September 14, 2016
Between classes in the adjunct faculty lounge, I researched a little for those 600-word blog posts due in a couple days and then decided to lie a bit on the couch before my class in an hour. Teaching a two-hour afternoon class and a four-hour night class, Wednesdays are double espresso shots over ice with soy milk days. It’s just too long. And with the sleepless night discovering that 5-week old Husky puppies howl like wolves when they’re small, scared and lonely at night, I almost went for a third shot. That might have made me jump up and down in class, scaring students.
The lounge/work station/office is usually empty when I enter with maybe one or two other adjuncts tapping keys or eating lunch. Today there were two, then just me for a stretch, until five minutes ago when the mom-toned, 50-ish, Spanish teacher came in with the young Vietnamese student. She encourages the young man with the thick Vietnamese accent in her thick Spanish accent. She is gentle. He is intent, trying to understand nuance, detail and idiosyncrasy of the language. He frets over Spanish gender words.
For good reason. Gender confuses me too these days. I agree with Judith Butler and many who followed after her: gender stretches out over the arced spectrum of identity, biology and psyche. Binaries are a relic from a bygone era. But the English language hasn’t caught up to reality, how people live. It lags. Pronouns shift; grammar is slow to follow. The plural “they” is now more apt a singular designation for the individual, neuter, than a plural.
But aren’t we all a plurality of identities? Ethnicity, nationality, biology, anatomy, culture, class, IQ, ideology, lifestyle, and a myriad of other particulars–including gender? Tracking gender in language, on government forms and in questionnaires is obsolete.
…Here I am, stuck in the middle with you, you the sane ones. Can we just stop? I blame the middle for its quietude.
Extremism everywhere in all forums and locations seems to be the new norm if you merely scan social media. And the balance, the middle, is silent, gets no air time.
To the right most extreme we have banning books, dissemination of contraception information, health care advisory on certain procedures–abortion, for instance, or exploration of new research areas like stem cell, and, the latest, a Texas senator who would vote to keep women in the house where they can clean and care take. At the left most, we have trigger event warnings, micro aggressions, and the University of California regents censoring any coded anti-semitism in the form of anti-Zionist speech or acts on UC campuses.
Last week’s critique of this newly introduced policy by the California regents board is discussed in the article (Op Ed) by Saree Makdisi and Judith Butler in last week’s LA Times entitled “Suppressing Zionism on Campus is Catastrophic Censorship.” The policy seeks to root out anti-semitism disguised as anti-zionism on campuses. The UC committee charged with examining the purported rise in anti-semitism expressed on campuses (a vandal’s bathroom scribble about hating Zionist Jews, for example) sought to expose thinly disguised or coded prejudice in the form of an ostensible critique of an Israeli political faction.
Authors and UC professors Butler and Makdisi contend the hidden agenda behind the policy is motivated by suppressing anti-American sentiment fomented by growing criticism of Israeli-Palestinian relations/stand-off. The authors accuse the move as a thinly veiled censorship attempt aimed at suppressing criticism of American policy regarding Israel.
Whether these professors are correct or not, censorship does not belong on campuses–period. Students who vandalize bathrooms should be prosecuted for destruction of property. Students who commit or instigate violence should be counseled. People who hate others by reason of their color, creed, beliefs or practices, well, exposure to those types is the cost of living in society.
The purpose of colleges and universities is to prepare students for life, civic duty, employment and social existence. In particular, higher education should expose students to both practical and ideal considerations of living in society like earning wages and working in teams, understanding democratic responsibilities to vote and be informed as well as honing critical thinking skills vis a vis advertising, politicians and door to door salesmen let alone legal documents, medical treatment and military service. In other words, the primary responsibility for higher education is to teach students to think, to slot them into already established spots in society or to make new ones.
