Tag Archives: Gender Bending

Disability and the politics of cure

In a comfortable study room overlooking Lake Mendota, a diverse group of scholars got together to discuss a new work by Eli Clare. Clare himself sat in with the group discussing an essay that touched on “the politics of cure” for a series on Accessing the Intersections: Disability, Race, + Gender at UW-Madison on October 12. That’s where I got my first taste of the “politics of cure,” a concept I would like to share here.

Eli Clare

Clare’s writings explore the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and ability, and he writes from personal experience. I read his work, “Gawking, Gaping, Staring,” this summer, and it opened my eyes (excuse the expression) to the “othering” experienced by people with disabilities.

I wish I could say that I have been aware and sensitive to the social justice struggles of peoples with disabilities as long as I’ve been interested in gender and race issues. But I’m learning. And so is the rest of the world, as the UN only adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006 (note: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was adopted in 1979).

As the discussion on ability and ableism gains voices and volume, the experiences of disabled people also marginalized due to race or gender or sexuality shed important light on the similarities and differences of these groups. Clare’s writings eloquently explore his experiences and those of his friends and colleagues experiencing  the intersections of queerness and disability. I recommend them.

I’d like to return to the discussion group overlooking Lake Mendota where Clare, and other scholars, illuminated the politics of cure for me. Think about how we discuss cancer in the United States. The Susan G. Komen foundation sponsors races for the cure and another campaign encourages people to “Stand up to Cancer.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with striving for cures for ailments, but not all ailments have cures, and not all disabled bodies can be “cured.” So a woman with breast cancer may not focus on occupying and loving her body regardless of its cancer, because she is so focused on the life she will have after remission or after a cure.

I choose cancer as an example, because it’s widespread, relatable, and often “cured.” But consider the way that people with incurable diseases experience the politics of cure, the obsession with cure. Someone mentioned in the discussion meeting that muscular dystrophy funds have claimed a cure on the horizon for decades. And Clare mentioned Christopher Reeves’ constant striving to regain some functioning after paralysis. But Reeves did not recover from his quadriplegia and those with muscular dystrophy still live with it day in and day out.

Many people (i.e. nearly one in five) live their lives with physical disabilities and/or illness (both mental and physical). A constant quest for cures makes it difficult to accept and experience the present state of our bodies, regardless of their ability.

Sitting with Clare and the other interdisciplinary scholars, I realized I had much to learn about the sociopolitical challenges surrounding disability. I also have more to learn about the implications of cure. But hope for “cure” can translate to a non-acceptance of a disabled body. That doesn’t mean I’m racing away from the cure, but now I think about accepting bodies as they are, hoping for cures as an alleviation for pain not the restoration of a “cured” body.

“Cure” is not so simple as a pill or treatment

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Musings on Mustaches and Masculinities

I spent an afternoon mustached last weekend, and it was fun. At a beer festival in St. Paul, The House of Shandy handed out tattoos of thin ‘staches and furry adhesive ones in various styles. I donned “the smarty.”

I was curious to spend the afternoon with this symbol of masculinity across my face, though admittedly I was pretty far from masculine in my sun dress. My recent completion of a gender studies course in masculinity inspired the temporary transformation. And it was well received. I wasn’t the only person (woman or man) to wear the House of Shandy’s party favor, thus it became more of a playful accessory than a commentary on gender. Thirteen different men complimented my mustache. Some pretended to be jealous. Two women gave me positive feedback. I did get one confused query about where I got it and why I would wear it, but nothing hostile.

me (mustached) with my partner

But there is quite a difference between a satirical, temporary mustache on a female and a woman’s acceptance of her own natural facial hair. Rebecca Nieto makes this distinction in her piece “Hair Trigger,” in which she chronicles her own desire to remove upper lip her at age 12. She also examines the growth of mustache popularity in queer communities, versus its rise in hipster popularity.  If you don’t recognize society’s fierce protection of mustaches as a symbol of masculinity, check out this commercial for the prescription Vaniqa, a product intended to reduce women’s facial hair. In the commercial a beautiful, smooth-skinned woman’s voice drops to a baritone when discussing how her facial hair makes her feel manly, presumably a tragedy for any women trying to leave the house.

Some women, queer or not, have begun to let their – facial – hair down.  Not only is it liberating to free onself from the hassle of waxes, razors, or lasers, but it also sends the message that women can be women without perfectly smooth and hairless (dare I say prepubescent) bodies. Or, on the other hand, women can be choose to be a little masculine with their facial hair.

Gay men arguably took to mustaches as a way to confirm their masculinity in the 70s. R.W. Connell writes about the Castro Clone trend  in his book Masculinities. Gay men are often excluded from hegemonic (i.e. mainstream) masculinity because of their sexuality. By accessorizing as a tough, manly man (think Ron Swanson’s ‘stach), gay men affirmed their masculinity despite attempts to feminize them.

