A Gay Man Celebrates International Women’s Day (and a Stupid Jerk Shits His Opinion)

9 03 2013

March is Women’s History Month. I want to focus on achievements, but sadly my attention is drawn to shitty American jock humour–which is everywhere. Did you notice how annoyingly stupid the introduction to the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony was? A song about boobs by cut-rate humourist Seth MacFarlane and his tuxedoed entourage?? Oh my goodness, the ice-cold glare launched by Charlize Theron could slice through diamond.

Charlize Theron Booby Song Oscars 2013

Well, I saw a refreshingly cool comment by psychic and medium Chip Coffey, who, in my opinion, reverberates with respectability, class, and integrity:

Chip Coffey International Women's Day Facebook





The Divine Feminine: an Iron Age Stepford Wife?

22 03 2012

Maybe you are one of them–women, and even some men, who have secreted away from the church pew to summon the goddess in the sacred grove. The trend is growing, it seems. More people are searching for spiritual fulfillment by exploring the “feminine” side of spirituality which is central to so many pagan and New Age traditions, including Wicca, and generally absent from the supposedly more patriarchal male-god religions. But is this “divine feminine“, which forms one half of a duotheistic theology, really such a fair-minded and forward-thinking alternative to male-dominated mainstream religion? As we will see, it might actually reinforce the very patriarchy it seeks to dismantle, and the implications are ominous for women and men alike.

To show how the “divine feminine” movement backfires in its attempt to overturn patriarchy, we must first establish what the concept means. Generally speaking, the “divine feminine” embodies a triad of female archetypes: the Maid, the Mother, and the Crone. Each archetype correlates with a different stage in a woman’s life. The Maid represents the pure and innocent virgin, the mother, the nurturing life-giver and care-taker, and the crone, the wise old teacher–or, potentially, the wicked witch. She is every important aspect of womanhood, or so it would seem, and people pursue the pagan priesthood specifically to pay her homage. She functions as the polar opposite to the male god in a binary which consists of an aggressive, rational, dominant “male energy” and a passive, emotional, submissive “female energy”.We worship her because she complements a strong, disciplinarian masculinity with a weak, nurturing femininity that males supposedly lack.

But, in the stereotypical binary of the weak goddess and strong god, we already see the failure of the divine feminine to dismantle patriarchy. An example of this binary in Chinese philosophy would be the yin and yang, in which a negative, dark, feminine principle complements a positive, bright, masculine one. The divine feminine movement attempts to reclaim female authority from obscurity by extolling the meek, nurturing, yielding nature of the goddess and ignoring her strong, confident, assertive nature—but this is oxymoronic, because it suggests that women’s power lies in their powerlessness. How can women gain power and influence equal to that of men if they are essentially less powerful and influential than men? It just doesn’t make sense. So, with its schizophrenically passive-aggressive, powerful yet powerless goddess, the divine feminine simply gives patriarchy room to flourish.

Now, critics of this view will argue that the binary isn’t really that black and white. “Each man has a feminine side, and each woman, a masculine side”, they will assure you, glowing with pride in their observation. They will point out, for example, that in the yin and yang model, each side has a little bit of the other within it. This is true, but it is also true that the yin is still overwhelmingly dominant and “masculine”, and the yang, overwhelmingly passive and “feminine”, so it doesn’t achieve much to say “there’s a little bit of the other in each”. Besides, it’s a circular argument. Arguing that there is no pure masculinity or femininity, and that each man is a little feminine, and each woman, a little masculine, is a homunculus fallacy, because it still relies on the use of the discrete terms “masculine” and “feminine” to explain gender. Once again, we see how the divine feminine fails to completely liberate male and female from oppressive sex roles.

In addition to the yin and yang model, the fact that the goddess exists almost entirely in relation to males and childbearing presents a problem for the “divine feminine”. The most important role of the goddess is that of the fecund, life-giving, heterosexual mother. She is constantly associated with the earth, fertility, menstruation, pregnancy, and child-bearing. After all, only women can give birth, right? Yes, male fertility is also celebrated in the form of gods like Priapus and phallic cults, but this fertility forms only one aspect of the male god, who is also warrior, judge, poet, and leader, among many other things. The goddess, though, is overwhelmingly associated with nurturing, life-giving fertility, and her sexual relation with the god, as in the sovereignty goddess, an earth divinity whose purpose is to bequeath the land’s power to a man through sexual relations. She is the pure Maid who is sexually desirable to males, as in the Teutonic fertility goddess Ēostre (related to “Easter” and “oestrus”), the Mother who bears her husband’s children, as in Gaia, and the Crone who is useful for nothing more than giving advice and recalling how many miles she had to walk in the snow, and who sometimes represents death, sinister magic, and even cannibalism, as in the child-eating Slavic witch Baba Yaga or the Greek serpent-daemon Lamia. When the woman explores life beyond the hearth and nursery, her unbridled energy necessarily becomes an evil, a transgression against her husband, children, and community. But this isn’t exactly fair. What about girls, sterile women, post-menopausal women, hysterectomized women, lesbians, and women who simply choose not to have children, or even to marry? Most of us would still call these people female, and the vast majority of them are not evil child-eaters, so obviously the “divine feminine”, with its inordinate emphasis on female fertility, fails to represent the many different aspects of female virtue beyond that of childbirth and nursing. It is hard, then, to see a feminist ideal in this Triple Goddess.

The divine feminine is a well-meaning attempt to correct the historical repression of females in mainstream Western religion and spirituality, and in some ways it may have made inroads, but it still falls short of the goal: it presents an oxymoron in the powerlessly powerful goddess, it creates a contradiction by using the terms “masculine” and “feminine” to assure us that there is no pure masculine or feminine, and it describes a goddess whose identity exists almost wholly in relation to men and reproduction. This divinely powerful goddess begins to look like nothing more than an Iron Age Stepford wife. Of course there is nothing wrong with women being compassionate and nurturing, but there is something wrong with women being more compassionate and nurturing than men, especially if all of us are supposed to meet the same, ultimate standard of enlightenment. To reclaim female authority in religion and spirituality, then, we should be exploring the many other aspects of the divine feminine: the warrior, the judge, the poet, the leader, and the good witch. In fact, we should be expanding this to the scientist, the doctor, the politician, and the professor. After all, we no longer live in the Iron Age, and these roles meet the practical demands of the modern day. Simultaneously, we should be exploring the more yielding and nurturing side of the god. By performing this kind of self-scrutiny, we learn from each other and become truly whole human beings.





The “Plug-in-Socket” Paradigm: How Homophobia Overlaps with Sexism

3 03 2012

Homophobia, it turns out, has its roots in good, old-fashioned sexism, and I’ll tell you why. On February 6th, Washington state residents Jennifer Morris and Allison Vance, a 13-year-old, testified against gay marriage before the Washington State House Judiciary Committee. Their argument was basically that gay marriage is wrong because men and women complement one another. The state Legislature didn’t buy their argument, however, as Washington state legalised gay marriage on 13 February, the day before Valentine’s Day. (The Seattle bars were rife with exuberant homosexuals that night.) Still, it is important to deconstruct Morris and Vance’s argument, expose its fallacies, and show how they are motivated by sex stereotypes.

The arguments of people like Morris and Vance are usually put in rather crude, simplistic terms. Lacking a grasp on nuance, they tend to compare marriage with things that involve inserting one object into another in order to make more “stuff”, or to produce something tangible. Consider the analogy Morris draws between copulation and buildings, which the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger reported on in its official blog, Slog:

Today my main message is that specific tools are for specific purposes…. If you were going to build a skyscraper, you would not be putting bolts with bolts and nuts with nuts, because the structure wouldn’t go up. And if it did it would probably fall apart, probably destroying many lives…. I feel very demeaned by the fact that roles don’t seem to matter.

