Open letter to The Ethicist

11 Jul

by Laura

Calling all ethicists

Dear Ethicist,

I think your advice to the straight cisgendered woman who was aching to out an ex as transgendered was correct; her acquaintance’s right to privacy far outweighs her desire to “save” others from his supposedly shocking gender identity (a transphobic assumption, obviously, that other women will be as unnerved as she was). A recent post on the blog Feministe discusses an aspect of outing trans people that you did not mention: it can be extremely dangerous to the outed person.

Trans people face disproportionate violence and discrimination in the US and elsewhere. The woman who wrote you is clearly concerned about her religious community’s welcoming of a trans man; her outing of him would surely carry more negative consequences for this man than it would for her and may even make him a target of hate crime. The answer to the question posed by your column’s headline (“When to Out a Transgendered Dater?”) is “never.”

Thank you for making the right call in this scenario.



Update: I’ve read some other responses to this column from people who find it very offensive and read Cohen as blaming the trans person for the situation. This is not my interpretation of his column, but I recognize that that might be because I am not sensitive enough to transphobic rhetoric.


An Open Letter to Time

29 Jun

by Jess

An inappropriate roof

Dear editors,

I believe I may be unclear on Time’s editorial concept for opinion pieces. I was under the impression that they are meant to add something salient and insightful to national discourse, but Joel Stein’s column “My Own Private India” seems designed to highlight nothing but Joel Stein’s racism and his self-satisfaction about it. While I appreciate being warned that I should under no circumstances attempt to, say, respect or admire or interact with Stein in any way, I didn’t think Time’s journalistic mandate involved helping me steer clear of smug bigots. If you’re planning to give print space to everyone who is loathsome so that we’ll know to stay away from them, may I respectfully submit that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? And if that wasn’t the idea, then what in God’s name was?

I confess I can’t fathom the string of editorial decisions that led to someone actually publishing this piece. Stein’s lack of self-awareness isn’t a big secret, but surely there are editors there who are supposed to keep him from embarrassing himself and the magazine. Did nobody at any point consider that “I have many racist opinions about people from India and I think these opinions are very funny” is not a Time-worthy thesis statement? I realize you’re not exactly the New Yorker (believe me, never have I realized that more keenly than I do right now) but “not blatantly and obviously racist” isn’t really a high hurdle to jump before something is considered publishable.

I suppose it’s possible that everyone on the masthead is under 20 years old, and that they therefore think flagrant racism is edgy and provocative. In that case, stay in school, guys! Don’t do drugs! And I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but racism is still a very present and destructive factor in our lives — in the lives of people like Stein, who allow their racial privilege to turn them into apparently irredeemable jerks, but more importantly in the lives of people like Stein’s Edison neighbors, who face his kind of hatefulness and disdain every day and in every aspect of their lives. Racism is edgy and funny like the Gulf oil spill is edgy and funny to a bird. You don’t get to have ironic distance on this; you’re soaking in it.



(Okay, that’s what I actually wrote to Time, but now that I’m presenting it as a blog post I would be really remiss in not also linking to this post at Sepia Mutiny, which sets a new standard for quality in spluttering outrage.)

Suspending our disbelief

24 Jun

by Laura

I hope the sexual assault allegations against bizarro world president (and real world Nobel winner) Al Gore are untrue. There are two reasons I hope this:

  1. I have long admired Al Gore and would feel terribly sad to find out that he committed sexual assault; it would change my view of him forever.
  2. I hope that the alleged victim was not sexually assaulted.

Look: reason #2 is way, way, way more important than reason #1. #1 is about my personal disillusionment; #2 is about the bodily autonomy of another human being. If that woman is making false accusations, then I am glad for *her* that they are false, because that means she wasn’t assaulted. (Though I’d be worried that she’s suffering in some other way if she decided to make up something so guaranteed to be a media nightmare.) If she is making true accusations, then Gore should be brought to justice, as should all sexual assailants.

