It is the job of fusty, addlebrained academic sorts to take things we all enjoy and take for granted, and then dissect it with the ponderous seriousness of a graying doyen of our particular art. Especially in the social sciences. Teasing out social messages, identifying wider imbricating discourses, and seeing patterns with relation to the media is usually a sombre affair filled with sad news. This is how this movie reinforces patriarchy, this is how this television show transmits transphobic messages, this is how our media is coarsening social attitudes, this is how this commercial is making us hate our bodies, and so on and so on. It is a rare, rare joy indeed when I get to turn my critical eye towards explaining how something in the media is positive in its influence on our society.
When a good friend of mine nudged me into watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic I internally scoffed. It sounded cute, and nothing was wrong with cute, but I’m a woman in her 20s, jet setting and on the go, kicking patriarchy’s ass and sipping skinny lattes while jogging between classes and speaking engagements. What use did I have for girl’s television anyway? What’s more, it was probably the usual problematic pap encouraging girls to be docile, quiet, restrained and feminine in a deeply unnerving way, another Cult of Pink devoid of all that can be good about growing up.
To say that I was dead wrong on all counts is an understatement.
The Sociologist as Children’s Hero?
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic began to arrest me when I realised that the main character was a bookwormish unicorn named Twilight Sparkle who was a serious minded, organised, knowledgeable student with a profound magical talent, proud of her tutelage under Princess Celestia– the benevolent ruler of Equestria– who’s known far more for her wisdom than her beauty it seems. The pilot episode finds Twilight learning several lessons that I would not only feel comfortable with my future daughters learning, but I’d actually fall over myself to get them into this programme. Twilight had to learn the power of friendship, yes, a rather old and clichéd concept in children’s programming. But what sets MLP apart is both how this was done and with whom it was done.
Twilight Sparkle is sent to Ponyville by Celestia to make friends as Celestia worries for her star pupil’s social skills. But the plot does not revolve around Twilight dulling her intellect to become a social butterfly; far from it she learns her to use her talents relationally, as a member of a diverse group of ponies who all have distinct skills. She learns a group ethic; teamwork, in other words. One of the show’s most heartwarming messages is that you cannot always do great things alone; this message is a beautiful, at times subtle, contradiction of the selfish ethic of heroic individualism that has become like a cancer on our society. It is not just a paean in one episode, but rather a theme underlying every single one. It is the language through which the programme is expressed.
In all of this, Twilight’s skills and intellectual acumen are not blunted but become essential to her friendships. Her friends love her for who she is and are proud to know the “smartest Pony in Ponyville.”
I rather love Twilight Sparkle—when having her first slumber party she used a reference book on the subject to help her organise it. She is portrayed as an intellectual, she always lives somewhere surrounded by books—I envy her library. She is readily portrayed as a capable leader, a (community?) organiser, and maven of the world’s lore always ready to teach the ponies some esoteric fact. But perhaps the bit that really melted my heart was that Princess Celestia told Twilight to deliver a report about friendship every week, relaying her “findings.”
That’s right, Twilight Sparkle is a budding sociologist. I was sold.
By now word of the great Gay Girl in Damascus hoax has spread throughout the western world and the blogosphere, becoming a much ballyhooed object of derision, snickering, finger wagging, tut tutting and all the rest. For those of you not in the know, here’s Color Lines’ Akiba Solomon’s deft summary of recent events— it precedes an analysis I highly recommend:
On February 19th, shortly before Syria’s Arab Spring uprisings began, an American-born Syrian lesbian named Amina Abdullah Araf launched “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” Araf had been posting comments and debating Middle Eastern politics online for years, but created her own space at the urging of Paula Brooks, co-founder of the news site “Lez Get Real.”
Araf’s blog featured her erotic poetry and her coming-out story—risky material since homosexuality is illegal in Syria. She also spread news of the government’s brutal crackdown on protestors, prompting Time.com to call her “an honest and reflective voice of the revolution.” In late April, Araf claimed that Syrian security forces visited her father’s home and accused her of “conspiring against the state,” “urging armed uprising,” and “working with foreign elements.” Subsequent posts found Araf “going underground,” although she was still able to “encourage other women in Syria to be more upfront” via an email interview with cbsnews.com. Last week, a cousin posted a dramatic account of Araf’s abduction by three armed men. Like the rest of “Gay Girl in Damascus,” that entry is now unavailable to the public.
