Posts Tagged ‘feminism’
Last week, I dreamt of my future wife.
That’s a strange thing to write down and admit, actually, especially publically; but I thought exactly that when I woke: that was my future wife. I still know exactly how she tasted, smelled, how her waist felt in my arms.
I’m not sure how I feel about marriage, really. My mom has always said I should wait until I’m 30 to get married, and thinks too many people get married too young. I don’t really think the government should have anything to do with my personal relationships, and I don’t think the government should value certain kinds of relationships over others – one man + one woman? What about a triad, a lesbian couple, co-habiting straight men? Who cares how people make a household work, as long as they do?
But: I do believe in commitment, in stating publically that you love someone, in gathering friends & family in a ceremony that celebrates and affirms the difficulty, the support, the community around a relationship.
Since I came to be aware of the inequalities of queer relationships in the eyes of the law in, oh, I don’t know, high school? middle school?, it has just been a given that I couldn’t “actually” get married.
“Whatever,” I told myself. “Like I would get married anyway. Like I want The Church + The State involved in My Relationship.”
And the activist circles I ran in were skeptical of marriage as The Gay Rights Issue: “There is so much to be done!” we argued. “Marriage is such an issue of privilege. What about hate crime legislation, discrimination policies for the workplace, queer homeless youth, AIDS, suicide rates, the drinking/drug problems in the queer communities? What about foster kids and adoption and simply BEING KILLED because of gender and sexual orientation? What about cissexism and trans advocacy?”
Unfortunately, the momentum of queer activism isn’t necessarily in the radical queer youth & college students – it’s with the money. And mostly-white mostly-middle-class homos have already decided what The Gay Issue is: marriage.
It’s a symbol, really: not just a symbol for normalcy, but a symbol for a relationship. And that’s what is at the heart of this movement, the heart of the difference in sexual orientation: the right and ability to choose whom we love, with whom we partner.
While my personal beliefs are still a bit more radical than that, I’ve studied the history of social change enough to know that chnage happens gradually, in pockets, a little bit at a time. I also feel like gay marriage activism is a limited scope – like aiming for the mountaintop instead of the sky – because it still defines marriage as two people, right, we’re still talking about working within the monogamy system here. So while many of our poly friends are going “rah rah gay marriage! And PS, what about us?” the gay marriage activits are kind of saying, “Shhh, we can’t talk about your issues right now.”
But then again, it’s easier to go little-by-little than to overhaul the whole system. It’s a classic social change model conflict – after observing a system of oppression, do we a) work from within it to attempt to change it, or b) throw it out completely and start over? My radicalism wants marriage to be thrown out. I mean really, what good is it? But I feel the same way about other institutions that seem to matter to some feminist theorists and reclaimists, such as Christianity. I don’t personally have any investment in the system of Christianity, so I can’t imagine going inside of it to fix and change the oppression and hierarchical marginalizing structures that are in place – but others do have that investment, and are doing the work to include women in clergy, to research the history of more women saints, of queer history in the church, etc. Lesbian and feminist priests and nuns and churchgoers – what they find in the practice must be worth the work of reclaiming and rebuilding, for them.
Actually, I can draw a parallel here: for me, it is language. I am a poet at heart and never cannot be. People ask me why I use language they deem offensive – dyke, fag, pussy, cunt, slut, butch, femme, queer – and I try to explain it is because I love these words. As if they were delicate glass boxes filled with mud, I pick them up from being buried in the compost heap and wash them, dig the dirt from their creases, make their silver shine, make them see-through again. I am invested in the system of language, even though within it -built into the very makeup – is a hierarchy that says certain people are better, best.
Which brings me to my next point: words. Of course “marriage” is not the same thing as “civil union” or “domestic partnership” – the words are different. “Beautiful” is not the same thing as “cute” or “gorgeous” or “attractive” or “stunning” or “elegant” or “handsome,” right? Those all have slightly different connotations, even if their definitions are overlapping and very similar.
I am a poet. I’ve worked hard to say that sentence. I eat words for breakfast and fall asleep with book after book open on my pillow. I theorize language and meaning and definitions and semantics, revive words that are suffering, influse love and equality and value where I can.
It doesn’t matter how many rights there are in a “civil union” or “domestic partnership,” they will never be marriage, because they are not the same word.
Mark Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
It is the difference between fire, and a firefly.
Words are not some static, fixed thing. They are living, they have lives and evolutions, they are manifestations of the culture from where they come, in which they are used. We can change them. They do change and evolve and grow to suit the needs of culture – they reflect a culture, but they also shape a culture. A new concept, term, or phrase can define a movement, a change, activism.
Researching all this information about the state of gay marriage in my country recently has really got me thinking about my own future. I don’t come from a very traditional family, I’ve never thought I would have a very traditional wedding – bridesmaids, groomsmen, white dress, any of that. I’ve received some amazing, beautiful, moving photographs from queers over the last few days, and I find a part of me is craving to have some beautiful party, some celebration, where my love and I can costume up and wear cool clothes and be surrounded by our friends looking dashing.
So I have some ideas forming about what I’d do for my own ceremony. No real dealbreakers, just ideas that I like. Although I am really attached to the idea that our first dance would be choreographed – let’s hope my future wife knows how to swing. (Let’s also hope next time I’ll dream her phone number or URL, so I’ll figure out how to contact her.)
* I hate this common use of “gay” and not infrequently call people on it when I hear them say it. But the tension in this sentence – calling marriage “gay” – cracks me up. Kind of like the bumper sticker I saw at Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver, BC many years ago, which read, “Straight people are so gay.” Hah!
Thanks, all, for your thoughtful responses and life stories about butch hair in the last post.
Here’s a few of my thoughts about femmes and femininity and hair, and then I’ll ask some questions and open it up to whatever you’d like to say about the subject.