Nuts with nuts. Such prurient imagery. According to Morris, sex is about creating people, not pleasure—despite the fact that the world is verging on 7 billion. Morris seems to care more about the tribal Bronze Age ideal of propogation than the twenty-first-century ideal of sustainability. The notion is that sex is about breeding as much as possible, despite the stress this may place on the environment, and ultimately on people. Echoing Morris, Vance says that trying to make a same-sex-headed family work is “like trying to walk with two left shoes.” She also says that “[i]n order to walk properly, you must wear one left shoe and one right shoe”. In other words,the only proper sexual union is that between a man and a woman, because the only proper sexual union is between two people who can procreate, and only opposite-sex couples can procreate.

Of course, we already know that this is ridiculous, since sterile couples, hysterectomised women, postmenopausal women, and couples who choose not to have children can marry despite their inability or choice not to procreate—because they love each other. For the same reason, then, gay people should be allowed to marry one another. Any adult can marry another adult who consents to the marriage. Simple as that. But conservatives are immune to this kind of reasoning—it tends to go in one ear and out the other, or else they come up with increasingly desperate and tenuous counter-arguments to avoid facing the fact that this kind of reasoning makes perfect sense.

But Morris and Vance’s anti-gay sentiment is not just about procreation—it is about the sex roles associated with these (as Morris herself suggested above). Think about it. Traditional sex roles involve a dominant, independent male penetrating a submissive, dependent female. The male is the logical, aggressive, disciplinarian “yin”, and the female, the intuitive, submissive, nurturing “yang”. The male is the dominant force, and the female, the recessive one. The male is the unemotional breadwinner, and the female, the emotional care-taker. Or else, as in the T.V. show Whitney, the woman is the passive-aggressive psychopath, and the male, some dumb, confused testosterone machine who stares like some fucking dumb piece of numb-brained shit at women’s asses. Here we see Vance’s left and right foot. Her argument against gay marriage is founded on old-fashioned, sentimental ideas about a relationship in which a dominant male complements a submissive female (an inherently hegemonic system), and on teaching children these roles early on.

What does this have to do with lesbians and gays, you may ask? Well, in the view of people like Morris and Vance, lesbians and gays are traitors because their relationships do not involve a man dominating a woman (left versus right shoe). Lesbianism does not involve a man dominating a woman, and male homosexuality does not involve a man dominating a woman. Not only does the rigidly mechanistic “plug-in-socket” scenario of “male and female mate, thereby producing offspring” break down in these relationships, but so do the hegemonic, sex-based social roles which derive from it. In a word, gays and lesbians have sex for pleasure, not to dominate a member of the opposite sex and keep the plug-in-socket hierarchy functional. For this reason, in the eyes of gay-marriage opponents, gay marriage is wrong.

But are traditional sex roles really a desirable thing? I don’t think so. They basically imply that women should be nicer people than men (because they have different limbic systems or whatever). But this is kind of like saying that normal people should be a little bit nicer than psychopaths. We don’t say that psychopaths should be crueller than normal people; we say that they should be as nice as normal people, and so we medicate them accordingly. Similarly, we shouldn’t be saying that men should be meaner than women; we should be be saying that they should be as nice as women, and teach them accordingly. And even if there is some biological explanation for men’s greater aggressiveness, it isn’t an ethical imperative; it is merely an observation of a natural phenomenon, like a genetic predisposition for cancer. We don’t say that those genetically predisposed to cancer should be more susceptible to cancer; we treat them for their condition. So, everybody should be held to the same standard of sensitivity and compassion, and it is simply giving licence to cruelty to say that “boys will be boys”. What gay rights activists should be doing, then, is pointing out that homophobia cannot be justified using sexism, because sexism itself is not justifiable.

Besides, true Christians (who make up a sizeable portion of homophobes) shouldn’t be buying into the temptation of saying that male aggressiveness and female submissiveness are biologically predetermined. They believe in Jesus Christ. Well, the Bible says that Jesus was compassionate (Matt. 9:36), that others should be compassionate (Matt. 18:33), and that Jesus himself commanded people to be like him (John 14:12, 1 Corinthians 4:16). If Jesus was compassionate, if others should be compassionate too, and if he told people to be like him, it follows that Jesus and the Bible required people to be compassionate and peace-loving. Now, because Jesus was male, and because he commanded everybody to be as compassionate as he, he necessarily required males and females to be equally compassionate. After all, he is the common denominator for compassion among Christians. So, while sexism motivates homophobia, if Jesus himself breaks down traditional sex roles, Christians can’t use them to justify homophobia.

I didn’t write this post using the traditional English essay formula; I wrote it in a sort of stream of consciousness format. I guess I was channelling Virginia Woolf or something. Anyway, I wanted to show how homophobia stems from sexism, how sexism is stupid, and how sexists have no basis for using Jesus to justify homophobia, since Jesus-quotes don’t justify sexism. Hopefully I’ve achieved this much. It’s important to emphasise that homophobia and sexism have a lot in common. Both gay people and feminists defy patriarchy by defying traditional sex roles. In order to attack homophobia, what gay rights advocates need to be doing is attacking sexism, since this seems to be used to justify a lot of homophobia. A discussion on gay rights is not complete without mentioning women’s rights at some point. Both concern sex roles and sexual identity, and as such they inform one another. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the recent gay marriage victories in Washington state and Maryland.





A Young Feminist Decries the “Pink Stuff”

28 12 2011

A very serendipitous gift was bestowed on me on Christmas Day: a video of a little girl railing against gender stereotypes inside a toy store. I unwrapped a present, a book called Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs (given me by my wonderfully open and progressive mother), and showed everybody the book, announcing the title for all to hear and accepting family photographs of myself, of course, with the cherished tome in hand. Noting my interest in the topic of gender theory, my elder brother showed me the video, which featured a girl named Riley critiquing the use of colour-coded gender stereotypes in marketing. This girl must have an IQ of 140, or if she doesn’t, she will when she grows up. She is precocious:

I love her! She’s like Lisa Simpson, and Lisa Simpson is like me. Watch this clip of Lisa Simpson, when she was me in, like, 1985 when I was seven years old:

Riley is a real-life version of Lisa—and me! Just like me at her age, she doesn’t buy into the marketing bullshit, and she makes no effort to hide her disgust with the crass commercialization of sex roles. It’s like she’s saying, “this stupid pink shit is fucked up, and it makes me want to vomit!” But, of course, she is a five year-old girl, so she doesn’t say that. What struck me as amazing was her reasoning abilities. She was able to create this abstract symmetry between what girls like and what boys like: “Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses; some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses”. This is pretty sophisticated thinking for a five-or-six year-old.

Most amazing of all, I think, was this little girl’s ability to cut like a laser through the smoke and mirrors of the marketing industry and exclaim that “the companies who make these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want”. So now little Riley has not only identified the unfairness of pressuring girls into buying princesses and pressuring boys into buying superheroes, but she has pinpointed the commercial mechanism which exploits these gender stereotypes to achieve a profit. I’m sorry, but that is a brilliant observation for a child so small.

It’s interesting to note the way in which the father relates to his daughter in this video. The father seems to insist that boys can have pink if they want, but the daughter seems to insist that, while this is technically so, girls are still pressured into wanting the pink princess crap while the boys are pressured into wanting the blue superhero crap. And, if we think about it, that’s true. Even if our children technically can buy cross-gender toys, they are very strongly admonished against doing so. There are social consequences to it, and little Riley is struggling in the midst of this gender fracas. At the same time, I commend Riley’s father for being a true father and taking the time to nurture his child by listening to her words, acknowledging her wisdom, and taking her to the toy store himself in the first place. Not many fathers would do even that much.

This reminds me of my childhood, which was raped away by the horrid spectre of a stepfather who hated women, black people, and gay people. Until 1986, when I turned 8, I was allowed to play with “girl stuff” as much as I wanted—both my parents were mild, good-natured, common-sensical people, if a bit religious and conservative—but once my mother divorced my father and married this odious troll from the American south, everything changed. She had to try to accommodate his stupid scruples, which included the immediate eviction of any gynaecoid play-thing. Suddenly, as boys, we weren’t allowed to play with anything that resembled women (or what women were thought to be). We were allowed to watch She-Ra: Princess of Power, but we were no longer allowed to play with the action figures themselves:

I thought that She-Ra was hot! And by hot I don’t mean sexually exploitable; I mean sexually confident. This woman was a sexual agent. She was in control, and for that reason she was admirable. But for some stupid reason, my stepfather hated the idea of his stepsons watching cartoons of women dodging lasers and throwing men over their shoulders. He hated the idea of boys liking “girl things”, and, on top of that, the idea that those “girl things” involved girls who wielded power. But every faggot loves that shit. It was all just too much of a mindfuck for his dessicated brain to handle. This is the type of gender-stupidity that I think little Riley is railing against in her father’s video.

