in the new mandatory screening, many experiences that will become "symptoms" are merely a normal part of the experience of being a new mother. Being tired and a little worried about your ability to handle your new responsibilities is a perfectly normal part of the postpartum period, and I would hope that this doesn't become pathologized and medicated. On the other hand, feeling completely overwhelmed and unable to cope is often an indication of postpartum depression, and those who are concerned about mothers whose depression goes undetected have a very valid concern.

Similarly, one concern is about the suggestability factor, since patients in this case would be undergoing screening not because they have complained of any symptoms, but merely because they're pregnant. During a time in your life when you're experiencing a whole range of new emotions and your identity is undergoing some fundamental changes, you may be more open to suggestion and inclined to innaccurately characterize your experiences using the vocabulary made available to you in the screening process. Further, the nature of interactions between patient and care provider tends to be characterized by a huge power and knowledge imbalance, where the patient is contructed as the ignorant supplicant who ought to be docile and cooperative if she cares one ounce about the health of her baby, and the care provider is contructed as the all-knowing, superior being whose words cannot be questioned. This power differential is likely to contribute to the suggestability factor. Once again, this would not only serve to benefit big pharma, but it would be a further step in pathologizing behavior and experiences of women that are well within normal parameters.

Of course, much of this is speculation. And it's certainly true that women need access to assistance and resources to help them deal with serious issues they may experience postpartum. And there shouldn't be any stigma surrounding their use of this help or any economic barriers in place to prevent their access to this assistance. But I think the economic barriers to seeking assistance is actually the issue we should be focusing on.

So a part of me can't help but question the motives involved in this legislation and the wisdom of imposing mandatory screening, beyond the basic inquiries and mention of available assistance that I experienced during and after my pregnancy. I don't want to be forced to answer a bunch of questions and expose myself to a lot of scrutiny if I feel that my mental health is fine. And I don't want to have some culturally informed norm held up to which I'm supposed to aspire. I came to terms with the fact that I often don't emote or express myself in a stereotypically feminine way long ago, and I suspect that many women don't naturally experience the world this way, although most of us are very good at covering that fact up and acting out the script. To me, imposing mandatory mental health screening is one more way to institutionalize these norms and expectations while pathologizing any experiences that fall outside of them. Further, it infringes upon women's autonomy by assuming that they're not self-aware enough to understand their own inner life and seek help when necessary. At the same time I realize that my experience is not that of everyone's, that a person who is experienceing depression may well be the last to recognize it, and that economic barriers are often the true culprit here.

So what I'm saying is, topics like this are very complicated and rarely fit neatly into a binary of two extremes, as they are often portrayed. In most cases, we'd be better served by rejecting the binary altogether and searching for a third way. But that third way often involves negotiationg a thin path between the two extremes, and much care is needed to avoid stepping on toes and unintentionally othering people or their experiences. Walk carefully!

Monday, April 6, 2009


Some of the comments on this post got me thinking about passing. My understanding of the evolution of the word is that it originally referred to black people who "passed" as whites, and has taken on more applications over time. For instance, transgendered individuals are often referred to as "passing" for the gender to which they're transitioning. Similarly, gay people are often pressured to "pass" as straight. A similar concept is that of "covering," which consists of downplaying some socially unfavorable aspect of your identity which is already known to others. In his book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Kenji Yoshino talks about several examples of covering, including the pressure not to "flaunt" your homosexuality in certain contexts, and the pressure put on women in the workplace to downplay the fact that they're mothers in order to advance their careers.

I find both concepts fascinating, but I've always had a few issues with the concept of passing. In many contexts, passing is contrasted with "being who you really are." But I have some healthy doubts about this concept that you could strip away all the layers of identity that your culture has imposed on you and find the true authentic you underneath it all. However, going down that road would seriously derail this post.

At the same time, I do see these identities (woman, black, gay, etc) as social constructions and scripts that are imposed on us/chosen by us/enacted by us/rejected by us... So I think the concept of passing can be particularly useful in conceptualizing socially constructed identities. When a "black" person (under the one-drop rule) masqueraded as a "white" person it was thought of as passing, because they were pretending to be something that deep down, underneath it all, they essentially were not. When a homosexual person maintains the facade of straightness, it's thought of passing because we believe that there are basic fundamental differences that undergird "gay" and "straight." And when a trans woman performs femininity it's thought of as passing because in our culture we still really tend to think that some mysterious biological essence determines your gender.