I want to distinguish here between options and personal preference – I talk a lot on this site – especially in terms of femmes and femme identity – about what I like, and I want to make it clear that those are usually my personal preferences, and I’m not trying to say that I think that’s what all femmes should be or that femmes who are not like that are not valid or are not “real” femmes or any of that crap. I hope that’s not how it comes across.
So, let me first say this, about my basic philosophies on hair: hair is a personal choice. It is also a major marker on the physical body used to distinguish gender differentiation in contemporary culture. Short hair on men, long hair on women; shaved legs and underarms on women, hairy men. This of course was not always the case; it used to be seen as very masculine for men to grow their hair long. Hair presentation, length, and social conformity are based largely on culture.
In my (unofficial, limited) cultural observation in the recent years, these differences are just getting more pronounced, although with the inclusion of gay male culture in mainstream men’s fashion, the rise of beauty products for men, the addition of “manscaping” and the metrosexualizing of fashion and beauty, beauty standards for men and masculinity are on the rise. It is not unusual for hetero/cis-women to expect their hetero/cis-men to keep their chest hair under control, to get eyebrow waxes, to keep their hair groomed.
But just because the beauty standards for men are raising doesn’t mean it’s okay for us to keep unobtainable beauty standards for women – or for anyone, for that matter. Honestly I believe we’ve got to turn the beauty culture inside out on our own personal journeys into our own gender identities, whatever flavor they may be, whatever area of the gender galaxy, to really examine what the culture dictates and unlearn the compulsory standards that can be exhausting, unobtainable, and even harmful to our bodies.
What the body does is natural, normal, acceptible, sexy – where hair grows, the stretchmarks, the veins that show through the skin, the moles and freckles, the thickness of the muscles or the tendons or the thigh or the waist or the hair. All these things are beautiful, and real.
And, in my humble opinion, are also turn-ons: the celebration of the beauty of the human body.
If you’ve never explored the potential damage and compulsory standards of beauty culture, take a look at:
- The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf – a bit dated now, and well critiqued, but still holds many core concepts that I believe can be very transformational
- Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff – Undoes some of the cultural critiques of the beauty myth and argues for a scientific basis of valuing beauty; interesting counter in the nature-vs-nurture debate
- Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy
- The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
- Killing Me Softly, Jean Kilbourne – This video tends to be shown (over & over) in women studies courses in colleges, and there’s a reason why: it can be really eye-opening to see what the culture of beauty dictates for women through advertising. Kilbourne has other videos that are also wonderfully critical of alcohol, tobacco, and thinness. They’re hard to find since they’re educational films, but your library might have them.
- Any other recommendations?
So: once we start undoing society’s standards, and treating every possible option as valid and valuable for different reasons in order to make a true choice, we can start exploring what it is that we personally prefer. What turns us on, how our bodies feel the most sexy, what the soft animal of our body loves.
My initial thoughts about femme hair always go to the hair on your head, and the ways it’s worn. Being that I am very attracted to femininity, I do like long hair generally, though I know plenty of femmes who totally rock the chin-length cuts or the boycuts, I’ve even known a few with shaved heads.
I wrote once upon a time about how much I love it when femmes wear their hair up, and specifically the idea that “a woman’s hair is for her husband.” I wrote, “I know there are deep problems with this idea of a husband owning a wife’s hair, but I love the idea of it being so sexual, such a turn on, when a femme lets her hair down, that it’s private, saved for me and me alone.” And that’s just it exactly.
About body hair on femmes … honestly, my personal preference is basically bare. Very little hair, everywhere. I find shaving sexy, I find the rituals of beauty sexy (when they are done with intention and sexual connotations especially). I like to shave my lover’s legs, actually. That’s a scene I haven’t played out in a long time, but I find that intensely erotic.
I do have some guilt about liking the reproduction of traditional femininity. I know I could write pages about how it’s not compulsory, it’s resistance, celebratory, and intentional, but still sometimes I wonder if what my block is that I wouldn’t find hair particularly attractive. But I suppose I can attempt to justify this by saying that I absolutely think it should be culturally acceptible – I hate that it’s dictated as necessary by the beauty rules – but that my personal preference is skin, skin, skin. Is that because of the dominant cultural beauty rules? Yeah, probably. I can’t escape it, I was raised in it, I live in it every day. But I recognize that it exists, what it means, how it operates, and I fully support people who reject that rule and who prefer to have their hair wild and free, or trimmed and neat, or completely bare. All options should be valid.
So, now you:
I know you’ve already got a ton of things to say about femme body hair, but here’s some questions to get started:
If you’re in the transfeminine area of the gender galaxy:
- Do you shave, wax, pluck, shape? Underarms, legs, thighs, stomach, chin? Why or why not?
- What was your process in coming to do the hair sculpting and
- How do you make choices about your hair? Based on sexual preferences? Cultural standards?What your lovers like?
- How do you keep your pubes? Trimmed, waxed, shaved, au naturale?
- What comes to mind when you see women who don’t shave?
- Do you sexualize shaving or body hair removal?
If you are someone who tends to date transfeminine folks:
- Do you have personal preferences when it comes to hair on the femmes you date?
- Do you sexualize shaving or body hair removal?
- Do you prefer hair on her head worn a certain way? Do you tend to be attracted to very specific hair cuts, styles, colors?
I’m also very curious about folks who live outside of the US – clearly my perspectives are very US-centric, and I’m not really sure what gets culturally dictated or compulsorily reproduced in other places. I have impressions, but being an outsider to culture in other places, I won’t presume to speak on it.
Please do elaborate however you’d like. And thank you, for reading and for your comments, I really like that we’re conversing here more and more, getting input from all kinds of people who live in all kinds of ways.
