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.

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?


The Muck of Ages

The “Straight-Acting” Sham

18 02 2011

In my last post, I discussed gender dimorphism and challenged the biological determinist notion that we are and should be slaves to our biology. I explained how this position is highly questionable, biased, and potentially destructive—for both women and men. As it turns out, attachment to gender roles is not limited to heterosexual people, but includes homosexuals as well. This is rather ironic, because one would think that if anybody were cynical about gender roles, it would be gay people.

In contemporary gay society, there is a subset of lesbians who concern themselves with being feminine, and gay men who concern themselves with being masculine. For these lesbians, femininity equates with heterosexuality; for these gay men, masculinity equates with heterosexuality. Because I have been more immersed in the milieu of gay male society, I will focus on gay men who try to be masculine. Some gay men seek to emulate straight men because they believe that conventional heterosexual manhood embodies masculinity. There are three problems I have with this attitude: 1) it is sexist, 2) it is heterosexist, and 3) it is hypocritical and just plain illogical.

With regard to the first of these, straight-acting is sexist because it presupposes that men, but not women, are supposed to embody traditionally masculine traits. For instance, straight-actors assume that real men are supposed to be strong, aggressive, emotionally distant, and physically active. They are supposed to like action films, working on cars, baggy jeans and t-shirts, and playing rough contact sports, because these are “manly” things, in contrast with “womanly” things; they are not supposed to like romantic comedies, talking problems out, or wearing make-up and dresses, and they are not supposed to have effeminate mannerisms.  (And don’t talk to me about neurobiological differences and all of that crap–I dealt with that in my last blog entry.) But these stereotypes simply re-inforce the stupid sex roles that create so much pain, misery, heart-ache, and suffering for people. Being gay defies gender norms, so, if anybody should be critical of gender norms, it is gay people. It is disappointing, then, that some gay men challenge gender norms when they want to have anal sex, but preserve them when a man wants to wear make-up or a dress. All of a sudden, it’s perfectly manly to have butt-sex in a hotel room, but not to walk down the street carrying a Chanel handbag. How two-faced and arbitrary.

(This reminds me of the furore that has arisen over the fact that the San Francisco Department of Health has begun distributing female condoms to gay and bisexual men. Horror of horrors! How dare they imply that we are FEMALE! Um, hello? Female condoms go in HOLES. An anus is a HOLE. Therefore, it is perfectly logical for a gay man who receives the penis in his HOLE to use a female condom. If you don’t think a man receiving a penis in his anus during butt-sex is effeminate, you have no reason to think that such a man wearing a female condom is effeminate. And, besides, if it is effeminate, so what? He’s an effeminate man. Get over it.)

But I digress. Let us move on. Straight-acting is also heterosexist. The evidence is in the word straight-acting itself. Straight-acting implies that to be a real man, one must be a straight man, or a man who has sex with women. But monks don’t have sex with women, and we don’t say that they are not real men. Nor have male virgins ever had sex with a woman, but we don’t say that they are not real men. And some men are impotent, but we don’t say that they are not real men, either. “Ah, but they aren’t real men”, you might say, “because they don’t have sex with women”. But this would mean that a man is never a real man when his penis is not inside a woman’s vagina. That’s just ridiculous. All men are born with XY chromosomes, penises and testicles, and sperm. This includes gay men. Therefore gay men are men too. You don’t have to stick your penis into a woman’s vagina to be a man. Besides, the notion that a real man has sex with women is kind of degrading to women, because, for me, it strongly connotes sexual conquest of women, and that is just dehumanizing. Women are not holes for you to grind your penis in like a pencil sharpener. The actual hole itself is attached to a human being with her own thoughts and feelings.

Then there is the fact that straight-acting is hypocritical. Don’t worry. I’m not engaging in a tu quoque fallacy–I’m not attacking the person’s failure to practise what they preach rather than what they preach (I’ve already disproved what they preach in the last two paragraphs)–I’m merely trying to show that they are incoherent and inconsistent. And that should count for something. Consider Matt Hinsley, the 22 year-old college student who recently attended America’s annual CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) with the conservative gay group GOproud. According to Metro Weekly‘s Ebone Bell, Hinsley—a gay man—said,

“I don’t really like gay people that much. Gay people frustrate me, the stereotypical gay people, it frustrates me…someone who puts on a total act. I understand that some guys are feminine, which is fine. But some guys, at some point, are normal, straight-acting, whatever and the next minute they’re jumping up and down. It just frustrates me. The whole conservative thing is just be yourself, be an individual and just don’t be someone you’re not. If someone does or does not accept you, that’s fine but don’t change who you are to look different to others.”

Holy shit! It’s almost like when black people call each other nigger. Here is my main contention with regard to hypocrisy (I address Hinsley and his sort directly): you say that people should not act like somebody they are not, then you criticise  gay people who act effeminate, but not gay people who act straight. Yet both act like somebody they are not. Well, that isn’t fair. You can’t criticise drag queens without criticising straight-acting jocks, too, because both are acting like somebody they are not. Besides, many drag queens are in their true form when they are in drag, but a straight-actor is still painfully awkward and affected when in his jock-drag. Ugh. Furthermore, being effeminate is not incompatible with being gay, but being straight logically is (straight ≠ gay), so, if anything, straight-acting is more treacherous to one’s own homosexual identity than effeminacy. I think I’ve proved my point. It doesn’t make sense to slander gays for being gay.

Let’s sum up. Straight-acting doesn’t make sense, because it suggests that real men are traditionally masculine, that real men fuck women and not men (which is funny since straight-actors fuck men, and not women), and that drag queens put on an act, but not men who act straight. In essence, straight-acting is artificial, narcissistic, sexist, incoherent, sycophantic, opportunistic, exploitative, unfair, sophistic, and illogical. It cannot be defended. It is, quite honestly, the signature of a chap whose intellect is able enough to commute him from the high-school football quarterback position to the timid chair in the corner of the local community college philosophy course. Where he will fail.