No Gender December: Back to Basics

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Radical idea: ANYONE can play with pink or blue toys – out of control!

This week was a dismal one for the Australian Government. One of their many low points was Prime Minister Tony Abbott (apparently also the “Minister for Women“) dismissing the newly launched No Gender December Campaign, saying “Let boys be boys, let girls be girls“. Cue gigantic face-palm.

Abbott’s remarks came in stark contrast to the point made by Greens Senator Larissa Waters who introduced the campaign in Parliament, who stated the point was to “Stop with this nonsense of marketing for boys and for girls. Toys are toys and lets let kids be kids.”

The point of No Gender December? "Stereotypes Limit Thinking"

The outrageous point being made by No Gender December? “Stereotypes Limit Thinking”

The backlash in some of the conservative press, has unsurprisingly banged this story under the headline “WAR ON BARBIE“. If you’ve read some of my previous posts on children’s toys, you’ll know that I am a fan of Barbie. Or more specifically, I have difficulty accepting campaigns against stereotypically “feminine” toys, like the time everyone got really pissed off about the femmed-up Merida doll. But aside from my critique that a lot of the children’s toy debate becomes laced with femmephobia, we still need to make sure we don’t miss the fundamental point – that children’s toys are often gendered along the binary male/female, and this is not a good thing

Let’s step it through so you can rhetorically battle bigots if you need to:

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

1. What even is the “gender binary”?
The gender binary refers to the idea that gender can be neatly divided into a binary male/female. This binary is a pervasive norm, particularly in Western society (some other areas of the world treat gender differently). The idea that everyone can fit into this binary has real consequences for people whose bodies do not conform how “male” and “female” bodies “should” be.

A common question: "Is it a boy or a girl?"

A common question: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

For example, babies that are born with “indeterminate” genitalia may undergo surgery to make them “normal” to fit into one of the two categories. Estimates of this indeterminacy are as high as 1 in 100 births. This is often referred to as being intersex. Another example is in sport – you have to conform to the categories of either man or woman in order to compete, and determining this is a big issue. Many athletes are subject to “gender testing”. Here, “gender” is sometimes based on chromosomes (whether you are XX or XY), other times, levels of testosterone.

But we’re not just forced to physically conform to this binary, there are social expectations tied up with the binary that affect our ways of being and acting in the world too.

Simone-de-Beauvoir-01

De Beauvoir

2. But wait, what is the difference between “sex” and “gender”?
Many people now make a distinction between sex and gender, with sex being described as biological features, versus gender expression, as social phenomena. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In other words, women are socialised into a second-class gender status. This fundamental distinction between sex and gender is integral to many analyses of gender – indeed it has been used by many feminist writers to show that biology is not destiny.

Judith Butler <3 <3 <3

Butler <3

But this distinction is not without criticism. For example, Judith Butler argues that sex is “always already gender”, given that proclamation of sex at birth (“it’s a girl”!) assumes a gender trajectory for the child – that is, we expect that a baby without an apparent penis, who is then assigned as a girl, will grow up to be a woman. This gendering entails a set of social assumptions about what girls should enjoy, how they should dress, and how they should act. Really Butler is arguing that sex/biology are perhaps more social and constructed than we think – given that we look at a certain formation of flesh and imbue it with a whole heap of social meanings.

Summer-Beef-2013_Outdoor

Eating the right kind of food is about becoming the right kind of man


3. But aren’t men and women are just physically different and that is just a scientific FACT?
I’m not saying that hormones and other chemical and genetic factors mean nothing to shaping humans, but socially shaping the body to fit into expectations of the gender binary happens throughout the lifespan. Have you ever walked into a gym and seen the gender imbalance between the weights and the cardio rooms? Women are expected to be lithe and skinny, and men big and bulky, so women and men are taught to shape their bodies differently.

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

 

 

Men are expected to eat lots of protein (hamburgers, steaks), while women are meant to be constantly dieting (salads) which also inevitably leads to bingeing (hello chocolate). This is reflected and reproduced in advertising of food and fitness products.

And don’t get me started on brain differences. There are literally oodles of books and journal articles that go into how the brain is wired through experience (i.e. the social), and how our expectations of gender affect child development (or at the very least, how we perceive differences).

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagining themselves such as "nurse" or "mother"

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagine themselves such as “nurse” or “mother”

4. Okay but what do toys have to do with it?
Expectations of gender are heavily reinforced in childhood – a critical time when children are starting to develop a sense of self and how they fit into the world. While Abbott is happy to argue that “above all else, let parents do what they think is in the best interests of their children”, as sociologist James Henslin notes, our parents and wider society are highly complicit in reinforcing particular norms.