Culturally, we have invested a lot of mythology around Gore. We hope that these allegations not true, because we hope that someone with great political integrity would also have great personal integrity. But that’s just a hope, and the kneejerk reactions of many in the media (ahem, Steve Kornacki) are about privileging the word of a famous, powerful, rich white man automatically over the word of an anonymous, relatively powerless, and relatively nonwealthy woman. I don’t know who is telling the truth here, but that means I am withholding judgment — not assuming that my wish to see Gore as a heroic figure gives me some higher truth that can’t be disproved.

However poorly you might be suited for it

16 Jun
by Laura

Show me a man who looks better in a tux than Janelle, I dare you

Jess’s post on the performance of masculinity coincided nicely with another piece of reading on my plate this week, a memoir by SF novelist Samuel R. Delaney called The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village 1960-1965. I started reading Delaney’s book because I am studying his ex-wife, Marilyn Hacker’s, poetry, and she is a major figure in the memoir. What I didn’t expect was that it would be, in addition to a chronicle of what was clearly an exciting and strange time and place to be a young artist, an enthralling read about masculinity and sexuality. Delaney is a gay black man who married a white Jewish woman when they were both teenaged aspiring writers, trying to figure out how to be who they were in a pre-Stonewall, pre-Civil Rights Movement bohemian New York. It’s all pretty fascinating, but the passage that struck me most last night was this, in which Delaney struggles to understand how the incredible personal and social power he finds in then-illicit sex (cruising Central Park, bathhouses, docks, etc.) fits in with his daylight life:

It’s even hard to speak of that world. But looking back on that morning and the mystical ambiguities that seemed so important to it, I saw that such moments were themselves largely social and psychological illusions — unless you realized what they meant was that forces both social and psychological were at work to pull you toward the most conservative position you might inhabit, however poorly you might be suited for it.

The mystic experience was a psychological sign that you’d reached a cul de sac where it was too exhausting to separate the personal from the social on the most conservative level. It was as an exhortation to vigilance against this muddying phenomenon that, I suspect, a few years later, the radical slogan “The Personal is the Political” was formulated. (242-3)
Now, I’m not a person who’s had much in the way of mystic experience. But this is one of the clearest and most concise social critiques I’ve ever read: forces both social and psychological were at work to pull you toward the most conservative position you might inhabit, however poorly you might be suited for it. I think this is true for all of us; the difference in how people experience it lies in the last clause: however poorly you might be suited for it. Some people are well suited to inhabiting a conservative social position; many are not. But we are all under extreme and constant pressure to do it anyway, to move not just to the center but to the far poles of “proper” behavior. This is why there is a difference between performative masculinity and straight-up menaissance feste misogyny: calling it “irony” is too shallow, but that’s part of it. It’s a question of how you inhabit your body and the social role that kind of body is ordered to occupy.

I am a cis queer/bi woman and thus most of my experience of this has to do with femininity. My desires are queer and my femininity is shot through with masculinity. When I was a miserable unpretty teenager, that felt like a failure. As an adult, it feels like a social and psychological victory: a refusal of traditional femininity and its interleaved misogyny, not a fiasco of it. That’s the biggest difference between being an adolescent and being an adult woman, for me — I get to reclaim what felt like failure as a victory instead.

Defying norms feels like work because it is, because of those forces trying to pull you toward the most conservative position you  might inhabit. That is why refusing to perform femininity seems like more work to so many women than the actual work of femininity, which is more labor-intensive but also hidden. That is why accepting your body is so much harder, at first, than fighting to “better” your body — because, like horrible magnets, those forces pull you backwards. We all must keep “vigilance against this muddying phenomenon” if we want to feel that our performance of gender matches our desires. If that’s not a priority for you, so be it. But if it is, well, strap in: we have a lot of work to do.

Comme des Garçons

16 Jun

by Jess

This post is not really about the clothing label Comme des Garçons but I felt I should use their most garçon-y shoes for an illustration anyway. Also, I want these shoes.