Because they’re human beings, members of the LBGT and progressive blogesphere took to Twitter, Facebook and petition sites demanding information and protection for Araf. Days later, the blogger’s “Catfish”-style caper unraveled due to skeptical tweets from an NPR reporter; news of fake photos on Araf’s Facebook page; and an unnerving interview with a Montreal woman “Araf” had seduced via Facebook. On Sunday, The Washington Post revealed “Araf” to be Tom MacMaster, a white 40-year-old from Virginia who was raised a Mennonite and attends a graduate program at the University of Edinburgh.
At this point, MacMaster should have just said, “I’ve come down with a terrible case of white, male privilege. Please medicate me.”
Let me explain this very plainly: As a trans, queer woman of colour who writes authoritatively about her experiences I am very directly affected by the aspersions cast by this hoax. My words have power only if you believe them.
Now, this is hardly to claim that this little plague of white cis het guys in women costumes are the sole cause of all doubt and derision cast on those of us women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, PWD who speak out and speak loudly as we testify to our truths. That is certainly not the case. But they play so very deftly into the hands of that rash of men who say that there are no women on the Internet and that everyone claiming to be is really some creepy neckbearded guy in his mum’s basement. It gives a very powerful excuse to people who want to ignore us, erase us, marginalise us further, and another reason for them to simply shut down their minds whenever they read words of power from those the mainstream media almost never listens to.
In impersonating women of colour and queer women, the two fools behind Gay Girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real have done immeasurable damage with their high profile ‘outings.’ When so many of us out there are not listened to, are not given interviews with Time Magazine and CBS News to tell our stories in our own voices, what these two men have done is given every reason to news corporations to be even more gunshy about taking sources seriously if they do not come through the “proper channels.” It was likely as not a battle for some reporters to get their bosses to seriously accept ‘Amina’ as a credible interview subject, for instance. Now it will be an impossible battle when a real woman of colour has something to say to the mainstream press.
Trigger Warning: Discussions of rape and sexual harassment.
It was a whisper, a murmuring, but an audible one in a few news outlets ranging from the BBC to the New Yorker. A recognition of something oft unregarded, unreported, and unnoticed.
The rafts of journalism produced by the case of IMF Chairman and Socialist party patriarch Dominique Strauss-Kahn has taken a variety of angles on his alleged rape of a hotel chambermaid in New York City except that which may matter most: the perspective of the maid herself. The whisper and murmur I heard was the fact that journalists were noticing this. Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker said the following in his blog about the French reaction to the rape case:
Listening to the political classes attempting to come to terms with the destruction of Dominique Strauss-Kahn today, I heard hardly a thought for his accuser. It seemed a good measure of the depth of France’s political malaise that it took a Le Pen to show solidarity with the working woman against the Socialist Party’s favorite son.
Emphasis mine. This is the great invisible wall of silence that surrounds rape in our society and puts the lie to any notion that men accused of rape are automatically condemned at the end of a woman’s pointed finger. That a few journalists are at last speaking about this, albeit in hushed tones tucked at the end of articles, is heartening. But it calls attention to the glaring absence of concern for the victims of rape, or even those who- in the public eye- come to be known by the title of “accuser” with all of its hectoring, negative connotations.
In all of the commentary out of France over the last few days what we have seen in cavalcades of speech and soundbites is concern for the IMF, for the reputation of France, for the fate of the Socialist Party. Yet none have said, even with due deference and qualified tones, something to the effect of: “if the accusations prove true, my heart goes out to the victim of this horrendous assault.” We are instead fed the lie that “innocent until proven guilty” or scrupulous neutrality in general means to assume that Strauss-Kahn is the victim of some set-up. To dare to suggest that it is, in fact, likely he raped that young chambermaid is to be hopelessly biased. To say you believe a conspiracy has netted him and that he’s just not that kind of guy- as many French politicians across its political spectrum have- is ‘neutral’ and ‘unbiased’ thinking.
To clutch one’s pearls about France’s reputation but not spare a thought for one moment that this young woman’s reputation may be forever tarnished by this case is supposedly fair and balanced.
To look at the comment sections of many news websites is to find armies of people- mostly men if the screen names are any guide- saying that Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty, propounding on their virtuous fairness and neutrality, refusing to rush to judgement and so forth. All while saying that some invisible mass, some nebulous powerful force, is presuming him guilty. It is difficult to fathom what it is these people are seeing when most commentary on these articles appears to assume Strauss-Kahn is innocent. As has been said, it is no more neutral to say you believe he didn’t do it and that such a crime is ‘far fetched’ than it is for me to suggest it is, in fact, very likely.