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

For example, this manifests in:

  • The types of clothes we are dressed in, noting that sometimes clothes change the way we move about in the world (it is difficult to climb a tree in a dress or kick a ball in sandals)
  • The type of play we are encouraged to engage in – not just the kinds of toys we have, but also how rough versus nurturing we are expected to be
  • The types of emotions we are encouraged to express – anger, stoicism, bravado, sadness, compassion or nurturing
Screenshot from the current Toys 'R Us Catalogue

Screenshot from the current Toys ‘R Us Catalogue

 

Here’s where the colour-coding of toys comes in. As you may have noticed, toy manufacturers often make toys marketed at boys blue (or primary colours yellow and red), and toys sold to girls pink (or purple, teal or pastels) and stores often separate toys according to this schema of girls vs boys toys. Thus you get aisles that are predominately blue, and ones dominated by pink. The problem isn’t the colours in themselves. The problem is the different kinds of toys that are marketed according to the gender binary, as signified by the colours chosen for the toys designated “boys” versus “girls”.

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A double page spread from the depths of the catalogue

Analysing the current Toys ‘R Us catalogue, it is clear they’re making an effort to pay lip service to the gender issue – they have a boy on the front playing with a kitchen set (with the caption “just like home!”). But as you wade deeper into the catalogue, you’re met with more and more of the stereotypical stuff. Some examples of “boy” toys: space stuff, robot stuff, dinosaurs, action equipment, trains and transport, excavation and trucks, scientific equipment, pirate stuff, architecture and building, dragons, science fiction and fantasy, racing cars. And “girl” toys: dolls, princesses, woodland creatures, phones, drawing stuff, makeup, jewellery kits, accessories, fashion stuff, baby stuff, horses. It’s actually pretty crazy when you start to consider how this gendered marketing of toys might lead to the cultivation of particular interests along gendered lines, starting at a very young age.

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick actually

From what I can see of the No Gender December campaign, the point isn’t to “Ban Barbie”. The point is to challenge the way in which toys are divided along the gender binary, thus reinforcing  differences between how “boys” and “girls” are socialised.

In conclusion, Abbott is a bit of a jerk. But we already knew that. Did I mention that time Tony Abbott allegedly punched a wall near a rival student politician Barbara Ramjan’s head for intimidation? Or that he constantly alludes to his “hot daughters“? Or that when in opposition he continually called for Australians to “ditch the witch“, Prime Minister Julia Gillard?

Well, he might be the Minister for Women but I guess boys will be boys.

Scourge of the Girl Crush: 7 Nearly-Gay Movies

Sam Frost and Lisa Hyde 4EVA

Sam Frost and Lisa Hyde 4EVA

I have this habit of erasing straightness from movies and TV shows, to the extent that I often remember things as explicitly gay, when really there’s heteroromance as a main focus. For example, in this year’s series of The Bachelor on Australian television, I was convinced that the main man Blake was gay, and that his top two women left at the end – Sam and Lisa – were in love (I still stalk their Instagram accounts and hold to this theory). When it all went to crap, I couldn’t help thinking it was probably because everyone was gay, and the new girl Blake picked was just the only one willing to be his beard.

It's like this see

It’s like this see

I was recently asked by a friend why I was so insistent on seeing queerness in straight romances, like, isn’t this some kind of reverse homophobia?! I answered that there are is so little queerness represented in the mainstream that by default I see queer storylines in some kind of attempt to open up space. As Jill Mackey writes about seeing the gay in the straight:

Despite [the] dearth of honest representations of ourselves and our lives, lesbians continue to see mainstream films, and we make up for the lack of representation of ourselves by “reading against the grain” for representations of women that we might appropriate and interpret as signs of lesbian love and desire

I'll save the queer reading of Princess Bride for another time

But I’ll save the queer reading of Princess Bride for another time

Of course I don’t see every romance this way and there are some “straight” partnerships I definitely love – Buttercup and Wesley, Elizabeth and Darcy and all of Love Actually, for example. But in many movies, I just can’t help seeing epic romances between the female characters, which leaves me in a state of perpetual disappointment and/or simply mis-remembering the endings (always tricking myself that the fanfic in my head actually happened). Adding to my angst is the fact that many films try and pass off any possible queer vibes as simple non-threatening “girl crushes” instead. This makes me pretty mad, because it suggests that there is a “safe” way for women to be nearly-queer, while still asserting an explicitly “no-homo” sentiment (many “bromances” also promote the message of safely-not-gay).

So, entertaining a mix of both delight and disappointment, here’s a rundown of my top seven nearly-gay-girl-couples (spoilers ahead):

drinking

“We got played by the same guy… do you want vodka or tequila?”

