Foucault and the History of Sexuality: A “Queer” Overview

If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom.

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality – Volume I (p. 6)

Although Michel Foucault did not work within an established queer theory framework, he is undoubtedly one of the most important precursors to queer theory and the study of gender. His ideas and approaches not only helped to develop a useful framework to understand and contest normativity, but I would go as far as to posit that the ideas discussed in the three volumes of The History of Sexuality have become integrated with the gestalt of human culture and consciousness. His work has enabled conversations of the constructed nature of sexuality and the role of power, culture, and society in this construction. Furthermore, his work has served as a theoretical platform for prominent queer theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butlter. Foucault’s ideas have particularly helped Butler to approach gender as a construction, and to develop the concept of performativity as a way of exemplifying how language and discourse are reiterated in order to produce the very phenomena that discourse regulates and controls. Performativity is a very Foucaldian notion, developed partially from Foucault’s concept of genealogy (derived from Nietzsche’s approach), which outlines the development of discourses not on the basis of their linearity, but rather, on their relationships, their paradoxes, and their fixations.

The History of Sexuality is in essence, a three-volume study of sexuality, power, and regulation in the Western World. The most influential of these volumes is the first, often referred to as the introduction of the study. This first volume focuses its attention on attacking the preconception that discourses of sex were suppressed during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and how sex was very much an integral component of religious, scientific, and political conversations.

As mentioned previously, one of the most influential ideas discussed within this first volume was the notion of sexuality as a construct with social and cultural origins. This very much went against essentialist views of sexuality, in which sexual desire was exclusively deemed to be a naturally or biologically driven phenomenon. Foucault does a similar move in terms of approaching power as a hegemonic distribution that is not inherently present within a being or a thing, but rather, that is generated through discourse and through complex relationships that defy easy categorizations. Although to some extent sexuality is based on biology and desire, Foucault stresses that ultimately, these biological drives are shaped and influenced by institutions and discourses, thus creating the phenomenon of sexuality. The notion of sexuality as a construct inspired Foucault’s contemporaries and successors to focus their attention not on what produces sexuality, but rather, on what sexuality produces.

Another prominent concept discussed within the first volume of The History of Sexuality is the development of Scientia Sexualis, which is the introduction and proliferation of sexuality into psychoanalytic, political, and scientific discourse—which in turn illustrates the spread of sexual discourse despite its supposed repression prior to the 20th century. Psychoanalysis, for instance, focused much of its attention on ascertaining the source of sexuality through the processes of confession and truth-sharing. Confession has important connotations in terms of sexuality, its religious contexts, and even its contemporary contexts (as Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, confession is crucial in terms of the coming out process that queer individuals face during their day-to-day lives). Because of the linkage between confession and sexuality, sexuality becomes closely associated to discourse, and consequently, truth. As Foucault posits, the evasive scientific discourse of sexuality

set itself up as the supreme authority in matters of hygienic necessity, taking up the old fears of venereal affliction and combining them with the new themes of asepsis, and the great evolutionist myths with the recent institutions of public health; it claimed to ensure the physical vigor and the moral cleanliness of the social body; it promised to eliminate defective individuals, degenerate and bastardized populations. In the name of a biological and historical urgency, it justified the racisms of the state, which at the time were on the horizon. It grounded them in “truth.” (54)

Because of the linkage of sexuality to truth, sexuality developed into a marker of identity. In other words, the practice of sexuality became tethered to truth, thus becoming an ontological categorization no different from racial or ethnic typologies. In order to evidence this notion, Foucault alludes the invention of the concept of homosexuality (and in tandem, the invention of the homosexual), arguing once again that homosexuality was not discovered, but rather, produced through dialectical exchange: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43).

Although it is known that people engaged in same-sex relationships prior to the invention of the concept of homosexuality, this ontological category encouraged people to identify themselves or to view others as homosexual. The emergence of homosexuality as a “species” led to unfortunate developments, such as the classification of homosexuality as a pathology that had to be suppressed or regulated. It also led to the demonization of sexualities that were not deemed to be “productive.” It is here that we begin to see the roots of what Lee Edelman would call reproductive futurity, in which procreation is deemed necessary to meet the needs of a system based on production, capitalism, and futurity. Society’s increasing linkage to capitalism, thus, incremented the need of reproductive futurity in order to assure that the capitalist machine continues to run smoothly:

There emerged the analysis of the modes of sexual conduct, their determinations and their effects at the boundary line of the biological and the economic domains. There also appeared those systematic campaigns which going beyond the traditional means–moral and religious exhortations, fiscal measures–tried to transform the sexual conduct of couples into a concerted economic and political behavior. (26)

The 19th century, in particular, witnessed the emergence of doctrines and scientific approaches that had an intense focus on eradicating or handling forms of sexuality that deviated from the notion of reproductive futurity. Crucial to the development of identity politics, Foucault discusses how the categorization of homosexuality led to the emergence of a reverse discourse that challenged the negative valences associated with individuals who were now approached as homosexuals. Although people labeled as homosexuals did deal with negative effects due to the pathological nature of their categorization, this opened up the opportunity for these communities to have a voice. Homosexuality thus began to defend itself as a legitimate mode of existence, demanding its social and cultural recognition. Discursively, the fact that homosexuality was pathologized inevitably led many to conclude that homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon—homosexuals are, as Lady Gaga would put it, “born that way.” The reverse discourse generated by the advent of homosexuality goes on to exemplify the circuitous nature of power established by Foucault, in which every instance of power also presents some form of resistance.

To what extent can Lady Gaga’s Born This Way be approached as a form of discursive resistance?

Volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, respectively titled The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, focus more on earlier establishments of culture that surfaced before the advent of Western modernity—particularly Greek and Roman cultures. Within volume II, Foucault addresses how Christianity changed the Western view of sexuality and partnership not only from a moral stance, but also from an ethical stance:

it will be said that Christianity associated [sexuality’ with evil, sin, the Fall, and death, whereas antiquity invested it with positive symbolic values. Or the definition of the legitimate partner: it would appear that, in contrast to what occurred in Greek and Roman societies, Christianity drew the line at monogamous marriage and laid down the principle of exclusively procreative ends within that conjugal relationship. Or the disallowance of relations between individuals of the same sex: it would seem that Christianity strictly excluded such relationships, while Greece exalted them and Rome accepted them, at least between men. (14)

While it may initially seem that Christianity completely radicalized sexuality, Foucault posits that there is actually a continuity between “paganism” and Christianity in terms of the discourses of sex. A particularly illuminating example was the image of same-sex relationships. In the 19th century, homosexuals were pathologized as “inverts” and were deemed to have stereotypical and feminized behaviors and traits. The term invert actually alludes to an inversion of the subject’s sexual role–a motif that was very much present in Greco-Roman literature, in which the young boys who donned the passive role are approached as spineless, delicate, and ornamental. Foucault posits that

It would be completely incorrect to interpret this as a condemnation of love of boys, or of what we generally refer to as homosexual relations; but at the same time, one cannot fail to see in it the effect of strongly negative judgments concerning some possible aspects of relations between men, as well as a definite aversion to anything that might denote a deliberate renunciation of the signs and privileges of the masculine role. (19)

