The trouble with gender is that it does not stay put: like a picture fallen at the bottom of a pool, it quivers and recedes the minute you reach out to it, shaken and blurred by the waves your hand makes trying to catch it. However much one squints one’s eyes, the image wavers and flickers, morphing into variations of an ever out-of-focus snapshot. This is true for each individual interrogating his or her own sense of self, and true too for the ways societies make, revise or undo gender roles, ideals, and even biology.
Conflicted individuals and conflicting communities struggle to define what is always on the move precisely because it can never be disentangled from their own discourses and actions. Talking about gender is always already making gender. The photographer has a longer shadow here than in almost any other shoot.
The trouble with gender, then, is also that writing about it will most certainly get you into trouble.
This is even more true now that gender lines have been blurred or redrawn in almost every single field of human life, at least in the West, and therefore potentially, theoretically (the onus being on this “theoretically” to bear tangible fruits) everywhere else: at home, at work, in schools and colleges, in politics, in career and life choices, in sports, in the bedroom, and even at the maternity ward, where at least once in the recent past a man gave birth. The gender we are born with has become less and less of a predictor of who we become and what we do, even if gender roles continue to inhabit our collective unconscious. The picture is drastically different from that of past generations, but also from as recently as 10 or even 5 years ago. A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center stated that 22% of women over 30 earned more than their spouses. That’s almost a quarter of all married couples (the ratio was 4% in 1970). Since 2007, the Great Recession has pushed more men out of work than it has women, shifting the distribution of economic and symbolic power even more. Whether or not this heralds what Hanna Rosin has labeled “The End of Men” (and of feminism?) is yet unclear, but old templates are changing faster than we can tweet, and fast-paced changes call for the kind of quick, active engagement that blogging facilitates.
Gender has never been a sure thing. Nor is the recognition of how fluid it is the prerogative of our age.* Montaigne is unfazed at the tale of an old, bearded man named Germain who used to be known as Marie until “her virile parts” fell down between her legs upon jumping across a river when she was twenty-two (Essais, I, 21). “It is no wonder that this kind of accident happens often,” writes Montaigne (sex being on every girl’s mind, it is only befitting that they get to wear those parts in a more permanent manner, he explains). What we are to make if the word “often” in that quote is still a mystery, but I take it here as a more general metaphor for the instability of gender identities across time, space, generations, and within one’s life time.
Gender is as pervasive as it is elusive. It weaves its Xs and Ys into the social fabric, in everyday gestures, life trajectories, pronouns, symbols, clothing, voices. Its archetypes inhabit the collective unconscious even as its reality is always changing. No human society, no language, ignore gender difference, yet its boundaries are constantly shifting. How we understand and act out what it is to be a man, or a woman, or else, evolves as we go through ages and stages. Gender is always contextual, even though one could argue that gender is also a sort of subjective condition of human perception. Feminism too is historical and local, hence the plural—feminisms—in the title of this colloquy. Debates about the nature and goals of feminism have underlined again and again a truism that some hard-core universalists tend to forget: that feminism in the 16th or in the 21th century, at 15 and at 60, among blue-collar workers, the middle class, or intellectuals, in France, the US, or Rwanda and Afghanistan, have widely different meanings and stakes. Every variation is worth our attention, and benefits from being discussed in the open.
The amount of data on gender published daily in the social sciences, in neurosciences, in medical research, in history, anthropology, paleontology, and the zillions representations of masculinity, femininity, and cross-gendered identities produced every minute in ads, films, TV shows, YouTube videos, in literature and the arts, have made the picture rather difficult to pinpoint, and therefore more urgent and fascinating to look at. As our perspective breaks down into ever more facets, the project of a general theory of gender seems to have become an impossible task. That might be one of the best things to happen to gender studies since their invention, as it will free up our intellectual energies to trace local phenomena, ponder anecdotes, scrutinize complicated instances and reconcile ourselves with the boundless forms in which gender manifest itself.
Bringing back real, embodied people into the conversation is what bloggers on Arcade have been steadily doing over the last two years: Gregory Jusdanis looks at who naps with whom from Melville to Friends, Claire Bowen analyzes what women writers eat and what they feed on symbolically and intellectually, Brian Reed meditates on the real and literary mothers and daughters in his life, and Alec Hanley Bemis squeezes insights on male anxiety in hip hop lyrics. But gender and feminisms are not just themes on Arcade: they are enacted in the way we write, interact, hide, or expose ourselves in posts and comments, as two much-discussed editorials pointed out: while Meredith Ramirez Talusan asked “Do Women Play Less on Arcade?” a post by Natalia Cecire on the perils of academic blogging, specifically for women, started a prolonged conversation that extended over to the Daily Beast and other sites. We can only hope that writers will continue running the risk of getting into trouble by contributing to this colloquy.
—Cécile Alduy, 23 September 2011
*Not everyone in the West believes in "gender," though: last August, eighty right-wing reprensentatives at the French national Assembly expressed their dismay at the news that "gender" as a complex cultural and biological category would be taught in public schools. Their letter to the President of France echoed a previous press release by catholic organizations which considered "gender theory [a] contestable philosophical idea imported from feminists from the other side of the Atlantic."
|Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces||Sianne Ngai||08.31.2012||Post|
|From Ishmael to Joey and Ross: Whither American Manhood?||Gregory Jusdanis||09.07.2011||Post|
|What’s New in the New Strauss-Kahn Storyline ?||Cecile Alduy||07.06.2011||Post|
|The Problem With Stolen Kisses||Cecile Alduy||06.12.2011||Post|
|Beyond Strauss-Kahn, An Indictment of French Political Culture||Cecile Alduy||05.23.2011||Post|
|Biological Universals as Authenticity, or, What's the Matter with Steven Pinker?||Lee Konstantinou||05.09.2011||Post|
|How Public Like a Frog: On Academic Blogging||Natalia Cecire||04.20.2011||Editors Blog|
|Catriona Sandilands - Queer Eye: Unthinking Heteronaturativity||Anonymous||03.06.2011||Audio|
|Brain Food||Claire Bowen||02.08.2011||Post|
|Do Women Play Less on Arcade?||Meredith Ramirez Talusan||02.01.2011||Editors Blog|
|Un-canonizing Lady Mary Wroth?||Christopher Warley||10.02.2010||Post|
|New Friends from Old Faithfuls||Claire Bowen||09.23.2010||Post|
|Hip-hop & male anxiety||Alec Hanley Bemis||12.06.2009||Post|
|Mothers, Daughters, Mothers||Brian Reed||11.22.2009||Post|