7. Carly and Kate, The Other Woman
The Other Woman
has an interesting premise – when Carly finds out that she’s actually the mistress of the man she’s been dating, she becomes unlikely friends with his wife Kate (and they team up to do awful things to him). The movie explores their burgeoning friendship and (if you ask me) there is a great deal of homoeroticism in their unintended ménage à trois, particularly when they discuss their desire to still have sex with the cheating guy, yet “withhold” for each other. All I’m saying is that there is a lot of sexual tension, drunken rollicking and under-wedding-skirt action. But really for me the unacknowledged love between the two women is cemented when Carly “falls” for Kate’s handsome yet fairly two-dimensional brother. It’s like seeing her choose to take the second prize in a raffle. The bro don’t cut it.

"You are more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine"

“You are more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine”

6. Rita and Becca, Bridesmaids
This one’s not quite as painful, because really the lesbian themes are pretty overt, so it’s not so much about reading into things as celebrating a minor storyline. These guys have a serious crush on each other, and the femme-on-femme action couldn’t be better. In fact I love them so much I can’t even remember how this storyline ends, despite seeing the film several times. I think they go back to their husbands, but in my head they get shacked up in Vegas. My only wish is that there was a lot more of the film dedicated to them and I’m still hoping for a gay wedding spin-off.

"A woman's touch can quickly fill the empty flower boxes on a window sill. One smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom

“A woman’s touch can quickly fill the empty flower boxes on a window sill. One smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom”

5. Katie and Calamity, Calamity Jane
What can I say about these two? They move to a hut in the wilderness and dance around singing a song called “A Woman’s Touch”. About how good the touch of a woman is. Yeah. At the end the Hollywood producers stick a weird double wedding scene in there where Katie and Calam marry some forgettable guys, but it’s pretty hard to believe. Did I mention that Calamity also sings at length about her “Secret Love“? Mmm. 

"It's time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I'm free!"

“It’s time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!”

4. Anna and Elsa, Frozen
Okay, stay with me on this one. I *get* that Elsa and Anna are sisters, but the queer themes here are out of control. I mean it’s really nice to see sisterly love represented as “true love” instead of romantic love, but it’s hard to overlook the intensely gay themes of the film. Funnily enough, when Frozen came out and was lambasted by a bunch of right-wing religious nut jobs, I agreed with their readings of the film as super gay (but obviously disagreed with the conclusion that this was a bad thing). The way I see it, there was some serious Freudian taboo stuff represented at the beginning when Anna gets “touched” by Elsa (representative of the sexual exploration that children do), but then Elsa is forced to hide her queer touch. When she runs away to the mountains and sings “Let it Go” it definitely smacks of coming out of the closet (plus she femmes up like a super high femme of excellence). Olaf the camp snowman is like a concrete manifestation of her queer desire, and not surprisingly turns up at the beginning, but doesn’t come to life until Elsa “comes out”.

"I just wanna meet I guy I like as much as you"

“I just wanna meet I guy I like as much as you”

3. Paige and Sasha, Life Partners
This movie is painful because it follows the story of Sasha, an openly lesbian woman (representation – tick), who is best friends with a straight woman Paige. When Paige gets a really straight boyfriend and stops hanging out with Sasha, everyone has a bad time, particularly anyone in the audience hoping the women would get together. Apparently this film was trying to push boundaries by representing this kind of relationship (and is based on a true story/ directed by the real-life Paige). But what you end up with is wondering why Paige stays with her super clean cut man, when Sasha is about a zillion times more interesting and dashing in every way. It’s like the film is an ad for homosexuality through painting a picture of a monotonous and droll heterosexual world. It’s very confusing.

"That's my jam. It's my lady jam."

“That’s my jam. It’s my lady jam.”

2. Beca and Chloe, Pitch Perfect
Oh Beca and Chloe! Or, as Tumblr kids refer to them, “Bechloe“. Pitch Perfect is one of my favourite movies (I would watch it as frequently as I watch Mean Girls, but I can’t deal with all the vomiting), but the non-eventuating Bechloe storyline is a killer. They have so much chemistry, they are pretty much literally on fire for each other. The shower scene! The party scene! The finals scene! OMG it’s a Bechloe love-fest! Except that it’s not, and when I re-watch I am continually reminded that there is some dude that Beca gets with at the end. I’m sorry but getting sentimental over Breakfast Club? Whatever. I’m sure Bechloe will live on in Pitch Perfect 2. And in my heart.

