Monday, April 27, 2009

feminism and the poltics of child birth

I remember one of the first events on campus that really made me want to get involved with women's issues in a more physical sense, that is, beyond simply theory. This was a screening of a film titled "The Business of Being Born," sponsored by Students Advocating Reproductive Options, Students for Life and the Pre-Health Club during the end of my freshman year. I was urged to go by a friend who was graduating that year under a self-designed major (I forget the exact title of it) concerning women's well-being. She wanted to be a midwife. I guess that before seeing the film, I hadn't really thought of the politics involved in the process of giving birth, and I'll admit that it certainly fueled much of my interest in feminist activism.
The film provided an interesting look at the process of child birth and its nature as a business in our country, an issue that is rarely given attention in the media. It focuses on the birth experience in the United States as often being cold and calculated and suggests that women are often left in the dark concerning the various options available to them. It does this by contrasting natural methods of childbirth with the hospital operation delivery method that seems to be most commonly employed in contemporary American society.
In presenting these themes, the film raises many difficult questions which have been avoided in the media and among medical practitioners which it proceeds to attempt to answer. For example, why the infant and maternal mortality rates in the US are the second worst in the world in comparison with other developed countries. Why midwives deliver 60-80% of all births in other developed countries, but only 8% in the United States. Why the cesarean rate in America is so high, particularly when compared to other countries which have a much lower cesarean rate but much better overall outcome. Why so many mothers state that they experienced dissatisfaction with their birth experience or maternity care. Why so many American births occur in hospitals. Why the main attitude towards birth is rooted in fear, versus trust and normalcy.
It questions, most specifically, why people do not more commonly ask these questions and rather treat them as though it were a taboo subject. It deals with quite a bit of information, though was able to do so in a relatively ordered and accessible manner, showing the negative cycle resulting from medicated childbirth which usually ends in a caesarean, the manner in which media depicts birth and links it with fear, insurance issues, malpractice issues, and most interestingly, suggesting possible results of disturbing the “love cocktail” of hormones that exist in unmedicated births which ensures bonding and secures the maternal instinct.
The film opens as a homebirth midwife prepares to head out to a birth. The footage is shown interspersed with individuals discussing their own perceptions of midwifery and midwives, many of them unfamiliar with the work and assuming them to be unqualified or unreliable. I think one of the most interesting elements of this film is that it presents the culture in which we live as one that places science and the medical realm above all else, so much that we often miss out on the experiences and sensations in life which make us human. The act of given birth is treated as a problem that must be fixed, in a medical sense, rather than a natural process that has occurred since the beginning of life.
What the film is particularly successful at showing is the great number of unmedicated births that it shows. It makes the viewer take note of the manner in which childbirth, a natural and commonplace practice, has been taken out of the public realm, out of the home and out of society and into the hospital, confined and sterilized, as if to suggest it to be something anomic.
It also visually presents the woman in a greater state of power and strength. Television and film depictions of women giving birth do so in a manner which makes them appear passive and victimized to an affliction with which they must ‘deal.’ Similarly, hospital-based childbirth presents women on their backs, strapped down with tubing and medication, dramatically screaming in pain. The many examples of natural childbirth in the film present the women in a greater position of control, both in their knowledge and choice provided amidst numerous options, as well as in the physical act of delivery. They are shown strong, determined and in control.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

guerilla girls

I remember the first time I was officially exposed to ideas of feminism. I must have been in the third or fourth grade. I used to go to a lot of museums back home in Houston, Texas because most of them were free to children under 18 if you had a library card. It was the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum...a relatively small space compared to the big MFA across the street, but still very edgy and well-frequented. One visit stuck out in my mind in which "the guerilla girls" were the focus of the exhibition. There were many posters that asked what seemed to be pretty simple statements and questions at the time. Statements and questions that highlighted the clear disparity between the representation of female artists in the museums over time. I remember agreeing with some of the posters...and i remember even getting angry at the time...I remember asking my mother later why they were wearing gorilla masks, and why guerilla was spelled different. I was pretty obsessed with it for a while, the kind of playful jokiness of it...but also how true most of what they were asking seemed to be, even to a little girl aspiring to be a famous artist. It was also then that I was explained the concept of anonymity (in response to the question "why do they wear masks?" "who are they?" "why dont they want people to know who they are?") and the notion of tactics of anonymity to make a point. Maybe I didn't know the terms to explain what I was discovering...but I know that it stuck with me for a long time and it made me much more sensitive to women's issues at an early age.

