“You Can’t Be a Princess”

On my definition of terms page, I talk about the Oxford dictionary definition of interpellation, and how it differs from my own in regards to gender interpellation specifically. The distinction lies in the inclusion of ‘policing’ –colloquially referred to as the ‘hey you!’, after a quote from Judith Butler.

Most times, the policing is more subtle. But this video shows that is not always the case.

Yet this blatant gender-policing is still so socially acceptable that the parents in the video feel perfectly comfortable enforcing the genders of complete stranger’s children, and even imparting ‘advice’ to those strangers.

In a way, the fear and concern the parents show over the boy’s feminine preferences run deeper than the fear of a ‘proto-gay’ child, to use a term from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. In Sedgwick’s paper, “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay”, she points out that many (in her context she is referring to psychoanalysts, but I believe it may apply to a far larger group of people) are prepared to like an openly homosexual man, provided he behaves masculine. The psychoanalysts go so far as to say the masculine gay man is ‘properly integrated.’ Meaning, of course, that the feminine gay man is not. So could it be that the fear is not that the boy will be gay, but that he will be the wrong kind of gay…the kind that will make him hyper-visible to those that want to hurt him?

Bullying is brought up several times in the video. It’s the justification used to prevent the children from performing certain ways. Don’t do this, or you will be bullied.

Don’t do this, or you will be punished.

So here interpellation is used to protect children from unjust punishment; I don’t believe it is always hateful in origin. I truly believe they mean well. After all, “it’s always open season on gay kids,” (Sedgwick) and on those who are perceived to be gay or queer.

But by acquiescing to the demands of how a boy should behave (or, for that matter, how a girl should behave), all they are doing in the end is feeding the power the bullies already possess. After all, they are influencing the behaviour of grown adults, and they are not even in the store with them. That’s a lot of power for a handful of prepubescents.

Even worse than that, the parents are buying into the societal expectations that made it dangerous for a boy to wear a princess gown in the first place.

(Kill Bill posts are coming soon, wordpress has done something strange to my drafts of them that I need to fix. So I wrote this new post in the meantime instead)

Posted in boys and men, Children, queer identities | 2 Comments

Gender Interpellation vs Kill Bill

Heroic women in science fiction and fantasy television shows have done much to represent strong, successful women in leadership positions. However, these female roles that are viewed as strong and empowered embody many masculine identified traits, maintaining a patriarchal division of gender roles. This paper analyzes strong female characters within nine television shows by deconstructing their stereotypically “masculine” and “feminine” gender specific attributes and cross referencing how they play within and against traditional archetypes.”

Abstract from Anita Sarkeesian’s Master’s Thesis.

Anita Sarkeesian’s name has become a buzzword among those of us who care deeply about video games and feminism alike –it is hard not to feel shocked and enraged by her story, which I almost need not recount here it has been so well-covered. It is strange that she in particular drew so much ire from the less-thoughtful parts of the gaming community, when in actuality she’s not saying anything much different from what has been said before. Said before by much more prominent figures in gaming, for that matter. Her brand of criticism treads a familiar path –and one I wish to examine.

When talking about popular media, there are those who criticize certain ‘strong female characters’ as being merely men in disguise –which is to say, they are only portrayed as strong because they behave like men. There is certainly a lot to dislike about this concept, and there are more than a few franchises which are genuinely guilty of pulling that sort of bait-and-switch gender valuing: I narrow my eyes any time I see the ‘butch’ female character worshipped while the ‘girly’ one is humiliated, or dismissed as shallow. To simply write male characters and then change some names or hire some actresses is not the way to create complex female leads, and to say otherwise is to assume that the male identity is the default human condition, with all things feminine being a lesser aberration.*

So thus far Sarkeesian and I are on the same page. But then we take a look at some of the targets of her criticism –characters like Buffy Summers, or Ellen Ripley– and some of the things she considers to be ‘behaving like a man.’ Being stoic, being asocial, being violent in nature…

I ask, when did the male form claim exclusive rights to the concept of violence?