Thus, although same-sex relationships were deemed to be “freer” in Greco-Roman cultures, one can still genealogically trace negative valences towards homosexuality–thus exemplifying the discursive nature of sexuality even before the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, when comparing Greco-Roman cultures to later European cultures, there are some differences in terms of how sexuality was approached from a moral, ethical, and stance. Within volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, the notion of individuality is quite important, especially when it came to its conjunction with concepts such as ethics and morality. Interestingly, morality in Greco cultures was not viewed as a norm or a standard under which people had to comply, but rather, it was viewed as a relationship between the individual and the self—thus making ethics an individualized process rather than a struggle of the individual versus society:

moral conceptions in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of [severe self-discipline] than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden. If exception is made of the Republic and the Laws, one finds very few references to the principle of a code that would define in detail the right conduct to maintain, few references to the need for an authority charged with seeing to its application, few references to the possibility of punishments that would sanction infractions. (31)

However, the advent of Christianity broke with this individualistic model of the moral and ethical world. Christianity, according to Foucault, produces the meaning of sex rather than focusing its attention on the meanings sex produces—thus making Christianity a regulating and hegemonic force. In these latter volumes, it is of utmost importance to keep in mind that Foucault has hesitation in terms of approaching sexuality, ethics, and individuality through the perspective of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. This is because he does not necessarily approve of them in their entirety—especially when it comes to their perspective of who can or cannot be an individual (slaves and women, for instance, were very much excluded from being approached as individuals).

There is much more to be said in terms of the rich concepts and ideas discussed in Foucault’s work, but it is my hope that this overview has given you a substantial look at the most prominent ideas and concepts discussed in The History of Sexuality–especially the ideas that I deem most useful for queer theory and gender studies.

You can purchase The History of Sexuality by clicking here (Volume 1), here (Volume 2), or here (Volume 3).

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume II: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish]: A Transgender Coming-Out Novel

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

Front cover of the paperback version of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish

What made a person male or female, anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other?

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

Although Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first young adult text to tackle the issue of transgenderism, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish offers us a very direct and personal perspective of what it means to born in the wrong body. Unlike Luna (read my analysis of this novel by clicking here), Wittlinger’s novel is  told from the first-person perspective of the character undergoing a transition from one gender to another, and it is also centered on a female-to-male (FTM) rather than a male-to-female transition. Although the novel lacks a certain degree of credibility due to its almost cartoonish and one-dimensional portrayal of certain secondary characters, it is ultimately a text full of heart, and it complies with its goal of giving the reader insight into what it means for trans youth to come-out within contemporary society. Although the coming-out genre may be deemed tiring and overwrought by some readers, Wittlinger’s novel demonstrates how the genre needs to explore alternate coming-out narratives that are not focused solely on white gay/lesbian upper/middle class characters. I loved Luna‘s initial attempt to do this, but ability to establish a strong rapport with the trans character was limited, due to the fact that the trans character’s story was distilled through her sister’s perspective.

Parrotfish begins at the moment when Angela Katz-McNair–the novel’s protagonist–decides to become Grady. Grady chooses this name not only because of its gender neutrality, but also because it contains the word gray within it: “you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle” (6). He initially comes out as a lesbian because he deemed it to be a closer and easier step toward revealing his queer self within his community. He decides to unleash Grady soon after by declaring himself a boy to his family and friends, and by performing masculinity rather than suppressing it: he cuts his own hair very short, he begins to bind his breasts with a bandage, and he begins to wear traditional male attire. The main tension with the novel is Grady’s fear of losing touch with his past self. By assuming his true gender identity, he fears that he would have to sever his relationship with his past entirely. This is an interesting contrast to Peters’ Luna, for running away from the past is not presented as an option for Grady. He wants to embody his true gender, but in doing so, he does not want to lose a connection to everything that has shaped him.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this novel were those that explored not only the emotional difficulties of transitioning from a female to a male gender, but also the physical difficulties of said transition. Peter’s Luna, for instance, focuses more on the emotional torment that its transgender character faces. Luna does express physical torment, especially during the scene in which the trans character, as a child, tries to cut off his penis (as shown through the protagonist’s flashback); these physical accounts, however, are rare. Given that Wittlinger’s novel is told through the perspective of the FTM transgender protagonist, I was expecting a more nuanced understanding of the physical pains of transitioning–and the novel delivers in this aspect. For instance, Grady constantly remarks on how painful it is to breathe and to engage in physical activity when his breasts are bound with tight bandages (even though he is fortunate enough to have small breasts). Grady also expresses the difficulty of determining what bathroom to use in his high school, ultimately avoiding the decision because his understanding gym teacher allows him to use her private bathroom and shower. A particularly insightful scene in the novel in terms of the physical pains of transitioning takes place when Grady explains how he feels towards menstruation while experiencing it:

now I was a boy who had just started his period and was probably bleeding all over his jockey shorts. Yeah, that was normal. Even my own body betrayed me on a regular basis. What was I supposed to do now? Crap. I could feel the cramps advancing. The gym and Ms. Unger’s bathroom were half a mile away from my locker. By the time I ran down there I’d be a mess. (59-60)

Menstruation highlights the tension that exists between Grady’s mind and his body. It also becomes an experience of active struggle for Grady, for although he is trying to be a boy, menstruation coerces his masculinity to clash vis-a-vis the femininity he is trying to suppress. For instance, when Grady is suffering from menstrual cramps, he refuses to acknowledge to them to his mother because it “seemed like an argument against what I’d been trying to prove to her” (61). Thus, even when embodying his true gender, Grady realizes that performativity is still necessary when it comes to expressing truth.

Going back to the fact that this novel is a bit unrealistic, I want to focus on Grady’s fear of not losing his entire past by embodying a different gender (prepare for major spoilers). Towards the end of the novel, most of the tensions that Grady had with other characters vanish entirely. He mends his relationship with his best friend, Eve, after she helps him avoid a cruel prank that other students were planning against him. His family, most of which showed apprehension towards his transition, rapidly become entirely accepting of him. Even the novel’s bully, the nefarious queen bee Danya, faces suspension from Grady’s high school and is ultimately humiliated by other students at the winter dance. The message is clear: to thine own self be true, and not only will everyone accept you, but your bullies will face karmic consequences for their insidious actions.

Not only does Grady’s past relationships stay intact, but his life improves in almost every aspect imaginable. This outcome may be approached my some as misguided, because it undermines the difficulties and the non-teleological struggles of being transgender. Unlike the LGB side of the spectrum, trans youths not only have to come out, but their coming-out entails performative and physical changes that inevitably invoke a contrast between the before and the after. Although I absolutely adore the positive and optimistic message that the novel presents, I can’t help but wonder if the novel is too optimistic and naive when it comes to the issues that transgender teens face. Not all transgender teens are going to be lucky enough to be accepted by every single member of their immediate family. Not all transgender teens will find love and support as easily as Grady does. Peters’ Luna, on the other hand, shows both sides of the spectrum in terms of the consequences of coming out as transgender to one’s family: some quietly accept, some have no issue with it whatsoever, and others react with outrage and at times violence.

I reiterate that I completely understand Wittlinger’s utopian depiction of a transgender future–but I question whether the novel should’ve been more realistic when considering the outcomes of this distinctive coming-out process. I’m especially anxious to know how transgender readers feel about the general approach and conclusions that this novel presents. Regardless of its shortcomings, Parrotfish is well worth a read, and it provides some excellent food for thought. I particularly recommend the novel to readers who are not really aware of the nuances of gender, especially when it comes to matters such as performativity and gender construction. Those who are aware of these nuances might find the novel a bit too obvious and didactic, despite its warm, humorous, and fast-paced nature.