I thought about this memory because I was looking through old notebooks from art history classes in my first year of college which I copied down what I thought at the time to be a brilliantly world-shaking suggestion ... "anonymous was a woman" meaning that most art throughout time that lacks official authorship is generally accepted by art historians to have been produced from the hand of a woman.
I still find this fascinating.

femininity as peversion and the female 'homeovestite'

So, as I have mentioned before, I am extremely interested in the various manners in which women construct and communicate particular identities about themselves through practices of self-fashioning. My search for information dealing particularly with the link between female anorexic bodies as a kind of performed androgynous gender through self-fashioning led me to some very interesting information branching out in different directions. One of the most interesting pieces of literature that I have stumbled upon during this semester is the work written by Loraine Gamman and Merja Makinen in their book Female Fetishism. Due to past work that I have done in rhetorical studies and media studies with the notion of fetishism and the interest that this has sparked within me for the topic, I was particularly intrigued by the extension of the concept to explain certain performative elements of gender as a form of fetishism. Gamman and Makinen examines various practices performed by women which they claim have the potential to destabilize dominant discourse about gender, sexuality and the dominant structures through their identification as perverse. Amidst many others, the authors include female cross-dressing and bulimia in their long list of female fetishes. In their discussion of fashion and fetishism, attention is paid to the historic use of clothing as fetish object to differentiate changing social roles along both class and gender lines. Perhaps most interesting in this discussion of fashion and fetishism is the concept of “femininity as perversion” in which fashion as commodity plays a role in “the perverse masquerade of gender” exemplified by the female ‘homeovestite’ who “dresses up as a woman [and] masquerades as a quintessential feminine type (70).”Another interesting element of this book is its very bold examination of the relationship between eating disorders and expressions of gender and sexuality, elaborating on the performative aspect of anorexic and bulimic behaviors as a “flight from femininity,” a denial of female sexuality and a “flight from the male gaze (123).” It is definitely something that I think I will be referring to in the future with various academic projects I may involve myself with.

Gamman, Lorraine, and Merja Makinen. Female Fetishism. New York: New York UP, 1995.

Friday, April 10, 2009

anonymous quote from

"I’m genderqueer. My gender is not neutral. It takes sides."

the seduction of genderbending

Forgive what promises to be a bit of a ramble, but I feel like it somehow belongs here as this class certainly has contributed to where I am at at the moment. I am somewhat on top of the world right now, as far as being inspired and excited about getting lost in the academic projects I am involved in. Most specifically, I am really excited about starting my comp. I had to turn in my proposal this week and I knew generally what I wanted my subject to be: the androgynous female body and its inability to be captured by traditional forms of media representation and the radical implications this has for challenging hegemonic structures that dictate gender along strict binary and heteronormative lines. What really frustrated me however, is that I was having trouble focusing on a specific text. Communication arts is all about finding a "text" to read to guide your discusion and support your theoretical direction of choice. "But thats the whole point, my 'text' is comprised of bodies which refuse to be captured and therefore identified/defined by their very nature!!!" While I ranted about this issue within my proposal, I have since found some wonderful inspiration that I think will help guide my project with a better focus and application.

This came to me through the speaker, Sarah Dopp, who came to Grounds for Change last night through FMLA on campus to talk about the "grey areas" of gender. A self proclaimed genderqueer, Sarah is the creator of a blog/website called which makes androgynous or otherwise defintion resistant individuals the focus. I am just so excited about everything she was talking about, her stories mixed between slam poetry and digressions into memories connected to her own experiance of her search for understanding her gender. I met with her briefly after she was done and told her everything I am trying to explore with my project and how super-psyched I was the she came. After giving me her personal info and some stuff from her site that she compiled in a word document just to have on her person (I felt special,) I bounced away, out the door and down the stairs feeling more intellectually alive than I have in a very very long time. Its really nice to be this excited about something and to really feel like it matters both personally and on a larger societal level. I really feel like I have important things to say in the larger gender studies conversation, and I just can't wait to get there.