Beyond the essentialism (and problematic fake binaries) that the concept of passing reveals, there's the issue that the process of learning to perform a particular gender script and embody a particular social construction is much more visible to us when a person undertakes the project as an adult than when it is slowly learned, internalized, and perfected throughout our childhood. This is the norm, and it occurs in a largely invisible way.

And yet, if you really think about it, we're all passing. No matter how girly or burly you might be, nobody perfectly, completely, and comfortably inhabits every aspect of their assigned gender. Everyone has been exhorted to "act like a lady" or "keep your chin up" at some point, and most of us have figured out how to act the part and fly under the radar in many ways for the sake of convenience. And as the years pass and we become comfortable with the part we're acting, it begins to feel so natural that we forget that we had to make it fit at some point. So we think we really are masculine/feminine/straight/white/bi/whatever. Like deep down somewhere in our souls. This phenomenon is known as "bad faith" in the world of existentialism. I prefer to think of it as having sunk very deeply into the rabbithole and drunk from the bottle labeled "drink me."

So if we're all passing all the time to some extent or other, then it would seem that trans people and others who are undergoing a major transition are less likely to be in bad faith, because they're more likely to see gender as a script to be performed. But I doubt that this is the case. Among transgendered people I know (limited study population here), the commitment to the gender binary is no different than among the cisgendered population - they just think that they had the bad luck of being born into the wrong kind of body or assigned the wrong gender at birth. So in their case, passing is a more visible and more conscious phenomenon. It might occupy a lot of their time and energy, and be a success or fail proposition to them. But it's still thought of as a process of truly becoming feminine or masculine, and is not just a question of learning how to follow the script, and rejecting the script altogether is not an option.

And yet... it seems like we would all benefit by a major questioning of/stretching of/ditching altogether of the script. Why do we need these binaries anyway? I get the whole heteronormative "we need to know who's what so we can know who to reproduce with" shtick. But if you're already going to tolerate gay/bi/trans/whatever "lifestyles," then hasn't that ship sorta already sailed? I mean, if the original idea was to have some sort of organizing schema by which you could look at someone's outward appearance and know whether or not they were a potential mate for you, then clearly our schema has already become deeply dysfunctional, so why cling to the fundamental and antiquated elements of it?

The Mirror Test

I often think the mirror test is a great way to gauge how equitable a social practice or attitude is. For instance, all my life, complete strangers (usually men) have always exhorted me to smile. Once I told a friend that this was sexist. He disagreed. I asked him how often he gets told to smile, and asked what he thought the reaction of most men would be to having complete strangers shout "smile!" at them on the street. He agreed that it's pretty sexist. In this case the mirror test brings something that you already know to your attention: that women are expected to smile more than men and to be open to the commands/suggestions of complete strangers.

But recently I thought about a new application of the mirror test that illustrates something about the constellation of attitudes surrounding breastfeeding and mothering in general. Imagine if a mother was observed in a public place with a small infant (we'll say it's a boy), and when the baby got hungry and demanded to be fed, she pulled a bottle of formula out of her diaper bag and took him to the bathroom to feed him. I think people would be shocked and appalled at the thought of a mother sitting in the bathroom stall feeding her child. They would say things that suggested she was a bad parent for exposing her child to such an unsanitary environment. Especially for the purposes of eating.

Contrast this with the many, many people in our culture who think that breastfeeding shouldn't be allowed in public, and suggest that the mother take the child to the bathroom to "do that." Why would it be acceptable for a breastfed child to eat in the bathroom? Do we really view breastmilk as being so closely akin to pee and shit? Because if that's the general idea, then I think I'm starting to get a sense of why it's such a repulsive idea to so many people...

Friday, April 3, 2009

The View From My Window

That was this morning. Now it's snowing. So it goes at 7,220 feet.

Lies We Tell Our Kids, Part II

I'm not really that big on poetry. In general I tend to be pretty prosaic; things like dried flowers, drapey garments with floral patterns, potpourri, incense, patchouli oil, and goddess talk make me feel restless and antsy. But this poem that was featured on the Writer's Almanac on NPR today got me. I did my best to resist it, but it got me. So here, for your reading pleasure is the first ever poem to be featured on The Feminist Agenda. Most likely it will also be the last, but only the Goddess knows.

Lies My Mother Told Me
by Elizabeth Thomas

If you keep eating raw spaghetti
you'll get pinworms,
then I'll have to make
a necklace of garlic for you to wear
each night while you sleep,
until they go away.

If you're mean to your younger brother, I'll know
because I have a special eye
that spies on you when I'm not home.
You cannot hide from it,
so don't try.