You can purchase a copy of Wittlinger’s novel here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print (Hardcover edition).

A Queer Overview of Judith Butler’s [Gender Trouble]

Front cover of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

Front cover of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble

Rich, complex, difficult, and groundbreaking are just a few of the words that are usually associated with Judith Butler’s works. Despite the fact that her texts are often described as “tedious” and “overwrought,” reading Butler is well worth the effort, and I’m often amazed at the way she is able to wrestle with difficult ideas. Furthermore, I’m delighted by how she is able to add layers of complexity to the already complex domain of (gendered) identity politics. Gender Trouble, originally published in 1990, is not only considered to be one of the seminal texts of queer theory, but it brought into light many aspects of gender that we take for granted today (particularly the notion of gender performativity).

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga's male alter ego. Calderone represents the common place of gender performativity within contemporary society.

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga’s male alter ego. Calderone can be approached as an example of the ubiquitous and overt manifestation of gender performativity within popular culture.

Can a person “possess” a gender? Can a person “be” a gender? Or, can a person “act out” a gender? Even though many people may not be familiar with the concept of gender performativity, it is a phenomenon that is pervasive and somewhat obvious within contemporary society. The picture above shows pop sensation Lady Gaga assuming the role of her male alter ego, Jo Calderone, in Gaga’s attempt to blur the lines that are dichotomously imposed in society’s approaches towards gender and sex. Maleness and masculinity, in this case, are being performed through Lady Gaga’s actions and choices, rather than being a trait that pre-exists within the individual. Gender and sex, from Butler’s perspective, can be approached in a similar fashion to makeup in the sense of being a construction rather than an essential part of one’s being. However, keeping this metaphor of makeup in mind, it is important to realize that our surroundings and environment control (to some extent) the cosmetic options that are available to us. Gender is not ontological, but rather, it comes to existence through actions: “gender proves to be performative — that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the dead” (25, emphasis mine).

Early on in Gender Trouble, Butler alludes to the notion of drag performances in order to illustrate how they disrupt the “very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” (x). Since drag entails the performance of a gender that is supposedly opposite to one’s “true” gender, it pushes one to question the extent to which certain traits that are considered masculine or feminine are true, essential, and indivisible from the self. Rather than viewing drag as an imitation, Butler approaches it as an action that defines the parameters, boundaries, and practices that create the notion of gender in the first place. An important concept to keep in mind when approaching Butler’s notions of gender is the word style, which not only includes obvious factors such as clothing, but also includes other details such as composure, constitution, presentation, and above all, discourse. Butler thus defines gender as “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (33).

Although performativity is the concept in Gender Trouble that tends to resonate among scholars of queer theory, performativity is simply a heuristic Butler uses to achieve her main goal. Tantalizingly, she questions whether the intent to have a feminist politics based on a common identity that binds all women is practical and useful, especially when considering that it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to find a common factor that all women share (unless, of course, we resort to biological notions of gender essentialism). This notion holds particularly true when intersecting gender with other domains of identity, including race, socio-economic status, culture, among others. As Butler eloquently puts it:

If one “is” a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. (3)

Feminist politics generally approach the concept of “women” and gender in universal terms, thriving on the assumption that there is a cross-cultural and cross-geographical quality or factor that ties a large group of people together. Butler rightfully points out that this feminist construction, even when designed with an emancipatory ideal in mind, can still be interpreted as damaging because it is not only designed to include and exclude certain individuals, but it fails to recognize and respect idiosyncratic differences. In simple terms, by establishing a factor as universal, one runs the risk of excluding all those who don’t fit within this particular model. This is why Butler suggests that “Without the compulsory expectation that feminists actions must be instituted from some stable, unified, and agreed upon identity, those actions might well get a quicker starts and seem more congenial to a number of ‘women’ for whom the meaning of the category is permanently moot” (15). Note that even with my use of the term women, there is an underlying assumption that I am able to label an entire community of individuals  based on an unstable, and perhaps ephemeral, trait–this is precisely something that Butler tries to challenge, but I ultimately question whether or not this is entirely possible or useful. After all, isn’t the notion of unity and community building crucial to a pragmatic rather than an academic approach to feminism? This is something I have to contemplate a bit more.

Butler ultimately connects the notion of performativity to feminist politics by questioning the “phantasmic” construction of the “we” that is nearly always invoked in matters of feminism. Despite the capability of “we” to connect people, it achieves this connection through exclusion while simultaneously denying the complexity of the issues at hand. When it comes to identity politics, many tend to assume that the identity exists prior to a political response. However, Butler asserts that “there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed” (142). We are what we do. There is no such thing as a “self” that exists before one is immersed into a culture, and there is no such thing as a self being corrupted or metamorphosed by its surroundings (how can something be corrupted if it doesn’t exist a priori?). “There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there” (145).

Work Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

An Overview of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s [The Queer Child]

Front cover of Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Front cover of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Why is there such a hesitancy to label a child as queer? Is it possible that all children are queer (at least in some sense of the word)? How does a child grow, when said growth is being heavily monitored, delayed, and controlled? These are just some of the many questions that Stockton explores in her insightful book titled The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. In this book, Stockton posits that the desire to create a distance between childhood and adulthood has intensified the queerness of the child, due mostly to the wedge that has been placed between the two categorizations. As she points out, “The child is precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back” (5). Because of the constructed nature of childhood, the notion of a “gay child” becomes problematic, especially when taking into account that children are supposed to be viewed as innocent and non-sexual. Thus, the notion of a “gay child” not only implies that children have agency and sexuality, but it also challenges the view of sexual orientation as a phenomenon that emerges later on in life.

Part of what Stockton intends to argue in her book is that there are ways of growing (or developing) that deviate from cultural expectations and norms: “There are ways of growing that are not growing up” (11). In addition, the term “growing up” is finite, in that there is an expectation for the growing process to achieve a state of completion once a certain height is achieved, or once the process of physical growth comes to a halt. Stockton thus adopts the notion of growing sideways as a way of thinking of growth not only as an on-going process, but also a growth that is not restricted to age. Sideways growth entails that “the width of a person’s experience of ideas, their motives or their motions, may pertain to any age, bringing ‘adults’ and ‘children’ into lateral contact of surprising sorts” (11). With this in mind, sideways growth intends to minimize (and to some extent, eradicate) the distinction that is made between the “child” and the “adult” by exemplifying the queerness of children as a socio-cultural construct.

