The difficulty of speaking about “women”

I went to a Women of Letters event yesterday – a fantastic evening listening to some well-renowned women (including the fabulous Melanie Tait and Eva Cox) read out letters on the theme of re-writing history. After the letter-reading session, there was a panel on “divergent ways” hosted by Scissors, Paper, Pen of Canberra. But when one of the curators of Women of Letters, the talented Michaela McGuire (the other being the spunky  Marieke Hardy), was asked a question about letter-writing as gendered, I was surprised at her response. Michaela suggested that perhaps letter writing and the desire to express oneself with pen and paper (or computer and paper!) is more of an innately womanly pursuit. Furthermore, Michaela pointed out that yes, Women of Letters was made up of mostly “female” speakers.

Now, Michaela has stated in the past that she questions whether she calls herself a feminist or not, and has got some flack for running predominately woman-focused events. So given this acknowledgement I wouldn’t want to call Michaela out for her essentially essentialist statement on women. But it did remind me of the struggle that I often personally encounter with talking about “women” versus “men” as well as the problematic interchange I often make between the words “woman” and “female”.

de Beauvoir: espouser of the sex/gender distinction

Simone de Beauvoir famously stated, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (in the new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier). Following de Beauvoir, feminist writers have been keen to highlight the difference between sex and gender (of course not everyone sees it that way). On the surface of things, this argument amounts to the idea that sex is in reference to a determination male vs. female made at birth based on genitalia, while gender involves a process of acculturation, learning the expectations of what it means to be a “real” woman or a man (e.g. real men wear suits not dresses). Of course, then Judith Butler came along and posited that sex is caught up in a similar process, but that’s another story…

The point is that for the most part, much feminist writing has attempted to draw a very clear distinction between sex and gender- i.e. “female” and “woman” carry very different meanings. So while we might want to say that femaleness is biological (though this is questionable and hardly clear-cut as JB points out, and as intersex conditions demonstrate), the category of woman holds the weight of a history of socialisation involving certain gendered roles.

Then again, transgender/trans* came along and reminded us that there is a lot more to gender than just socialisation- some people desire transition from one sex and/or gender to another (or something in-between or outside of). PLUS trans* reminds us that gender isn’t just about masculinity or femininity- e.g. you can be assigned female at birth, become a man, but present as feminine (see Femme FTM). So what does it really mean when we say “woman”, “feminist” or we attempt to categorise what “women” are like? And doesn’t an awareness of the sex and gender distinction render attempts at answering any of these questions really really difficult?!

Academic and poet Denise Riley expresses her apprehension toward identity categorisations, reminding us that terms fluctuate in meaning over time and context. Nevertheless, Riley acknowledges, “While I can’t think why I’d want to utter that chilling phrase ‘speaking as a woman’, I can think of situations in which it could be my lot to cough pointedly from the back row, ‘But what about the women here?’” While I hold many concerns about using the term “feminist” (noting its tricky devotion to the gender binary), I still fill with rage, for example,  when I think about the under-representation of women in the philosophy discipline (see my philosophy women tumblr here, they do exist!- Did you know that a bunch of Pythagoras’ teachers were women? No? Well, they totally were!).

Toilet door symbols remind us that being a woman is about wearing triangle dresses

On so many recent occasions I have found myself struggling to express my feminist sentiments in non-essentialising ways. Certainly relying on the interchangeability of the terms “female” and “woman” is something I trip up on. When talking about even the most general things, such as the difference between dating men versus dating women, I am prone to making the most lurid generalisations that blur the line between sex, gender and “natural” traits. And, while I know I am guilty of this, I still cringe when I hear women speaking about their natural proclivities for sharing, being supportive and caring, etc. While we continue to promote these ideas about innate difference, we in fact produce them.

Are women more prone to letter writing? Maybe. But surely that is not something we are born with.

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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.

Gender and advertising- mainstream marketing or pure propaganda?

The issue of representing marginalised groups in advertising is not new. After all, one only has to consider that cultural diversity in Western adverts is a relatively new phenomenon. But over the Christmas break (after reading quite a number of women’s magazines) I got to thinking about the way in which (at worst) gender and sexual diversity is vastly under-represented in the media, and (at best) representations that are made stick out as un-integrated attempts at tapping into the pink dollar (for example, you may have seen this infamous French McDonald’s ad).