Thinking requires exposure to thoughts, principles, laws, behaviors and energies present, past and future, seen and unseen. There must be exposure to all that should and could be thought about, including beliefs and ideas that challenge existing beliefs and ideas. That’s called growth, and growing into citizens of a nation and the world.
And yes, restraint and constraint are also taught on campuses. You cannot say and do whatever you wish. There are laws against harassment, vandalism, assault and battery. There are laws forbidding lying about others such as defamation. Prosecution or expulsion for these crimes or torts is lesson learned for committing wrongs against society or specific others.
Regardless of the motivation or interpretation of UC policies regarding anti semitism or zionism, censorship does not belong on a college campus.
George Yancy, Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University, interviews Judith Butler, Professor of Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and asks “What’s Wrong with ‘All Lives Matter?'”, also the title of the article. He opens the discussion of race in light of recent demonstrations in the wake of black deaths and police brutality where slogans of ‘Black Lives Matter’ were extended by non-Blacks to “All Lives Matter.”
The article is a keen exposé of Butler’s views about how bodies–black, white, gendered, or monied, all kinds of bodies–matter, though some bodies do not matter. Specifically, black bodies do not matter by reason of the continued exposure to behaviors and preconceptions about their bodies– the black body as threat, and not only to police. She says we make assumptions about people, and those assumptions affect how we act toward others, whether we avoid interaction or find them a threat.
Sometimes a mode of address is quite simply a way of speaking to or about someone. But a mode of address may also describe a general way of approaching another such that one presumes who the other is, even the meaning and value of their existence. We address each other with gesture, signs and movement, but also through media and technology. We make such assumptions all the time about who that other is when we hail someone on the street (or we do not hail them). That is someone I greet; the other is someone I avoid. That other may well be someone whose very existence makes me cross to the other side of the road.
And not only is the black body as threat assumption institutionalized and reiterated through the disproportionate incarceration numbers of blacks to whites, arrests, relegation to poverty, etc., but concomitantly, whiteness, which is not a color so much as a predisposition of privilege, is normalized.
Whiteness is not an abstraction; its claim to dominance is fortified through daily acts which may not seem racist at all precisely because they are considered “normal.” But just as certain kinds of violence and inequality get established as “normal” through the proceedings that exonerate police of the lethal use of force against unarmed black people, so whiteness, or rather its claim to privilege, can be disestablished over time. This is why there must be a collective reflection on, and opposition to, the way whiteness takes hold of our ideas about whose lives matter. The norm of whiteness that supports both violence and inequality insinuates itself into the normal and the obvious. Understood as the sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit power to define the boundaries of kinship, community and nation, whiteness inflects all those frameworks within which certain lives are made to matter less than others.
The challenge to whiteness normativity is to saturate the culture (and thus reformulate preconceptions about race) with other conceptions of what is normal: Black Lives Matter. By insisting on that concept through persistent public demonstrations and exploitation of media, black lives can be seen first in the very insistence–that they have not mattered. To say that all lives matter, though true, is to ignore this first recognition–that certain lives do not.
She is right. We cannot just sweep up the protests in good feeling and treat everyone the same–because that is not how all people are in fact treated. The article is well worth reading for mapping the deliberate process of her thinking, how she moves through her thoughts to conclusion.
Two plus two always equals four, right? Well, except when things don’t add up. Take, for instance, an article I read the other day. I am aware that Mr. Mafioso, on a website entitled askmen.com, writes “Get Yourself a Sexy Mistress” half in jest. I get that the article is meant for entertainment–and it is entertaining–for savvy readers who recognize farce or irony. The caricature of a mafioso with his Italian/Sicilian Brooklynese appears in words like “dames” and “goomas” and his over the top machismo is both amusing and revealing that this author does not wholeheartedly advocate what he advises–to get a mistress with all boobs and no brains who poses no threats. Or does he? Of course, the writer knows that he is endorsing an “illicit” and “immoral” relationship without compunction and one with the criteria that the woman or women, as he recommends a circle of mistresses, be the receptacle of every man’s desires: to be used and disrespected willingly, i.e., cum on face, thrown money at for sex and secrecy, though not too expensive to thumb her nose at cheap motels and backs of Cadillacs. He depends on the everyman’s dream to have a beautiful woman with big boobs and no self respect to make the proposition.
