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…

How to Smash the Patriarchy with a Small Book

Perusing Yang Lin's new work

Perusing Yang Liu’s new work

Book Review: Man meets Woman by Yang Liu
You often hear of blogsters of the new world gaining financial – and product – benefits from their blogging pursuits. I’m thinking here mostly of the fashion and makeup bloggers that have risen to stardom, who are no doubt constantly being sent designer threads and cool new stuff to put on their faces. Well, here at binarythis.com, I’ve finally reaped the first free thing of my blogging days: a book about gender stereotypes (yes, I have obviously officially made it to the big time). Oh the spoils of blogging about gender! But enough of my bragging – let’s cut to the chase and get on with a review of the thing.

Taschen asked me if I might like to review Yang Liu’s new conceptual book, Man meets Woman. Yang Liu explains in the preface that her work seeks to document the differences in communication between men and women, that she has observed and experienced. The following pages are filled with complimentary sets of graphic images on particular topics such as shopping, sex and illness. Images appearing on the left, on a green background, represent a man’s view, with images on the right a woman’s view, on a pink background. For example, “mysterious objects” reveals that for men the unknown revolves around women’s makeup accoutrements, whereas for women tools and other hardware objects are mysterious.

Liu works with a range of stereotypes from the home to the workplace, providing imagery for many clichés – e.g. a man who sleeps with numerous women is a king, whereas a woman who sleeps with many men is considered easy. While the majority of pages focus on perceived differences between men and women with regard to heterosexual relationships, there is some commentary on same-sex partnerships. Liu’s images reflect a view that gay male couples in society are much more visible than lesbian partnerships.

While looking through Liu’s work, I couldn’t help bristle at many of the reflections on offer. It seems to me that there is a fine line between reflecting stereotypes, and reinforcing them through replication. Liu dances on that line, and I’m still not sure whether I really like the project. Part of the problem is that Liu’s motivations are somewhat difficult to deduce – she states that the images are reflections on a world that she perceives, yet it is not clear whether she is challenging these stereotypes, or merely describing them (and perhaps, reasserting them).

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Liu uses the classic iconography of “man” and “woman” symbols in her work

However, luckily we’re living in a postmodern age where the author is (figuratively) dead, so we can make of texts what we will. At the end of the day, I think that the greatest contribution Man meets Woman makes, is that it acts like a guidebook to stereotypes of men and women today. Do men really find beauty objects mysterious? Are women confused by hammers and screwdrivers? We don’t have to accept these as “truths” but Liu’s capture of these generalisations hints at the social expectations underlying the perceived differences between “men” and “women” in society.

But how are we to ensure that Liu’s book gets taken up in this way – as a challenge rather than a reinforcement of stereotypes (already there are a number of blogs reflecting on the “charming” and “witty” reflections of the book). Never fear – here’s a handy guide to using this small book to smash the patriarchy:

STEP 1: Visit parliamentary question time. Throw copies at the heads of known misogynists politicians.
STEP 2: Go on a guerrilla mission Valerie Solanas style – throw the book at all known misogynist pop artists.
STEP 3: Get someone to bail you out of jail.
STEP 4: Reflect on the stereotypes of the book, and realise that we live in an unjust world where men and women are socialised differently and driven apart.
STEP 5: Become a revolutionary gender warrior.
STEP 6: Use the book for kindling if you get cold while smashing the patriarchy.
STEP 7: The book also doubles as a nice coaster if you need to stop for a refreshing drink.
STEP 8: Show other people the book and talk about how it doesn’t need to be this way.
STEP 9: Work with others to fundamentally reassemble society into a world where gender is plural and fluid, not binary, and doesn’t separate us from each other.
STEP 10: Read the book again, as a bizarre historical artefact capturing an inequitable time.