What’s the difference between romance and chivalry?
Colleen and I had an interesting discussion a while back. The two can look nearly identical, we thought – bringing flowers, pulling out a chair, taking a jacket – but something separates them.
I do think some things are not so chivalrous and are exclusively romantic – candlelight dinner, gazing into each other’s eyes, promises of love + affection – but pretty much all the chivalrous actions seem to fall under a romantic umbrella. Like a sub-set of romance.
But see, sometimes chivalry is purely kind and thoughtful, with no romance whatsoever. When I hold the door open for a stranger, or for my mom or sister or a straight girl friend, I do it with no romantic intent.
Ah – so perhaps that’s what differentiates the two: intention. That’s what Colleen and I concluded.
Chivalrous actions are done purely for the sake of doing the action – kindness, thoughtfulness, observation of something that would assist someone else.
Romantic actions, however, are done with a particular purpose: of wooing the other person. Romance does want something in return, and when the relationship changes to “just friends” or ends, the romantic gestures cease.
So the gestures of romance and chivalry can appear the same, but are given with different intentions.
So (here’s the part where I get personal), I’ve always been a romantic. Big time. Love poems, handmade gifts, mix cds, sweet nothings. (I know, you’re shocked.) Lately I have been extremely suspicious of romance and the webs of seduction it spins, but I haven’t let go of chivalry. In fact, my chivalrous impulses have gotten stronger.
Trouble here is, I think my chivalry is often misinterpreted as romance. Paying for dinner, holding her door. I’m told these aren’t things that many transmasculine folks do, so they can be interpreted as grand gestures, even though honestly that’s just how I am.
As with everything else in my dating life, it seems, I need to make my intentions clearer in matters like this. I’m learning, I guess – to have better boundaries, to trust they are in place, to be clear, to listen to others and hear when they are not accepting of the boundaries I have.
Sometimes I feel like the boundaries I have in place are too strong, too much, too thick. Huge cement walls with barbed wire instead of lines in the sand. But the strange thing is, it isn’t until my huge cement walls are accepted – really accepted and acknowledged – that I can start putting up a chain link fence instead, then a picket fence, then a hopscotch chalk line.
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. – Carl Rogers
Update: I also wrote about chivalry on the post for March’s masthead, bringing butch back – specifically the ways that I approach chivalry as deeply feminist.
I’ve been adopting the word “transmasculine” to use to describe, generally, folks who were assigned female at birth who are male-identified, masculine, and/or masculinely presenting, in some way. I tend to stumble over this in these writings here – “butches and other masculine-identified females” or “butches and trans guys and bois and other girls who are boyish,” et cetera – and ugh, it gets messy to describe it that way.
So let’s start using the term “transmasculine,” okay?
I’ve been hearing it knocked around in the gender/queer communities more and more lately, but it’s from the TransMasculine Community Network that I am adopting this definition:
Transmasculine refers to any person who was assigned female at birth but feels this is an incomplete or incorrect description of their gender.
That’s quite broad – considering the “masculine” element in the word, I would probably say it’s more used as in, “an incomplete or incorrect description of their gender and they have some leanings toward the masculinity areas of the gender galaxy,” but in some ways I do like how inclusive their definition is. Regardless, I tend to use it to mean those of us butches, bois, trans guys, faggy femmes, and all sorts of other genderqueers. I’ve found myself using it in a few different articles I’m working on, so I wanted to be sure to introduce a definition.
I imagine the idea of butch as a trans identity is not so hard to grasp, and I’ve written about femme as a trans identity. The inclusion of the word “trans” as part of it feels touchy to me, because while I do agree that “trans” could – and probably should – be used as a great umbrella term for many gender descriptions, it also calls to mind for many an adherence to a strict gender binary – that if you are masculine, and female bodied, that you must be “actually” trans, not butch or masculinely female, as those spaces sometimes feel discounted. But that’s not how I intend to use it here.
Actually, I think I used to use “butch” in this way – as a catch-all phrase for anyone born female who leans toward masculine performance. But as my gender studies have gone on, I’ve come to accept and use a concept like transmasculine (for which I hadn’t had a term until now) as much more accurate, as I see “butch” as actually a very specific sub-set of being transmasculine. For me, butch is very much tied together with chivalry, a classic style of masculinity, feminism, and a sort of romance.
I of course think people should define these terms for themselves, but the more I do get involved in the genderqueer/transmasculine discussions, the more I see commonalities in those of us who identify as butch, and I see why some bois or other transmasculine folks don’t necessarily see that as their identity. I think in the past I’ve been much more inclined to say things like, “there is room for you in ‘butch’!” And it’s not that I take that back – certainly, if your lips tingle a little at the idea of calling yourself butch and claiming a butch identity, there is room for you in that identity and I think you should go for it, try it on, see if you like it, if it fits – but I’m seeing the ways that butch is actually more specific than I used to think it was.
Fascinating, how these things evolve. There’s so much to still create and discover and uncover and remake and expose about how gender works, what it means, our relationship to it. Man, I love this work.
Part of the deal of me posting eye candy is that you, as readers and appreciators of the butch/femme dynamic, which I assume you probably are if you are visiting this site, are required to comment about how hot the butch is.
Hey, it’s hard to be objectified as “eye candy.” It’s hard to be judged purely on sexiness and looks and hotness and female masculinity appeal. So we must give these butches lotsa love.
And Dani is particularly hot. See what I’m getting at? There should really be more than two comments on that post.
I’m not usually toppy or controlling about comments, but part of the entire point of posting photos of butches is to celebrate female masculinity, especially in the face of a community that often villifies butches with nothing short of blame for the entire oppression of women, feminists, lesbians, dykes, etc. Cause that’s all our faults, you know. If we were only a little more of a “real woman” (read: conforming to our prescribed societal gender role) we wouldn’t be so oppressed.