I highly suggest you check out the site:
"beauty in ambiguity"

Monday, April 6, 2009

Frustration and a case of the dirty dishes

So, this will be a perhaps shorter entry, and attending to a more personal topic than my previous few. I often find myself frustrated with friends of mine, people that for every other reason unlisted I adore deeply. What is my issue? Most of my friends identify as being quite politically and socially progressive. They will verbally exhaust their ideals of egalitarianism at any chance they get, with furvor and with poeticism. Of course they are feminists. Of course they belive in equality and respect for all regaurdless of age, race, sex, gender, class etc etc. And I do truly appreciate their public affection of and declaration for such viewpoints. But, I have to admit that there seems to be more and more instances piling up in the widening pit of my memory that rather illuminate a wide gap between words and actions. Perhaps this is quite common and is really no suprise, as we are all human I suppose, but I think that this pattern has just recently really struck a cord with me...that somehow it mustered its way up into my consciousness...unavoidably begging for my attention like the clink clank of a cord hanging from a ceiling fan swirling too quickly on a humid summer night when you can't fall asleep, when you can't quite tell what it is that is making you feel uncomfortable to the point of insomnia but you know that the fact of your discomfort is undeniable.

It may seem a small happening, but like I have surely alluded to, the small clicks and hummings can make quite a stir when built up and shifted into ones space of awareness. Perhaps I should tell the little story that has inspired me to rant and rave about my otherwise dear friends. You see, I live in a house with three other individuals. Two of these identify as male. Now, while I know that keeping a clean house becomes an issue for any housemates, whether in college or not, we seem to have this ridiculous problem with keeping a sink empty of dirty dishes. We have tried putting up signs (“please do your own dishes” – ha – what a joke). We’ve tried having a house meeting and deciding that we would wash our dishes immediately after we were through with them (something that I find very simple, and do myself…but alas, ‘twas an effort that failed quite early). Being admittedly somewhat OCD when it comes to cleanliness, I often found (and still find) myself being the one who takes the brave move to tackle the overflowing sink of dishes. At first, I thought that I was being somewhat “naggy” about it, maybe even selfish in not realizing that I might require more cleanliness in my own life to be able to operate efficiently. (I mean, why should I expect others to have to change their ways just to suit my tastes right?) But then I realized, as this pattern was beginning to notably grow, that it seemed as though no one else was doing any of their dishes because it was assumed that one of the women of the house was going to take care of it. Now this was never stated of course, how could it be as it would be a contradiction to those proud progressive values we claim to hold amidst our circle. I could probably add much more to this story, but I think the main information is there. It seemed like a little deal, but the little deal grew into a big deal that was really actually bothering me in a deep kind of way, even seeming to effect my relationships with these people I love as I began to question their respect for me and my own time and well-being.

I think that for a while I had managed to kind of push it into my unconscious mind, as if I could just pretend that it really wasn’t an issue that needed to be dealt with. I think that the shift came from my arrival at a point that any of us may find ourselves situated in which one becomes hyperaware of ones own complicity in the matter. I realized that by my silencing my feelings, however hazy and confused they were within my own mind, I was essentially approving of the everyday happenings taking place.

I remember one of the first times that I gently, casually mentioned the issue to one of my housemates, he simply replied, “I have so much work, I’m so busy, I’m not going to clean other people’s dishes.” It made me so furious, because at the same time, it felt as though he was saying that his time was more valuable than mine, as if I wasn’t also overwhelmed with work.

So in response to all of this and in attempts to sort of draw attention to the matter, I have started loudly singing a little song I wrote about reinforcing gender roles whenever I do the dishes. It’s pretty great actually (if I do say so myself), a folksy little ditty complete with rounds that add an additional ridiculous household chore that I may find myself having to do that, more often then not, involves a mess not of my own, (pickin’ up the beer caps) and sometimes particularly of a mess only possibly made by those with male anatomy (for example, stray piss in the bathroom…I mean…seriously?!*) The important element of the song, I think, is that it is clearly being ironic in that the lyrics are sung not so much as a lament but as a joyful praise at how much I LOVE doing these things everyday and especially how much I LOVE reinforcing the gender roles that I am here at Allegheny studying and working to challenge and dissolve through academic work. So this song is my own little comfort in a way, and honestly, I think it has brought about a couple improvements. It seems to have made my housemates more aware of themselves, what they are doing, and most importantly, of how what they say they believe needs to be reinforced by actions.