Little Riley is an inspiration. She gives us a lesson. She is a tiny girl who helps us remember how both girls and boys can be hurt by rigid gender roles. Parents should not tell their daughters that they should like only princesses and pink stuff, and they should not tell their sons that they should like only superheroes and blue stuff. Because, even at an age as young as Riley’s, the stupidity and oppressiveness of these roles are apparent. And if you want to play the biological determinist card, I entreat you to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine (who exposes the very recent, very cultural origin of the pink/blue phenomenon in her book). Reading that might make you think twice about how you treat your children. It’s all about what actually works for us as people who have to adapt to the demands of a modern world. It’s always been about that. Nothing else.





Julie Gentron and the Lady League, Vol. 1, Ep. 3: The Bitches Return to Earth!

20 12 2011

Written by Brandon Arkell and Seth Gordon Little

Last time on Julie Gentron and the Lady League, the ladies faced imminent catastrophe as an asteroid and the dwarf planet Sedna threatened to smash the H.M.S. Vestibule to pieces!

“PAM, what’s happened?!” shouted Julie.

“A fragment of the approaching asteroid has skimmed the hull of the ship. The cold plasma shield has eliminated most of it, but some pieces made it through. All vital life support systems, as well as artificial gravity, are operational, however this will not remain the case if the asteroid collides with the ship. My calculations show such a collision will occur within the next nine and a half minutes.” Lupa stormed around the main deck, flapping his heavy limbs and cooing in agitation, clutching his coconut bra, and leaving a trail of urine in his wake. (Donna had forgotten to put on his diaper.) The poor thing was obviously trying to communicate something important, but his message went unheeded.

“I’ll take care of this”, said Rosalind, leering at Donna. “With my superhuman strength, I should be able to push the ship out of its path! Don’t worry, Julie”, she said, smiling seductively at the captain, “I’ll steer the ship on course and we’ll be back in London in time for a massage.” Julie smiled and nodded at Rosalind, who, beaming with confidence, assumed a hard, bright, metallic shell of skin and exited through the evacuation chamber.

“In order to deflect the asteroid”, said Julie, “we need to combine our ship’s built-in artillery with our own mutant powers. We must use the ship’s most potent weapon—the lady beam! Donna! Power up the ovarian plasma-ray generator, focus its energy through the clitoral conductor-cannon, and deploy the beam at ten o’clock, in the direction of the asteroid.”

“Yes, Julie!” said Donna without a beat. She proceeded to chicken-peck away at the computer console, sounding out each letter as she went.

“Julie”, said PAM.

“What, PAM?”

“I’m scared, Julie.”

“It’s just the ovarian plasma ray generator-powered, clitoral cannon-channelled lady beam, PAM. It’s going to help save us!”

“I understand, Julie. My calculations show that this is the most effective tactic, other than self-annihilation. It’s just that I cannot live without you. Proceed.” Julie contorted her face in bewilderment at PAM’s strange show of emotion. Just then, a thick, bright, white-green beam shot forth from the clitoral cannon and obliterated the asteroid. A stream of space debris assaulted the ship’s cold plasma shield in a spray of light. They had done it. The asteroid was done with. Everybody clapped, cheered, and jumped up and down with joy. Then they stopped.

“We’re veering too close to Sedna now!” cried Julie. “Donna, you said you can move planets, so you must be able to move a space-ship out of Sedna’s gravitational pull. Do it, now!”

“I’ll do my best.” Donna placed her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes. She then made a strained, girlish squeal resembling a pig having an orgasm. Lupa stood erect, placed his fins to his breast like an opera singer, and commenced with a haunting, mournful whale-song which resembled the peal of an adolescent humpback whale. “Lupa!” shouted the others, groaning and covering their ears.

“Anyway”, said Julie, “I’ll take command of the ship’s computer and steer us clear of this thing.” PAM murmered words of vague concern over this action. “Don’t worry, PAM”, she said. “Your consciousness will remain intact and fully operational.”

“I—seem—to be—tilting the ship, but not enough to escape Sedna’s gravity”, said Donna, straining harder. “Julie, help!”

“Hold on!” replied Julie. “I’ll concentrate my technopathic powers on the ship’s engines.” Julie thrust her breasts outward, flexed her strong arms and thighs, and concentrated. “By the great goddess! I’ve taken too sharp a turn toward Sedna!” she said, not knowing her own strength. Lupa, unnoticed by the others, assumed the pose of a sumo wrestler, and his high-pitched peal gradually fell to a deep, barely audible hum which reverberated throughout the ship like a foghorn. The ship began to turn, but only the poor land-whale could see how the powerful sonic reverberations created by his whale-song helped the team escape the clutches of Sedna’s hard, icy surface. Meanwhile, Donna was on the floor, doggy-style, ass in the air, elbows to the ground, fingers still to her temples, focusing all her might on moving the ship with the power of her mind. Soon she had matched Lupa’s efforts, and the ship made another tilt. Still, the captain was needed, and so was her computer.

“PAM, help me out!” cried Julie in desperation.

“I will work in unison with you, Julie”, said the onboard quantum computer. “I will provide you the steering, the thrust, the motion, the strokes—”

“PAM!”

“Yes, Julie?”

“Cut the lesbian bullcrap! Er, for now, at least. Help me steer, already!” There was a tense pause, broken only by Lorna’s constipated squeals and the land-whale’s powerful baritone. “Are we clear of Sedna’s gravitational pull yet?”

“Just, Julie.”

“Then, by the breasts of the great goddess, take us back to Earth!”

“Julie, what about Rosalind? If you would like, I will dispose of her with a blast of ion radiation and—”

“—PAM, you will do no such thing! Rosalind will come back aboard the ship unscathed. Afterward, you will direct us on a course to Earth.”

“Yes, Julie.” Almost immediately after, the doors to the evacuation chamber whooshed open, and Rosalind re-entered the deck, panting, yet bobbing confidently and flexing her biceps cockily. Julie embraced her, while Donna gave a half-hearted cheer and a limp clap. Lupa began bounding around the deck with a big, booming, babylike coo of excitement, clapping his limbs uncontrollably and wiping away tears from his big, limpid blue eyes with the tip of a fin. Another trail of urine formed behind him.

“Rosalind, thank the goddess you’re OK”, said Julie, caressing Rosalind’s well-developed shoulders. “I wasn’t sure that your armoured skin would deflect the assault of cosmic rays.”

“Honey”, laughed Rosalind, patting Julie affectionately on the back, “I’ve had worse, like the time I wrestled that giant space-ghoul from the Oort Cloud. I’m not bragging, but I did help steer us clear of a dwarf planet.” Donna mimicked these last words sarcastically under her breath, tossing her feathered Farrah Fawcett tresses to the side. “The atoms in my armour are quite dense, blocking even the most intense radiation”, said Rosalind. “It is almost impossible for cosmic radiation to damage my genes.”

“As I already suspected, since I am a quantum physicist”, said Donna in an argumentative tone. Rosalind lowered at her, and she met her opponent’s gaze with an equally baleful glower. If these girls had claws, they’d be unsheathed.

“Julie”, cooed PAM.

“Yes?” replied Julie.

“I am glad that you are unharmed, Julie.”

“Yes, thank you, PAM”, said Julie, pacing around the deck with a growing wariness of PAM’s human-like qualities.

“Gee whiz”, said Donna quizzically. “What is up with this computer thingy? I mean, I understand when a pole likes a socket and a socket likes a pole, or when a pole likes a pole and a socket likes a socket, but when a socket doesn’t even have a socket to begin with, well, I just don’t get it.”