So please, spoil the eye candy, will ya?
I’ve been thinking lately about how to do an equivalent of femme eye candy series. It might be called something like “femme not straight,” but I’m not exactly sure how to do that without it becoming “photos of pretty girls” which, though that’s awesome, is I think a cheap blog trick. Any interest or ideas?
Speaking of eye candy, I’ve got some good ones coming up. A filmmaker, and a butch on a motorcycle, great photos both. Keep sending ‘em in, or tag ‘em sugarbutch on flickr.
So hey, why else do I have a blog but to write impromptu non-fiction personal essays about gender and feminist theory?
1. The Value of Domestic Skills
I believe there’s nothing inherently unfeminist about keeping a home, doing domestic things, taking care of people you love, cooking, cleaning, decorating. Those are important, learned skills and talents, often very complicated arts, time consuming, and things which make a big difference in the quality of life.
There’s been quite a bit of reclamation around “women’s work” throughout the second wave and third wave feminist movements, which has revisioned and revalued the work that goes into domesticity as complex, learned skills, difficult, and often incredible works of art.
(See, for example, the art of Judy Chicago, in particular – The Dinner Party in particular, but there’s lots more in that vein. Also see the book Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgartner & Amy Richards. Anyone else have examples? Leave ‘em in the comments.)
Domesticity & housewifery can go against feminist principles when it is compulsory: not optional, expected, unrewarded, and unrecognized as hard work or valuable. The problems come in being forced into this role, when you’re only doing that if what you’re doing feels like what you’re “supposed” to do and not what you really want to do. Figuring out what actually suits you best, your particular talents and personality and inclinations – that is subversive, and empowering.
2. Choice Feminism
Recently, there’s been a rise of this idea of choice feminism, which claims that being a housewife or househusband, staying home to raise the kids and keep the house, is an option available to people if they so choose, and that there is nothing inherently wrong with this choice.
Makes sense, right? Some people – men or women or butches or femmes or genderqueers or whomever – think it would be great to have the luxury of having a partnership (or triad, or whatever) where enough income was being generated by another person (or another source) that someone could stay home and prepare good food and take care of their living space, take care of the kids or plants or animals. To others, this sounds like nothing they’d want to do themselves, they’d hate to be cooped up all day and would much rather go out into the world and socialize, feel like a ‘productive member of society.’
So in theory, it would be great if someone was able to say, hey, I’d really like to be at home, and their partner would say, that’s great, because I’d like to go to work and make enough money to support our family. And then the negotiation of details would happen, and wow, everyone has a great time with their lives, yay.
There are so many factors that go into building this as an option to begin with. For one, it takes a certain amount of education (and therefore access to education), economic capability, and stature in order to be in a relationship that can rely on a single income (and/or a lot of thriftiness!). The folks who have the ability to stay home and take care of their domestic life have to have a certain amount of economic privilege, by definition – they are able to survive without having a traditional, typical 40 hour a week job.
Point being, this isn’t an option everyone has, so it can’t be a “choice” for everyone. Some people cannot ever choose this choice, because of the ways we have been set up inside of economic systems. (If I had more time to research, I would include : all sorts of things on credit card theory, loan sharks, economic poverty, the working poor. Got specific resources for this? Links, books, documentaries? Leave ‘em in the comments.)
I bet someone staying home and claiming the housewife/househusband/etc role works really well in some relationships, and that those choices are totally legit and based in love and care and self-knowledge for the relationship, family, themselves, and their partners.
Problem is, there are still real social consequences to choosing the socially unacceptable, rarer, less compulsory choice. And it isn’t until both options are empowered with equal weight that we’ll be able to actually make these choices fully, and as long as society still deems one choice over the other, presenting it as an “option” sometimes feel so me as more one more way to force people into it compulsorily.
I think it is possible for these particular choices to have equal weight. Both should be equally valued, in my opinion, and it is possible for them to be in the current culture.
Whether or not they do actually have equal weight, however, would largely depend on a person’s perspective, family, culture, friends, and social status. Some people would experience rejection, marginalization, othering, belittling, or outcasting, if they decided to stay at home and “only” take care of their family’s domestic life. Others would experience peer pressure and gender policing for not doing so, for attempting to say that housewifery is valuable, especially when saying this to someone for whom housewifery was compulsory, and whom resents the lack of choice that she herself had.
A) Mona Lisa Smile
The film Mona Lisa Smile, set in the 1950’s at a women’s college, has a major theme of choice feminism throughout, as Joan, a student, struggles between pursuing law at Yale or getting married and starting a family. Her art teacher, Katherine, tries to encourage her to examine both options equally, even saying she doesn’t have to choose, she can have both.
Quote from the scene where Joan tells her art teacher that she’s going to choose to be a housewife:
Joan Brandwyn: It was my choice… not to go. He would have supported it [if I'd chosen to go].
Katherine Watson: But you don’t have to choose.
Joan Brandwyn: No, I have to. I want a home; I want a family, that’s not something I’ll sacrifice.
Katherine Watson: No-one’s asking you to sacrifice that, Joan, I just want you to understand you can do both.
Joan Brandwyn: Do you think I’ll wake up one morning and regret not being a lawyer?
Katherine Watson: Yes, I’m afraid that you will.
Joan Brandwyn: Not as much as I regret not having a family, not being there to raise them. I know exactly what I’m doing and it doesn’t make me any less smart.
[Katherine looks down]
Joan Brandwyn: This must seem terrible to you.
Katherine Watson: I didn’t say that.
Joan Brandwyn: Sure you did. You always do. You stand in class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don’t. To you a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a center hall colonial. She has no depth, no intellect, no interests. You’re the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.