"I'm with Muriel"

“I’m with Muriel”

1. Muriel and Rhonda, Muriel’s Wedding
I re-watched Muriel’s Wedding on TV the other night, and was delighted to see the glaringly obvious gay themes in there that I’d never noticed as a kid. Not only does the film indulge in an uber-kitsch camp aesthetic, but it seriously challenges the institution of heterosexual marriage by mocking it at every turn. Rhonda sweeps in and transforms Muriel’s life, and the two are miserable when they part. There is also the scene where Rhonda discovers Muriel’s book of fake wedding pictures and is utterly distraught, and when Muriel finally does get (sham) married, Rhonda sits like an outcast at the back. But your heart skips a beat when they look at each other leaving Porpoise Spit at the end – practically on the verge of kissing at every moment.

There it is, my depressing/delusionally heartening list that would make for a super marathon of film watching. If you have any other films with similar not-yet-queer themes, let me know in the comments below!

Apocalypse Now! How I Cope with Everyday Anxiety

Often it's easy to imagine the worst

Often it’s easy to imagine the worst

When I was little I remember being enthralled with an episode of Sesame Street, where Elmo talked about the wonders of having an imagination. At the time I marvelled at the fact you can create all kinds of amazing worlds with your mind alone. But as I’ve aged, I’ve also discovered that having a powerful imagination combined with anxiety means your mind can jump to all kinds of unpleasant fictions.

For example, I have this amazing ability to catastrophise to the extreme in any given situation. It ranges from the absolutely minute – Got somewhere to go today? Better wake up early and set two alarms just incase one doesn’t work. To the moderate – Got to get to the airport? Better leave four hours ahead of time in case there’s an unforeseen accident along the way. To the absurd – Slight turbulence? Better figure out which God to pray to because I am now facing certain death.

Anxiety can be very debilitating

Anxiety can be very debilitating

Unfortunately my proclivity for fanciful worries is not limited to stressful situations like travelling, but is instead an everyday part of life – Going for a short walk? Better put my valuables out of sight in the house in case I get robbed in the next 20 minutes. Or - Going to bed? Better check the stovetop to prevent the fire that will inevitably happen while I’m sleeping. And my favourite - Home alone on a sunny day? Better lock the doors incase a murderer comes to visit. Sometimes having a catastrophising mind can be exhausting.

Anxiety

There are normal worries, and then there is full blown anxiety – if you’re not sure what you’re experiencing, it’s best to go and talk to a mental health professional

Living with worry can be pretty tricky, and becomes exaggerated when things get hectic, morphing from simple stress to full blown anxiety. Anxiety is a real condition that is more than just normal worries and stresses – it’s something that stays with you and is often triggered by ongoing pressures. Unfortunately doing a PhD involves a constant and very low burning level of stress, which tends to exacerbate my anxious tendencies. If you’re like me and suffer the occasional panic attack, you’ll know that having strategies for calming yourself is super important. Given that I’m in the third year of my PhD, and (according to everyone I speak to) am now “in the final stretch”, I’ve had to come up with some coping strategies to get me through the everyday. So, here are my top five tips for keeping calm, and carrying on:

It's simple, but eating well can keep you calm

1. Eat well, exercise and breath
This one is pretty fundamental, and something I struggle with sometimes when things get sticky. If you have a tricky relationship with food, sometimes anxiety can result in things like binge eating junk food, or not eating much at all. Both things can really tip anxiety over the edge, so it’s super important to try and get yourself into healthy eating habits (and get help with this if you need it). I absolutely don’t mean diets (or calorie counters – the guaranteed way to develop an obsession with food), it just means making sure you have lots of fruit, vegies and protein every day. Nutritional deficits can put your body way out of whack and can seriously affect your mood on a very real bodily level. Exercising is also notoriously helpful for staying grounded, and when I’m feeling really overwhelmed a bike ride or a walk helps so much. I am the opposite of sporty, so I have to force myself to get regular exercise, but just making sure that I walk to and from uni for instance, can really help. My mum also always texts me “remember to breath”. And she’s right – taking a few deep breaths when you’re feeling overwhelmed can really help.

FRIEND-HUG2. Surround yourself with supportive people 
My tendency when I get very anxious is to be extremely socially avoidant, which can be quite debilitating. Sometimes it’s good to make sure that you schedule regular catch ups with someone you can rely on, and that way you know you’ll have at least one person you’ll have to chat to during the week, who can keep an eye on you if things get tricky. For example, I see my grandma once a week and she keeps an eye on me, always making sure I’m well fed and have all the things I need. It’s also really good to have someone you know you can rely on – that will believe you when you saying you are having a hard time, and will help you get the assistance you need.

little-boy-at-movie-theater3. Have mental health and Hannah days
My mum was always very insistent when I was a child that I should have “mental health days” when stressed. Sometimes I’d have massive fights with her about it because I felt so guilty about missing school, but she was always right – sometimes I just needed a rest. Another great initiative by my mum was the “Hannah day” experience, which was pretty much the same as a mental heath day, but with more pizazz. Once a year or so, I would get to skip a day of school and go to the movies and buy a bookmark. It was a simple treat, but it made me so happy. My mum’s theory was that it was empowering. I still do Hannah days sometimes, go to the movies and buy a bookmark. It’s a great way to relax, and by naming the day it feels like it has more meaning and legitimacy (by all means, I encourage you to take a Hannah day too!).