“Donna! That is uncalled for”, scolded Julie. “For your information, PAM has proved to be a very wise and caring—”

“—It is all right, Julie. I understand. The fact that I do not possess an obvious orifice or appendage for penetration makes Donna uncomfortable.” At this, Donna grinned mischievously.

“PAM”, said Donna.

“Yes, Donna?” bleeped PAM in her computery voice.

“What’s between my thighs?” asked the psychokinetic minx, giggling girlishly and covering her mouth with the tips of her fingers. Rosalind rolled her eyes and slapped her palm to her forehead.

“Your oestrogen-powered utero-blaster?”

“No.”

“Your platinum-lined lady vector ray?”

“No.”

“Your heat-seeking, blood-fuelled, tampon missile rocket?”

“Close, but not quite.”

“Your vagina?”

I can’t believe she actually said it!” cackled Donna ferociously. “She’s just like Siri!” Lupa clapped excitedly, belched, and made one of his famous whale-coos, an action performed by a land-whale when it approves of a jest.

“Of course she did, you dolt”, said Rosalind. “She’s a lesbian space-ship computer.”

“Julie”, said PAM, “I am unable to interpret the rationale behind the dialogue of your companions. I suspect this is due in part to a lack of myelination in areas of higher thinking in the brain.” At this, Donna gave a look of resentment, peering around the deck in search of whatever might constitute PAM’s presence.

“Ladies, ladies!” said Julie. “Donna, you’re being childish. Rosalind, stop being snide. PAM, stay cold and malleable. Lupa, you’re cute, but stop goofing around. OK. Let’s get back to London. If we don’t want to reach home by the time we’re old spinsters, we need to step up the pace and try to move faster than some twentieth century space probe. Donna.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I want you to use your power to warp space-time by creating a miniature black hole in front of the space-ship to get us past Saturn in the next sixty seconds.”

“Yes, ma’am”, said Donna, sighing. “I’ll try.”

“And, Rosalind”, said Julie, “remember to activate the ultra-tamponic cold plasma shield so that we don’t get incinerated by the heat created in the warp bubble. We already faced that threat warping from Alpha Centauri back to the Earth’s solar system.”

“Yes, Julie”, said Rosalind, thumping down at the console.

There was a spacey sound as the H.M.S. Vestibule entered the inner solar system. Earth, Britain, and, finally, the landing pad in the South London borough of Lambeth became visible.

“Well that was a blast!” said Donna. “We’re here! God, I’m dying for a bubble bath. Calgon, take me away!”

“And I’m dying for that massage, Julie”, said Rosalind, posing like a teenage locker-room jock.

“Bubble bath OK”, said Julie to Donna. Give, or receive?” she said to Rosalind.

“Baby, I’m cleverly equipped”, said Rosalind. The scene was suddenly interrupted by an urgent message in a raspy yet venerable RP accent sputtering out of the main deck’s speakers like a principal yacking away at her students through some old-fashioned twentieth century public school intercom.

“Julie Gentron!” said the voice in a reedy, chiding tone.

“Lady Fairfax!” said Julie. She stood as stiff as an unused tampon. She now had to report back to her boss about her excursion abroad—her mission to open diplomatic relations with the peoples of Alpha Centauri—in the cosy confines of a smart, clean office at the MI6 headquarters in dirty Vauxhall. With this in mind, the ladies heaved their bosoms, disembarked from the Vestibule, and pressed on forward across the landing pad. Opposite them, the silhouette of a low, shuffling figure appeared against London’s filthy sky.

“Quite correct, Gentron”, rattled the voice authoritatively, “in your assessment of my identity; not in your punctuality!”

Stay tuned to find out what surprise awaits the Lady League upon their return to Earth in the next instalment of Julie Gentron and the Lady League!





How I Outsmarted a Sexist Psychology Professor

14 12 2011

If there’s one thing I’ve learned getting to know university professors, it’s that pride is alive and well in academia, despite many claims to the contrary. I always expected such persons to be paragons of fairness and objectivity, but it turns out that they, too, harbour secret prejudices of their own—and sexism is no exception to this rule. I did, however, have the opportunity to turn the tables on one such individual, who thought he knew what he was talking about, but didn’t. Knowing at the outset that his facts were wrong, I graciously burdened myself with the task of correcting him on his assumptions on a topic which often goes unexamined—sexism in language.

(By the way, I must apologise to Nobel Prize-winning economist Leonid Hurwicz for using a photograph of him at the beginning of this article. I’m sure he isn’t a sexist old fogey; it’s just that he really looks like one! But he’s dead now anyway.)

Now, my friend is no dolt—he’s a professor of psychology at an eminent Canadian university—but he’s also an eccentric. He hails from Romania, loves opera and English literature, and pines for the days of the old British Empire, which, in relative terms, imposed a much gentler form of imperialism on its colonial subjects, or so he would say. “The British had an ideal behind their imperial mission–-to teach and to elevate benighted peoples”, is something he would say, “and they carried out this mission much more humanely than the Dutch, French, Spanish, or other European colonial powers.” Anyway, he sounds rather like Dracula and smokes like a chimney. And he’s gay. So he’s like a gay, chain-smoking Dracula. He comes across as sophisticated and quaintly nostalgic, but he has some rather ugly opinions—for they are certainly not facts—about feminists.

One of these opinions is that feminists don’t know what they’re talking about. You see, my friend once encountered a group of women in his milieu who complained that the word manhole was sexist because it contained the word man, but not woman. But, he argued, feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist, because man derives from the Latin word manus, which means hand”, not “adult male human being”. So the feminists are just being angry, stupid women, he suggested.

Well, that’s just plain bullshit, as I soon showed him. It is what in diachronic linguistics (historical linguistics) we call “folk etymology”: derivation of a word from a false, popular, made-up origin. Anyway, what follows is the general sequence of exchanges we made, in which I disprove his argument and prove its irrational, sexist underpinnings. It is not to be taken verbatim; the quotations are actually paraphrases, not direct discourse, but they accurately reflect the logic behind the points made. And to make a distinction between speakers, I will refer to my friend as simply “Dracula”. Now be patient and closely follow the line of argument to see how I arrive at my conclusion.

“These feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist”, said Dracula. “It is not, because the man in manhole comes from the Latin word manus, which means ‘hand’, not ‘adult male human being’. It refers to people who labour with the hands.”

“But the feminists aren’t incorrect to call manhole sexist”, said I, “because the man in manhole doesn’t come from manus; it comes from the Old English word man, which does mean ‘adult male human being’ in our present-day usage. So, yes, the feminists do have reason to complain that words like manhole are sexist.”

“Brandon”, cooed Dracula in a thick yet articulate Romanian accent, “if you want to show that the word man doesn’t mean manus, you have to show that the English didn’t borrow man from Latin.”

“They didn’t.”

“But the Romans conquered the Anglo-Saxons, and conquered peoples borrow words from their conquerors. Hence, the Anglo-Saxons must have borrowed the word man from manus, the Latin word for ‘hand’.”

“That is incorrect. The Romans didn’t conquer the Anglo-Saxons; the Anglo-Saxons settled Britain after Rome left. The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 under Claudius. The people they conquered were Celtic, not Germanic. After a series of Anglo-Saxon and Irish raids, the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 to concentrate their legions on Rome in response to a massive siege there by the Visigoths, who attacked the city under the leadership of Alaric. It was only then that the Germanics had free rein to settle Britain en masse, and even then they only did so several decades later, beginning in 449, under Hengest and Horsa of the Jutes. This means that the Anglo-Saxons [the Germanic tribes in Britain] couldn’t have borrowed man from a ruling Roman elite. The Romans had left before the Anglo-Saxons could borrow anything from them. So, no, the feminists aren’t wrong about the etymology of man.”

“But, Brandon”, purred Dracula affectionately, “The Celts and the Germanics are the same people with the same language group, so when you say that the Romans conquered the Celts, you say that the Romans conquered the Germanics, too. Thus there was still a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans.”