In order to broaden her discussion on the queerness of children, Stockton develops some archetypes, or versions, of the queer child which focus on varying expressions of childhood and queerness. These archetypes, or central versions, present children that embrace traits and characteristics that are antithetical to the idea of childhood, whether it be through sex, aggression, violence, closets, secrets, etc. These versions focus not only on the sexual connotations of queer, but to some extent, Stockton makes the case for reverting to the traditional definition of queer (i.e. strange). This, to me, was slightly problematic, mostly because I think that the term queer should be tied in one way or another to the issue of sexuality or gender identity–less we run the danger of turning queer theory into the study of difference (which becomes redundant at some point). The versions of the queer child that Stockton devises are the following:

  • The Ghostly Gay Child: A child with a definite and unmistakable same-sex preference. This version usually participates in some degree of self-occulting (hence where the term ghostly arises) due to the child’s inability to “grow up” according to the standards imposed by heteronormativity. The ghostly gay child also manifests when parents, peers, or guardians disregard or refuse to recognize the child’s sexual orientation–thus adding an ethereal or otherworldly presence to the child’s sexuality. When the ghostly gay child’s growth is stunted, he or she must find an outlet where growth can take place. Perhaps the best example I could come up with of the ghostly gay child was the character of Justin Suarez in the 2006-10 series Ugly Betty. Although Justin exhibits characteristics that are closely tied to gayness (such as a penchant for fashion and musical theater), and although Justin’s family suspects he is gay, the series does not disclose the character’s sexuality until the concluding episodes of the series (where coincidentally, Justin is no longer a “child”). Therefore, the ghosting process occurs on the micro (family) level, as it does on a macro level (the audience).
  • The Grown Homosexual: This category is used to denote a “retrospective” queerness, in which the adult homosexual is “fastened… to the figure of the child” (22) in a form of arrested development. In other words, this version of the queer child is in essence a queer individual who is unable to become an adult; someone who remains as a child “in part by failing to have their own” (22).
  • The Child Queered by Freud: Unlike the previous two categories, which discuss children that will never be straight, this category pertains to the “not-yet-straight-child who is, nonetheless, a sexual child with aggressive wishes” (27). This child is not queer in terms of sexual orientation, but rather, exhibits behaviors or attitudes that transgress the expectations of innocence and purity that are expected in most children (think of Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son).
  • The Child Queered by Innocence or Queered by Color/Money: As mentioned above, children’s innocence queers them, precisely because it distances children from the experiences that will turn them into adults: “They all share estrangement from what they approach: the adulthood against which they must be defined” (31). This expectation explains why children “as an idea” (31) are visualized as white and middle class. A childhood necessitates protection and shelter. Those individuals who are born into inferior conditions need a degree of experience in order to foster independence and to assure survival–they are not allowed to be weak or innocent. Thus, it is unsurprising that the media imbues “innocence” into these queer children by endowing them with an abuse “from which they need protection and to which they don’t consent” (33).

Stockton’s text proceeds to “braid” the different iterations of the queer child in order to ultimately demonstrate that the century of the child is in reality the century of the fictions of the queer child growing sideways (37). In order to support this claim, Stockton focuses on four “realizations” in terms of the queer child and its relationship to society:

  • Those who fetishize “delay” for the child must believe in sideways growth – when trying to determine the appropriate amount of length to delay childhood, it can be argued that children must find a way to grow (sideways) in spite of this imposed delay to eventual reach the adulthood that is being kept from them.
  • Evidently, we are scared of the child we would protect.
  • In the century of the child, the child is feared to disappear (just as the gay child appears to be emerging).
  • Children are vulnerable (and dangerous) as much by means of money as by means of sex – Children are made strange by money because they do not bring income into the family, thus enforcing the view of children as a non-productive commodity. Interestingly, money and consumerism has also allowed children to develop in unprecedented ways, whether it be through comic books that foster the child’s fantasies and imaginations, or playrooms, which are spaces where children share time with each other without adult intervention.

Work Cited

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Duke University Press, 2009. Print

When (Gay) Porn and Academia Collide: Pornography as Emancipation?

Never in my life did I think that I’d be writing about porn within an academic setting, but I guess there is a first time for everything (especially if you work in areas such as gender or queer studies)!

While surfing the web and perusing through Buzzfeed (a website that provides a snapshot of the viral web in real time), I encountered an article titled “Why Are We Afraid to Talk About Gay Porn?,” written by author, teacher, and gay porn star Conner Habib. According to Habib’s fact sheet, he pursued an MFA in creative studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he also taught literature, creative writing, and composition for three years. He also claims that he is perhaps the only person who has won awards for his teaching, his writing, and his porn performances. Talk about a triple threat!

Habib

Writer, teacher, and gay porn star Conner Habib.

Recently, the web has been abuzz with news that Habib’s presentation on sex and culture–to be offered at Corning Community College–was cancelled after the college’s president found out that he was an active porn actor. Of course, this may be unsurprising to many seeing the staunch resistance that people in general have when it comes to the discussion of sex within a public space–indicating that indeed, Michel Foucault was absolutely right when discussing the enclosure of sex within the private sphere.

As a doctoral student myself, and particularly as a scholar of literature and gender studies, I often find it surprising that many students, classmates, and colleagues have this almost mystical fear of discussing sexually-charged topics within the classroom. And if the topic has somehow come up within the class, people speak with either scorn or hesitation.

According to Habib, the president of Corning Community College decided to cancel his presentation after finding out that he immersed himself into the porn industry after (not prior to) becoming an educator–thus cementing the notion that progressive sexual politics should not be linked in any way to pornography. This notion echoed the sentiments of many of my classmates in the Theory and Practice of Gender course that I am taking at Notre Dame: according to some of them, pornography is a social ill or evil that is linked to the patriarchal values that are degrading our society. Never mind that fact that there are many around us who watch porn on a regular basis, yet they refuse to “confess” this fact. My question is: what about those porn actors who are empowered by their work? Is porn always degrading? Can porn be viewed as emancipatory or liberatory in any way or fashion?

The discussion that took place in the classroom was inspired in part by a discussion of Catherine MacKinnon‘s views towards pornography, sexuality, and patriarchy. In her (dated) article titled Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: ‘Pleasure under Patriarchy’, MacKinnon offers us the expected and typical view of pornography as an anti-feminist and patriarchal embrace of all of the attitudes and desires that force our culture into a so-called state of stagnancy and repression. Focusing mostly on the brutal and “degrading” aspects of pornography, MacKinnon presents a defense in which many audiences are denied a voice and a presence within the market of porn.

The article does not take into account the fact that there are plenty of women (I know dozens of them) that watch porn, it does not delve deeply into the implications of gay pornography, and in all honesty, it can be said that MacKinnon focuses on the pornographic genres focused on abuse, masochism, and brutality–even going as far as to depict soft core porn as a genre portraying the fantasies of possession and objectification. As she herself puts it:

Pornography permits men to have whatever they want sexually. It is their “truth about sex.” It connects the centrality of visual objectification to both male sexual arousal and male models of knowledge and verification, connecting objectivity with objectification. It shows how men see the world, how in seeing it they access and possess it, and how this is an act of dominance over it. It shows what men want and gives it to them. From the testimony of the pornography, what men want is: women bound, women battered, women tortured, women humiliated, women degraded and defiled, women killed. Or, to be fair to the soft core, women sexually accessible, have-able, there for them, wanting to be taken and used, with perhaps just a little light bondage. Each violation of women-rape, battery, prostitution, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment-is made sexuality, made sexy, fun, and liberating of women’s true nature in the pornography. (326-327)

First and foremost, it must be made clear that MacKinnon wrote this article in 1989. Much has changed since then, but it is eerie to realize that many of these attitudes are very prevalent in today’s society. Now, I will be the first to admit that porn is definitely not an accurate presentation of reality: it is a deliberate construction or staging, in which sex is depicted in a way that is meant to provide both entertainment and arousal. Porn is also rhetorical in nature, in that it is meant to reach specific audiences with particular tastes and expectations. But is it productive to approach porn solely as a patriarchal and repressive agent? Do we want to go as far as to link pornography with deviant sexual acts such as rape, abuse or molestation, such as MacKinnon does in her discussion?