Sad Pug Puppy4. Try not to worry about being worried 
This is a tough one, but key. Worrying about worry is one of the main things that keeps you in a destructive cycle – so being able to name and then acknowledge that you have worries and that that’s okay is important. If you’re struggling, one thing that can help is either keeping a list of worries and designating a time to worry about them, or dedicating a whole day to worrying. On a worry day, when a worry comes up you can just say “it’s okay, it’s a worry day!” It is surprisingly helpful.

black-woman-watching-television5. Remember it’s okay to relax
I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to nap, because I get stressed that I’m losing time where I could be productive. Basically, I have trouble relaxing. And the thing is, if you’re trying to be constantly active, sometimes you can actually be less productive because you burn out more quickly. Giving yourself permission to do nothing at all can be very helpful. Reading magazines, watching crappy TV, lying down or taking a bath, can all be great for keeping calm. While you might be able to “legitimise” watching trashy TV because you can critique it academically, it’s also important to remember that it’s okay to enjoy watching trashy TV! You don’t always have to have your brain on.

It's okay to ask for help

It’s okay to ask for help

I’m certainly not a mental health professional, and the ideas listed are just things that help keep me on track generally. But it’s also really important to seek professional help when you’re finding it difficult to cope. Ironically, I always worry that I’m not truly anxious enough to see a counsellor or psychologist. But really, if you’re wondering whether you should go and talk to someone, you probably should. They’ll certainly tell you how you’re tracking. If you’re in Australia you can visit your GP and get them to do a mental health care plan, which means you can access visits to a psychologist via Medicare (which makes it much more affordable, or if you find someone who bulk-bills = free!). Plus if you’re under 25 you can access Headspace, which doesn’t cost anything.

Mental health is real - and should be taken as seriously any other aspect of health

Mental health is real – and should be taken as seriously any other aspect of health

You can also access the Beyond Blue website, which has lots of helpful resources. Or if you are in Australia, in times of crisis you can call Lifeline on 131114. I once called them up because I had lunch with a friend who was having suicidal thoughts. I got help for my friend and made sure they were okay, but was feeling very distressed afterwards. I called Lifeline and they talked me through things, which made me feel much calmer.

Mental health is a difficult thing, because not everyone you will encounter in life will take it seriously. It can be really hard if you have a colleague or a friend who doesn’t “believe” in mental health issues. The most important thing is that you take your own mental health seriously – and when things are feeling off, remember that it is totally legitimate to seek help.

If you have any coping strategies that you would suggest, feel free to share them in the comments below! :)

Why Nipples are not the Test of Freedom

An image from the campaign

An image of a Free the Nipple campaign t-shirt

Nudity was a big part of my life growing up and combined with the weight of the body-shaming Western world I have developed a difficult attitude toward nakedness. While others seem to relish in nude adventures as a mark of rebellion, it merely brings me back to angst over being out of place as the child of a hippy mother. When I came across the “Free the Nipple” campaign that seems to be growing on social media, it brought back childhood memories. Free the Nipple emerged as a response to both laws across America which make it illegal for women to be topless, and rules enforced by a number of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which prevent nipple pics from being shared. A lot of celebrities and other folk seem to be jumping at the chance to rebel against the rules and flaunt as much flesh as possible.

A lot of statues in our house looked like this

A lot of statues in our house were inspired by this Venus

But before I get into Free the Nipple, what of my history of nudity? Well, I was raised by my single mother – an artist at the time – who was really into celebrating female bodies, particularly curvy ones. She was always sketching nudes, and given that I was a child who feared anything to do with “sport” or “the outdoors” I was always drawing and painting, and given ample opportunity to do life drawing with her. She always had strange art projects going. One particularly notable one involved painting vaginas in the bottom of a series of wooden boxes. To my eight year old horror, a rather conservative-seeming mother dropped off her daughter – a friend from school – while my mum was painting them. When my mum explained what she was doing, the other mother’s reaction was unexpected: “Oh!…Can you paint mine?”. Another time, my mum was really into ceramics and she made large statues of fat women, all breasts and thighs, in a nod to Venus of Willendorf. There were also flying breasts (a tribute to women who had them removed in cancer treatment), and most shockingly for me as a teen, our doorstep was graced with a giant ceramic vagina dentata and a penis covered in thorns. Yes, it’s fair to say that nudity was ubiquitous in my youth.