The Creative Process (with cats)

Before I mired my self in the land that is PhD, I used to be active in the theatre scene, directing and acting. This is a little comic that I drew for the writer of a short play I directed in 2012, about the creative process. It might not have much to do with gender, but I do have it stuck up at my desk at uni to remind me of good times with friends. It keeps me going during the rough troughs of writing my thesis, so I thought I’d share :)

cartoon

Worst Lesbian Date Movie Ever

Fact: If you see this film, you're going to have a bad time

Fact: If you see this film, you’re going to have a bad time

Not long ago my girlfriend and I went out to the movies together for a first date. We’d been seeing each other for a little while, but hadn’t had an “official” outing together, and a movie seemed liked a sweet pick. Now my girlfriend’s taste in film can be summed up thus: storyline about food/cooking, attractive older women (e.g. Helen Mirren), slightly progressive tone, feel good transformation of some kind, romantic. But with a dearth of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on offer, we had to settle for the romance factor promised by Adam Sandler’s new flick, Blended. Having not read even a single blurb about the film, our exact decision making process was Drew Barrymore? Yes. 

We were quite prepared for the heterosexual focus of the film – after all it is very unusual to find a mainstream romantic comedy that even includes LGBT side characters let alone central ones. We were not however, prepared for the barrage of homophobic insults included in the dialogue, the central messages of which were: it’s not okay to be a lesbian and it’s certainly not okay to be gendered differently. I guess that whole Adam Sandler continually making gender offensive films should have been a dead giveaway, but alas.

A distinct lack of chemistry

A distinct lack of chemistry

If you look up rundown of the film, you’ll get descriptions like this:
After a bad blind date, a man and woman find themselves stuck together at a resort for families, where their attraction grows as their respective kids benefit from the burgeoning relationship.

Jim positively ruins his girls by dressing them in comfortable gym gear, etc

Jim positively ruins his girls by dressing them in comfortable gym gear, etc

 

But an honest description would go like this:
A divorced woman with two boys and a widower with three girls are not very attracted to each other. They decide to shack up when they learn that they can actually teach each other’s children how to be appropriately gendered in society. The divorcee who cannot manage to control the freudian sexual impulses of her own boys, finds solace in applying makeup and hair extensions to the girl children. The widower who has managed to raise girls that are very successful at basketball and that dress in comfortable clothes, learns that he is also good at teaching boys how to “be a man” through sport and activity. They come together at a special camp for people struggling to learn how to build a normal family. 

Sounds bad? It was. And that’s not to even mention the overtly racist tones in the “Africa” (country not specified) scenes, where dark skin = dim-witted servant status at the resort they find themselves at. As per usual the darker skinned men in the film were also overtly sexualised (that old trope where  racist assumptions represent certain groups as closer to “nature”, “the body” and therefore sex).

Before: sporty, active, unhappy

Before: sporty, short hair, unhappy

After: quiet, inert, happy

After: shacked up, long hair, happy

The hardest thing for me was listening to the audience laugh at the openly anti-queer jokes, such as when Lauren (Barrymore) and her coworker are caught hugging and then make a series of funnies about how they’re not lesbians (not to mention they work at a wardrobe-sorting business called “Closet Queens” – hilarious). And then there was this beautiful scene, where Lauren approaches Jim’s (Sandler) eldest daughter who is staring wistfully at a boy that won’t acknowledge her existence:

Lauren: Maybe you should just go talk to him.
Hilary: Oh, no, no, I can’t.
Lauren: Have you ever considered changing your hairstyle?

Without blinking, the film gives Hilary a makeover from her “bad lesbian haircut” (as it is referred to) and she instantly gets the guy. Meanwhile Lauren teaches the six year old in the film how to apply makeup properly (unlike her father’s attempt, which makes her “look like the walking dead”) and Jim shows the boys how they can channel their sexual frustration into competitive sports such as boxing and throwing cricket balls at people’s crotches.

It was so unbearable that we were both quite hysterical with disbelief that such a film could still legitimately exist.

But what actually really worked for this film, was that it was so overt in its sexual and gender stereotyping, you could use it in any GEND1001 course as an exemplar par excellence of how heteronormativity functions in society. For example, here’s a few things I picked up from my viewing of Blended:

TBH you literally have to learn how to even touch each other

TBH you literally have to learn how to even touch each other

1. You have to work really hard at being heterosexual and monogamous. Most of the time people fail and become single, on the brink of slipping into gayness. In fact, most heterosexual couples have to go on training camps to really get their act together and make it work. If you don’t try hard enough as a woman, you might find yourself rejecting men altogether and spending too much time with your supportive best friend.

Everyone is a *lot* happier when they look like normal girls

Everyone is a *lot* happier when they look like a normal girl

2. Being appropriately gendered is something you have to learn. One is certainly not born a woman and there are many skills about self-presentation you will need to acquire. Having short hair is not going to cut it for getting a man. Ditto being good at sport or wearing comfortable shoes. Similarly, makeup is not something to play around with, it is serious. If you use too much everyone will see your gender efforts, so hold back. Once you’ve got the skills down, they can be handed from generation to generation via same-sex familial relations.

Stick it out for the good of humanity

Stick it out for the good of humanity

3. To avoid everyone being queer, different or interesting in any way, every family needs a mother and father. The only way to keep a lid on everyone’s non-normative gender and sexual expressions is to keep the family unit together. Sure there might not be much attraction between the mother and the father, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to close their eyes and go in for the kiss for the good of the family, and for the good of the straight world as a whole. It’s a small price to pay to make sure that we don’t get queerly gendered and sexed kids running all over the shop.

So as horrendous as it was, the takeaway from the film is that it is a parody of itself. For all you queer kids out there, let this be something to hold on to: this film reveals the truly laborious and unnatural task that it is to be “normal”.

In Defence of Anger: Taking a Break from the Rational Thinking Man

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An image from the rally at ANU where students took over part of the Chancelry

Recently, I’ve been getting angry. In May this year, the Australian Government announced a federal budget that will see the abolition of free health care, the elimination of the financial safety net for the unemployed and radical changes to the way in which education is funded. Unsurprisingly (since these changes will affect a majority of the population), people have been responding. At my own university campus, there have been a number of actions including a rally on May 21 that saw over 500 students descend on the Chancelry and occupy part of the building. People at the rally were angry – they banged on doors, chanted and held a speak-out where students could express their rage and frustration at the university administration who are in full support of the proposed changes. Since the rally however, there has been a huge negative backlash with students being portrayed in the media as violent, irrational and dangerous. In response, students have been taking to more pacifist actions to demonstrate that their concern is legitimate and debates are being held that request students to engage in “polite and respectful discussion”. It seems anger has lost its currency.

But what might the value of anger be in these circumstances and why should we be wary of the delegitimisation of this form of expression?

1. Anger, if seemingly uncontrolled, is coded as dangerous man or irrational woman.
There is an idea prevalent in society that anger must be controlled – those who don’t effectively control their anger are an unknown quantity, to be feared. This is also seen as something we ourselves should fear, lest we lose control. For example, Roman philosopher Seneca believed that “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it”. Unfortunately this assumption is heavily coded along gender lines and often equates to one of these two options:
incredible_hulk71The dangerous man: i.e. the Hulk. The Hulk represents the threat of a mild-mannered man losing control and become savage to all those around him. He is a destroyer of all that is in his path, sometimes for good, but often for bad – you cannot trust this man to do the right thing as he lacks self-discipline.
simpsons_cat_lady_fox_thumb_560x392

The irrational woman: i.e. the Crazy Cat Lady. The Crazy Cat Lady is a figure of the terrifying and inevitable evolution of a woman who expresses her anger. Alone, she is isolated from society, treats other creatures with both love and disregard and has lost touch with reality to the point that her speech is unintelligible. The Crazy Cat Lady serves as a warning.

2. Anger’s polar opposite is coded as rational thinking man or passive woman
The corollary to all this is that if we see anger as the ultimate negative, we end up heralding cool-headed, calm and collected as the modes of being par excellence. This avenue cannot escape the clutches of gendered expectations, where sensible debate and discussion is overwhelmingly dominated by men, while women are expected to listen from the sidelines. After all, who is more cool and calm than the rational thinking man?

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“The representation of gender is its construction- and in the simplest sense it can be said that all of Western Art and high culture is the engraving of the history of that construction” Teresa de Lauretis

So thoughtful

So thoughtful

The rational thinking man: i.e. man.  Since Ancient Greece, men have been seen as the ones up for considered debate, nutting out the problems of the world. They are thoughtful, pensive, rational. Anne Cranny-Francis has described the figure of the male thinker as, “self-defining and self-sufficient. Coded as male, he is fully conscious to himself, in control of his actions, thoughts and meanings”. The rational thinking man has evolved from philosopher king to suave and well-dressed man of the year; always well presented, he is James Bond without a gun. Strategic, charming, independent, and not afraid to sit down and play poker with the bad guys.

So sexy

So sexy

 

The passive woman: i.e. woman. In contrast to rational thinking man is the woman underneath him – coded as passive, she listens to the rational man. Entrapped by her own bodily limitations (as she is more body than mind), she must take the role of the quiet seductress as she finds her own power to control rational thinking man through the only thing she has – her body. She learns the difficulty of sharing her own views – being told to be quiet, being talked over, being ignored. If she speaks up she is marked as overbearing – and well on her way to Crazy Cat Lady land, a lonely spinster life.

Of course, that is not to say that women cannot aspire to be philosophical thinkers (I did my honours in philosophy), but the gender coding in this realm is strong and women are certainly not expected to be part of this. Indeed, the discipline of philosophy itself has an awkwardly long history of marginalising women.

The fifteen year old student is carried away by police

The fifteen year old student is carried away by police

We can easily see these codings playing out in the media’s depictions of students. Following the May 21 protests in Melbourne, images emerged of a fifteen year old woman being carried away by police (obviously an attempt to save her from the ill-fate of the Crazy Cat Lady she seems destined to become). Unsurprisingly, those in power responded by stating that “if only” the young girl had tried a more sensible route, none of this would have happened. For example, the Herald Sun reported Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remarks following the young girl’s protest: “If that young woman had sat down and from her honest perspective written directly to the PM to say ‘here’s what I think about your Budget, here’s why I don’t like it’, I would be much more inclined attention to pay attention to that to see her being dragged away from a protest”. In effect the young woman was told to quietly participate and join in a sensible discussion with those that hold the ultimate power over the fate of her education, within a system where she does not even have the minimum access to democratic expression – the vote.

10286872_10152023438317143_6114163734565687914_oCloser to home, The Canberra Times ran with an image of one of the female students who was leading the rally, screaming as a security guard attempted to stop students entering the Chancelry. The headline below read: “Students hole up vice-chancellor in day of anger”. Through the use of this image, the student was used as the “face” of anger. She spoke directly to the media afterwards, but remained marked as unintelligible and was not quoted in the article. Discussions circulated that students should avoid violence and this front-page image hovered in the subtext of these conversations. Anger we were told, was a violent response.

An image from the read-in

An image from the read-in

In stark contrast in the week following the rally, another student started up an imaginative and radically different form of protest outside of the Chancelry – a read-in – where people could come and study in front of the doors, to highlight exactly what was being threatened in these cuts. Men and women alike gathered every day, united in their vigil for education, sharing political philosophy texts and ideas with each other. However, when power (i.e. the vice-chancellor) entered this realm of debate on the three occasions he visited the read-in, he unsurprisingly promoted discussion that was on his own terms. Students attempted to engage him in their utopian vision of thoughtful debate, but an obstacle remained. He had no stake in actually listening to students apart from appearance, and he brought down his PR person who took photos to make sure it was successful. It quickly became apparent that the VC benefitted from the image of rational thinking man, where we all appear to figure it out together when in fact we don’t (as the CCTV they immediately installed above the read-in demonstrated).

This is not an argument against philosophy or considered thought (or men!). However, we need to be very careful about championing rational thinking man as the figure of success, as this becomes deeply problematic once we enter the realm of rational debate with those already in power. Though reasonable discussion might sound great in theory, issues arise when a minority hold power over the majority, and it is left to the powerful to dictate discourse and discussion.

IMG_1030Obviously there are huge benefits to students having discussions with each other about the ethics of how to tackle issues. But when those in charge come to play, it does students no service to accept the terms of their debate. Students should not accept their idea that anger = worst possible reaction. Why wouldn’t students be angry at being marginalised? Is that not anger-making? As I have outlined, we need to remain radically skeptical about the way in which these emotions are coded along gender lines. We also need to be extremely careful that in our encounters with authority we do not give more power to power, when we accept the figure of the rational man.

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Feminist Hulk has been smashing stuff for years

As for the utility of anger, it seems to me that the Hulk and the Crazy Cat Lady have a lot of potential – after all, things will need to be radically destroyed and a new language created before we can really get on with sensible debate.

 

Loving the Straight Girl

I found the relationship between Frances and Sophie heartbreaking

I found the relationship between Frances and Sophie heartbreaking

I recently watched two movies - Frances Ha and Mean Girls (re-watched that is)  – which seemed to me tales of unrequited or unrealised queer love. Admittedly I often have this problem, upon finishing a book or movie I’ll talk to my friends about “how gay all the characters were” or the “gay storyline” and appear quite mad (often because these stories end in heterosexual marriage). When I first meet people I also tend to implicitly assume that they are gay – which people pick up on and then “come out” to me as straight at some point. I enjoy this queer imagining of the world. This is perhaps an unfairly comfortable universe for me, from my privileged position as someone who “passes” as straight and therefore doesn’t have to face the daily reality of harassment based on sexuality (though I do definitely face street harassment  based on my gender presentation…that’s another story).

But there’s another downside to this queer outlook: when the story line is your life and not just a movie, it can be sad if not downright heartbreaking when you find yourself pining for the straight girl. For me, this love of the unattainable woman has come in two major forms: the popular girl and the best friend.

Veronica: to die for

Veronica: to die for

The popular girl
There are popular leaders and then there are the popular sidekicks – in high school I found myself loving the latter. The ones who I thought why are you in that group, you’re so much better than that. The Veronicas of the world. Sure, sometimes these popular sidekick girls would be just as mean to me as their powerful counterparts, but I could forgive them with my imagining that they would one day break the shackles of their hetero crew. Because often these girls would be way more spunky than those they followed – tough enough to put up with the sh*t of their girl clan and generally sidelined because they weren’t as generic looking or acting as the top dogs. And you’d see them in PE class, with their awesome athletic skills (while you sat on the bench, pretending to feel sick with a note from your mum) and think damn girl, you don’t even know I exist… Years later you friend them on Facebook and find that they are just as hetero as ever, still lusting after the football-types and barely remembering who you are. *Sigh*.

Why Calamity Jane and Katie Brown were not in a relationship is something  I'LL NEVER UNDERSTAND

Why Calamity Jane and Katie Brown were not in a relationship is something I’LL NEVER UNDERSTAND

The best friend
This one is the kicker. It’s a horrible cliche that queer people must be in love with their best friend of the same sex, but at least in my case I’ve often found it to be true. When you get so close to someone that you can practically finish their sentences and they’re the only person you want to spend all your time with, it seems strange that you don’t just shack up and live in a little cottage growing flowers and raising beautiful babies. Even when you constantly propose such ventures (e.g. text message “I want to have your babies”), if your best friend identifies as straight I’ve found there’s not much hope – just slow heartbreak.

It’s perfectly reasonable that perhaps for the popular girls and best friends I just wasn’t the right person for them. Nevertheless, you’ll still find me crying into my pillow about why Frances and Sophie never got together and why all Cady ever cared about was Aaron Samuels.

Let’s Talk About Class: Hierarchies of Taste and Gender

Posh man: I ain't one

Posh man: I ain’t one

Recently, I found myself at a wine-tasting session with a friend, only to be confronted with the embarrassing reality that I had no idea how to act “appropriately” in the situation. The whole thing wasn’t helped by the fact that I was wearing an outfit much like Julia Roberts circa Pretty Woman, as I sometimes care to do (it’s a great look). Trying to “be myself” rather than affect a more refined countenance turned out to be quite the faux pas in terms of the disdainful/pitying/embarrassed looks I got from other patrons. While on the one hand I was rather “f*** you” about it, it also later resulted in me crying into my pillow.