Strauss-Khan has a reputation of sorts. Ironically this is being touted as precisely the reason it would make sense to ‘set him up’ with a false rape accusation. It’s a nightmare that the man himself nursed according to an interview with the newspaper Libération:
Strauss-Kahn then volunteered to the journalists a hypothetical example of something that could bring him down: “A woman raped in a parking lot who is promised half a million euros to make up her story.”
Yet this is rarely described as ‘far fetched’ and ‘fanciful’- even though it is. Malicious false rape accusations- charges made by a woman who knows she was not raped, and is intentionally setting up a man- are exceedingly rare. 500,000 Euros is rather a pittance for leaping headfirst into the jaws of a misogynist media that will eviscerate, with glee, a lying temptress- the figure of many a male nightmare. Most women, even those who have not been harassed, assaulted, or raped, know all too well that there is no joy in dealing with the criminal justice system (whatever country they may live in) when it comes to charging a man as their assailant. To say nothing of that fact that generally women are simply disbelieved. We are the “accusers,” magically transmuted into the active one doing something to a man, rather than reporting something done to us. This is, again, considered a scrupulously neutral posture on the subject.
As I engaged in the ritual striptease meant to appease the airline gods at Denver International Airport, standing at the bin that I had claimed as my own with an advert I paid no attention to staring at me from its bottom, a TSA agent walked up to me. I was depositing my grey blazer in the bin, my belt soon to follow, and I grew nervous, my throat tightening as it often does on security lines.
But all that the blue uniformed man did was smile at me and say “Good morning to ya, ma’am.”
At that moment I knew, as if a disembodied computer voice had said in my head “Conditional Cissexual Privilege Activated” that I was safe. For now. I escorted my belongings, the worn leather boots that could theoretically contain a bomb, the belt that could theoretically contain a trigger mechanism. Or cocaine. My handbag full of feminist literature (now there’s something explosive). That was when motion caught my eye and I saw something ominously towering over the old fashioned metal detector. The rounded slate grey hulk of an x-ray machine scanning men and women in a surrendering position, arms held unthreateningly high above their heads. I swallowed thickly wondering if the jig was up, if I would at last have to face transphobia at the airport, if I would have to sit in a room listening to impertinent questions about what was in my knickers.
As I approached the metal detector and drew nearer to the x-ray machine I felt cold and uncomfortable, as if I were approaching some tainted evil artefact from one of my fantasy games. The dread relic of a tyrannical lord. All prose of a purple hue aside, however, I came to realise that the scanner was only for people who rang the metal detector inexplicably. Thank Goddess I decided against those nipple piercings.
As I glided beneath the metal detector’s auspices I escaped the intensified gaze of the guards when the machine didn’t go off. I was waved past and sent to collect my freshly x-rayed belongings.
When people, from activists to academics, assert that the personal is political it is an injunction to reflect on the wider meaning of quotidian events such as this one. It is a call to recognise the event not as an isolated monad among multitudes, but linked to others by a web of societal relations that can ensnare us all (or liberate us). I knew that day as I submitted myself for screening that I was coming up against the great legal fiction of gender that exists in this country, the fact that the timid bulge an x-ray scanner might have revealed were I subject to it would have marked me as a deviant, a potential terrorist with plastic explosives in her knickers, or just someone to be publicly humiliated otherwise. The fiction that sustains the meaning which licenses such behaviour is the patchwork quilt of laws in the US that defines gender.
It is always with such things as this in mind that I read transgender legal scholarship. As dispassionate and ‘objective’ as I try to peruse the readings on law and trans people, I find again and again that I am simply unable to divorce my lived, and embodied reality from that reading. A while ago I simply decided I should stop trying to distance myself; this was my life, after all. What cis privilege refers to is precisely the fact that the above scene I described is something a cis person almost never has to deal with concerning airport security. Or anything else in their day to day life. The definition of cis privilege is precisely that one can live a life where their gender is legally recognised as being beyond reproach.
What follows is a modified and edited version of my thoughts on two recent readings that I did for my Transgender Studies course. I was responding to a chapter from Viviane K. Namaste’s book Invisible Lives that critiqued queer theory-based transphobia, and to an article by Judith Butler entitled Undiagnosing Gender. The editing was not extensive, just some minor edits for clarity since this article began as an email written in one draft, and removal of names and personal references. Regular readers of this blog may recognise some familiar themes, such as my almost requisite praise of Anne Fausto-Sterling and talk of ‘dynamic history.’ Usually I wouldn’t belabour that, but this was written for an audience less familiar with my writing, so bear with me! These admittedly lengthy musings were well received by both my advising professor and my colleague in this independent study.