Mr. Mafioso does not really mean it. The exaggerated caricature combined with his manifesto and disclaimer about his own lack of credibility–a convicted criminal–coupled with his good grammar and writing skills clearly show that he is not who he claims to be. He is not seriously a mafioso, a criminal nor an insecure man that needs to demean women to make himself feel better about himself, to make himself feel like a man. No, he is a writer utilizing a persona clearly satiric to pose behaviors that are recognizably socially unacceptable in the guise of a familiar reprehensible figure. He knows that all men are not that extremely macho type, but most men are in some part. There is partial truth that some men are excessively insecure about their manhood and need a certain type of woman, submissive with lower self esteem than he has, to make such a man feel whole, to give him an ego adjustment. To have that beautiful woman on his arm, one desired by other men, allows him to think he impresses as a big man, lover, and spender. How else could he get the girl? And if others perceive that, it makes it true. He works the outside appearance in hopes of installing some inside assurance of adequacy, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Mr. Mafioso works the stereotypes well. I read an article today on Mayor Betsy Hodge’s (Minneapolis) blog that stated this about stereotyping: it “blunts the humanity of the person making the judgment and creates unnecessary separation between two people in a world where more, rather than less, human connection is needed for us to move forward as a community.” She was referring to the unfounded accusation by some political figures that she was using gang signs in a photo that captured her and an African American get-out-the-vote street stomper pointing at each other, in an article satirically called “Pointergate.” She thought African Americans were being stereotyped in assuming the pointing was a gang sign.
I “point” this out not to get sensitive and politically correct minded about those who are stereotyped in Mr. Mafioso’s article–bimbos, machismos and mistresses–but to point to the truth about how we fall into stereotypes, not just make them. Stereotypes exist for reason of people practicing patterned behaviors over time, generations. If people are overexposed through media or in lived experience to African Americans making gang signs or being in gangs, they will use that patterned behavior to make conclusions about all African Americans. Not only that, they will look for confirmation that those behaviors exist even when they don’t just to make the stereotype true. It’s human nature.
Stereotypes are assigned by gender, ethnicity, race and age, mostly. While they are shortcuts that help in certain situations, to avoid dangerous people or for police investigative work, for example, they are so subtly a part of us that they are imperceptibly abusive. Stereotypes tap into the familiar, something most are drawn to like promise of the pillow and sleep. We want to be as comfortable as the somnambulant. It is difficult to take things not at face value but at examined value, actually having to pay attention, look closely, and withhold judgment until enough facts or evidence is present to make a determination after assessment of worth, trust, and/or truth. The sheer thought of the endeavor to be open and informed and equanimous is overwhelming. That’s why people are not so, generally. That’s why we rather stereotype. It’s the lazy person’s way of handling people and appeases our yearning for order and familiarity, for our egos. “See, I told you he was an asshole.” Stereotyping also makes for good jokes.
But let’s be good readers. Mr. Mafioso wants us to see that his persona is a jerk, that men should not merely use women as human toilets to cum into or for the sad scaffolding of their own nearly absent thin, weak egos. However, he is also showing us that his satire would not work if not based on certain truths about the human condition: there are men and women who treat each other the way he describes–using each other for sex, money and status–and we recognize and relate or recognize and hate that kind of behavior or both. Mr. Mafioso starts off with accepted notions of the mistress–having one is wrong/immoral–and builds on that idea that so long as you are going down the road of socially unacceptable behaviors, let’s go all the way. Here are some things that respectable citizens would not approve of: men who use women as their sperm banks and credit them with no self-respect and esteem and women who fuck for money and status and like those guys.