Admittedly, there is porn that is catered to people who enjoy portrayals of rape and abuse. MacKinnon may have a point when it comes to porn that projects abuse, torture, rape, or other social ills. This, I imagine, is not the aim nor the purpose of all the porn that is out there. Yes, porn’s mere existence thrives on objectification, but I’d question whether the aim of this objectification is at all times patriarchal or repressive. Furthermore, when it comes to the existence of pornography that is catered to women or gay men, do we necessarily want to imply that these genres also perpetuate the same exact ideals and ideologies that MacKinnon presents in her discussion? I do not have a concrete answer to this question, but others certainly do.

What I found so innovative and refreshing about Habib’s views is that he approaches porn, and specifically gay porn, as a medium that is intricately tied to the LGBTQ rights movement. Through Habib’s perspective, porn is not viewed as an agent of repression or patriarchal objectification, but rather, it is viewed as a liberatory or emancipatory agent that gives a voice, and a sense of belonging, to those that live within the socio-cultural margins of society. As Habib himself puts it:

Where I grew up, just outside of Allentown, PA, I watched, right through my adolescence into adulthood and early college years, while straight people paired off and experienced sex. They were able to engage with a basic aspect of human life that seemed unavailable and distant to me. Unlike today, there was no discussion about gay marriage, nor were there many gay characters on TV. But even if there had been, neither would have rounded out my experience as a man with homosexual feelings because so many of those feelings were — unsurprisingly for a young man — sexual. Gay sex was a lonely venture. It wasn’t easy to find, and was only mentioned in slurs and the butt of jokes. “Cocksucker” and “butt fucker” were insults; stand-ins for “faggot.”

Whether I bought it from the adult video store or, later, downloaded it, gay porn helped me encounter positive images of gay men enjoying the act of sex. Gay porn was a window into gay sexuality that was free of shame and guilt, and revealed a different world where sex wasn’t a lonely prospect, confined to the shadows or just my imagination. (Why Are We Afraid…)

Conner Habib makes some very interesting assertions about the freeing nature of gay pornography, assertions that only increase in intensity when bringing in notions and conceptions of race. As a performer of Arab descent, Habib admits to receiving countless letters and feedback from countries in which homosexuality is criminalized, for he portrays sex in a way that is free, unrestricted, and honest. Thus, from their perspective, gay porn is viewed as a Utopian fantasy that, according to Habib, provides a sense of empowerment and fosters a sense of imagination. Although from this perspective porn can be harmful in that it fosters a desire for that which is not lawfully permissible, I do agree with Habib’s views of gay porn being able to spark empowerment (and perhaps resistance to the status quo?) .

In due course, Conner Habib points out that an acceptance of LGBTQ individuals entails not only an acceptance of their public lives, but also of their private lives. This is no easy task, especially when focusing on the private nature of sex, generally speaking. Regardless, I think that Habib does add a lot to the conversation of pornography within academia, and he is pushing us to ask ourselves questions that need to be addressed. Furthermore, part of understanding gender, and even more so, part of understanding culture and society in general, entails an exploration of the good, the bad, the ugly… the private and the public… the “speakable” and the unspeakable.

Perhaps porn and academia should collide more often, especially if we’re not comfortable with the collision in the first place. Just that fact that it provokes discomfort gives us much to say about culture and the human condition in the first place.

Would you get into a bathtub with your friend? HBO’s [Girls] and Non-Sexual Intimacy

Girls

I finally got a chance to watch an episode of Girls, an American television series that began airing on HBO during 2012. The show stars and is written by Lena Dunham, and the show is partly inspired by Dunham’s real-life experiences. Strangely enough, I did not watch the first episode of the series, but rather, I watched the fourth episode of the second season titled “It’s a Shame About Ray.” Although I had very little context of what the show was about, it was clear that this show is a realistic and raw approach to the lives of four friends living in New York city. Think about the show as a middle-class Sex In the City fused with Seinfeld, with just a dash of the wit and unapologetic humor of Judd Apatow (who happens to be a producer for the series).

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of "Girls," played by Lena Dunham.

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of “Girls,” played by Lena Dunham.

Regardless of my lack of context and background while watching Girls, I was amazed on how issues of gender were approached by this show, especially when concerned with its depiction of the female body and friendship between women. According to what I’ve read and been told, the show’s protagonist, Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) is constantly nude throughout the episodes of the series. Now, Hannah does not necessarily comply with the so-called normal standards of beauty. She is not supermodel thin, she has a tattoo on her arm, and she does not wear a lot of makeup. Nonetheless, Hannah is completely comfortable with her body, and she has no qualms of being naked in front of other people.

There was a moment in this episode that particularly caught my attention, not only because it depicted a situation that we don’t often encounter in television, but also because it challenges most of the ideas and assumptions that we have of gender, relationships, and the body. Check out this scene in the video below:

In order to provide some context to this video, Hannah is the person singing Oasis’s Wonderwall while taking a bath. The other person who steps into the shower is Jessa Johansson, a close friend of Hannah’s who considers herself a free-spirited bohemian. In this scene, we witness an encounter between the two friends soon after Jessa realizes that her sudden and unexpected marriage with a successful business man has collapsed. Jessa steps into the shower, hungry for an understanding soul, and we witness the intensity of an authentic friendship between two women.

I for one, have many close friends, but when it comes to nudity and my body, I definitely aim for privacy at all costs. Sure, there are friends who change in front of each other with no hesitation, but unfortunately, I am not one of those people. In all honesty, I even have issues when people stand too close to me while I’m taking care of business at a urinal in a public restroom. Thus, what was so surprising to me when watching this scene is that Hannah seems to be completely comfortable being naked in front of her friend. She does not flinch, nor does she panic. When Jessa strips off her clothes and steps into the bathroom with Hannah, my jaw nearly dropped. Naturally, as a viewer, I was expecting to see some sexual tension or nervousness between the two characters. After all, at least when it comes to film and television, what can be more intimate and sexual than two people sharing a bath together (think of bath scenes in movies such as Pretty Woman)? It is rare that we encounter two characters sharing a bath, albeit in a non-sexual fashion.

Now, if I have trouble changing in front of my friends, imagine how I would feel if one of them stepped into a bath while I was in it! Let’s just say that there would be name-calling and hair-pulling involved, to say the least. However, the level of trust between these two characters is so intense, that it only seems natural for Jessa to join Hannah in the bathtub. And to my surprise, there was no obvious discomfort portrayed in this scene in terms of nudity, and there is no embarrassment portrayed as the friends face each other naked. What surprised me most, however, is that when we encounter an intimate scene taking place between two people of the same gender in a bathtub, we automatically assume that there will be a level of homoerotic acknowledgement or sexual tension taking place in the scene. However, homoerotic or sexual tension are nowhere to be found in the exchange between Hannah and Jessa–what we get is simply a moment of non-sexual intimacy between two close friends.

We witness Jessa breaking out into tears as Hannah gently holds her hand. No words are exchanged, but it is clear that words are unnecessary during this moment. What started out as tears turns into a hilarious exchange of the grossness and indecency of a “snot rocket” taking place within the context of the bathroom–which is interesting seeing as peeing in the bathtub, or even sharing the bath with a friend are ultimately considered normal in this friendship.