Is it really fair to take a female character, who kicks ass and takes names, and then dismiss it as a ‘pseudo-man,’ as if kicking ass was male in concept?

Is that not a form of interpellation?

I have my own issues with the concept of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in the first place, but those ideas are not developed enough to discuss here. So instead, I want to put these forms of criticism to the test by holding them up against what I consider to be one of the most ambiguous pieces of popular film in regards to feminism.

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Volume’s 1 & 2.

Now, I adore Kill Bill, and I adore it because it takes risks. It walks a very bloody line between two different factions of women’s representation –The Bride is no heartless steamrolling macho character, but nor is she compassionate and reflective. Her gender is barely part of the plot, yet her gender informs everything in the plot. The female characters are dynamic and many; their lives centre around one man. The seeming contradictions go on and on, and creates a picture much more interesting (in my opinion) than if Tarantino had decided on one side and stuck to it.

So with all that, is Kill Bill resisting gender interpellation by refusing to follow any one guide as to what a female-driven story should be…or is it, in fact, acquiescing so many times over that it struggles to keep all the balls in the air?

Is The Bride a pseudo-man…or a glorified, violent damsel? Or is she simply just a female character?

I’m honestly not sure.

Tonight and tomorrow I will create a post each, one arguing for resistance in Kill Bill and one arguing against. We’ll see what comes of it!

In the meantime, you should check out Sarkeesian’s site, Feminist Frequency, and see what you think of her style of critique.

Posted in Girls and Women, speculative | Leave a comment

Overview: The Battling Identities in “Fun Home”

As always, refer to the definitions of terms page if you’re feeling unsure what I’m talking about.

The following is a massive understatement: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a very, very queer book. It deals with sexuality (in general, and Bechdel and her father’s in particular), but also gender,  and the subjective nature of societal expectations. If I were to introduce a person to the concept of interpellation, I perhaps might not recommend the theorists and the Oxford definitions –no, if I wanted a person to achieve a basic understanding of having a created identity superimposed on your body, I can think of no better introductory text than this.

Such an idea is not alien to the book; large sections of it are dedicated to the illuminating powers of literature, and how we may use writing stories to recognize ourselves in others. This is how Bechdel herself comes to terms with her sexuality.

But long before that, she has to grow up under the eyes of her father, a deeply closeted man with hyper-vigilant ideas about gender expression.

Though she identifies as a girl, she wants to express herself in masculine ways (men’s clothes, men’s haircuts, etc.), and this is unacceptable to Bruce, her father. He sees her walking in with loose bangs, and chides her that her barrette will keep the hair out of her eyes. She replies that a crewcut will do the same. These arguments, given the absolute authority her father commands (he is above described as ‘malevolent,’ and the image she creates of him certainly represents that), is about all the resistance she can muster. Still, she keeps it going throughout her childhood, never fully allowing herself to be interpellated. At least, not to anyone’s satisfaction.

As she continues to fail to represent what everyone sees as innate femininity, his anger with her grows –this, despite his having nearly identical (except reversed) experiences in his own life.  Later on in the book, he tells her that he once wanted to be a girl, and dressed in women’s clothing. Even before this revelation, she suspects that his obsession with her appearing feminine had less to do with her and more to do with his own desire to express:

Their constant struggle against each other (and against themselves), serve as a fine microcosm of issues of gender in general. Alison wants to be free, but cannot because of the laws placed upon her body; Bruce is not comfortable with freedom (he once expresses jealousy of younger gay generations, that they can be free, but it is never something he claims for himself), and so tries to have his cake and eat it within the cage of heteronormativity (via affairs with young boys, and forcing femininity on his daughter).

As seen in the picture above, the text makes use of the antiquated term “invert” –an old-fashioned word for a homosexual, so-coined because it was believed that a homosexual had sexual desires ‘inverted’ from their sex…that their identity was backwards. Indeed, in the narrative Bechdel presents, her masculinity and her father’s femininity are implied to be side-effects of their homosexuality…a concept I do not agree with (in my mind, gender expression and sexual desire are separate, linked only by societal preconceptions), but serves here to further the animosity between father and daughter. It is not only that she is pro-queer and he is not, it is that they are queer in different ways, and even this is too much to reconcile…at least at first.