Last Saturday night I went to a burlesque show with my parents. (Do you think this is the only blog post that’s ever started that way?) It actually wasn’t purely a burlesque show — by volume it was mostly a ladies-in-lingerie-playing-accordions show — but there was one really terrific burlesque dancer, Alotta Boutté. She had indeed a lotta boutté, and lo did she shake it all over the stage, which was really fun and engaging and had the crowd howling along. At which point my mom leaned over and said “the audience is all gay men. Why do they like this?”

To which of course the first proper response is “why do YOU like it?” since presumably my mom was not enjoying the performance on account of wanting to make tender love to Alotta. But I think in a general sense the answer is that people like burlesque performances even if they’re not sexually interested in the performer (Alotta is also fat, which is not everyone’s cup of donut juice) for the same reason they like drag shows: because the performance of femininity is interesting and exciting in a way that the obligation of femininity is really not. Femininity, when it’s not presented as a compulsory  accessory to female genitalia, is pretty fun! Bring on the boas and heels and costume jewelry, if perhaps not the pasties! Who doesn’t like glitter and makeup and flirting and shit?

Well, lots of people, of both sexes, obviously. But whether femininity is treated as a necessary chore or a shameful habit is generally based entirely on the content of your pants, not on whether you actually feel like engaging. And heaven forfend you think of it like something in between, to be dipped into or rejected depending on your mood — you know, given that so much of it has to do with what you wear and how you act, not whether your junk is an innie or an outie. The joyful transgression of burlesque and drag, which is joyful regardless of the audience’s sexual orientation or interest, is that it divorces femininity from femaleness. It’s transgressive because it’s disconnected from sexual orientation or interest, and also heteronormativity, fuckability, and often (or at least, quite plausibly) from vaginas — i.e. all the things that are usually considered to be associated with or mark you out for femininity-on-demand.

This also goes a long way towards explaining the rather curious reaction I had to the blog The Art of Manliness. I found the blog when Soc. Images featured its delightful collection of vintage men’s magazine covers (“chewed to bits by giant turtles!”) and I was instantly smitten. Manly purchase: Fedora! Manly workout: Odd object training! Manly skill: Facial hair maintenance! It was like they were curating and selling (and selling, and selling) a vintage-inspired version of masculinity that never really existed — at once elegant and artless, enlightened and retro-cool. I’ve always been a little more gallant in personality and butch in presentation than a lot of women, just on account of being a sort of big clumsy person who was deeply into tales of chivalry as a child (though I also do love makeup and flirting), so I found this highly stylized form of masculinity terribly appealing. Basically what I’m saying is that I’m very into manliness when it is all about buying really beefy purses.

And then they start in with the essentializing of women (and men), the solecisms about feminism (it’s great but it makes men so confused!) and the relentless heteronormativity. And just like that, it’s a blog for men — straight cis men, specifically — instead of a blog about skills anyone might need and presentation anyone could put on. (I mean, okay, I’ll never grow my own manly mustache, but I appreciate a meditation on its aesthetics as part of the general aesthetic the site promotes.) Suddenly, the performance of masculinity becomes a command performance — for men, for men only, for straight cis men most of all, and certainly to be accompanied by an equivalent compulsory feminine performance by the straight cis ladies on their arms.

This isn’t really about Art of Manliness specifically — they have their thing that they do, and clearly it’s an effective little industry for them. As far as gender-essentialist shit on the internet, it is on average benign, at best useful or fun, and at worst so far from the worst stuff out there that I have no interest in calling them out. But it is (again) about manliness qua “a particular code of presentation and behavior” vs. manliness qua “the way that men are supposed to be.” If masculinity is something that can be performed at will, just a name for one of the many types of style and deportment you can have in your beefy purse of tricks, sign me up. If it’s a privilege or a responsibility conferred by (and only by) the having of a penis, then it’s dragging everyone down, penis-havers and penis-lackers alike. Ditto femininity, with the bits reversed.