If you touch your "down there"
any time other than when using the toilet,
your hand will turn green and fall off.

If you keep crossing your eyes
they will stay that way
until the wind
changes direction.

It is bad luck to kill a moth. Moths are
the souls of our ancestors and it just
might be Papa paying a visit.

If you kiss a boy on the mouth
your lips will stick together
and he'll use the opportunity
to suck out your brains.

If you ever lie to me
God will know
and rat you out.
And sometimes
God exaggerates.
Trust me —
you don't want that
to happen.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Doin' it FDA style

This week the House Energy and Commerce Committee cleared a bill giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products. That's good, right? Actually, not so much.

First, there are deep and troubling issues with the FDA and their sort of "regulation." For instance, in this regulatory project, two representatives from the tobacco industry will most likely sit on the advisory board. That's right - the industry itself will be involved with the regulatory process. How can that possible work, you ask? The thing is, this is pretty standard for our regulatory agencies. Agencies like the FDA and the USDA are saturated with former and sometimes current employee of the industries they're supposed to regulate. It's quite common for a person to retire from the industry and immediately take a job regulating it. The conflict here is that this person's sympathies will tend to lie with the industry, and their financial interests most certainly will.

In fact, transitioning back and forth between the industries and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them is so common that critics refer to this as the revolving door. When I was in grad school I TAd for a professor who was a leading expert on regulatory law. His theory was that regulatory agencies have a life span of roughly 20 years before the saturation by industry representatives reaches critical mass. When this happens, the only way to counter it seems to be to dissolve the agency and start over from scratch. Like that's going to happen anytime soon.

Second, to understand what's going on with this bill, all we have to do is follow the money. Who backed this bill, and in large part, wrote it? The tobacco industry. I'm not shitting you here. Several sources have already noted this. According to Howard Wolinsky and Alan Blum at Huffington Post :

...the industry will be footing the bill for the alleged regulation of its own products. This is window-dressing masquerading as regulation. The foxes will be guarding the henhouse.

...But placing the nation's most lethal consumer product -- cigarettes -- under the control of the FDA would be unwise. And asking a food and drug bureau to promulgate "product safety standards" for cigarettes is an oxymoron that will perpetuate the myth, long fostered by the tobacco industry, that this inherently harmful product can be made safer.

...The ardent support of this bill by Philip Morris, with fully 50 percent of the nation's cigarette market, should prompt skepticism about the measure and its purported public health benefits.

So why were companies like Philip Morris so active in pushing for this legislation?

Prof. Michael Siegel of Boston University School of Public Health, a prolific blogger on tobacco policy and critic of policy that's more symbol than substance, bemoans "the many loopholes in the legislation that were clearly inserted to protect Philip Morris and retain its support for the bill, rather than to protect the public's health."
This continues the tobacco industry's tradition of doing seemingly surprising things that serve its economic interests.
All of this evidence of the tobacco industry's support for the bill raises the question of what exactly they stand to gain from their cooperation in the "regulation" of their industry. The limiting of FDA regulatory authority written into the bill by big tobacco results in a remarkably effective protection of their market share. Since this bill largely limits regulation to new tobacco products, companies like Philip Morris, which already has a huge portion of the market share, will be shielded from much scrutiny and their market share will be protected. According to the NY Times:

Competitors say that the F.D.A. is unlikely to approve many new tobacco products. That, they say, combined with the legislation’s broader restrictions on tobacco advertising and marketing, would lock in Philip Morris’s market dominance.

“It would make it harder to let consumers know there are options available to them,” said Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds, a part of Reynolds
and the second-largest tobacco seller and maker of Camel cigarettes.

In addition, even as Philip Morris has spent years lobbying for the legislation, it has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a research center in Richmond, Va., to develop new tobacco products it hopes can pass federal muster — in particular, smokeless products that can be chewed or sucked or inhaled and do not involve burning tobacco. Few other tobacco companies have the resources to place such bets on the regulatory future.

So this bill illustrates a couple of things about how our democracy works. First, the immense clout that corporations acquire through lobbying and campaign finance really does replace the the control of the people with the control of the business world. Rather than being representatives of the people, politicians are reduced to corporate lackeys in a corporatocracy. Second, this bill deomonstrates how our regulatory agencies serve as a smokescreen for this process and a placebo to create an artificial sense of safety for the American public. Trust me on this one. The FDA really doesn't have your health and well-being at heart when it acts to "regulate" the industries that fall under its control. Instead, it has basically become an extension of those industries.

For Further Reading: