Total synthesis and the cult of the natural

"Unaltered" food is a big selling point

Yesterday, I got into a discussion about genetically modified crops. My perspective was that while one might have ethical concerns about the practices of companies such as Monsanto, this is different from having an issue with genetic modification (GM) itself. This apparent blurring of lines between the science of GM and the corporatisation of GM products was most clearly evidenced in July 2011, when Greenpeace activists whipper-snipped a GM field trial in Canberra. Despite CSIRO publicly stating that they have no known links to Monsanto, Greenpeace defended their actions on the basis of possible dangers to humans.

But it seems to me that there is a fear underlying the GM debate that is about more than concerns for human health. In a time when many people are anxious over the future fate of the planet,  it seems we’ve also developed a fetish for the natural. On the surface of things, this doesn’t sound bad. In fact, words that might spring to mind when we think of “natural” include healthy, normal, organic, green and well being, not to mention those mental images of makeup-less women standing under waterfalls in luscious rainforests. This is probably somewhat due to the plethora of advertisements that claim their products are good for you because they are “100% natural“. Ironically, by definition something can be deemed all-natural, even if produced through an entirely synthetic process (chemical synthesis of organic molecules).

But chemicals aside, how can we ever grasp a rigid definition of the natural?

Railing against the purportedly unnatural is often brought up in arguments against bodily modification such as plastic surgery, including sex affirmation surgery. In these debates, surgery is posited as a mutilative act. Apart from the religious idea that the “body is a temple“, I’m not sure where this idea of the sanctity of the body comes from. We alter our bodies and appearance on a daily basis- we put makeup on, we cut our hair, we wear different clothes, do or don’t exercise, eat different foods, pierce our ears, or even put coloured contacts in our eyes. While these effects may not be as skin deep as surgery (with tattooing as a modificatory middle-ground), our appearance and the way that we intentionally shape it are an important part of who we are in the world- who we show ourselves to be, for others to perceive.

Corsets: body modification back in the day

The differences between GM soybean crops and having a mastectomy for sex affirmation are obviously very very vast.  Some people may have radically different opinions about GM versus surgery. Granted, there are also ethical considerations to be made on these subjects that warrant discussion. However, I think that public reactions to these issues often reveal deep-seated sentiments about what is natural (and whether that is good), which need to be acknowledged as separate biases.

One day I imagine that we will be able to grow our own spare body parts, making modifications all that much easier. And perhaps by definition, through this act of synthesis we will consider it natural…

Getting real

"He doesn't smell right!" he exclaimed. "He isn't a rabbit at all! He isn't real!" "I am Real!" said the little Rabbit. "I am Real! The Boy said so!" And he nearly began to cry.

Yesterday I saw a production of the children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. The story is about a little stuffed bunny’s relationship with a young boy, and the soft toy’s desire to be a “real” rabbit. After much time, the velveteen rabbit does become real in the boy’s eyes. At the end of the story, a fairy gets involved and the rabbit becomes really real, and goes to play with the other bunnies in the woods. The particular theatrical version I saw opened with something wonderful like, “realness isn’t how you look, it’s something you hold in your heart”. It got me wondering, what does it mean to be real?

The other reference to “realness” that came to mind (apart from Pinocchio), was Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning. Set in New York in the late 1980s, the film explores the world of underground drag-ball culture. At these balls, gay men and trans* folk (of predominately African American and Hispanic backgrounds), would compete performing various categories of “drag”. Several categories necessitated the effective portrayal of “realness”– for example, Butch-Queen realness was judged on whether the competitor could pass as a heterosexual in the sub-categories of executive, thug, pretty boy, etc. Below is a clip from the film about realness:

For the participants in drag balls, demonstrating realness was a way of showing your potential, if boundaries such as race, class and gender didn’t exist. However in Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler discusses the way in which doing realness creates the boundaries of realness itself- the rules of realness are reinforced. Butler teaches us that getting real is tricky business.

Aside from the drag-ball scene, the realness issue seems pervasive across so many experiences of sexuality and gender. As discussed previously, it’s easy to find oneself in a situation or community where you feel that you don’t meet the “criteria” for acceptance. The trans* community is very often subjected to the rules of realness, as this piece by Tobi Hill-Meyer reminds us (e.g. “you’re not a real transsexual woman if you don’t wear dresses and skirts all the time“).

Haters gonna hate

But back to Velveteen. I think we can take a lot away from this story on the subject of the real. When the rabbit encounters some “real” forest bunnies, they mock the toy for having no legs (“fancy a rabbit without hind legs!”). And while the fairy at the end assures the velveteen rabbit that for the young boy the rabbit was 100% real, she still changes the rabbit and says, “now you shall be real to everyone”. Despite this ending, when the forest bunnies tease earlier in the story, the velveteen rabbit exclaims, “I know I am Real!”. Maybe then, this little rabbit really does teach us that it’s what’s in our hearts that makes us real- despite what we look like, or what the haters say. And when the fairy transforms the rabbit into a real forest dweller (though she may be reinforcing what it means to be a real bunny), we know that actually, the velveteen rabbit  was real all along.

When is enough, enough?

I came across the above clip the other day. In the video, a young man identifies his troubles being recognised as “trans” within the trans community, given that he no longer wishes to take hormones, have surgery, or do a number of other things that might be seen to be important to passing as a man (such as packing). Importantly, the guy in this video is expressing a desire to be recognised for who he feels to be (a trans boy), whether that means being less masculine than stereotypically expected, or not altering his “female” body. This perspective seems incredibly radical, as it troubles all of our notions of what it means to be a “man” or a “woman”. He’s not saying that people shouldn’t have surgery or take hormones, etc, but is saying that this approach isn’t for everyone that is trans.

I do not identify as a trans person, but this issue of feeling that you have to meet particular “criteria” to fit in definitely extends beyond the trans community. We all want to be seen to be who we say (and feel) we are. This raises issues of visibility – “how can I be seen?” – and sending the right message – “how can I effectively communicate who I am?” (see also previous discussions on femme).  When we have certain assumptions of what being X, Y or Z means and want to conform to those meanings, we also reinforce and reiterate their very basis.

sometimes we want to be seen to stand out from the crowd...

For example, the stereotype that “all butch lesbians have short hair”, might lead a baby butch to feel that she needs to cut her hair off to ensure both visibility and the right message (after all, can you really be a “boyish” lesbian with long hair…). There’s nothing wrong with this strategy- until it means you ignore those people still speaking an identity but not conforming to the expected image that goes with it (for example, if you denied someone that said, “I’m a baby butch, and I have long hair like Fabio dammit!”).

Unfortunately we’re all part of this process- and indeed, many people might claim that my “feminine” disposition means that I am also supporting a system whereby female = feminine = woman. This really hit home for me when I suggested to a friend that we start a femme group at our university. When we started thinking about the “criteria” to join we got stuck- if we write rules about what being “femme” is, we’d just be undoing all of our queer beliefs about gender and sexuality (we couldn’t come up with any good reason why everyone couldn’t define as femme if they wanted, straight, gay, bi, man, woman, whatever!).

...and sometimes we just don't want to feel like the odd one out

In the end I guess we settled on the idea that as long as the person felt they were femme and wanted to identify as such, then that would be fine by us. But then came issues of how we would explain our group, and what activities we’d do together. Sure, I may want to watch Mean Girls and wear pink eating cupcakes every Friday, but presumably this proclivity would not be shared by all…

This is tricky stuff. But I’m excited to see that the boundaries of gender are continually being critiqued, through mediums like the public video blog above. So, when we’re finally out of the semantic mud and into the post-postmodern quicksand, at least we’ll all be in it together.