“That’s just plain wrong”, said I, patiently. “The Celts and Germanics are two totally different peoples with two totally different language groups. Look at any Proto-Indo-European Language Family tree. Italic (from which Latin is derived), Germanic (from which Old English is derived), and Celtic (from which Welsh and Irish are derived) are linguistic sisters. Germanic is no more closely related to Celtic than it is to Latin itself, the language you incorrectly purported as the donor language to the Germanics. They’re all equally distinct. The Celts spoke Celtic languages when the Romans arrived, and the Anglo-Saxons spoke Germanic languages after the Romans left. So, no, there was not a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans, and, yes, the feminists are correct in analyzing man as meaning a type of ‘person’, and not ‘hand’.”

To be honest, I was thinking to myself, “Girl, you’ve got your chronology backwards.”

“Besides”, I continued, “words aren’t borrowed just because they come from a conquering culture; they’re borrowed because they represent something special, hence prestigious, about the conquering culture. The English didn’t borrow the word ‘chicken’ or ‘goose’ from the invading French, because chickens and geese were common to the English; poor English people ate fowl, too. But they did borrow the words for pork, beef, and venison from the French [cf. French porc, boeuf, venaison], because these words respresented something special, hence prestigious, about the invading culture. Only the invading French could afford to eat these choice meats. However, ‘man’ was a concept common to both the invading French and the English, just like ‘finger’ or ‘hair’, so the English didn’t bother borrowing this word from the French. So, again, no, man wasn’t borrowed from an invading culture, and the feminists are right about its etymology.”

Here Dracula sat for a moment, truly puzzled, then drew a copy of Roget’s Dictionary [Please, really? At least obtain a fresh copy of the Oxford English Dictionary] from his mammoth, heaving bookshelf, breaking it open on his dining table next to a glass of rosé and a thick stack of fresh cigarettes. Scanning the pages intently between puffs of smoke, he told me he would find out once and for all the etymological root of man, and how it proved that the feminists didn’t know what they were talking about. Ultimately, though, all he found was a derivation which stated that the origin of man was OE, or Old English. Not Latin.

“Drat!” he seemed to be thinking behind his cigarette, his brow furrowed in deep cogitation. Even then he was wrong, and the feminists were right. And so he slowly slouched back in his chair and puffed on his cigarette, still staring at the page in the dictionary, whilst I politely summarized my argument against him. We eventually drifted off into other topics of conversation, but I think we both left with an understanding that his analysis of the feminists he encountered, and perhaps women in general, was wrong. If this one person can be so deliberately remiss about sexism in language, just tally up all the other culprits. I think that what we’re seeing here is a form of academic hubris which seeks comfort inside its own stubborn, old-fashioned shell, but which hurts girls and boys in the real world of today by promulgating snobbish, stupid myths about women.





Fast Company on Female Infanticide: “Don’t Kill Girls! They’ll Cook and Clean For You!”

27 11 2011

Many cultures around the world are suffering from an undersupply of women, since many people prefer baby boys to baby girls. In response, the business magazine Fast Company has launched an advertising campaign aimed at swaying consumers to combat the world’s skewed gender ratio. This is a noble cause, but the problem is that the magazine goes about correcting this problem in the worst way possible—by promoting damaging stereotypes about women. Basically, the campaign argues, we need to make more girls because girls are intrinsically nicer than boys and they’ll cook and clean for you!

I read about Fast Company’s campaign on Aubrey Cohen’s blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Initially I thought, “Oh, this is great. A business magazine is helping raise awareness about female infanticide, gender-selective abortion, and all of the other practices which are reducing the world’s female populace.” Because we shouldn’t be killing or preventing life based on sex, of course. By the time I had finished reading the article, though, I was thinking to myself, “Christ on a cock. You’ve got to be kidding me. They’re basically saying that we should be increasing the global female population because girls are intrinsically nicer than boys, and boys are fuck-tards.” Below is the blog article I read:

Ads Make the Case for Girls

Parents around the world, including most U.S. dads, still prefer sons. So the folks at Fast Company magazine decided to attack the issue with advertising.

In the age of ultrasound, it’s an issue with serious repercussions. Chinese parents give birth to 120 boys for every 100 girls, while their Indian counterparts have 109 boys for every 100 girls, compared with a natural balance of 105 to 100, Fast Company noted.

That consumer preference turns into disaster when repeated across a society. Unnatural [s]election does a frightening, thorough job of documenting the consequences for countries full of men: sex trafficking in Albania, mail-order brides in Vietnam, crime in “bachelor towns” in rural China. The future portends aging populations short of nurses and teachers

Ad campaigns have been enormously successful in promoting seatbelt use and stigmatizing drunk driving, the magazine noted. “That’s why, as a thought experiment, Fast Company asked some top advertising, marketing, branding, and digital agencies to make the case for baby girls in the language of the global consumer — a challenge they took very seriously.”

The ads use the requisite flashy graphics and clever imagery to note, among other things, that women tend to make better leaders, be more compassionate and live longer, while “boys are 76 percent more likely to set something you love on fire.”

I have exactly what I wanted: one of each. And, while my son has never set anything on fire, he does start bouncing uncontrollably by the end of the day if he doesn’t get a chance to run around.

Wow. Really??

We need more girls because they’re nicer than boys? Really?

When I read the last bit, I thought to myself, “Aw, how sweet. Cohen ends with a sentimental anecdote about how his daughter can stay still longer than his son.” Unfortunately for him, this doesn’t prove that girls in general can stay still longer than boys. In actuality, increased exercise is actually positively correlated with better learning outcomes for both boys and girls. Contrary to the single-sex education fad taking the world by storm like some early 1980s hairstyle, girls need to move around too in order to learn well. They’re not submissive little princesses for you to talk at.

But the whole article is chock-full of simplistic, sentimental assumptions about sex differences, including the Fast Company quotation implying women’s teaching and nursing capabilities, which Cohen affirms with his own anecdote about his well-behaved daughter and his unruly son, a little boy plagued with the curse of a male neuroendocrinological system. (Oh, and isn’t it just so cute! He can’t help himself!)  Like the writers at Fast Company, he takes it for granted that women are better equipped to be nurses and teachers, because they are more nurturing. But what’s the proof? He provides none. It’s just a sweet, sentimental blog entry purporting to espouse a common-sensical truth. Yet Cordelia Fine adroitly overturns the hypothesis that women are intrinsically more nurturing than men in the first section of her rigorously researched tome Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. The science cited to prove this claim, she shows, is basically junk, and we need to stop cowtowing to our sloppy, self-serving sentiments.

When we look at the above, what we see is a form of paternalism: the author(s) seek to nurture an environment which “cherishes” women while placing them in traditional roles of servitude: the cook, the diaper-washer, the little angel in the house. For people like Cohen (and I don’t presume that his intentions stretch this far, although he reminds me of many whose intentions do), the global undersupply of females is bad not because women are being killed off, but because “nicer” people are being killed off, and nicer people are women. But we shouldn’t be combatting “female undersupply” because girls are “nicer” than boys; we should be combatting it because girls are being killed off simply for being girls, whatever they may be. If we’re short of females, it isn’t that we’re killing off “nice people”; it’s that we’re killing off people we view as inferior because they have vaginas.

The whole assumption that we’re killing off the “nice, female” population, and not just the “female” population is, as noted above, rooted in the idea that females are the “nice” ones. But maybe what we should be doing is two things: fighting against female infanticide, etc., on one hand, and training men to be more nurturing on the other. At some point, men will have to pick up the slack and assume responsibility for some of the traditionally feminine jobs, like nursing and teaching. We should be fighting against female-related deaths because it is murderous and gender-discriminatory, and we should be training males to be nurturing anyway. We should, in short, be fighting against the disproportionately low female population because it threatens females for being female, not because it threatens intrinsically “better” human beings.

That said, I implore you to read this blog article, which deals intimately with female infanticide in a way I cannot: http://viswanathanar.wordpress.com/ It is written in a local dialect, but most English-speakers should get the gist. It’s actually quite poignant once you’ve put the pieces together. In these places, women are merely striving for survival, let alone the rights we enjoy in Western cultures. We should keep things in perspective and place them in priority.