Katherine Watson: [hugs Joan] Congratulations. Be happy.
It seems Joan is attempting to make the major point of choice feminism, that Katherine does not think housewifery is a legitimate choice for women. But I’m skeptical of this, because we don’t ever see Joan go through an awakening out of the compulsory gender role, realizing and fully understanding the limitations of her socially prescribed feminine/wife/mother role. Without really knowing that, is it possible for her to consider rejecting it as a legitimate option?
B) Sex and the City, season 4 episode 7, Time and Punishment
In the episode Time and Punishment from the fourth season of Sex and the City, Charlotte is newly married, and informs the girls that she’s thinking about quitting her job so she can begin her domestic duties. They react with significant glances at each other, though nobody says anything overly disagreeing with Charlotte’s news. The next day, Charlotte calls Miranda.
Charlotte: You were so judgmental at the coffee shop yesterday.
Miranda: Excuse me?
Charlotte: You think I’m one of those women.
Miranda: What? One of what women?
Charlotte: One of those women we hate who just works until she gets married. … The women’s movement is supposed to be about choice. And if I choose to quit my job, that is my choice.
Miranda: “The women’s movement”? Jesus Christ, I haven’t even had coffee yet.
Charlotte: It’s my life and my choice.
Miranda: Okay, Charlotte? This isn’t about me, this is your stuff.
Charlotte: Admit it! You were being very judgmental.
Miranda: I’m dripping all over my bathroom and you’re calling me judgmental. lf you have a problem with quitting your job…maybe you should take it up with your husband.
Charlotte: See, there it is, “your husband.” There’s nothing wrong with having a husband!
Miranda: Charlotte, I’m hanging up.
Charlotte: Don’t you dare hang up! And stop saying Charlotte like that. I am quitting my job to make my life better… and do something worthwhile like have a baby and cure AIDS.
Miranda: Oh! You’re gonna cure AlDS? Good for you. Just don’t be too disappointed if all you wind up with is a pretty ceramic mug with Trey’s name on it.
Charlotte: Take that back!
Miranda: I’m hanging up.
Charlotte: Don’t hang up! I’m interviewing girls to replace me… and I really need you to get behind my choice.
Miranda: You get behind your choice.
Charlotte: I am behind my choice. I choose my choice.
Miranda: I don’t have time for this. I have to go to work. Some of us still have to go to work.
Charlotte: I choose my choice!
(quoted from script of Time & Punishment.)
Problem for me here is that Charlotte is “the traditional one.” The most conservative, the one who blushes at the slightest of sex talk, the one who, throughout the series, is in serious husband-hunting mode. Has she really examined all her choices? Is she buying into the gender role that she’s presenting because she “chooses” it, or because it is compulsory for her?
But even though I am skeptical and questioning these women’s ability to make their own choices, I do come from the perspective that everyone has their own agency. I try – very hard – to let go of my own judgment about what would or wouldn’t be a good choice, and to really believe that another person is the only one who will really know what is in her own best interest.
But while I believe in agency, I also believe in things like laws of self-protection – seat belt laws, helmet laws, fast food regulation laws – because society has proved that people are susceptible, that we do not always make the choice that is in our best interest because of social, political, advertising, or any other number of pressures, and that educators, policy makers, and activists have the responsibility to protect and look out for others. That we are all interdependent, if you will – and that when everyone does better, everyone does better.
So how do we figure out how to have more agency in these complex situations of choice? How do we assure that all options do have equal weight for ourselves, in our own personal lives, even if they do not have equal weight in the eyes of society? How do we take a decision that used to be compulsory – like being a stay at home mom (SAHM, or Shit Ass Ho Motherfucker, if you’re a dooce reader) or, to connect it further to the Sugarbutch Chronicles subjects, adopting an exaggerated presentation of gender like butch or femme – and legitimately choose it?
3. Knowledge & Education
How can we make these choices have more equal weight?
Educate yourself. Study feminism. Study the history of compulsory gender roles, compulsory gender presentation, compulsory heterosexuality.
We can’t make any of these choices without understanding of where they came from, what they mean, what cultural, historical, and political contexts the choices sit within.
In a society that still has so much compulsory roles for men and women, it’s never just as simple as “I choose to be a housewife” or “I choose to work a full-time job outside the home.” There are so many factors – economic status, cultural and familial expectations, personal interests and pursuits, background, education, community.
I guess this is the part where we’re on our own, where we have to figure out the solution to our own gender problems, where we have to take responsibility for our own enlightenment.
One of my favorite quotes about gender is “femme is knowing what you’re doing.” My take on that is not that “all femmes know what they’re doing all the time,” but more like the implications that femme – or femininity, or gender expression in general – becomes an active choice, something that has a context and a history and a cultural understanding for the choices we’re making.
And it is possible to learn those things. Read into the history of gender studies, of compulsory gender roles and gender “deviance,” gender activism, butch/femme culture and society, the women’s and gay liberation movements. Get a sense of yourself & your gender in a larger sociological, historical, political, cultural, geographical context.
I see feminism as quite similar to how I am beginning to understand Buddhism: as philosophies, as world views. That it is a container, a baseline of explanation and understanding for how you see the world, interactions, social hierarchies, marginalized communities, value.
And as such, I really believe that everyone has a place within feminism. That everyone is affected by compulsory gender, by gender policing, by gender roles which oppress and restrict and encourage us to be less than full, open people, with access to the entire range of human experience. And therefore, everyone has the possibility to be liberated by studying the ways that these unspoken rules operate on the very personal, private aspects of our lives.
Here’s some suggestions of tools that have helped me along this search for knowledge and understanding. Add your own in the comments if you have further resources that significantly helped your perspective.