We laugh at ourselves. A friend texts me the other day with a screen shot of a man-filled sports bar with a dozen or so television screens transporting live or prerecorded football games, maybe a half dozen or more of them, where women with serving wench boob-filled bustiers serve the ever flowing beer. I text back, “When men fall lovingly into the arms of their mistresses–their own self-caricatures meta narratively.” He was mocking his own stereotypical picture of himself doing something he loves to do–watch a ton of football on a Sunday with a buddy in a boob bar. He is both amused at himself enjoying the actual entertainment and the entertainment of himself as stereotypically enjoying what men are stereotyped to like. I suppose I could counter with a snapshot of my teenaged daughters and I at the nail shop getting mani-pedis or our brows threaded. Except, we don’t do that. My daughters are smelly athletes with neglected nails, as am I. Perhaps we are stereotypes of the anti-stereotypical females.
Judith Butler tells us we should fight stereotypes with anti-stereotypes. I say, “Help! We cannot get out of the stereotype game!!” Because aren’t we merely instating new stereotypes that way? The anti-femme type becomes the stereotype of the butch type, even if only exercising a modicum of “boy-ish” behavior because just a hint will do for eager minds and attitudes. There is no way to escape that binary that stereotyping forces.
I am neither a psychologist nor a sociologist. I claim my stake as a close observer of human behavior and a superior note taker. I say the key to breaking the mold is for people to think, to stop depending on stereotypes and do the work of patience, of having an open mind and being informed. Look at Mr. Mafioso. He is a stereotype in service of exposing stereotypical behavior. He expects the majority of his readers to sheepishly identify with or bristle at what he portrays and advises. That’s called irony.
Poor readers may not pick up on that. Un-exercised minds, ones not disciplined in the rigor of observant examination, of continual curiosity and vulnerability to wonder and awe, will lazily confirm their beliefs by the existing patterns without question–for their own security. It’s unkind as well as it deepens fear and separation as the good mayor states. Here’s a close cousin of the stereotype, a cliche: A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Here’s another: think before you leap. No, feel compassion before you “blunt the humanity” in you and imprison your victim with a stereotype. Thanks for the reminder Mr. Mafioso that we should get ourselves a sexy mistress–and she is our own beautiful human capacity and desire to love. Unfortunately, she is still just the side chick.
Despite what you may think, a real friend is not someone who will stand by you in hard times or beside you in good times or even your dog. A real friend sends you stuff to read, knowing what you like. Well, maybe that isn’t entirely true, but I do appreciate when someone pays attention to my ideas and tastes. Take, for example, the article a friend sent me by Jill Lepore entitled “The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired by Both Suffragettes and Centerfolds,” appearing on NPR three days ago that starts off this way:
The man behind the most popular female comic book hero of all time, Wonder Woman, had a secret past: Creator William Moulton Marston had a wife — and a mistress. He fathered children with both of them, and they all secretly lived together in Rye, N.Y. And the best part? Marston was also the creator of the lie detector.
Only someone fixated on the subject of the “mistress”–all we own and are enslaved to–as I am, would not only find that opener giggle-in-excitement enticing, but would find the hallmarks of a true friend in sending me such a tasty morsel. Unfortunately, that was really the best part of the write up until the end, when the writer mentions Lady Gaga. The in-between was information-light on Wonder Woman, her story, and the author’s influence by First Wave feminism and Vargas pin-ups in creating the character. Anyone who has seen her knows that she is, in part, an early feminist cultural production (freeing others and herself from the chains of bondage in the name of justice and truth) while socially palatable as traditional object of fantasy female–the voluptuous dominatrix (but sometimes submissive) with American good looks.