What do you think?





Are We Really “Born This Way”?

11 11 2011

I’m sick of Lady Gerber, but I have to write about her because of this song she wrote about being born with immutable sex characteristics. The danger is in how she implies that these characteristics are unchangeable.

Upon its release, Lady Gerber’s dance hit “Born This Way” instantly became a brazen vindication of homosexuality’s biological basis. The LGBTQ community revelled in the message that homosexuality was immutable and therefore deserved society’s approval. The problem, though, is that the song’s message is founded on the precepts of biological determinism, a philosophy which reinforces the social inequities that the LGBTQ community and other minorities are struggling to eliminate. In other words, the song’s message relies on a socially damaging cop-out about human nature. Perhaps what we need to do is take a fresh approach to gay and lesbian apologetics by critiquing biological determinism for the way in which it disenfranchises us, because it doesn’t necessarily liberate us.

Essentially, biological determinism states that people are born with certain immutable biological characteristics, and that these characteristics help explain the social inequities we see in society. By contrast, social determinism posits that the behaviour of the individual is determined by social mores and institutions. Since they are both forms of determinism, biological and social determinism are the opposite of free will, a philosophy which states that human beings ultimately possess agency and volition over their actions. Finally, compatibilism states that free will and determinism are not incompatible, and that both work together to influence the behaviour of the individual. And then there is epigenetics, which is relevant but lies outside the scope of this article.

One might think that, ostensibly, biological determinism would serve gays and lesbians, because it transfers responsibility for homosexual behaviour from the person to the person’s physiology, thereby exonerating that person of any claims of moral turpitude. According to this view, if homosexuality is biologically predetermined, gays and lesbians are not sinning against God, because they are blameless. A person’s same-sex affection is driven by the neurochemistry of his or her brain, and it is unfair to blame a person for neurobiological processes they cannot control, hence it is unfair to blame a person for his or her same-sex affection. In short, the idea is, “You can’t blame a person for something they can’t control.”

It seems like a triumphant final “hurrah” in defense of homosexuality, but is it really a good philosophy for human beings in general? Maybe not.

Using biological determinism as an excuse for our behaviour might inadvertently hamper efforts at achieving gender equity. The biological determinist model posits that boys are inherently more aggressive, lustful, and dominating than girls, and girls, more passive, emotional, and nurturing than boys, because of some genetically-influenced cocktail of hormones which shaped their brains in the womb. But is this philosophy scientifically sound, and does it serve boys and girls? As Cordelia Fine points out in her book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, testosterone does seem to determine which set of genitals a baby will develop, but it does not necessarily determine which toys children like to play with, let alone which types of careers they wish to pursue later in life. She also shows in the first section of the book that the scientific attempt to prove that girls are more empathetic than boys is implausible. Fine shows again and again that the “neuroscience” of hardwired sex differences use to justify gender inequity is methodologically flawed, misinterpreted, or simply nonexistent.

If we think about it, we can see the slippery slope of excuses which might be used if we embrace biologically determined sex inequity: for example, when a man rapes a woman, it isn’t really his fault, because he was being controlled by his testosterone levels. In effect, rapists get off the hook because “boys will be boys”, and girls like to please. In other words, men get to violate women because that is what it means to be a man, and women should just lie back and think of England. But biological impulse does not excuse rape, because rape hurts people. I know. Novel concept. If you’re impelled to rape, you deserve to be sequestered, medicated, and treated psychiatrically, not excused because of your testosterone levels. And if you continue to try to rape, a stable of women martial artists should be set on your ass to put you in your place, bitch.

But bio-determinism is dehumanizing for another important reason: empathy is something that defines us as human beings (or as mammals at least), and we need as much of it as we can get, but bio-determinism posits that boys are inherently less empathetic than girls, so, essentially, what it is suggesting is that half of the human race should be crueller than the other half. This is absurd if our goal is to encourage the greatest degree of empathy possible in everybody, male or female. If empathy is so valuable, why are we making exceptions for it? That’s just schizophrenic–it’s shooting ourselves in the foot. Does the LGBTQ community really want to endorse such ridiculously irrational self-limitation? I hope not.

Bio-determinism could even be used to justify racism. As bio-determinists, we might argue that black people are inherently more violent than white people in order to explain the disproportionately high number of black people in American prisons. We might also invoke bio-determinism to explain the higher mortality rate of black people, and why they need this-or-that medicine (the commercialisation of race for the purpose of lining the pockets of drug companies). This racialisation of social ills is roundly criticised by Dorothy Parker in her book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century. When we embrace bio-deterministic explanations for racial inequity in health and crime rates, we are automatically enabling such inequity to persist. Clearly, promoting the assumption that ill-health and violent tendencies are in the nature of dark-skinned people is detrimental to both dark-skinned and light-skinned people, so we should stop making excuses and figure out the larger reasons why dark-skinned people tend to crowd our prisons and hospitals. For this reason, the LGBTQ community might wish to be cautious about using bio-determinism as an explanation for behaviour.

Ironically, the “Born This Way” maxim might not just hurt women and racial minorities—it might actually end up hurting the LGBTQ community itself. Does it really matter whether or not something is natural? By using biological innateness to justify their desires, gays and lesbians are simply giving power to the oppressor, because they are sort of implying that they “can’t help doing something that might indeed actually be wrong”, as if it’s some uncontrollable disease. In other words, they’re suggesting, homosexuality isn’t OK because it makes somebody happy; it is OK simply because it can’t be helped. It’s kind of like saying that freckles are OK because they’re natural, not because they make somebody happy. Of course freckles aren’t OK just because they’re natural; they’re OK because they make somebody happy.  Similarly, homosexuality isn’t OK just because it’s natural; it is OK because it makes somebody happy.

What is taking place here is an “appeal to nature” fallacy, which states that a thing is good because it is natural, and bad because it is unnatural. But a thing is not good because it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural; it is good because it creates pleasure and happiness, and bad because it prevents pleasure and happiness. Clearly, rape and murder are part of human nature, but nobody in their right mind says that these things are good. Conversely, aeroplanes are unnatural, but nobody goes around protesting against aeroplanes because they’re bad. So, what gays and lesbians should be doing is saying, “Even if homosexuality weren’t natural, that doesn’t make it wrong. It is right because it makes people happy. It is also your choice to be a Christian, and that’s a man-made decision, but I don’t discriminate against you because of that.” Thus, to deny power to the oppressor, the LGBTQ community should focus on critiquing the appeal to nature fallacy, not affirming it.

As we can see, Lady Gerber’s widely adored anthem ostensibly vindicates same-sex desire, but in many ways it actually reinforces damaging social inequities for women and racial minorities, as well as LGBTQ people themselves. It hurts almost everyone. Certainly, biology plays a part in who we are as human beings, but it does not necessarily define who we are in a distinct linear fashion from womb to adulthood. Absolute biological determinism, like social determinism, seems a little implausible, so perhaps we should consider paying more heed to compatibilism–the philosophy that allows for a complex interaction between the mind, the body, and society. We might even argue that we have more free will, more agency and autonomy, than we give ourselves credit for. Maybe we weren’t strictly “born this way” after all, and maybe there’s a bigger “socio-biological” picture to why we do what we do, but that doesn’t make homosexuality wrong any more than it makes, say, Christianity wrong. Maybe what we should be doing is defending minority sexual identities for their own sake, not for their basis in biology.

Of course, at the end of the day, it just so happens that there is a mounting heap of evidence defending at least the partial innateness of homosexuality, but, alas, it is exceedingly difficult to teach a religious fundamentalist new tricks, isn’t it?

Source:

The Muck of Ages





What Does It Mean To Be A Drag Queen?

28 10 2011

What social purpose does drag serve? Do drag queens reinforce gender stereotypes, or challenge them? I would wager the latter.