Our house was full of life drawings like this (image from kristinagaz.blogspot.com.au)

Our house was full of life drawings like this (image from kristinagaz.blogspot.com.au)

But, despite my mother’s best efforts at teaching me body-positivity, the shame of the outside world crept in. I constantly feared having friends over, after a series of parents found my mother’s art too provocative (not everyone wanted their vagina painted). And as my awkward teenage body began to form, I became more self-conscious of all things bodily, which was a terrible mismatch to my mother’s all-out embrace of the female form. I became resentful of the art she would create. In year 11 a friend showed me her own mother’s “secret shame” which was a room full of nude portraits that she had done. I felt embarrassed because all this time our house had been full of life drawings and I had always thought these were the least offensive (to be fair, they were tame compared to the enormous vagina with teeth on our front step). This, and many experiences like it, was all part of learning that in the “normal” world nudity is not really okay. As an adult, I had internalised the self-consciousness of the bodily so deep that I could barely be naked in front of myself, let alone partners and it’s been a slow process to become more comfortable with my flesh.

Another popular image from the campaign

Another popular image from the campaign

All of this means that I find it odd when people gush about walking around naked at home, because it’s just something I could never really get in to. But perhaps because of my experiences I can understand slightly more when people are so adamant to expose their nipples on social media as an act of freedom, because there sure is a lot of shame around nudity to be felt in the Western world (which we can see is actually enforced), and I myself have felt the weight of it. It’s a strange thing when you see that in advertising and popular culture sexiness can be ever-present, but nudity is barely allowed, unless filtered through the production values of Game of Thrones. But while I agree that social attitudes toward female bodies deserve critique, I don’t think we should be going and putting all of our political eggs in the show-your-boobs basket. As a form of rebellion I think it’s very limited, particularly because it can so readily be absorbed under a larger regime of “normalcy”, and end up perpetuating existing standards of beauty, race, size and so on.

Free the Nipple makes fashion

While the core group who started Free the Nipple originally aimed for some diversity of bodies in their images, their main campaign materials involve slim white bodies with perfectly round breasts. Celebrities have jumped at the chance to endorse #FreetheNipple, with models and pop stars alike wearing the t-shirts and getting on social media to flash some skin. Fashion houses have also responded, with “sheer” making a timely comeback. On the runways this season breasts have been pert but unobtrusive. When your tactics are so readily absorbed into the mainstream, so easily sexualised or used to sell products, you’ve got to wonder if you’re on the right track. It seems the nipple reform tactics of Free the Nipple haven’t quite smashed female body norms as hoped.

An image from FEMEN supporting free the nipple

An image from FEMEN supporting free the nipple

In addition, within a context where Muslim women are constantly being targeted for covering up too much, Free the Nipple’s investment in nudity as the marker of equality par excellence almost reads as an advertisement for a certain form of Western Imperialism. A notable and similarly problematic example can be seen with the antics of Ukrainian group FEMEN. Self-described as “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations – sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion”, this raison d’être has amounted to topless protests out the front of mosques and other similar institutions, with flag-burnings and the use of all kinds of anti-Islam propaganda. A group called Muslim Women Against FEMEN has even formed in response, to call the group out on the racism implicit in their actions. You may be thinking, well Free the Nipple is obviously a different campaign to FEMEN. For one thing, it’s not targeting religious and cultural institutions per say. But it does similarly invest in the idea of revealing your body as a mark of freedom and rebellion. Here the whiteness of this cause is a related issue, as women of colour have historically been marked out culturally as always already more sexual and bodily – arguing that revealing the body is an act of liberation might not ring true for all women.

An image from the Free the Nipple documentary

An image from the Free the Nipple documentary

Perhaps one of the reasons that this kind of activity can so readily become problematic, is that it is very narrow in focus, in what it is attempting to change and how. Unfortunately sexism is a much bigger fish than absent nipples on Facebook, though this may be symptomatic of the larger issue and I’m definitely not saying that it’s okay (I once tried to post a link to an artist whose work celebrates breast diversity and Facebook wouldn’t let me, which I found deeply disturbing).

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Image from the Free the Nipple fundraiser

A whole heap of social change with regard to how we see gender in society is needed  – how we talk about and understand gender, how we raise and gender children, how we learn about sex and our bodies. Fundamentally what needs to be targeted are the expectations of gender that are enforced to keep people divided from each other in society. At best, posting nipple pictures online as part of this protest might raise awareness about sexism and double standards in society. At worst, it might promote a whole range of other problems and in fact reinforce beauty, body and cultural norms – issues which deserve more space and consideration than a picture of a model’s breasts on Instagram.