These are by no means new ideas, I should note (though please feel free to give me $500 for them, as there’s a beefy purse I have my eye on). I imagine people in the trans community have been writing much better about just these things for years. My blog reading and link knowledge have both atrophied in the last little while, unfortunately. But I think this idea needs to be downright mainstream. I’m not even talking about genderfucking here — I’m talking about the fact that it needs to become tautological that even straight, cis, activism-indifferent, not-at-all-subversive men and women get to pick and choose how they present themselves, for their lifetime or just for the day, and not have it dictated for them by what they’re packing in their chromosomes or their trousers. That gender is something you can fuck but also something you can just diddle, no commitment, no strings attached.

A positive discourse on masculinity, via comic books and etymology

6 Jun

by Jess

Amanda Hess has a reader who’s been repeatedly submitting requests for a “positive discourse on masculinity.” On the whole I find this idea pretty bankrupt — akin, as one other commenter brilliantly put it, to asking for a positive discourse on white supremacy. Ironically, though, I was thinking about it the other day while rereading the comic book series Preacher, which at first glance looks like a fucked-up perverted cowboy fantasy delighting in all the negative aspects of masculinity. Preacher is dark, very violent, blasphemous to the core, and not a little twisted, all of which figure into why I like it so much. Let me be clear, though: This is a very dude-ly comic, in the sense that it is full of the things that are usually considered to make something a “boy book” or “boy movie.” There are a lot of views of blown-open heads. One character is named “Arseface.” There are naked boobs, and vague homophobia, and lots of people fuck things that aren’t people. John Wayne makes several appearances. A punch in the jaw is pretty much the least violent fate you can hope for in this comic, and nearly everybody gets at least one. Literal emasculation is a repeated trope — actually, emasculation followed by suddenly having an awful lot of frustration that needs violent expression. But implausibly, Preacher, with its hard-punching, chain-smoking, John Wayne-loving cowboy of a hero, ends up having a lot to say about the pitfalls of manliness and the possible redemption of the concept.

Necessary backstory: the preacher in question, Jesse Custer (yeah, that’s his name, Custer), is railroaded into the church after a nightmarish childhood and a criminal adolescence. Both contributed to teaching him how to fight with almost superhuman skill, and also just be generally tough as a motherfuck. His girlfriend Tulip is equally as tough and particularly handy with guns. The other main character, Cassidy, is super-tough physically as well on account of being a vampire, but on a personal level he’s terribly weak, and he’s prone to bouts of drug addiction and binge drinking that lead him to be violent towards everyone around him including his girlfriends. And that’s what you missed on… PREACHER!

I’m not going to go too heavily into plot points because I like the series and think you should read it without too much spoiling, but I am going to jump straight to some events at the end. A couple salient parts: Jesse, after swearing to Tulip for the jillionth time that he will never again leave her behind to keep her safe while he goes off to do something dangerous, puts knockout drops in her water bottle so that he can… leave her behind to keep her safe while he goes off to do something dangerous. So yeah: lies to her face and drugs her. Chivalry! Plot point two is that Jesse, having found out about Cassidy’s secret douchebaggery, beats the snot out of him. Recriminations about hitting women figure in heavily. Then some other stuff happens and Jesse and Tulip eventually ride off into, I shit you not, the sunset on, I shit you not, a horse — but not until after Tulip walks out on Jesse for what he did to her, asks him point-blank whether honor and trustworthiness and keeping his word stop mattering when he’s talking to a woman, and tells him to take his “macho bullshit” and shove it. Oh, and Jesse learns to cry. Not joking. I know it doesn’t sound awesome but I promise that it is.