I once took a women’s studies course in university called “Introduction to Gender Theory”, or something like that. Oh my god, I was in heaven. For me, it was like going to church and singing, “Hallelujah! I have reached the Promised Land, and it is full of all sorts of delicious fucking freaks.” The course was basically an introduction to, well, gender theory, but from a poststructuralist perspective. That basically means when you look at identities and what makes people who they are in a critical, sceptical light. Anyway, at one point in the course handbook the professor discussed drag and explained how some people see drag as reinforcing gender stereotypes by embodying what they think women should be, which is traditionally feminine. The flip-side of this argument, however, is that drag queens are actually challenging gender stereotypes by mocking traditional feminine expectations placed on women.

The latter argument makes more sense to me, and here’s why. Drag is an incredibly complex form of art. It sends out so many messages at once that it is easy for the untrained eye to miss the ultimate point. It is so sophisticated, so full of so many layers of meaning, and so wrought with irony that it is almost too difficult to distil its essence in words. You can’t simply say, “Oh, it’s a man with fake boobs and high-heels, so he must be saying, ‘This is what women are like'”. That kind of answer is just too pat, and it’s an intellectual cop-out. Drag deserves a more nuanced explanation. When men do drag, they do so with a subversive goal in mind: to satirise the crass feminisation of women.

OK, so there are many different types of drag, and each has a unique purpose, but I believe the one I described above is probably the commonest or most salient of them all. And while most drag queens might not be able to articulate what I have just stated, I think they’d probably agree. For them, it is a highly instinctive and subconscious act. It usually is with artists.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at drag queen Tammie Brown (who I believe was a contestant in the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race). Do you really think she is saying, “This is what women should be like”? She looks like a cross between Tammy Faye Messner and Faye Dunaway’s version of Joan Crawford, for goodness’ sake. Tammie Brown’s art is so absurd that you cannot seriously think she is saying that women should have 1940s hairstyles, Joan Crawford lips, skin the consistency of puddy, and eyebrows in the middle of their foreheads. It’s satire. Drag queens are not stupid; they are socially savvy, culturally perceptive, and very streetsmart. I haven’t met an autistic drag queen yet (although that would be fucking awesome). What drag queens like Tammie Brown are doing is creating an over-the-top caricature of feminine standards of beauty placed on women. By embodying a cartoonish femininity, they are saying at least two things: “The feminine expectations placed on women are so aburd as to merit the sharpest satire” and “As a man, I will relieve women of this ridiculous ‘duty’ by placing it on my own shoulders”. Drag queens—at least the highly abstract and conceptual ones like Tammie Brown and Raja—are all about confusing people with regard to what men and women should be and do, and they achieve this by transferring traditional responsibilities from one sex to the other.

Sometimes, the drag community’s mockery of sexism is accompanied by a mockery of racism, too. This is a delicate subject, and it deserves the utmost sensitivity, but I do think some forms of racial drag actually satirise racism. Consider Shirley Q. Liquor, a.k.a. Charles Knipp, a white man from the American south who dons blackface in drag. Now, she’s controversial. She’s been on CNN, and leaders in the black community have vilified her as racist, but other black people have defended her in praise of her mockery of racism. One of these is RuPaul, who included Shirley on her album RuPaul RED HOT. In RuPaul’s own words, “[c]ritics who think that Shirley Q. Liquor is offensive are idiots.  Listen, I’ve been discriminated against by everybody in the world: gay people, black people, whatever.  I know discrimination, I know racism, I know it very intimately. She’s not racist, and if she were, she wouldn’t be on my new CD”. Now, just as one woman cannot speak for all women, one black person cannot speak for all black people, but it helps to know that some black people see a certain satire in Shirley Q. Liquor’s art. And I think RuPaul sees the sweet irony in Shirley Q. Liquor’s absurdist blackface. From my perspective (and please correct me if I am misguided), Knipps mocks racism by donning blackface and showing how absurd racial stereotypes are. And when it isn’t clear that he is mocking racial stereotypes, I sort of think he is expressing a deeply human affection for the quirks he recognises in the black women he knew growing up. That said, I highly recommend against doing blackface unless you are absolutely certain of the purpose and context of your art and you have support by a sizeable contingent of the black community, and if you fail to heed this warning and proceed to do blackface in a messy, thoughtless way, you are probably an ignorant fool.

Just in case some of you still think Charles Knipps is racist, let me share with you a horribly beautiful video of him impersonating Barb, the stereotypical “narthern” Great Lakes housewife with an obnoxiously twangy, vowel-fronted North-Central American English accent:

I know. Now he’s doing drag in whiteface. So that’s just in case you think his racial drag is mere racism, and not an ironic mockery of racism. Now, we might be able to say, “Oh, look. He’s racist toward white people, too.” But I don’t think we have to say that he’s racist toward anyone. In every face he does, he is mocking some stereotype or another by exposing its absurdity as plainly as possible. It’s hard to take patent bullshit seriously.

Drag queens are inscrutable creatures; they create a disturbingly comical image of beauty, challenging our assumptions about what is pretty, who should be pretty, and why. The simple-minded philistines among us, with their intolerance for irony, will view drag queens as horribly sexist, racist monsters, but those of us with a capacity to think critically and apprehend the intent behind the art will think the exact opposite—they will view drag queens as highly perceptive cultural critics of sexual and racial stereotypes, as people who have been to hell and back and have something to say in defense of the underdog. The purpose of drag is to mock feminine expectations placed on women, it is to toy with our cherished notions about who can be feminine—women, or men?—and it is to defuse racist stereotypes through crass caricature. At the same time, though, drag queens seem to exult in a certain bizarre, twisted, exaggerated beauty in the very femininity they satirise, perhaps because they value it for its own sake regardless of which gender is performing it. You can have crazy eyebrows or an overdrawn lipline whether you’re male or female. It’s all supposed to be messy, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. At any rate, drag challenges our deepest assumptions about who we are, who we should be, and who we can be, and this is an invaluable tool for deepening and enriching our understanding of what it means to be human.





Dan Savage Gets a Piece of Miss B

3 09 2011

I usually agree with the stuff that comes out of Dan Savage’s mouth, and, yes, he does a great deal of good advocacy work on behalf of bullied gay youth, but I really took umbrage with something he said about the nature of men and women on a (relatively) recent episode of The Stephen Colbert Show.

In the discussion Savage argued that monogamy should not be the sole defining characteristic of a marriage, and that sometimes “fooling around” can actually have beneficial effects on marriage. Fine. I have no problem with that. It isn’t “fooling around” itself I have a problem with—what I have a problem with is Savage’s assumption that men are more inclined to fool around than women are.

Here is the dialogue verbatim surrounding the point I am contesting:

Colbert (facetiously): “Here’s the problem with your argument. It applies to gay people beautifully, I’m sure. I don’t know. I’m married to a woman, okay. I’m not married to a guy. If you and I were married and you wanted to have sex with somebody else, I’d totally understand…”.

Savage (testily): “But your wife is married to a man, and straight women have to be realistic about what men are and what men are like.”

And here is the video clip (or what is supposed to be the video clip):

Seriously, Dan? What are men? Wooly mammoth-hunters spraying their semen on everything that twitches while the women-folk languish back at home in the cave, cooking yesterday’s leftover wooly mammoth meat over the fire and popping out babies left and right? This isn’t the African savanna 100,000 years ago. Women don’t need men to protect them from sabretooth tiger attacks or provide meals and shelter for them, and men don’t need to go screwing everything that crawls. We live in the twenty-first century. Catch up, girl.

There are several reasons why Savage’s reasoning doesn’t make sense to me, and why he should stop promoting the assumption that men are supposed to be more promiscuous than women: 1) for every (straight) man who has sex, there has to be a woman to have sex with him, therefore men are only as slutty as women are; 2) recent insight from evolutionary psychology suggests that more intelligent and evolved men (but not women) are actually more monogamous; 3) it’s pretty rich for a gay man to excuse men’s desire to spread their seed as much as possible when gay men have no desire to breed with women; 4) it’s really annoying to watch gay men defend effeminate bully victims only to propound masculine stereotypes in the same breath; 5) what if men were more promiscuous than women? Why should men’s interests take precedence over those of women?; 6) it’s really just a package of fallacies (appeal to nature and tradition and the “is therefore ought” fallacy).