The only thing they can agree on is the absolute preference for the male. She, because ‘masculine’ means power, self-determination and the ability to wear symbols people take seriously (a suit, as opposed to a dress; a basketball uniform, rather than a cheerleader’s), and he, because the male form is the object of his desire. Even with all their differences and socially constructed views that led them clash against one another, the male body still remains in highest esteem. I find this to be sad, but truthful, commentary.

Fun Home (and it’s semi-sequel, Are You My Mother) may appear again in this blog shortly. Consider this an intro-post.

Posted in Children, Girls and Women, queer identities | Leave a comment

Who Needs Drag?

For clarity, refer to the definition of terms.

Well, it’s that time of year again. International Women’s Day. The day when all the disgruntled young men take to the twitters and the Facebook to like each others “But why isn’t there an International Men’s Dayyyy???” posts.

Okay, I lied. Disgruntled young women do that too. I imagine they are the same young women who will sometimes, when confronted with a blatantly sexist situation, say something like, “I don’t want to sound like a feminist, but…”

It is oft discussed how feminism has become something of a dirty word, particularly in the mouths of young women. The tumblr project Who Needs Feminism? aims to change that, by showing that, far from being outdated and sexist, feminism is still very much necessary. It has a simple formula; you send in a picture of yourself holding up a card explaining why you need feminism, and they post it for the world to see. Started by 16 women in a Women in the Public Sphere course at Duke University, the project has received countless contributions from a wide range of races, ages and genders.

The contributions cover a wide range of topics –from simple anecdotes of singular discrimination, to systematic oppression, confessions of sexual assault…and perhaps most importantly, the very rightful criticism that feminism should be more inter-sectional (queer women and women of colour have often been shamefully excluded from the discourse, though hopefully this will change in the coming years).

But there is a certain kind of card that shows up from time to time, describing things which may seem trivial, but are the most pertinent to the content of this blog. Cards like this:

i need fem 1

Or this

a optional makeup

or this

a videogmae

(click the pictures to see larger versions at the tumblr itself)

What these posts have in common is they all address certain performances of gender. Not the performances themselves, but rather the notion that they are necessary or right.

I want to focus in on the first picture for a moment. The text reads, “I need feminism because my little brother was crushed when mum and me had to tell him it was best not to wear his nail polish to school.” It was best because being a little boy in public with nail polish would have invited what Judith Halberstam calls ‘Social violence and opprobrium’ –he would have been seen as being in a sort of drag.

The concept of ‘drag’ only exists as a satellite to the concept of fixed and original gender –that is, when you are in ‘drag,’ you are imitating something which is demonstrably not you. It is perceived as deliberate performance, affectation, super-imposed over the true and natural ‘I.’

But what these posts draw attention to with their protest is that the ‘I’ is not fixed to a pre-existing concept. That all expressions of gender are, in fact, performance, regardless of whether the performance happens to match an associated physical characteristic (thus the invalidity of the attitudes these posters are protesting). Because they are all performed, they are all (as the second poster put it), optional. One might go so far as to say, “all gender is drag,” on which Judith Butler has this to say:

To claim that all gender is like drag, or is drag, is to suggest that “imitation” is at the heart of the heterosexual project and its gender binarisms, that drag is not a secondary imitation that presupposes a prior and original gender, but that hegemonic heterosexuality is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations. That it must repeat this imitation, that it sets up pathologizing practices and normalizing sciences in order to produce and consecrate its own claim on originality and propriety, suggests that heterosexual performativity is beset by an anxiety that it can never fully overcome, that its effort to become its own idealizations can never be finally or fully achieved, and that it is consistently haunted by that domain of sexual possibility that must be excluded for heterosexualized gender to produce itself.