This issue became very apparent to me after reading one of my nothing-else-to-do glossies (InStyle), which featured a NIVEA campaign called 100 years of love all about “celebrating the Australian families, friends and couples who’ve entrusted their skin to NIVEA for a lifetime of care” (cue sentimental music). The ad included an Indian family, a group of middle aged women friends, and a thirty-something couple (whose photo was accompanied by the tag line “NIVEA Loves Couples”).

…compared to a typical DIVA one

The NIVEA loves couples ad..

On closer inspection, NIVEA has in the past, run a “very successful” campaign to target a specifically gay audience. So it got me wondering- while the 100 years of love campaign is yet another reinforcement of heteronormative ideas of love and family, it also presumably says something about the particular market that buys InStyle- so I’m assuming (if NIVEA has done their research) this is predominately straight women.

Funnily enough one of my other summer mags- the UK’s DIVA magazine, dedicated to all things lesbian and bisexual- only featured ads depicting or related to woman-on-woman action. This is hardly surprising as I imagine that the readership of DIVA is made up of women with non-straight inclinations. But while it’s all well and good to expect that advertising holds a mirror up to the market, I long for the day when that means that campaigns using the words family and love involve increasingly diverse representations of sexuality and gender so much so that no one blinks an eye (much like I didn’t pay attention to the fact that the family represented in the NIVEA campaign was Indian until I sat down to write this post). If not, I think that this marks magazines like InStyle as exclusively straight. I wonder if this is ok, given that DIVA isn’t for straight girls- but then again DIVA puts it’s position front and centre, whereas InStyle surreptitiously masquerades as just another “normal” women’s magazine.

While I could go on for hours about the issue of the commercialisation of “gay” (and the Velvet Mafia, etc), instead, in the spirit of groups such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) that give out awards each year to companies that offer positive portrayals of LGBT in advertising, here’s my pick of the number one best and worst representations made in 2011-

The spread from the Vogue edition

BEST: Goes to The 2011 September edition of Vogue magazine (USA) which featured several advertisements relating to gay and lesbian issues- which comes as no suprise given editor Anna Wintour’s outspoken support for gay marriage. The most exciting part of this edition for me was the style section on weddings which featured a lesbian couple dressed in white and an invitation that included the brides’ names as Clarissa and Sarah- without any specific mention to gay marriage.

WORST: Hands down has to be the Libra ad for tampons called “drag it”, which has caused some outrage given it’s equation that having periods = being a “real” woman (and although arguably the title suggests that the person in the video is a drag queen and not a trans woman, the ad still has a particular position about womanhood that I for one find pretty offensive!).

UPDATE: Libra have issued an apology and have stated that the ad will no longer air in New Zealand or Australia. Despite divided opinion in the trans community about the ad (abjectly transphobic vs. a funny and positive representation), the most depressing thing has been seeing the plethora of transphobic responses on the Libra Facebook page.

Jack and Jill: Why Adam Sandler fails at life


EPIC (gender) FAIL

With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 4% (“Jack and Jill is impossible to recommend on any level whatsoever”) and a Rolling Stones review of zero stars (“A total bust, a stupefyingly unfunny and shamelessly lazy farce”) it’s a wonder anyone would ever pay to see this movie.

I for one, will not.

Now, I understand that some people might say, “don’t knock it till you try it”. Well people, I tried the trailer.  And if I went to see the movie after that experience, it would kind of be like tasting some poisonous red berries and vomiting, and then following that up by make a poisonous berry jam cake and eating that too. It just wouldn’t be a good idea.

Mainly, what’s not okay about this film is that Sandler has made the FUNDAMENTAL ERROR of making “easy comedy” out of gender (that is, him acting like a “woman”). It’s not cool Sandler. See Juliet Jacques’ fantastic article for New Statesman on why this kind of comedy is not only degrading, but just generally not funny. On the one hand I appreciate the South Park philosophy of humour that it’s okay to make fun of anything– so long as you don’t leave anyone out. On the other, I don’t see that there are enough positive representations of gender-bending in popular culture to really balance the kind of poor humour presented by Sandler’s new flick.

Entertainment Weekly might laud Sandler for his ability to make people pay to watch him despite being incredibly crap, but I say bring on the boycott.