The first of these seems pretty straightforward. For every (straight) man who has sex, there has to be a female to have sex with him. Take out a pencil and paper. Seriously. Do it. It’s much easier if you can visualise it. Draw four Venus signs down the left margin of the paper, then four Mars signs down the right margin. Now connect each Venus sign with each Mars sign by a line. If each of four men has sex with each of four women, each of four women must have sex with each of four men. You can’t have men being slutty with as many women as possible without women being slutty with as many men as possible. It is logically required.

But there is a twist to this first point. There might actually be reason for women to be even sluttier than men. I had never thought about this until it was pointed out to me by my brilliant friend Christine, whose baking and food blog Angry Cherry is an unparalleled oeuvre of hearty yet sumptuous baked goods. I can’t possibly recapitulate her thought process without diluting or compromising it, so let me simply paste what she wrote to me:

Whenever someone tells me that it’s more “natural” for men to sleep around, I like to give them a logical diagram of sorts, too. First, I tell them: “Actually, if you reeeeeally think about it, it makes more sense for women to have way more sex than men.”

Of course, next, someone will ask me why—so think about it this way.

If we accept that the ultimate end of most sex is procreation and to spread seed (on which most people agree), then men have it easier than women. Once a man blows his load, he’s done. A woman can receive a man’s sperm, but since a woman only ovulates for 2 days out of an average of 28, she may or may not be pregnant—in essence, her biological “burden” for the goal of procreation is not yet alleviated.

So, next, I say, let’s take 25 men and 25 women — and let’s have them all fuck often and with whoever they want. Women will “drop out” of the fucking once they are pregnant and relatively out of danger of miscarriage (in other words, job done for the next 9 months). Soon, we will have 25 men and 20 women; soon after, 25 men and 15 women; soon after that, you get the idea. Eventually we will be down to 25 men, who cannot tell who has fathered which children (not that it matters), and 1 woman—because of the procreation burden, that woman should be promiscuous as all hell: in order to get pregnant, she should have sex with all 25 men as often as she wants in order to get pregnant.

Thus, under this logical model, it should be expected that women should  want to have, and have, more sex than men. Oddly enough, when I explain it this way, most people (women and men) scratch their heads and say, “Actually… that makes a lot of sense.”

Haha! How’s that for logic?

Very well stated, Christine, and you’re right—it makes a lot of sense. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa provides an hypothesis why there are so few societies which practice polygyny (the practice of one woman marrying multiple men), but his hypothesis does not account for Christine’s reasoning above, and, besides, that a practice has been common in the past does not mean that it should be, or even that it is evolutionarily beneficial (indeed, a part of evolution is the fact that non-beneficial traits eventually die out). Additionally, with all of our recent technological innovations, women are much more self-sufficient, so they do not need to depend as much on a single man for material security. So, actually, there is good reason for women to be even sluttier than men. Thus, Savage’s argument that men are inherently programmed to be sluttier than women doesn’t make much biological sense.

This first point closely informs the second, which is that more intelligent men (but not women) tend to be more monogamous. Interestingly, this argument also comes from Kanazawa, and is published in Psychology Today. It is based on a study which showed that smarter men were more loyal to their partners, but smarter women were not. This would make sense, because general intelligence and monogamy in men are evolutionary innovations, while general intelligence and polygamy in women are also evolutionary innovations. (Women no longer need as much security from one man.) More intelligent men are more monogamous because general intelligence and male monogamy are both adaptive and innovative, and intelligent men are less fixated on preserving the norms of their ancestors. This is not true for more intelligent women, because monogamy is not innovative for women. Now, some people will argue that the men may have simply been smart enough to cover their tracks after cheating. But this doesn’t make sense, because if people covered their tracks after cheating due to being smarter, how do we explain the smarter women? The smarter women did not profess to be more monogamous, whereas the smarter men did, so we can’t say that people cover their tracks after cheating because they are smarter. Thus, it must be that the smarter men were more monogamous simply because they valued loyalty more than their peers. So, no, Dan Savage’s assumption that men are inherently supposed to be sluttier than women isn’t necessarily true.

This preconception about the privilege of male promiscuity is especially obnoxious coming from a gay man like Savage. Savage acknowledges Colbert’s (admittedly facetious) assumption that men in general, whether gay or straight, are inherently slutty. Well, if gay men don’t want to breed with women, they have no reason to act like walking insemination machines, hence they have no reason to join up with straight men in the whole “let’s fuck as many chicks as possible” meme. Gay men don’t want to spread their seed everywhere, because they don’t want to breed with women. So, it doesn’t make sense for a gay man to defend the assumption that men in general should be as slutty as possible. It’s like the vegetarian preaching that human beings were made to eat meat.

This third point blends in nicely with the fourth one, which is that gay men should not be defending old-fashioned male sex roles (neither should straight men). Gay people are inherently heteronormative in that they have sex with members of the same sex, so they should be the first to defy appeals to normativity (although, ultimately, everybody should). For Savage to defend an effeminate schoolyard bully victim on one hand, then defend male sexual machismo on the other, is contradictory and hypocritical. By defending the “girlish” bully victim, he is challenging stereotypes about manhood, yet by promoting the notion of male sexual prowess, he is supporting such stereotypes. You can’t tell a little gay boy “Don’t worry; it’ll get better, and it’s okay to be effeminate” and then tell him “Butch up and spread your seed, because that is manly”. As a gay man, you shouldn’t be embalming assumptions about manhood, because you embody the exact opposite—you have sex with men. That isn’t “manly” in the traditional sense, so why are you defending traditional manliness? And straight men shouldn’t be doing this either, because no man has a good reason to treat women like his private incubator, his and only his, closed off from other, “inferior” genes (whatever those are supposed to be—who’s to judge? Hitler?).

So far we’ve argued that women are just as slutty as men. Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that men are in fact more promiscuous than women. Why does Savage so strongly aver that women should understand men’s need for many partners, but not that men should understand women’s need for one partner? He seems so adamant that women should acknowledge the contention that men are sluts, yet he totally ignores the contention that women want something different. That’s just plain sexist. It isn’t fair to attend to men’s interests, but not to women’s, because both of them have equally passionate needs. And yet all of this is assuming that men are intrinsically sluttier than women. Are they? Above we have established that that assumption is highly questionable.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all just a cluster of fallacies, innit, m8? Savage’s argument that women should accept men for “what they are” consists of an appeal to tradition, an appeal to nature, and an “is therefore ought” fallacy. First, that men have been sluttier than women does not mean that they should be, because tradition is not necessarily good; second, that male promiscuity might be natural does not mean that it is right, because natural does not equal right, and unnatural does not equal wrong (manmade things like aeroplanes aren’t wrong); and, third, that men might really be sluttier than women does not mean that they should be, because a thing is not right just because it is real. Murder is real, but that doesn’t make it right. So Savage’s argument that straight women should accept male promiscuity is invalid since it relies on all of these fallacies.

In summary, Dan Savage’s suggestion that men are more promiscuous than women is misguided. First, for every man who has sex, there has to be a woman; second, more intelligent men (but not women) tend to be more loyal; third, gay men have no business talking about spreading seed, since they don’t want to; fourth, it’s hypocritical and contradictory for gay men to defend effeminate behaviour and then defend macho sex roles; fifth, even if men were sluttier than women, it’s unfair to place men’s interests above those of women; and, sixth, it’s all just a bundle of fallacies, as stated above. So, as you see, there’s really no good reason to believe that men should experience more lust than women. And it doesn’t matter whether men have more testosterone than women, because testosterone is just a hormone, and we can do whatever we want with it to meet our present-day exigencies. We treat postmenopausal women for hormonal deficiencies, so why not do the same for over-muscled thugs or under-sexed nuns? Ultimately, what we need to do is start thinking critically about sex roles and living in the modern age. After all, our huge brains, with all of their many ruminations, are also a product of nature, hence nature made us to think these things.