Feminism is For Everybody, bell hooks – amazing basic course in what feminism is, what it means, and where else to start looking. I’ve bought this for various people over the years. Completely accessible and wonderfully written.
The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan – the classic feminist text about compulsory domesticity. Though it’s dated, if this isn’t something that you’ve examined overtly, it might be time to read it.
Creating a Life Worth Living, Carol Lloyd – an artist workbook that guides you through figuring out what kind of life you want to live, what your values are, how you want to be spending your time, and helps you set goals to do that. Might be helpful & empowering in this particular issue of choosing to be a housewife, in that it might help you see where you particular strengths are, and what ways of spending your day will make you the happiest.
Manifesta, Jennifer Baumgardner & Amy Richards – I’ve already mentioned this, but if you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. Very accessible and fun to read.
The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago – is an art exhibit currently housed at the Brooklyn Museum in the feminist art wing. Problematic and highly criticized for it’s white and western-centric focus, but still an amazing piece of art which elevates traditional female domestic duties such as table settings, needlepoint, and ceramics and presents them in the context of a long history of powerful, strong, capable women.
It’s all a long process, right? Of getting to know oneself, of examining the world around us and seeing where we fit in, where we don’t, what we like, what we don’t. Of becoming self-aware. And, ultimately, of finding the bliss that makes our own lives uniquely worthwhile.
4. Let The Soft Animal of Your Body Love What It Loves
Eventually, this is the integrated goal of this process, I think: to “let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
It comes from one of my favorite poems of all time, and is a line I often quote. With care and consciousness, I believe this concept of letting myself love what I love to be at the core of my feminist beliefs. And I believe it’s possible to operate from this place, and within a feminist context, with feminist philosophies and outlooks on life.
It isn’t until I unpack all the societal gunk that I can really see, really understand, what it is that the soft animal of my body loves, and what it is that I should do with my wild and precious life.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
So we all know I <3 Babeland, right? They are a feminist, sex-positive, not scary sex toy store that includes all sorts of gender-forward products and information, their employees are educated and informed (and often dykes or queers), and their selection of toys is really wonderful for building a sex toy box – they’ve got all the basics.
For another week, Babeland’s got a sale of a few of their Vixen Creations silicone toys. Vixen makes some of the best cocks on the market, in my opinion, and if you’re looking for a new one to play with, now’s a good time.
(Plus, when you click through from my site and purchase things, I get a weee little bit of commission, which helps support my work – specifically, in July, any commissions and donations are going toward sending me to the Femme Conference in Chicago in August. And you want to hear hot stories about femmes in Chicago at the conference, right? Sure you do.)
Seems like I kinda stepped in it with this entire intentional gender thing! Lots of comments and emails about that one.
(Almost as bad as I stepped in it when I suggested something like “I noticed your gender from across the room” as a pickup line. Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But there’s just no other way to say that without a) objectifying, and potentially offending or b) assuming a person’s gender and potentially offending. Though perhaps that’s speaking more to my underlying Issue of not wanting to offend people than it is speaking to getting someone’s attention by using gender as a flirtation device. Maybe the more appropriate line for most folks is just, “hey, I think you’re hot.”)
I think the mention of “unconscious” vs “conscious” gender are more accurate descriptors than “intentional” vs “natural” gender. I’ve already mentioned this, but: modern gender theory does not believe gender is “natural” at all, it says gender is socially constructed. It can be constructed consciously, or it can be constructed unconsciously.
But there are ways that I can be more conscious about the ways I carry myself. There are ways that I can study and understand how gender works in this highly, highly gendered society, and figure out and choose the ways I operate within it.
So, here’s a bit of a story about what that process looked like for me:
I was raised in a very feminist household. The rejection of traditional gender roles was instilled in me from very young, by my mother especially, who didn’t take my father’s name, never shaves, never wears makeup or dresses or skirts or heels, was primarily the one to mow the lawn and help me with my math homework, etc.
Though this was deep within my family values, I was particularly susceptible to cultural standards as a teenager (I think we all are, and I have some ideas about why I was in particular, but I won’t go into that here), and I ended up fairly gender-conformist, nearly married – to a cisgendered guy – for five years. I think I had to prove that for me, the model of grown-up relationships really wouldn’t work, that all that society says is actually untrue. Of course, for some people it works just fine to be female-bodied, feminine, and attracted to men – clearly, not so much for me. I think it was precisely because I suspected that this wasn’t true that I had to really prove it for myself.
I’m also firmly based in second wave feminism insofar as I believe every person’s unique life experience is valid and important. I believe each of us is already an expert on our own gender, our own lives. I believe we all have valuable, thoughtful things to add to the conversation of gender (or sexuality, or relationships) regardless of our supposed credentials or expertise or level of study.
That’s the thing about gender – we all have it, we all live in a particularly gendered society, we all have been raised with its influence.
Consciousness-raising groups (in my understanding) started for because there was no formal study of women or the female experience. (I can’t really even imagine a culture that assumed that women’s experiences were included in the male norm, a culture that had no feminist cannon, such a lack of sources to study and know and experience. Thanks, foremothers, for women studies, for feminist studies, for all the work you did!)
So C-R groups created their own sources, using the experiences of the women in the group themselves, treating each like a text, a source, from which they could learn, from which understanding could arise and blossom and grow.
This is how I see this writing project, this community, and all of you who participate and who engage with me – as part of a large consciousness-raising group, where we are all sharing ideas, resources, and experiences to gain greater understanding of our selves, our communities, and the world as a whole.
This too is where my love for narrative fiction overlaps, where reading someone else’s story enhances my understanding of the world, where I feel less separate and more connected and, ultimately, where every story has value, especially the voices to marginalized communities, experiences, bodies, and lives.