Despite my disappointment, the subject did inspire a meditation, once again, on gender performativity and camp, especially after the ending citation of modern day’s most notorious, campy pop gender-sexuality blender–the Lady G. Of course, for me, all roads lead back to Judith Butler. Gender role playing and displaying–what Lady Gaga capitalizes on–with its concommitant effects is Butler’s preoccupation in much of what she writes. In her book Gender Trouble, Butler posits that gender is not merely a biological category and gendered behaviors are not natural; gender is a learned performance of the role female or male in a given culture that has been repeated and imitated throughout a society, performed roles passed down from prior generations. Gender is performativity, not a binary–male or female–but a fluid space on a spectrum of culturally produced notions of the “norm.”
In other words, if you take Barbie, on one extreme of the scale of “girlness” and Superman as the opposite extreme, of “boyness,” most people fall somewhere in between those apogees, closer to or farther from society’s picture of the ideal girl or boy. There are Barbie doll models and there are androgynous indecipherables walking among us. I remember reading in graduate school this passage, which struck me with its truth:
The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again.” (“Performative” 272)
Until today, years after graduate school, I respect her concerns with the politicalization of gender, the reiteration of gender norms that marginalizes those outside the “norm” and her advocacy for counteraction through exposing the nature of gender as an inherited role. Getting folks to realize that gender is produced, not fate, is the first step to understanding it as arbitrary and a choice, neither a prison nor a target for shame and isolation if performed “incorrectly” by society’s standards, i.e., girls who are too much like boys and vice versa. Butler believes that to allow for an inclusiveness of those traditionally marginalized from the heteronormative gender actualizations–homosexuals and transgendereds–alternative performances need to be disseminated in the population, ones that perform alternative gender iterations.
Here’s where Lady Gaga comes in. She mixes up the gender space with non-normative gender depictions. Whereas Wonder Woman is the straight laced asexual power house “feminist” constrained by imagination and norms of her time (created in the 40’s) and those of her creator, thus her bondage to men (See Lepore’s article), Lady Gaga is a shotgun approach to blasting traditional notions of gender and sexuality in her outrageous meant-to-shock live and video performances of vixen lover, lesbian or straight, mistress or chained submissive, engaged in violent or passive poses of gestured gender and sexuality.
Wonder Woman’s feminism is one focused on proving that a woman, in her mixed portrayal–beauty, chastity, submission, virtuosity, strength, domination–is powerful and worthy of respect, can even save society. She competes with men on a man’s level, physical powers, though hers are emitted from material adornments and tools, her bracelets and lasso, harkening bedroom S&M exploits.
Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is a mesh of exaggerated, contradictory blends of the classic and “aberrant” imagery, the socially “non-normative” gender performances such as gay, lesbian, and transexuals. She thematizes gender as a performance. Camp productions such as those of Lady Gaga in her live and video performances do not merely challenge and expose–something Butler might nod to–gender stereotypes, but they also question heteronormative performances of more sedimented institutions such as monogamy, in addition to alluding to the political history of violence against women. Her Telephone video is a gala explosion of deployed gender, sex and violence.
Whereas Wonder Woman as precursor served as the mixed-gendered asexual icon of the truth about gender and role playing, Lady Gaga overplays and performs a cacophony of gender, sexuality and feminist history.
Exposing the inherited cultural reproduction of gender as well as the strategy to deploy alternative social productions of gender is important not only for little girls who want to grow up to be paid equally to their male counterparts and for anyone who wants to love freely and openly without fear of homophobic hate crimes, but also for breaking up the binary that gender has been, historically produced and transmitted from generation to generation. Wonder Woman needs to break those chains, invisible and hard to grasp. Or perhaps we need a man to do it, someone like Mr. Rogers, who, on one of his shows, exposes the Wicked Witch of the North as mere costumed grandma–a performed role; nothing to be afraid of kids (click on the link to view). And just in time for Halloween.
So, who kicks ass, Wonder Woman as suffragette foremother or Lady Gaga (click on the link to find out) living off the capital of her inherited legacy?
“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.”
― Judith Butler, Undoing Gender