*regarding the whole stray piss in the bathroom thing – I feel the need to clarify that this was kind of a one time issue…one of my housemates thought it would be fun to attempt playing the saxophone while relieving himself after a return from the bar on his 21st birthday. It was only semi-successful as you can imagine. Still, who ended up cleaning it? You guessed it!

*blog entry edit* - I feel the need to make a comment about the photo that I posted with the entry. I did not take that picture for this entry. No, I actually realized that one of my housemates had taken that picture of me candidly. "Wow, that even makes it kind of more fucked up" as a guy friend of mine pointed out.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

viewing womens experiance of eating disorders as active practice versus passive affliction

I've been thinking a lot about how the topic of eating disorders is discussed within my circle of what I would call quite independent and intelligent female friends. As individuals who are all aware of the fact that the female body ideal is ridiculous and that media and larger societal systems negatively influence women to view their bodies as less than par and in need of regulation, we have found that our own experiences of bad body image, measures to lose weight or to appear a certain way, even as far as actual experiences of anorexic and/or bulimic behavior are almost embarrassing to admit to because we, as strongly self-professed damn-the-mannists, are "supposed to be above all that," we are supposed to be strong and independent women going against the grain. As the topic seemed to come up again and again, more people seemed to admit to their own experiences of body altering (secret trips to the gym, diet pills; etc)and I began to notice a connection between the powerful and determined independence of my friends and the very individual practice of losing weight and other anorexic tendencies. Whether or not this was 'healthy,' I couldn't help but ask myself whether or not such practices might instead be viewed as proclamations of "girl power" due to the individual control one not only has, but in this case, that one takes and demands over one's body. What if anorexia, without disregaurding larger socio-cultural problems involved in the notion of ideal bodies, were to be looked at through this lens as something that represents the active female versus the passive victim.

It was then that I stumbled upon this lovely article by Abigail Bray and Claire Colebrook titled "The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis)Embodiment."

Within it, Bray and Colebrook call for a new active feminist ethics through which to examine eating disorders which is modeled after the work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze. In doing so, they suggest a move away from traditional methods of understanding eating disorders that focus on representation, which places women in a position of passivity and reinforces the Cartesian mind/body dualism, and rather into a view of the body as “the event of expression (36).” This new ethics “approaches sexual difference as a site of practices, comportments, and contested articulations” through which eating disorders may be understood “in terms of bodily activity rather than in terms of a repressed or negated ‘normal’ body (37).”

This proposed ethics is applied further to instances of anorexia nervosa as body practices as “productive, as forms of self-formation (58).” This article is perhaps most useful for its discussion of deviancy and the suggestion that the anorexic body, as deviant and as active subject, might be considered an expression of sexual politics which challenge societal norms. The authors’ discussion (and challenge) of the biomedical language used to classify and pathologize anorexia as well as its approaches to “treatment” take this idea further as the theories traditionally used (and also informing other feminist scholarly discussions of the body) to discuss eating disorders are themselves phallogocentric and a form of disciplining gender identity through access to and control of the body. From this, the authors suggest that “anorexia, then, is a series of practices and comportments; there are no anorexics, only activities of dietetics, measuring, regulation and calculation (62).” This view then positions the anorexic subject to be read and understood as a discursive event (reflective of societal ideological context) which occurs “within a general discursive network,” in this case, “concerned with analysis, regulation, and normalization (63).”

Bray, Abigail, and Claire Colebrook. "The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis)Embodiment." Signs 24 (1998): 35-67.

Kristeva and the "unbound signifer"

I've been doing some preliminary research for my senior comp which I would like to have something to do with the androgynous female body. Recently, I was reading and article which made reference to Julia Kristeva's concept of the "subject in process/trial" (le sujet-en-procés) and, having read the book Revolt, She Said once upon a time and generally liking what I found, I decided to indulge myself and read about this new term I stumbled upon in its original home within the book Revolution in Poetic Language. In it, Kristeva examines the possibilities of linguistics that is focused on the speaking subject, with Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis as a theoretical starting-point for examining the signifying process.