Viviane K. Namaste:
Her Tragic Misreadings chapter from Invisible Lives is a brilliant analysis of how trans people are often misunderstood in postmodern queer theory. It’s a brief overview, sometimes all too brief, and perhaps vulnerable to criticism because of that. But the points she makes are well defined, sharp, and poignant. Last semester when I critiqued Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter and her take on Venus Xtravaganza, it was this book I was reading, which you may well recall. Namaste makes an excellent point by bringing to light the fact that, as she says, “Here is the point: Venus was killed because she was a transsexual prostitute.” This is a matter she raises very bluntly in response to the fact that Butler seems to elide that point entirely, and more specifically Venus Xtravaganza’s trans subjectivity. In attempting to assert that her death represented a “tragic misreading of the social map of power” Butler seems to suggest that Venus Xtravaganza’s death was the result of her pursuit of a bourgeois lifestyle.
I disagree with that vehemently.
Naturally I also disagree with Butler’s assertion that transsexual people only offer an “uncritical miming of the hegemonic [sex/gender system].” In the entirety of Bodies That Matter’s treatment of Venus Xtravaganza, what emerges is a rather callous effort to misuse the material that Jennie Livingston recorded of Venus Xtravaganza to support a particularly cissexist reading of trans people. There can be no question that Xtravaganza wanted a nice house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a “washer and dryer” as she said during interviews, but this has to be understood in the context of growing up in abject poverty and having very few vectors along which to cultivate dreams of a better life. It is particularly unreasonable for a white cis woman with an upper class education to cast aspersions on such desires. I don’t think Xtravaganza misread anything. She knew the risks, she knew the unlikelihood of her long term dreams coming true, but she did what she needed to in order to get by in a world where no one would even claim her body after she’d been murdered.
It is in this vein that I also agree with her critiques of other writers like Marjorie Garber and Carole-Anne Tyler. The issue with Garber as Namaste paints it is that she uses simulacra of transvestism that continually make reference to the transgression of gender boundaries, but does not seem to really dwell too much on the actual lived experiences of people who may be crossdressers; in my view, regardless of the intentions that inhere to her discipline’s epistemology, this is a fatal flaw that dooms her analysis to having an all too limited purview. Namaste is eminently and resolutely sociological when she critiques Garber and Butler by insisting that they do not examine the “material, discursive, and institutional locations” that TS/TG/CD people occupy. The title of her book, Invisible Lives, is her fundamental point: the quotidian lives of trans people, the whys and wherefores of what we do, and the experience (a concept so foundational to women’s and gender studies) of everyday life is completely ignored. This is central to Namaste’s entire work and it is the absence of such from a lot of Butlerian theory that annoys her.
It can be said that Namaste is missing the point of what Butler and other postmodern theorists are trying to do, but I disagree with that for one reason: even if Butler and those like her are being headily theoretical on purpose to discuss that miasma of social construction that is greater than the sum of its parts… the practical and day to day effects of that kind of theorising are what truly miss any kind of postmodern point. To wit, Butler’s theorising that transsexual people ‘uncritically mime’ dominant gender is an old idea that is still used to oppress trans people and actually obviates complex understandings of how everyone reinforces gender in one way or another, whether they are cis or trans; or gay, queer, bi, or het. It leads to the academic fetishising of trans people who are held to a double standard. It is categorically unpostmodern to do so and it actually reifies ontologically strict categories that should be anathema to postmodern theorists (i.e. to say that all people from this constructed category are thus and so seems to go against everything postmodernism and poststructuralism are trying to do).
From here Namaste pivots to a larger critique of postmodern and queer theory and the ability of either to adequately theorise the transsexual or transgender person. The cure to the academic fetishisation is, of course, to provide a detailed analysis of everyday life for trans people, which is a significant reason that it’s important to do so academically.
