Gender and Feminisms

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
href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5302756&page=1">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
href="http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/8135/">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
href="http://arcade.stanford.edu/beyond-strauss-kahn-indictment-of-french-political-culture">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. href="http://arcade.stanford.edu/french-feminisms">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 href="http://arcade.stanford.edu/ishmael-joey-and-ross-whither-american-manhood">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 href="http://arcade.stanford.edu/mothers-daughters-mothers">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 href="http://www.liberation.fr/societe/01012356982-orientation-sexuelle-80-deputes-ump-reclament-le-retrait-de-manuels-scolaires">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 href="http://www.liberation.fr/societe/01012353222-l-homosexualite-enseignee-a-l-ecole-une-pilule-qui-passe-mal">press
release by catholic organizations which
considered "gender theory [a] contestable
philosophical idea imported from feminists from the
other side of the Atlantic."

Image attribution

Cloud Gate
("the Bean"), Millenium Park, Chicago.
href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/4903775277/">Ed
Yourdon, 2010. href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en">CC
BY-NC-SA 2.0.