In the chapter I was most interested in, Kristeva explores the concept of Hegelian negativity as a “conflictual state” whose subject being “a process, an intersection –an impossible unity (118)” requires the act of “rejection,” a fixing of the subject in place, in order that it might be signifiable. I believe that Kristeva’s concept of the “subject in process/trial” (le sujet-en-procés) (111) can be useful as a theoretical lens through which to look at the androgynous body and the manner in which society attempts to read, make sense, or also “deal” with it as an ‘unbound signifier’ whose constant state of seemingly unresolved flux creates a state of tension by disrupting structures and systems of meaning and understanding that is otherwise considered natural (such as the male female gender binary, female role as reproducers, the female as passive versus active; etc.)

It also made me think a bit of Judith Butler's call for "gender trouble" by playing around with gender performance as a means of challenging and moving the boundaries within which bodies are disciplined to "fit." Kristeva's concept provides an explanation for why such gender play might initiate the reshaping of gender boundaries by looking more explicitly at the reception of those performative practices.

Kristeva, Julia. "Negativity: Rejection." Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. 107-164.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Wrong Bathroom" – Politics of Gendered Bathrooms on Allegheny's Campus

My personal familiarity with transgender issues began largely with a volunteer experience that I had at “The Center,” San Francisco’s center for LGBT members of the community (as well as allies!) based in the city’s famous gay-friendly Castro district. Although I was only working there for a short amount of time (about a week or two) I encountered much more than I was expecting…perhaps most relevant to my post here: a non-gendered/sexed bathroom, complete with an advance “apology” note posted outside of the door that prefaced with The Center’s understanding of the variety of personal positions and self-identifications that visitors to The Center may hold concerning their gender and/or sex as well as an acknowledgement of the general discomfort and/or political problems surrounded by the experience of the public bathroom. They even apologized for the pictographic sign that they used to signify that the bathroom was intended for use of both sexes, using both the classic bathroom man slash classic bathroom woman with “gender-appropriate” clothing as sign coding, by commenting on the problem that they recognize in the larger society’s reaffirmation of gender and/or sex binaries through such common usages as in, for example, designating public restroom facilities. While I can understand their intentions and concerns leading to the posting of such a note, I find it quite interesting that they still chose to utilize the classic gendered bathroom imagery (and therefore be in their own way somewhat complicit in its continued use and coded meaning).

Although I had been exceptionally familiar with Lesbian, Gay and Bi issues, I hadn’t really encountered much concerning the Trans community outside of familiarity of the terms associated with it before my time at The Center which included assisting the running of San Francisco’s first Transgender Job Fair. It was this hands-on encounter, so-to-speak, with so many different members of the community who classified themselves as Trans for one reason or another that really heightened my awareness (and inspired my interest) concerning the ability for gender and sex to be fluid and/or defined outside of otherwise pre-organized/pre-established classifications. My interest in the idea of gender performance in particular carried into my studies through the Communication Arts department here at Allegheny College where I was able to learn new theories that seemed to speak directly to what I had perhaps experienced in San Francisco (and began to recognize more and more all around me in daily life.) For a department that defines and seems to pride itself on its progressive stances concerning cultural and social issues however, a very curious thing happened with the department move to the new Vukovich building (and might be seen as still happening) that seems counter to this stance.

Can you guess my direction with this? That’s right – the bathroom.