While discussing this scene with a friend, she pointed out how the depiction of both friends naked within the tub seems more comfortable and natural than if Jessa were to keep her clothes on as the sympathetic exchange was taking place. It’s almost as if the nudity, and the presence of both characters within the private space, further enhances the sense of realness, rawness, and authenticity portrayed within the scene. Here we witness characters who are not only friends, but friends that know and understand each other in ways that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend.

Girls Bathtub Scene

Hannah and Jessa share a bath.

This scene makes more sense if we use Adrienne Rich‘s perspectives of the lesbian continuum in order to interpret this scene, which is a way of viewing heterosexuality and lesbianism as two ends of a continuum rather than a conceptual split. According to Rich, many sexual experiences that women face in their daily lives can be placed somewhere within this continuum, and there are some non-sexual experiences that can still be considered lesbian, or that invoke some degree of connection between two women. What we observe in this bathtub scene is an intimate exchange between two women in a bathtub, yet paradoxically, I personally am resistant to classify this scene as erotic, sexual, or even purely lesbian for that matter.

I think that this resistance is what highlights the validity and productivity of Rich’s lesbian continuum. If I were to merely describe the scene to someone, I think that their immediate reaction would be to consider this scene as a purely lesbian or homoerotic encounter. But after watching the scene, it’s easy to see that although it may seem sexual and homoerotic superficially, the profundity of the exchange nullifies any sexual or lesbian traits that we try to project onto the characters. Is it possible that a resistance to approach this scene as lesbian or homoerotic is due to the heteronormativity that is ingrained within our culture? Does it have to do with the non-sexual nature of the scene? Or, is it possible that this scene depicts a situation that resists easy categorization? I am inclined to go with this last assumption, but there is still much to be said and done with this scene.

Girls is not only providing rich food for thought, but it is also taking us into uncharted territory when it comes to the portrayal of gender in television and media. Can watchers of this show describe other instances in which Girls challenges our preconceived notions of gender, intimacy, and sexuality? Do any of you have any thoughts or opinions regarding this scene? Can any of you help me make sense of what is going on here?

Male Prostitution and [The Hunger Games] – The Case of Finnick Odair

Mockingjay Book Cover

Perhaps one of the most shocking moments of Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay is when the reader finds out that Finnick Odair–a past victor of the Hunger Games tournament who is attractive and always surrounded by suitors–reveals that he was sold and used as a sex slave for wealthy patrons residing in the Capitol. This confession is broadcasted across the dystopic nation of Panem in order to further fan the flames of hatred towards President Snow, the trilogy’s ruthless dictator. Although the novel makes no explicit mention of the terms “prostitution” or “sexual slavery,” the fact that Finnick was “pimped” is made quite obvious. As Finnick himself declares while broadcasting his confession:

“President Snow used to… sell me… my body, that is,” Finnick begins in a flat removed tone. “I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it.” (Collins, emphasis mine)

What we observe in this instance is that Finnick becomes a commodity used to satisfy the sexual appetite of the Capitol’s residents. His position can  be seen as a form of prostitution within this context  because there is an implied exchange of goods triggered through the sexual act.

Through this act of prostitution, there is no doubt that in due course, Finnick’s placement as a being coerced to sell his body to others dehumanizes him, turning him into an object designed for sexual satisfaction rather than a subject capable of making his own sexual choices.  This notion complies with Catherine A. Mackinnon’s views of sexual objectification in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, in which she posits that “To be sexually objectified means having a social meaning imposed on your being that defines you as to be sexually used, according to your desired uses, and then using you that way” (422). Seeing as Finnick has no agency in terms of his sexual choices, objectification becomes a very apt term to describe his situation.

Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin in the 2013 movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin in the 2013 movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Suzanne Collins’s novel presents a situation that is not commonly discussed in society, much less in young adult fiction: men as sexual commodities, and the existence of male prostitution. This, in part, has to do much with the sexual division of labor that is many times imposed in society. Most of the theoretical and critical treatments of sexual objectification, including pornography and prostitution, are usually focused on the degradation of females as a way of reinforcing a patriarchal and chauvinistic status quo. But what happens in the case of a man who is sexually objectified and approached as a hedonistic commodity? I’m not sure I have the answer to this question, but Collins’s Mockingjay presents a unique treatment of this case.

Finnick Odair points out that sometimes he was sold to patrons for an extravagant price, but other times, he was literally offered as a gift. Gayle Rubin, in The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, focuses on how women many times are approached as a material good exchanged in a transaction. Although women are most certainly part of this transaction, they are not an active agent within this exchange, but rather, a conduit to this exchange: they become a gift, while the man in charge of facilitating the transaction becomes the giver. This exchange, as Rubin argues, solely the benefit of social organization to “men who are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges” (Rubin 243-244).

Mockingjay offers a paradigm in which the gender roles are reversed, primarily since the gift, in this case, is a man rather than a woman. Nonetheless, this notion of gifting still promotes the prominence of patriarchy and chauvinism seeing as it helps to cement President Snow’s authority over Panem and the Capitol, and it still allows him to have absolute control over social organization: through this process of gifting Finnick to patrons, Snow upholds his absolute authority (and hierarchy) over the “weaker” Finnick.

Interestingly, though, in Mockingjay, we observe how Finnick takes advantage of his lower position in order to regain some of the power that Snow tried to take away from him. In other words, he uses the very power that the Capitol and Snow possess in order to counterattack the system. As Finnick points out during his confession:

“I wasn’t the only one, but I was the most popular,” he says. “And perhaps the most defenseless, because the people I loved were so defenseless. To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewelry, but I found a much more valuable form of payment.” (Collins)

Finnick soon reveals that “secrets” became his preferred form of currency. Seeing as his patrons viewed him in as weak, delicate, and vulnerable, they shared no hesitation whatsoever to open up to Finnick and share their deepest and darkest secrets with him, touching upon every subject from the sexual to the economic. Secrets  were the currency that Finnick “saved” as a reservoir of personal power. Unfortunately, this power did not benefit him personally, but rather, it was usurped by District 13  as a way of intensifying hostility towards the Capitol. However, it is interesting to see how this power, despite coming from a morally corrupt source, was still able to be channeled for emancipatory means: secrets exposed the hypocrisy and decay of President Snow and the residents of the Capitol, which in due course helped to foster a thirst for rebellion against the very powers that converted Finnick into a sexual object.

References

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. (E-book version)

Mackinnon, Catherine A. “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.

Rubin,  Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.

Do You Hate Your Body? Western Culture, Gender, and Body Issues

Working Out

“Perfection” has its price… and when it comes to bodily perfection, this price can never be fully paid.

Some of the most awkward and disturbing conversations that I’ve had about the body have taken place during a meal. There is something about sharing food with company that ignites interesting topics of conversation as pertained to our body, nature, and food. I recall one particular instance in which I went over a friend’s house for dinner. She had a couple of guests over who were preparing a make-your-own-taco buffet. We sat down on the table and began circulating the bowls full of shredded chicken, cheese, sour cream, salsa, flour tortillas, and yellow rice. I placed two tortillas on my plate and began to scoop some shredded chicken on the tortillas when I noticed one of my friend’s guests staring at me with a look of horror on her face.