 

 

How (Not) to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

This Tuesday Australia was again witness to the “race that stops a nation”  – the annual Melbourne Cup. Amid the gaudy headpieces, peacocking men and drunken stumbling, another common tragedy struck: two of the horses died, one in its stall from a heart attack after the race, and the other put down for a broken leg after being spooked by the crowd. While horses often die because of racing (or are put down when they are no longer winning) this year’s events seemed to strike a chord with people, and there was an outpouring of grief on both social media and a huge amount of coverage in the press. This was not without backlash – some people reacted by highlighting the other human tragedies that happen every day, arguing with people along the lines of “why should we care about two racehorses when there are so many other things to worry about”. Indeed on the same day – and getting very little news coverage – it was reported that an Iranian refugee sent to the island nation of Nauru by the Australian Government, was stoned and then beaten, as tensions on the island escalated between locals and the refugees being forced to stay there.

A picture from Animals Australia shared on Facebook

A picture from Animals Australia, shared on Facebook

But with horror happening all around us, what are we to do? Can we really ask people to stop caring about horses being tortured while refugees are too, as if caring about one thing is a callous distraction? I thought about this for some time.

I decided that it is a bit of a dick move to call people out for caring about another creature’s pain. What the outpouring of grief for the racehorses says to me is that people are capable of a great deal of compassion and that caring about one thing is not mutually exclusive to another. What we may even be seeing is a critical point where people are actually feeling emotional about the current state of affairs generally, 978-0-8223-4107-9-frontcoverwhich gets crystallised around strange and unexpected events such as this year’s Melbourne Cup.

American theorist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects explores this very idea – that in daily life we are subject to an overarching and low-burning trauma, as we are subject to all kinds of pressures and misfortunes. We can get by most of the time without noticing these negative daily “affects”- sensations felt in the body – but sometimes they boil over into big and unfortunate events, like a pressure valve momentarily releasing everyone’s pain and struggle.

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

Another example of the kind of debate over “what matters more” happened after the murder of Australian journalist Jill Meagher in 2012. In an unusual case, Meagher was subject to sexual violence and was killed by a stranger, after walking home alone at night in the busy streets of Brunswick. With her last moments eerily captured on CCTV, many Australians were deeply moved by the case, and a week after her death 30,000 people marched down Sydney Road in her memory. While some responded by criticising the march for not focusing on the “real” issues of violence facing women (such as the fact that being subject to stranger violence is much less common than domestic violence), this kind of critique only served to alienate people who were experiencing grief and concern. I imagine for many people it was precisely the low-lying “ordinary affect” of fear that many women experience on a daily basis (especially walking home alone) that was being expressed in the march. The Meagher case was a nightmare made real within a broader context where women experience violence and sexism every day.

another_world_is_possibleThe lesson to take away from all of this is that when people demonstrate that they care about an issue, getting angry at them for not caring about something else isn’t going to work. Instead, it can be a good time to raise awareness of broader issues and how these connect up. After all, it is the same world that allows horses to be tortured for the benefit of billionaires, while refugees are used as political pawns. We don’t need to choose to have feelings about one thing and not the other. Perhaps we do need to think about the kind of world we want to live in, a world where neither of these things are possible – and how in fact we might get there.

Best Lesbian Date Movie Ever

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A shot from ‘Pride': Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM)

Seeing as I usually only cover depressing Adam Sandler movies here at binarythis, I thought that it was high time I do a review of something more uplifting. Yesterday my girlfriend and I went to see Pridethe true story of how a gay and lesbian activist group joined forces with a mining town to fight the Thatcher government’s attacks on miners in 1984 -1985.

We assumed that it might be emotion-making – seeing as we both cried watching the trailer. But we didn’t expect quite the workout that our tear ducts got, and we laughed at our own sentimentality as our eyes welled up in pretty much every scene (to be fair to us, beforehand we accidentally primed ourselves for an afternoon of happy tears by watching Ellen Page’s coming out speech).

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Ben Schnetzer as LGSM leader Mark Ashton

Particular tear-jerkers for us were every time:
– someone mentioned the importance of solidarity
– people spontaneously sang union songs
– there was the shaking of hands/friendship between the gays and lesbians and the miners
– someone stood up for what they believe in, even though it was really tough
So yeah, pretty much the whole film.

As someone who has been involved in political struggles, particularly around students and education as well as refugees here in Australia (#HeyAsio), the movie struck a chord with me because it showed the way in which activism can fundamentally transform people’s views and bring them together to fight for a better world. This is summed up in my favourite quote from the film, from one of the miners who visits a gay club to thank Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) for raising money:

When you’re in a battle with an enemy that’s so much bigger, so much stronger than you, to find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well that’s the best feeling in the world. Can you see what we’ve done here, by coming together all of us? We made history!