Ladette to Lady: teaching us how not to be working class

Ladette to Lady: teaching us how not to be working class

Later, I came across this article about the UK’s Education Secretary Michael Gove, and his comments that working class children must learn to be middle class to get on in life. The basic gist of Gove’s sentiments is that upper-middle class kids are mostly the ones in charge and working class kids need to develop more refined cultural tastes so they can fit in with the elites and get a leg up. The whole thing reminded me of my wine-tasting misadventure. I thought, should I read the ancients, learn Latin, listen to classic music, learn what the f*** foie gras is, so I too can run the world one day? I’ve spent much of my life trying to dress and appear more middle-class than my background would suggest and I definitely understand the mobility that this has afforded me. This is not to mention the fact that the (relatively free) education system of Australia has allowed me to work my way up to doing a PhD and now I have the privilege of education giving me a leg up to even comment on all this. 

Struggling with this issue, I showed the Gove article to my first year sociology classes yesterday. They rightly pointed out that while Gove brings to light the important issue of cultural capital, his solution reinforces the same hierarchy of inequality he’s talking about (<3 my students those smart little beans). 

In Australia we refer to working class people with "unrefined" tastes as "bogan"

In Australia we refer to working class people with “unrefined” tastes as “bogan”

The idea of cultural capital comes from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and as this handy quote from McLaren (1994) suggests, cultural capital is “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another. Cultural capital represents ways of talking, acting, and socializing, as well as language practices, values, and types of dress and behavior.” So, the whole wine-tasting biz revealed my lack of cultural capital in this arena – probably owing to the fact that I was raised in a single-parent welfare-dependent family in a rural area and wine-tasting was something we had no access to, let alone interest in. But cultural capital isn’t just about etiquette, it’s about taste, as Bourdieu (1984) himself states, “…art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.”

Pro-tip: don't mention Miley at your next wine-tasting event

Pro-tip: don’t mention Miley at your next wine-tasting event

I talked about the hierarchy of taste with my classes and asked them what was at the top versus the bottom – i.e. if someone loved and knew lots about X what would make them seem really sophisticated, but if they loved Y would be looked down upon? People had some difficulty identifying what would be at the top – Mozart perhaps, Kafka? But when I asked them what was at the bottom, they all knew instantly – pop music, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, basically anything that was seen as the stuff of the masses. I joked with my students that I decide what I like based on what carries the least cultural capital, because f*** that sh**. When I came across this article in The Guardian about how horrifying it is when “pop and rock collide” I couldn’t help thinking it might be because pop is seen as such a low art form that it contaminates all “true art” that it comes in contact with.

Game of Thrones: So sophisticate. So amaze (for reals).

Game of Thrones: So sophisticate. So amaze.
(FYI I do love it also)

You may be thinking, well hang on, rock is also the stuff of the masses isn’t it? Why would rock be above pop in this crazy hierarchy of taste? Jimmy Hendrix ain’t no Mozart…right? Here we come to the gendered aspect of this culture war. I can’t help but see how within evaluations of “good” versus “bad” taste, often what is seen as of interest to women (or made by women) is way down the ladder. For example, what ridicule do writers or readers of romance fiction face compared to those of crime novels? How often have you heard someone bemoan how problematic Girls is, but how amazing Game of Thrones is? Or how Kanye West is some kind of genius and gets played on alternative radio stations, but Beyoncé stays within the realm of commercial radio (unless she’s featured by Kanye)? It’s as if something carries more cultural value if it’s seen as belonging to the realm of men’s taste, men’s stereotypical areas of interest like action-adventure, if it’s made by men or simply features men being awesome.

While Kanye is a world away from the cultural capital Michael Gove is talking about, the gendering of taste also plays a huge part in what counts right at the top of the hierarchy. The ancients, classical artists and musicians, the writers of classic texts and operas…predominately men (well, at least the ones we value/know about – the erasure of women from history in all this is another story). 4916523Feminists and cultural theorists have been fighting this for years, to try and turn the tables around. That’s at least part of the reason why you see university courses geared toward taking popular culture more seriously, particularly that which is seen as “women’s interest” areas (like romance).

Of course none of this means we shouldn’t critique popular culture for its downfalls and the way it reproduces other problematic norms around sexuality, bodies, consumption, race, ability, etc. But it does mean we need to hold ourselves to account when we’re critiquing these things. When we judge “popular” culture who are we judging along with it? The working-class? Women? The under-privileged? And we might also ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?