So: growing up in a feminist household with rejection of gender roles, then going out into the world and living in a hetero relationship where we were playing out very stereotypical gender roles, then coming out as queer – all this lead me to start studying feminist, queer, and gender theory, seeking out language, concepts, and similar stories to help me explain my own experiences. And within gender theory and studies, I finally found places to get some of my questions – gender roles, gender compulsivity, gender norms, gender within relationships, the intersection of sex & gender – articulated, and then answered.
What is gender?
How does it work?
Why are we confined to a binary? Why don’t we have three or eight or fifteen genders?
How does the sex/gender binary function?
What purpose does it serve?
Who benefits? Why, how?
How does it get enforced?
How has it changed over the years?
How is it connected with race, class, sexuality, nationality, religion, etc etc?
And once I started getting ideas about how to answer these questions, I started asking more personal questions of myself, and where I fit in to this huge, permeating, practically invisible system of hierarchy, power, and value.
How do I feel comfortable?
What makes me feel powerful?
How do I want my hair?
What looks good on my particular body?
What fits with the way I carry myself, how I treat others, how I see myself?
What type of gender am I attracted to?
How does this relate to my sexuality?
I was simultaneously starting to come into my own as butch, partly because of the lesbian initiation process of rejecting femininity and cutting off your hair (which worked for me, though certainly doesn’t work for all lesbians who go through this), and partly because I started immediately liking femmes who dated butches and who recognized a sort of masculine ‘energy’ in me.
Actually claiming the label and identity category of butch was a more difficult quest for me, one I’ve written about a few times, specifically in terms of masculine posturing and rejecting – as a feminist and lesbian – the things that I see are so problematic with compulsory masculinity in both cisgendered men and in masculine-identified women. (More on that another time.)
Regardless of my questions and hesitations about butch/femme roles and labels, the process was definitely underway. And as it has unfolded deeper and deeper, in more and more aspects of my life, I have found such a home in it, in ways that have been seriously transformative to the ways that I operate in the world.
The basic feminist principles of inherent equality, the wide range of human experience, and celebrating the self as it is are applicable to many, many aspects of gender exploration. But I’ve found that these principles aren’t quite so active in most of the lesbian communities. Yes, there are people doing this work, but we are not the majority – compulsory gender in lesbian communities is usually a sort of gender rejection, an androgyny.
And that works for many people – which is excellent! I will always say you should go with what feels good to you, what makes you feel sexy, powerful, beautiful. For many of us, it is not androgyny that makes us feel good about ourselves, it’s another type of gender expression. There’s a huge gender galaxy out there, a huge range of expression and celebration, and so much to play with.
I don’t pretend that I have all the answers to questions or issues on gender. I have concepts, ideas, and resources, and I have reached some understandings, about both the world and system at large (macro) and my own personal place within it (micro).
I also don’t think my answers will necessarily be your answers.
I encourage you to find your own answers. To ask these questions, to decide consciously where you want to be within this pervasive system.
There have been many of you who have emailed me or commented about my recent writings about conscious vs unconscious gender, and here’s the part where I start to actually take an opinion on this: I think it’s very important to discover, stumble upon, find, or create a conscious gender. Doesn’t matter how you come to it, really, but it does matter to me that we do.
What that conscious gender might look like, of course, is highly varied – perhaps all it’ll take is a moment’s consideration, and a recognition that yeah, I’m where I want to be, that’s enough for me. Maybe it’ll take years of deep exploration and personal omphaloskepsis and meditation and therapy. Maybe it’ll take reading lots of books about the subject, or lots of blogs. Maybe not.
I don’t pretend to know what that process looks like for everybody, all I know is how it looks for me – and how important it has been for me to go through that process, which is, obviously, why I am encouraging it in others.
Look, I know not everybody has the interest in this that I do. And I don’t think everyone needs to start a blog (that becomes their part-time job) and dedicate a big portion of your free time to studying how gender works and what it means to you personally, but I really do think we would begin to move forward if we have some small moments of awareness about gender, about compulsive behavior and categories, about discriminating against butches or femmes or trans folks or androgyny.
When we understand (at least a little) how the system works so that we can begin to see how we fit inside it, and we can be empowered to make the choices that are in our own best interests, rather than in the best interests of those for whom this system is designed to benefit.
But it’s not just that. It’s also because when everybody does better, then everybody does better. It’s also because sometimes I’m lonely out here doing gendered work with a small handful of community. It’s also because, though some small circles of consciousness-raising activists are happening, most gender is still compulsory and not letting up anytime soon. It’s because this binary compulsory gendered system hurts us. It’s because trans and gay kids are getting beat up and murdered. It’s because boys who wear dresses are shamed. It’s because tomboys who want to run around shirtless are shamed. It’s because women are not safe walking alone on the streets of Manhattan at night. It’s because I am not safe walking alone on the streets of Manhattan at night. And we should be able to be safe, I want us to be safe, all of us.
And plus? Underneath some of the hard work here, it’s really fun. It’s dress-up, it’s activism, it’s subversion, it’s sexy. It’s a deep celebration of you, of me, of our interaction with the world, and with each other.
You may remember Mary Roach from the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which made a big splash a few years back, especially relating to her ability to make scientific research incredibly readable and interesting to average folks. She also wrote Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. (Her titles, though clever, now after book 3 seem slightly formulaic.)
Now, in Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, she tackles sex. I was intrigued! And what I remember from Stiff is still true: her work is incredibly readable. She makes pig inseminations in Denmark, penis reconstructive surgery in Thailand, and sexual reflex studies in Cairo seem relevant and interesting. I read through chapters on testicles, erectile dysfunction, and penis implants, amused by her stories and laughing, following along with Roach’s investigation of human sexuality.