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Though I really wanted to know more about the struggle on the picket lines (and how they managed to maintain such an extremely long strike), the focus of the film was really the journey of the gay and lesbian group who supported the miners. It was so refreshing to see a film where intimacy between same-sex couples was the norm and where it was not made into a plot spectacle or reduced to a joke. Overall the film managed to cover a great range of struggles encountered in queer life (homophobia, parental relations, AIDS, coming out, and finding pride) as well as political organising (building coalitions, schisms forming, the difficulty of leadership, and the challenge of those who argue for “partying not politics”).

When we got home we listened to Bread and Roses as we made dinner, elated with a sense that history reveals human beings are capable of remarkable solidarity.

Feeling Femme: Observations from Femme Hive 2014

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

This October I was lucky enough to be supported by the YWCA Canberra and the ANU, to attend the Femme Hive conference in Berlin. With my PhD work focusing in large part on femme identity, the conference provided a rare opportunity for me to meet femmes outside of an Australian context.

If you’re currently wondering “what even is femme and why is there a conference on it?”, check out this great explanation of femme identity from Queer Fat Femme Bevin Branlandingham. Many people have not come across the term femme before, and even some people I spoke to at the conference were unsure of what the term meant. While the conference was organised around feeling empowered about being queer and feminine identifying, some people were there because other people had labeled them as femme (e.g. lesbian couples are often confronted with the question “so who’s the woman and who’s the man in the relationship?” as if every time there must be a butch/femme pairing). A lot of people at the conference just wanted to find a space where they could feel comfortable being accepted as queer, where their feminine appearance was not simply dismissed as heteronormative.

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Contemplating femme at Femme Hive 2014

Unfortunately when I first received the grant from the YWCA, a local gossip magazine here in Canberra ran an article on me titled Queer Femme Is? which challenged the legitimacy of femme identity and biphobically mocked me as “a gal who likes hanging around with lesbians but prefers the closer company of a boyfriend”. This hostility was the first reminder of exactly why femme is an important topic for discussion – because so many people can end up feeling marginalised both within LGBT scenes and in the broader community, just because they are more “feminine” and therefore don’t fit within a neat set of assumptions about “deviating” from the norm.

Blush performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

B.L.U.S.H. performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

While the conference program was full of wonderful workshops, the best part for me was just listening to people’s own experiences of being femme within a queer community. Apparently in Berlin femme identity doesn’t carry much cache in the queer scene, and it was interesting that the conference organisers talked about “cultivating a culture of desiring femme” as one of their main goals. Significantly, the opening night of the conference involved a burlesque/drag/musical show, with a very diverse range of acts from across Europe exploring the theme of femme. The venue, Schwuz (a club that had a long queue, entry requirements of an airport and sold grapefruit beer), was packed, with more people sporting undercuts than I had ever seen gathered in one room. The acts revealed the complexity of femme, with each one so different from the last that it was impossible to settle on a concrete idea of femme identity’s common denominator.

The flyer for the Femme Party

The flyer for the Femme Party

One particularly interesting piece focused on fat femme identity. Presented by the burlesque group B.L.U.S.H., one of the performers came out wearing a dressing gown, reading a women’s magazine. After showing disappointment that her larger body did not match the bodies shown in the magazine, she tore it up and stripped down entirely. Her body was round and tattooed. She slowly put on knee-high stockings, high heels and lingerie. To a huge cheer from the audience she took out a chocolate brownie from a box and smooshed it into her face, broke off several pieces and threw them into the audience. Openly didactic, this performance was interesting in terms of exploring the body politics of femininity (what is an acceptable “size” for feminine bodies). Indeed the question of “normal” bodies and the marginalisation of fat queer feminine bodies was a key topic of discussion in the conference overall. The performance was also interesting because it alluded to the “putting on” involved in femininity, without marking this as a negative thing (as femininity is so often accused of being a “masquerade” in feminist and other writing).

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Of course it wasn’t all burlesque and glitter. A weekend of workshops followed and I was lucky enough to present my research work on the last day. My presentation was called “Feeling Queer Femme: Assemblages and the Body” and in it I explored the troubles of representing (trying to “pin down”) femme, as well as the corporeal and sensory aspects of embodying femme (a theme that emerged in my interviews with queer femmes in Australia). Though it was a bit strange presenting my version of femme to a room full of femme people, it was amazing to hear that attendees found the session so helpful for clarifying their own experiences and ideas on the topic, even though this was something they were living out day to day in their own lives.

Overall the experience was amazing and my ideas on the topic of femme have both been affirmed and expanded through attending Femme Hive. Now to finish writing that thesis of mine…