During the fight with Cassidy, Jesse tells him to “act like a man” — which means not hitting women, part of Jesse’s manliness code, but because of Cassidy’s particular situation (nothing enables addiction and violence like being unkillable and super-strong) also clearly means acting like a human being instead of an undead thing. What I think the end of Preacher is about is realizing that “acting like a man” is just an abbreviated version of “acting like a HUman.” Cassidy’s willingness to turn his preternatural strength against women who trust him is abhorrent, not only to some chivalrous code but objectively. But by the same token, Jesse’s fixation on protecting women — on protecting his woman, specifically — actually gets in the way of him treating Tulip with humanity or respect. Put them side by side, as they’re presented in the plot, and the implication is clear: Cassidy’s crime is not in hitting women, but in hurting defenseless people weaker than he is. Jesse’s gallantry is misguided because he’s trying to protect someone who doesn’t want or need it, simply because his code dictates that she must — and because she doesn’t want or need his protection, he’s forced to manufacture the weakness that would make her unable to object. Cassidy doesn’t “act like a man” — like a human, that is — because he is willing to hurt people who can’t defend themselves against him, or unable to stop himself from doing it. Jesse doesn’t “act like a man” because he’s too busy trying to act macho.

What manliness means for Jesse is being a straight shooter — protecting the weak and innocent, being forthright and trustworthy, and taking no shit from fools. But he finds that his “macho bullshit,” as Tulip calls it, actually gets in the way of his manliness. Because it makes him unable to resist protecting — and therefore deceiving and abandoning — a woman, even at the expense of treating her like a person and an equal. His masculinity impedes his humanity, and humanity was really what Jesse’s dream of being a real man was always about. One of the final images of Jesse in Preacher is of him riding a horse through a New York traffic jam to find Tulip, with tears streaming down his face because he’s realized that he fucked things up royally with his paternalism, pledging the “macho bullshit” has to go. He’s the cryin’ cowboy, determined to sort out decency from posturing. But the final final image of the comic is Cassidy, un-vampired, making his own pledge to act like a man. That is, to act like a human.

This is what a positive discourse on masculinity looks like: realizing that the positive aspects of masculinity are just decency and humanity, coopted by men as their personal invention. A code of honor where you help those in need isn’t the exclusive province of men; it’s the province of mensches.

My therapist was telling me the other day that “man” in Old English actually meant “person.” Both male and female humans got modifiers — “wer” for men, which stuck around pretty much nowhere except in “werewolf,” and “wif” for women, from which we get “wife” of course and also “woman” (wifman). I checked this out in the OED but if you don’t have access to that it’s all on Wikipedia.

The point here is that a) people who insist on “womyn” are being even sillier than you thought and b) “man” used to mean everyone, and then males were substituted for everyone. It’s an etymological origin story for the male as default. When did the word that meant “people” start meaning “people with penises”? Well, the OED starts showing examples that clearly distinguish between “man” and “woman” in the 13th century, though of course that’s not necessarily when the distinction began. Guess what else was arising around this time! If you said “the concept of chivalry as a code of conduct dictating protection of women,” award yourself something manly like a Bro Icing! (Which I just learned about last night, because I am old and it is awful.)

In other words, human decency became gender-specific and gender-codified around the same time that “man” did. Ideals about how people should treat other people turned into ideals about how males should treat other males and non-males, as though honor and decency were somehow man-specific values. A “positive discourse on masculinity” would have to acknowledge this, and acknowledge that the parts of the Man Code worth keeping are the parts that aren’t really about men at all. It would mean putting the “hu” back in “humanliness,” and giving the concept of human decency back to anyone who’s willing to act on it, not just those with the right genitalia. And it would mean talking about why men want to think that they invented civility and women are just its beneficiaries. It would, in other words, involve a lot of feminism. I think Jesse Custer could handle that.