I kept wondering when gay people would start coming up. Especially when she starts discussing a guy whose genitals were “the size and shape of a navy bean,” (p159) I started wondering if that person was probably in fact intersexed, born with ambiguous genitalia. From what I can tell, this account was in the early 1900s, but I expected Roach to launch into some explanation of why someone might be born with small-to-minuscule genitalia and what and how they would be dealt with today (which would probably be with surgery, although that would depend on the awareness of your doctor). But no: no mention whatsoever of any sort of intersexuality or between-sexes options.
She discusses penile reconstruction and again, no mention of the science behind sex change surgeries like phalloplasties. Page 67 is the first place she even mentions homosexuality, and it’s only in passing, in describing Princess Marie whose husband, Prince George of Greece, was “a latant homosexual.” By page 188, her 2nd mention of homosexuality in parenthesis – “He had never had sex, never had a girlfriend (or boyfriend)” I was beginning to suspect that Roach doesn’t think of homosexuality as more than a tiny side-note.
Then, after reading through three chapters on male reproductive functions specifically (testicles, erectile dysfunction, and penis implants), we get to two chapters on women, “The Lady’s Boner: Is the Clitoris a Tiny Penis?” and “The Prescription-Strength Vibrator: Masturbating for Health.” She mentions a clit pumping device, and I found myself yet again thinking, wow, this subject leads directly into the field of trans men who opt against genital surgery but whom enhance their genitals – often their clit – with a small penis pump (or large clit pump) and encourage their clit to get larger, to become a tiny penis. That stuff is fascinating, and wouldn’t it be great if she lent her investigation, research, and accessible writing skills to that subject?
But again, no. No mention of anything remotely related. I know, these topics could absolutely be books unto themselves, but that she either a) ran into the material and deemed it completely unimportant, as to not even warrant a mention, or b) did not run into these studies or material at all, makes me think that she either wasn’t looking very hard or was deeply heterocentric in her research. If she did run across it, why not mention it? She didn’t have to go into the subjects in depth, especially because the topics of trans, gender, and homosexuality obviously intersect in well, pretty much every single place along the study of sexuality, but simply some acknowledgment of these things existing is, I think, necessary.
So, this is what I’m thinking about halfway through the book. I keep reading the chapters on the female genitals, and then the science of orgasm, and I come across female ejaculation in a footnote. I kid you not, the ONE AND ONLY time she mentions female ejaculation is in a footnote. A FOOTNOTE! A long footnote, comparatively, but still! Isn’t there more science to female ejaculation than simply one footnote? Maybe not – maybe that one footnote is seriously the only scientific study she could find on female ejaculation. But hey, isn’t that significant? Isn’t that an interesting cultural commentary on sexuality, where she’s spent almost an entire chapter on male ejaculation, sperm count, what it is made of, how far it shoots, how much comes out?
But Roach skips over all of this.
She does note, in a footnote again, on p197, that there are “351 ways to say penis … and only three for clitoris: bean, button, and the little man in the boat.” She goes on to make note that the “authors [of this study] felt this reflected society’s disregard of human pleasure, which is probably true, but I simply bemoan the lack of useful synonyms.” Well, the reason there aren’t ‘useful synonyms’ reflects the value in the culture, doesn’t it? It’s not as though we have any shortage of small, round objects in our lives – pennies, marbles, pearls, gemstones, pebbles come to mind. So what does it reveal about a culture that we don’t have a language to describe the primary source of female sexual pleasure?
That’s not what Roach is writing this book for, though, clearly. As I got into the last third of the book, though, I had to wonder: why is Roach writing this book? What’s her point? She doesn’t seem to do much except summarize scientific sex studies with a distinct lack of feminist, gender-positive, sex-positive (see chapter 10, “Masturbating for Health,” and her implied judgment when mentioning “Mr. Fred Jelly Dongs” and “Vibrating Port-A-Pussies” as examples of sex toys), and trans-inclusive perspectives. As I kept reading, I found myself wondering why it was I was trusting this person’s perspective, considering that clearly our values were in such different places.
By the end of the book, much as I had enjoyed her witty writing, I was convinced of it. She begins the last chapter describing a Masters and Johnson study called Homosexuality in Perspective in 1979, which actually addresses directly what lesbian and gay men do in sexual partnerships and how it compares to hetero couples. The penultimate paragraph, though, takes a turn for the worst when Roach writes:
Sadly, the main thing people recall about Homosexuality in Perspective … is that Masters and Johnson spent the second half of the book touting a therapy for helping homosexuals convert to heterosexuality. The team went out of their way to assure readers that they screened clients carefully, accepting only those who had turned to homosexuality after a traumatic experience with heterosexuality (rape or abuse, for instance).
… But let’s give Masters and Johnson their due. … The laboratory study of sex has never been an easy, safe, or well-paid undertaking.
Yes, they are due some credit in modern sexuality studies, certainly. But hey, why don’t we address this blatant homophobia? Is Roach assuming that we are so far beyond homophobia in our culture, and in her readership, that we don’t even need to address how damaging and dangerous perspectives like those are? Perhaps Masters and Johnson were under other pressures from homophobic fundors, perhaps there were political difficulties getting human subjects review board approvals for seemingly “encouraging” homosexuality – there could be various explanations for why they spent half of their book discussing the “cure” and how to “convert” homosexuals.
And then, to end the entire book with these paragraphs, given the blatant disregard of gay and lesbian sexuality, sex-positivity, or progressive gender understandings, leaves me with an awful sense of injustice.
Mary Roach, I love your writing. I really do. But there were many ways to validate and acknowledge perspectives that you do not understand without actually incorporating our experiences into your study of human sexuality. You were so very broad that you missed some huge, gaping holes. Hope your next study is more honed, thoughtful, and inclusive.