It was a cold January day when I found refuge in the shiny new home to the Communication Arts department after its move over winter break. Roaming the halls and exploring the new layout, I soon found myself on the third floor which is home to the offices of the CommArts professors. Stopping by one of my favorite professor friends to say hello and perhaps have a quick chat, I learned of something about the new building, particularly of the third floor, an explanation that he treated like an entertainment weekly scandal, his voice in a whisper, players involved to remain anonymous. He pointed me out of his office not far into the hall and pointed to the bathrooms. There were two single occupant bathrooms next to one another and although, as if intentionally made to reflect the forward-thinking socially conscious identification of the department, each was labeled with a permanent placard denoting them as non-sex/non-gendered restrooms. Much like at The Center in San Francisco, these signs presented both the classic female and male pictograms with the addition of a (note) unisex handicapped symbol. “Aw what an awesome idea…” I thought, presuming that some of the theories we have learned in class might have been applied to “real life” in the faculty’s involvement in the planning of the new building. That is, until my attention was diverted to the Zeroxed sheets slapped up on each door, one reading “men” and the other “women,” taped to the center like a “kick me” sign to stare you in the face, god forbid one were to possibly miss it and enter the wrong bathroom. “Hmm…” I said to him with a raised eyebrow, “So…who’s idea was this?” Pleading the need to keep names confidential, I could tell that he had an issue with it.

While we both acknowledged something problematic in this display, the signage didn’t seem as much of a problem as the gendered nature of each restroom’s interiors. One step into the women’s restroom and one finds a dainty mini coffee table upon which lay a box of facial tissues, lotion, and an array of popular magazines spread out attractively like a fan. Upon complaints from my male-identified professor friend, I suggested that he doll up the men’s restroom to his liking were he so strongly driven. At this suggestion, he shrugged the issue off his shoulders and the conversation quickly changed to a different topic. Although he wouldn’t tell me who was responsible for the re-gendering of the gender neutral restrooms in this first encounter, I have a feeling that with a little undercover work and a bit of charm I’ll be able to get the scoop out of someone.

Image from the Gender Anarchy Project :

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Language and Terminology

For my first blog entry of the year, I want to share my thoughts on the importance of language in the larger women’s movement, in understanding and critically engaging in feminist issues, and in developing a grounds from which to build a complex course of study focused on the topic through well-informed and educated discussion and critical review (such as that which we experience at Allegheny in the Women’s Studies department). One of the first readings that we encountered in the year was titled “Lexicon of the Debates.” The reading clearly outlined main issues that emerge within the study of feminist theory, highlighting key terms and titles which serve to explain a given movement, circumstance or theoretical position. While I was familiar with some of these terms already coming into the class, I found that the focusing of the language and terms in a way which made them accessible, coherent and connected was very useful in making connections within my own mind between the issues in an almost visual web-like fashion.

I am focusing on language in this response because I feel that it is a great way to open up the year, a grounding upon which to stand, gain some rooted stability and grow from, build upon. On the very first day of class as the room filled with faces largely unfamiliar to one another, there was a commonality that seemed to emerge when we began discussing our reasons for taking a feminist theory course. While there were certainly particularities that differed within the group, many answered that they were interested in being better able to articulate their beliefs and positions regarding women’s issues. Perhaps this is to gain respect and attention to what they feel or desire to say, or perhaps even to better understand their own feelings which, although might be unavoidably strong and present internally in a more sensual or intuitive fashion, might fail to connect verbally in a manner that can be reflected on critically in such a setting as we often find ourselves in here on campus, one of debate or progressive conversation that aims ultimately towards some form of change initiated through dialogue.

In order to be able to claim a rightful position in greater academic discourse, a movement or issue needs to possess suitable terms with which to discuss its case, conditions and concerns. Once an agreed upon set of terms can be established, it is much easier to go about participating in the conversation- to join in and add to it thoughtfully. I think that this will be a very clear development over the course of the semester as more and more individuals will obtain the language necessary to communicate their beliefs and positions on the issues that come up in conversation. It will be easier to connect with one another when we know that our language is based in the same understanding/coding. I think that it is also quite important that we are careful when using certain terms which are not constant in their interpretations across differing cultural planes of time and space. To guard ourselves from misunderstanding, I feel that it is important that we define our terms when we use them so that others may better understand what it is we are attempting to say. Similarly, upon exploring the texts of others within our textbook, I feel that it is crucial to consider how it is that they are defining their terms as they go about their points, even when it might not be explicitly stated. For example, the very first reading, “Feminism,” illustrates the polysemic characteristic of some terms, here primarily of “feminism” and “feminist.” I am not attempting to claim that this is problematic. Rather, I am simply calling for a cautiousness against assuming the definitions of terms, a greater mindfulness of one’s own usage of terms, as well as an openness to investigating the context informing particular usages of terms by other writers and thinkers we may encounter.