Like rain on your wedding day

2 Jun

by Jess

I’ve just gotten around to reading the profile of Andrew Breitbart that appeared in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. For various reasons I don’t want to make this an overtly political space right now (I mean party politics — for some reason it’s become a political statement to say “women, non-white people, gay people, trans people, disabled people, and fat people are all people,” and that sort of “politics” will continue to appear), and I’m definitely not interested in doing a What I Hate About Andrew Breitbart post. I object to the type of punditry that amounts to a power trip, regardless of political content, and let’s leave it at that. But I was struck by his attempt to characterize House member and renowned civil rights activist John Lewis as a racist for walking in front of people who might sling epithets at him:

A few days later, Breitbart once again went after the Congressional Black Caucus. In a Big Journalism editorial headlined “2010: A RACE ODYSSEY—DISPROVING A NEGATIVE FOR CASH PRIZES, OR, HOW THE CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT JUMPED THE SHARK,” he wrote, “It’s time for the allegedly pristine character of Rep. John Lewis to put up or shut up. If you provide verifiable video evidence showing that a single racist epithet was hurled as you walked among the Tea Partiers, or you pass a simple lie detector test, I will provide a $10K check to the United Negro College Fund.” Breitbart also described the congressmen’s walk through the crowd, “in and of itself,” as an “act of racism meant to create a contrast between the Tea Party crowd and themselves.”

Let’s get this out of the way quickly, because apparently I can’t resist trying to hit the popinjay: Breitbart says that the racial slurs never occurred, because Tea Partiers have recording devices and someone would have taped them. Evidently, in Breitbart’s mind, members of a group that openly carries racist signs would be utterly shocked and bent on discrediting at all costs members of their own group who shouted racist things. Oh, but surely they know to keep it written and photographed, not vocalized: “This is 2010. Even a racist is media-savvy enough not to yell the N-word,” Breitbart says. If you read the article, in fact, you start to get a pretty good idea how a media-savvy racist behaves in 2010.

Anyway, but what I’m interested in is the part where talking about racist catcalls — or signs, or T-shirts, or, you know, policy positions — in the Tea Party means that you yourself are a racist. We see this a lot in discussions about race: If you even recognize racism, perhaps by trying to correct decades of injustice, you are the racist one! And in other discussions: If you try to carve out a space for women or refuse to be sufficiently impressed by [BONERS], truly, the sexist is YOU! It’s not just the “the real discrimination is you discriminating against me by not allowing me to discriminate against you in this one particular instance” argument, though that’s the one I see most frequently. There is also, for instance, the pervasive meme that Democrats are all secretly filthy rich and extravagant, and Republicans are all having seamy gay affairs, and Al Gore’s house wastes tons of energy. (Grains of truth, all, but let’s leave that aside.) Oh, and on a smaller scale there’s “you accuse me of trolling because I am trolling you, but you’re being so mean to me  — aren’t you the real troll here?” As a person with very little patience for bullshit arguments or silencing techniques, I see that one a lot too.

Certainly it’s both dramatically and intellectually satisfying when our enemies can be conclusively shown to be hypocrites, and I would hate to deny the world moments like the truly epic last quote from this article. But this fixation on irony makes Alanis Morissette’s version seem smart. Wanting your dissenters to defeat themselves is the very definition of intellectual laziness. If the best you can muster is “ah, but aren’t you doing the exact same thing you just argued against?” then it may be time to come up with an argument of your own.

Sometimes people don’t become what they hate. Sometimes they just become what you hate. That’s okay — you can disagree with people without needing them to also disagree with themselves! Self-contradiction is not the only way for someone to be wrong — it’s just the easiest way, and the way that requires the least commitment from you as an interlocutor. (After all, you never have to say “I think you’re wrong” if you can make do with “you think you’re wrong.”) If someone has a decent argument and puts in a smidgen of effort, they should be able to muster something beyond “well you did it too.” If they can’t, they’ve either got nothing or they don’t care enough to bother.

(My fellow logic nerds, of course, know that I could have skipped this whole post and just said “the tu quoque fallacy: fuck that.” Then I would not have had the opportunity to ramble about shit and get that Alanis Morissette song stuck in your head, of course, and what fun is that? But because I love Latin names for logical fallacies I do want to slide this one in there.)