Gender is Burning: Question of Appropriation and Subversion

I do believe that imitation is at the heart of the heterosexual project, and I believe that when we act outside of the established ‘norms,’ we bring that insurmountable anxiety to the surface. It undercuts the significant value that the heterosexualized gender has produced for itself (and thus, the significant value the interpellated heterosexual individual invests in themselves), when alternatives are presented as of equal or greater worth –there are many who will react with fear and anger when even a stranger expresses a preference for gender-queer behaviour/identity.

When we behave gender-queer, or even just lament online the difficulty of doing so, we are rocking a boat that was never that stable to begin with.

Posted in Felt like posting for fun | 4 Comments

Resistance is Futile?: An Introduction

I want to show you something.

You can probably guess, but that is a promotional image from the Nerf company’s new line of Girl-Focused toys, Rebelle. You can tell it’s for girls, because the name is feminized (in the French sense), and everything is slathered in pink. The line recently launched with it’s first product, this little beauty right here:

It’s called Heartbreaker.

One of the talented ladies at the media feminist blog ChezApocalypse has already discussed why it was given that name and why it’s a problem, so I won’t repeat their words when I can just link to them right here.

What I will say is this: this is a toy for children.

Children, I think, are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to gender interpellation, because they don’t have much control over what discourses they enter, or how they are socially hailed. They don’t have opportunities to self-produce their identities; but if they do, and if that identity falls outside of the established norm, it will be dismissed as a phase, or an imagination run wild. A denial of what everyone else has decided is reality.

When presented to the child for whom it was designed, Heartbreaker creates this mirror for her to look into:

  •  Girl things are always and only feminine. Pink, winged, sporting that dainty ‘elle.’ The girl in the poster is wearing makeup because even heading into imaginary battle, she has to look good. If it is not feminine, it is not for you; the result of Rebelle being explicitly for girls is that regular Nerf becomes implicitly for boys. A barrier of exclusion has been risen, for both sides.
  •  Being ostensibly a weapon, this toy is the object of a power fantasy. But with a name like Heartbreaker, it takes on a specific form. A girl has power by using romantic ties (which, as she becomes older, translates into her sexuality) to her advantage. Femme fatale or nothing.
  •  The first toy in the line is a bow. It’s easy enough to surmise this is because of the popularity of archery right now, particularly among girls. But it’s nothing new. It is actually a well-known trope: Guys Smash, Girls Shoot.
  • By giving a girl ranged weaponry (the logic goes), they can participate in the battle while still being removed from the action. Despite the athleticism required for marksmanship, the bow is consider more elegant than powerful, much like the female marksman herself.

There may be more, but those are the primary three, in my opinion. It is not only that these things are being suggested to her through the toy (although they are), it is that the existence of the toy pre-supposes these facets of her identity.

I can imagine some little girl, a tomboy probably, being presented this thing as a gift from some well-intentioned relative (Goodness knows I had piles of toys from aunts and uncles who seemed to think of me as an SAT logic exercise: Little girls love Barbie. Leah is a little girl. Therefore, Leah loves Barbie). I can imagine that some of them will take to it, because of their temperament, or because it fits with everything they have already repeatedly been told they are.

I can imagine people seeing their acceptance, and mistaking it for evidence of innate Girlhood. Then, thinking “Girls like these things because they are girls,” they make more Heartbreakers, which will be presented to more children, and the cycle continues.

I am only talking about one toy, at the moment. But this sort of social programming/ social behaviour/social programming loop exists everywhere –not just for children or girls but every age and gender. It is a mostly unconscious but nevertheless relentless effort for everyone to fit into one of two very specific groups –women with female genitalia, and men with male genitalia.

To paraphrase Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity, it is a wonder, under those conditions, that anyone reaches adulthood with an identity outside those rigidities at all. Yet it happens. Somehow, people resist.

This blog will be about exploring that resistance, why we do it, what forms it takes, and what it means. When is it conscious, and when is it not? I’ll be writing about it both on general, conceptual levels, and also by taking in-depth looks at specific items –be they films or books.

I, for one, am looking forward to it.

I will be setting up a Definition of Terms page, to ensure that each post can be read individually, but without weighing down the text of each. (Here is the page).

Posted in Children, Girls and Women | 4 Comments