“Oh my god!” she said. “Are you going to eat ALL OF THAT?!” A confused look spread over my face. I didn’t think I was eating much, but according to my guest, two tacos was beyond extravagant. A feeling of awkwardness spread across the table. I lost my appetite. The two tacos remained on the plate, virtually untouched.

It was no secret that my friend’s guest was known for having body-image issues. Between her unstable diet and her insane workout regimen, it was a miracle that she seemed so lively and healthy. This was not the first time she made a weird or rude comment regarding food. Who could forget the time she called out my friend for eating an entire bowl of cocoa pebbles? Or the time she offered to serve us dessert, and served each one of us a 1×1″ square of brownie with a tablespoon of vanilla ice-cream on top, insisting that we must not exaggerate? But it this taco incident that truly affected me negatively, and it awoke feelings in me that were dormant for a long time.

I’ve always had issues with my body. I’ve  always been overweight (not obese, but I certainly have extra meat on my bones), I have crooked teeth, one of my eyes is slightly bigger than the other, and yes, I have a huge nose. But over the years, I had learned to grow comfortable with my body, and I had learned to accept the fact that I deviate from normal and beautiful expectations of the body. But that taco moment really scarred me in an unprecedented way. I took the comment to be a remark on my weight and my appearance. That night, when I returned home, I stared at myself in front of the mirror. I felt disgust. I felt worthless. The head of my friend’s guest circulated around my mind, mockingly asking me if I was “going to eat ALL OF THAT!”

I don’t even think we can begin to understand just how much culture affects our interpretation and perception of the human body. We live with such an immense pressure to be perfect and desirable. This desire is so intense that it completely overshadows even the most basic of biological needs: food, sex, and even rest. It comes as no surprise that because of these unrealistic cultural expectations, we have pathological phenomena such as bulimia, anorexia, among others.

These pathological phenomena are usually seen as purely negative and evil cultural manifestations. However, some reading that I have been doing during the past weeks is pushing me to question the extent to which diseases such as anorexia and bulimia are purely evil. I think we rarely seek liberation and emancipation in cultural expressions that seem subversive, violent, and even dangerous. Furthermore, I think that a dichotomous view of the word always limits our capacity to deal with notions such as morality: we either view things as entirely good or entirely bad, refusing to see the gray area that exists in between. However, I think that we’re all very well aware of the fact that the gray area tends to possess the most powerful explanatory power when it comes to grappling with difficult or controversial topics.

Does anorexia have a “positive side”? Can anorexia, despite its danger, be viewed as emancipatory? Can issues of the body be viewed as a type of protest? Feminist scholars such Susie Orbach, and Susan Bordo in her discussion of the body and the reproduction of femininity in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body discuss the plausibility of  this notion. As pointed out by Bordo in her discussion:

A number of feminist writers, […] have interpreted anorexia as a species of unconscious feminist protest. The anorectic is engaged in a “hunger strike,” as Orbach calls it, stressing that this is a political discourse, in which the action of food refusal and dramatic transformation of body size “expresses with [the] body what [the anorectic] is unable to tell us with words”–her indictment of a culture that disdains and suppresses female hunger, makes women ashamed of their appetites and needs, and demands that women constantly work on the transformation of their body. (463)

Keep in mind that Bordo and Orbach are in no way justifying anorexia , and they are certainly not pushing people to view this pathological manifestation as a solution. Anorexia is unfortunate and very dangerous. However, they do suggest that people who do suffer from this pathology certainly convey an interesting bodily rhetoric, in which their condition is not only symptomatic of cultural pressures and expectations, but it is also illustrates everything that is downright wrong within contemporary culture. Sure, people suffering from anorexia and bulimia are not conscious of this protest, but their body serves as a walking indication that something is very wrong when it comes to the aspirations that culture pushes us to strive for.

The expectations of perfection when it comes to the body are so pervasive that they have transcended beyond the realm of the feminine. It is well known that anorexia, and body issues, are not exclusive when it comes to gender. Men, myself included, are also expected to achieve a degree of physical and bodily perfection, else we suffer from feeling worthless and ugly under the guise of contemporary culture. You are expected to have well-defined muscles, but you can’t have too much muscle because that’s too excessive. You can’t be too thin. You can’t be fat. You have to have short hair, a six-pack, a slender waist, a stoic stance. Yes, men these days have just as many expectations as women do when it comes to their bodies.

Jackson Whittemore, a character from MTV's Teen Wolf, in a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Jackson Whittemore (played by Colton Haynes), a character from MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is a screenshot taken a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. Notice that this show is aimed primarily at a young adult audience (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Popular shows watched by young audiences, such as MTV’s smash show Teen Wolf, definitely perpetuate this notion of physical perfection, especially when it comes to their depiction and glorification of the male body. Now, I’m not saying this is a purely terrible thing. After all, “eye-candy,” a well-sculpted body, is indeed awe-inspiring and impressive (and it sure makes us feel wonderful in many ways), but what message is being sent when all of the men and women present within the show are beautiful, physically fit, and well-groomed? It sets unrealistic expectations. I, for one, will never look like Colton Haynes when I step out of the shower. I’ve accepted that fact.

When we are surrounded by frail bodies that are wasting away, walking skeletons that seem to be only a few steps away from death itself… there is definitely a scream for help being shouted at the face of culture itself. Sure, anorexia can be approached as a form of protest, but it’s a protest that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s disturbing, as Bordo points out, that “The pathologies of female protest function, paradoxically, as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produce them, reproducing rather than transforming precisely that which is being protested” (464). The “protest” doesn’t fight against the pathology, but rather, it perpetuates it. The so-called solution that culture has rendered, the so-called protest, only feeds the cultural monster of the body in Western culture. And this sense of pathology, as I pointed out above, now goes beyond the production of femininity. It is a problem that is now blind to gender.

But now that we are aware of the problems and paradoxes of body and its relationship to Western culture, how do we even begin to solve them? We need to reconsider not only our theories and approaches towards gender and the body, but also the practices that we engage in as a response to these issues.

References:

Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 460 – 466.

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On Wisdom, Experience, and Self-Reliance

“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.”

– Miles Kington

Knowledge, as can be deduced from the morphological composition of the word, entails knowing: an awareness that is developed empirically. Wisdom, on the other hand, is concerned with the judgment, assessment, and use of knowledge as applied to pragmatic situations, and it is developed through experience. But, what roles do knowledge and wisdom play in notions as intangible such as belief? My assessment of Emerson’s sermons, poems, and essays have led me to this question, particularly his essay on “Experience.” But before I delve into the discussion of his text, let me resort to invoking an experience of my own.

The notion of belief has always been one that has troubled me. It can’t be measured, there is no concrete indication of its source, and it has an immensely tight grip on our way of thinking. Now, when the discussion of belief enters the realm of the religious, the strength of this grip increases tenfold. Now, although I was raised Catholic, I started deviating from the church’s practices because they were inconsistent with my own affinities and actions. I say practices, because although I do not attend mass or pray, I still hold many of the values that the church fosters near and dear to my heart: I believe in charity, compassion, I believe in making the world a better place through words and actions, and I believe in a sense of greater good in all humans (yes, this is extremely idealistic… but it’s who I am). Thus, although I do not accept nor entirely reject the existence of a god created in our image, I am more than willing to embrace the moral implications behind the belief in a benevolent god. I am aware, yet I am informed enough to make a choice rather than to accept ideas that are spoon-fed to me… is this wisdom?