What I disagree with is her sweeping dismissal of queer theory’s usefulness, but given the time at which she was writing (2000) I think she could be forgiven for seeing an academic monolith in the version of queer theory that dominated the academy when she was writing this in the late 1990s. Nevertheless she is correct when she says: “Critics in Queer Theory habitually fail to consider that their selection of texts is a social process that embodies the production of knowledge and discourses on sexual and gendered objects. In this manner, queer theory is blind to its own institutional workings.” What she goes on to say about what queer theory connotes as “inside” and “outside” (heterosexuality and homosexuality respectively) is also very apt and it leads into a point I have made many, many times over on this subject:
There is no outside to gender. We are all part of the productive power structure that creates gendered meanings in one way or another. It is unethical to suggest that trans people reinforce gender norms without critically interrogating how you yourself reinforce those norms and how other cis people might also be doing so. This is not the first academic quest to search for an “outside” that just so happens to include the academics penning these ideas. For a lengthier and more brutal analysis of the Quest for Outside as I call it, you can see my blog post on the matter here.
Namaste’s critiques are, ironically, vividly illuminated by Judith Butler’s Undiagnosing Gender. My thoughts on it below are in some ways an expansion of both what I have said here and Namaste’s thinking on how to approach social analysis of trans lives.
Judith Butler, Undiagnosing Gender:
This piece from Professor Butler represents, I think, a profound evolution in her thinking that takes a completely different view of transsexual and transgender people than she seemed to in the early 1990s, and it was with this ‘era’ of her work that Viviane K. Namaste was so critically engaged. In Undiagnosing Gender, however, there seems to be a change in Butler’s perspective that responds to Namaste’s criticism. In writing this piece about the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis she begins by asking straightforwardly:
“To understand the differences between these two views [broadly, pro- and anti- diagnosis] we have to ask how the diagnosis is actually lived. What does it mean to live with it?”
With that simple framing, Butler takes a rather different road than she did in Bodies That Matter, or even in Gender Trouble and it gives her a rather authoritative tone as she explores this particular issue. I feel that she sketches out rather expertly the two broad scatters of views that surround the issue of GID: those who want to keep the diagnosis to ensure medical access to transition for trans people, and those who oppose it because it stigmatises trans people and permanently relegates them to a second order of humanity.
One of the rather fun things about being trans is that you live in a world where doctors poke and prod you hoping to find deep answers about why you exist- deep, award-winning, and powerful answers that will at last enable them to explain what the hell is up with us; because it’s not like we’re authorities on our own lives or anything.
To set the snark aside, I’m of course talking about the endless quest to find an etiology- or medical explanation of origin- for trans existence, a recent example of which can be found here. It is a particularly transfixing matter that seems to occupy the place of El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth in the eyes of our medical masters. A Lost Ark of the Covenant with which to at last claim final dominion over us. The ultimate Holy Grail being a “trans test” whereby folks in white coats will be able to objectively prove that someone is trans.
Yet like all the foregoing it is a myth, a legend. There is not likely to be any one coherent, purely biological/neurological explanation for our existence. The drive to research the matter is not inherently evil, mind, but the resources being dedicated to it come into question when studies of this sort appear to be to the exclusion of more directly beneficial research, like longitudinal studies on the long-term effects of hormone treatment on trans people.
Recent studies have been justified by asserting that they will benefit young trans people with early identification of trans-ness. But let us be as honest and realistic as possible for a moment, shall we? What would make things easier on young trans kids is not an MRI scan or some kind of trans test. It would be a world where having a trans child would not be a terrible thing, where bullying of children who defied gender norms would be frowned upon and actively discouraged, where parents raised their children to accept a multitude of gendered possibilities. A “trans test” would not even be a stopgap measure to help young trans people.
When I first came out to my father I naively waved studies in his face that spoke of this thing called “Gender Identity Disorder.” But his first reaction to me was not to say that my gender was valid. It was to say that since it was a ‘disorder’ there must be a ‘cure’- you know, one to make me into a boy again, like he wanted.
Transgender does not need a medical etiology in order to be accepted morally. The entire issue is a massive red herring that deflects a necessary moral and philosophical argument into whether or not we objectively exist by the standards of a game we are rigged to lose. We are already on the backfoot because we live in a world where our voices do not count, we merely concede more ground when we suggest that narrow, incomplete studies that reveal- at best- a small piece of the puzzle should speak for us.
The critical moral argument that we must never lose sight of is whether it is okay to discriminate against someone because there isn’t a biological explanation for their existence. For most any situation, the answer is a resounding “no” among decent people. We do not say that people of faith bring discrimination upon themselves because they ‘chose’ to be a part of a given religion, and when people do say this, they are rightly derided for being assholes. We do not get sidetracked into asinine arguments about how some people are born Jewish and have Jew brains and, y’know, they just can’t help it and that’s why we should be ‘tolerant.’
No, actually. You should avoid bigotry because it’s simply the right thing to do.