The reason I chose to abandon Catholicism had a lot to do with my increasing immersion into academia, but it is mostly attributed towards the church’s stances towards homosexuality. Despite my abandonment, the relationship and tension between religious belief and sexuality has always fascinated me, and it is a topic that I have explored in writing and in literature. The problem however is that although I am very aware of the tensions that exist between religious belief and sexuality, until this day, I do not understand it. This lack of understanding led me to attend a sensitivity “training seminar” on the discussion of gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame, which in reality was mostly a discussion of the conciliation between sexual orientation and Catholic faith.

The message that they gave was mostly clear: you can be gay, but you can’t put your homosexuality into practice. But, isn’t the notion of “being” inseparable from practice? Don’t actions, rather than words and belief, tell us and the world who we are? The session then delved into a justification for this dogmatic system, arguing that in the Catholic Church, sex should only occur between married couples for purposes of reproduction. During the question and answer session, I openly expressed my doubts and concerns: if sex and marriage are “blessings” bestowed upon a man and woman who are able to reproduce, what occurs in the case of infertile couples? How about in the case of people who marry at an old age (an age in which they ostensibly cannot reproduce)? They are still able to marry, and yes, have sex as well.  When I posed these concerns, the presenters looked slightly stunned and awkward. After a few seconds of silence, they spoke about how a woman and a man have the potential to reproduce, whereas this is impossible for two men or two women. They also pointed out that my concerns are actually a matter of hot debate and disagreement within the church.

I continued to ask questions until the session was over. Afterwards, one of the women in charge of the event, while looking at me straight in the eyes, asked the audience to please refrain from asking questions that were out of the scope of the presentation. And here I thought we were here to be more sensitive… to prepare ourselves to answer questions that gay and lesbian students would have in terms of conciliating faith and sexuality. Luckily, towards the end of the session, one of the presenters (not the one who indirectly scolded me) said the following: “we were here to share a pastoral approach towards the issue of sexual orientation and the Catholic Church. The people you encounter will have diverging degrees of belief and practice. All we ask of you is that you walk next to them, put yourself in their shoes, and find a balance between the Church teachings and the particular situation of the person you are trying to guide.” It was with these words that ray of light shone into the dark room. She offered the facts, but she presented these facts as debatable and circumstantial. She gave us knowledge about the church’s teachings, but she also paved the way towards choice and self-reliance… something that I personally had not encountered in real life (although I have seen it in books).

I began with this personal experience in order to provide a threshold into my own understanding and struggles with Emerson’s ideas of belief, knowledge, and experience. I previously mentioned my hesitation towards Emerson’s belief and knowledge system, especially when concerning his earlier views as a Christian. However, with the development of a more cosmopolitan perspective towards religion, and with his approximation towards nature as a way of approaching god, Emerson has become a man that I deem fractured and damaged, but at the same time, complex, insightful, and approachable.

Indeed, in his essay “Experience,” he continues (in my opinion) to add tomatoes into fruit salads, but he also seems to be developing a sense that we all possess different types and kinds of tomatoes, and we are free to use them as we see fit. You want to put your tomatoes in a fruit salad? You want to prepare a marinara sauce with them? You want to throw said tomatoes on your enemies? Go ahead! You are self-reliant. Trust in yourself: “It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another’s” (Emerson 211). And to some extent, I believe this is partially Emerson’s aim in his essay. He exposes an array of illuminating, and at times contradictory, ideas that in turn illustrate the difficulties of contemplating life while living it. When it comes down to it, we must rely on the self, on our own set of experiences, to obtain any valid knowledge in the world and process it into wisdom: “We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won the dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born” (Emerson 199). It is through life, and through action, that wisdom begins to define its edges.

I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, but I found it extremely interesting that Emerson approaches nature as Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek would approach “the real.” Nature becomes that unattainable and incalculable force that can only be interpreted through an ideological prism or lens. In order to explain myself, let me use the example of the sun: it’s there, it’s natural, but we are unable to see it with our bare eyes. It is hot and blinding, and one glance is enough to welcome the sun’s barbs and stings. We then use shades or sunglasses to look at the sun… and although we are now able to look directly at it, it still isn’t a real and authentic view of the sun, but rather, a distorted or shadowed view of it. The darkened view is simply an interpretation of reality, and Emerson argues that belief and knowledge truly function through this sense of distortion: “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” (Emerson 200). We have no other choice but to see the world through these beads.

But, is Nature, or the real… or better said, truth, something that can ever be seen for what it is? If not, what is the point of literature, philosophy, religion, and science? Is it merely a way of fooling ourselves into believing that the world can indeed be understood and explained? And if the concepts we use to understand and interpret the world are merely an illusion, what are we left with? Are we humans, as Emerson would posit, truly doomed? Are we unhappy because we discovered that we exist? (Emerson 209). Is the world truly this fatalistic and intangible? Perhaps self-reliance is the only thing that is certain in this world. I feel it, I detect it, and therefore it exists. It becomes valid. But, going back to one of the initial points I made, what happens when we can’t feel or concretize it in any way?  Do we simply except this as a manifestation of je ne sais quoi? Are we content with attributing belief and truth to a cause “which refuses to be named”? (Emerson 208). This does not have a concrete answer; Emerson himself couldn’t come up with one, as evidenced by his assertion of god and truth as a force that resists definition… how can one even place truth on something that can’t be defined? In this case, faith is the operative word. Call it faith or spirituality, Emerson asserts that it resists and hates calculation and measurement. But isn’t this, in due course, futile? Indeed, our greatest tragedy is that we are aware of our existence, and intertwined with that tragedy is a deep desire to know and understand everything else. We resort to myth and science to provide us with answers, but when it comes down to it, we are stuck in an ideological aporia. The question is: how do we escape it?

Perhaps there is no escape, but Emerson does provide us with a way of easing the tension of this inevitable cage: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people’s facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs” (Emerson 211). Our beliefs, or our facts, give us our own methods of approaching and understanding the world. Even if our methods are untrue or unreliable, we at least have something to lean and rely on. If these methods are unable to sustain us, there are plenty more that we can embrace. But the important thing is to have something… anything, to work from. The only other option would be to rely on nothing, and I am not ready or willing to take such a nihilistic leap. Something that I believe many people disregard when approaching “Experience” is Emerson’s confidence in the value of “multi-disciplinary” thought and the rejection of specialization, and how in due course, a problem may have more than one solution. Our problem is that most of us refuse to see life this way: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks form this one, and for another moment from that one” (Emerson 203).

It’s interesting how Emerson speaks of his views and his facts as a key. A key is a tool that is presumably used to unlock something, and in many cases, only one type of key can unlock a specific contraption. How is it then possible for different types of keys to unlock the same device? Perhaps what Emerson disregarded is that you don’t necessarily need keys to unlock a device: doors can be smashed down, door locks can be picked, locked computers can be hacked into, and even the narrowest of minds can be infiltrated. The key provides the illusion of absolute security. There are other solutions to a problem, and the solution towards ideological aporia is not a matter of being self-reliant, or even a matter of viewing life through a colored glass bead… it is a matter of doing something that hasn’t been done with the titular “tomato” of this discussion. Perhaps truth can only be achieved once we’ve tried to put tomato into the fruit salad… the taste might yield surprising results, as evidenced by Emerson’s words.

References:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

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