While I wore my temporary mustache I couldn’t help but consider the politics that center on these two to three square inches of hair. A hairy upper lip says a lot. And even though my experiment with it didn’t shock or shatter stereotypes, it’s fun to play with people’s perceptions. Nieto concludes, “With every imitation and copy, the mustache is warped, destabilized from being a symbol of purely masculine citizenship, and brought to a place of queer play.” And really, the mustache has only the power that we allow it. It remains a symbol of masculinity, but it doesn’t have to be confined to a male body.

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Late Retrospective for Black History Month: From Female Slave, to Southern Gentleman, to Freedom

1. Ellen and William Craft decided they would rather risk their lives than risk the severance of their budding family. These Georgian slaves in the mid-19th century sought a way to escape when they first decided to marry.

My wife was torn from her mother’s embrace in childhood, and taken to a distant part of the country. She had seen so many other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming the mother of a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror (Craft 27).

2. The couple considered various escape routes, aware that failure would mean death, or worse. Slaveholders seemed to enjoy the pursuit and punishment of escaped slaves. William and Ellen would not risk escaping 1,000 miles without a sure plan. They resigned to marry and toil as slaves until a path to liberty presented herself

3. In December 1848 the idea dawned. Only eight days to freedom

4. Ellen Craft, a fair-skinned slave, must take on the disguise of a white slave master. She would travel from Georgia as the owner of her darker-skinned husband. This clever plan would keep them under the radar, and yet require Ellen to cross firm caste, race, and class lines in disguise.

At first she shrank from the idea. She thought it almost impossible for her to assume that disguise, and travel a distance of 1,000 miles across slave States. … [But] the more she contemplated her helpless condition, the more anvious she was to escape from it (Craft 30).

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5. Over the course of four days William purchased a disguise piece by piece. Ellen tailored herself a pair of pants and hid all the items in a locked drawer. They convinced their master and mistress to permit them a few days of Christmas holiday, as they were trusted and well liked. The leave allowed them a head start towards the North.

Just before the time arrived for us to leave I cut my wife’s hair square at the back of the head and got her to dress in the disguise and stand out on the floor. I found that she made a most respectable looking gentleman (Craft 35).

6. When William opened the door to flee, Ellen burst into tears. A perilous journey waited for them, but remaining meant a life of slavery and uncertainty. William sympathized. After a prayer, they set off.

We were like persons near a tottering avalanche; afraid to move, or even breathe freely, for fear the sleeping tyrants should be aroused (Craft 42)

7. Once on the train, William spotted his master peering through the train cars, suspicious that the couple might flee. He failed to recognize Ellen, and the train pulled away before he could find William

8. Ellen endured the first leg of the trip next a friend of her master who had known her since childhood. She pretended to be deaf to avoid contact with him. He did not recognize her and treated her like a gentleman.

9. A trader en route sought to separate the two and buy William. Slaves on free soil could not be trusted. A military officer recommended she stop saying “thank you” and “if you please” to her slave.

10. They were held up in Charleston, where legislators feared abolitionists would smuggle slaves through to the north. The same military gentleman, who provided Ellen with advice on how to treat her “slave,” vouched for them.

11. On the train to Richmond,Virginia, Ellen, pretending to be asleep, overheard a young women swooning over her male persona:

After [Ellen had] been lying there a little while the ladies, I suppose, thought he was asleep; so one of them gave a long sigh, and said, in a quiet fascinating tone, “Papa, he seems to be a very nice young gentleman.” But before papa could speak the other lady quickly said, “Oh! Dear me, I never felt so much for a gentleman in my life!” (Craft 60).

12. Officers stopped the couple in Baltimore, their last transfer before Philadelphia — and freedom. The law required registration and documentation for slaves. Their courage waned. The room filled with tension. The train’s captain passed through, acknowledged them, and then sounded the train’s bell for departure. An officer waved them through indifferently at the last moment.

13. They arrived in Pennsylvania on Christmas day. Eight days after they conceived the plan, four days after their flight began, Ellen collapsed on William. They found refuge in local abolitionists.

14. The couple moved to England where they raised a family, received an education, and spoke out against slavery.

15. Ellen became a symbol for the anti-slavery movement.

[The picture of her as a man] sold so well William hoped the proceeds might assist him in securing his still-enslaved sister (McCaskill 515).

16. Reluctantly, Ellen challenged many aspects of the status quo, so that she could live her life as a mother and educated lady. In an effort to escape one institution she subverted many.

With her appearance as an Africa woman ‘dressed’ as a white woman dressed as a white Southern man, Ellen elides the distinctions between the genders and scrambles the identities of haughty mistress and humble slave (McCaskill 520).

Sources:

Running a thousand miles for freedom, or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft. 1860. William Craft.

“Yours Very Truly”: Ellen Craft–The Fugitive as Text and Artifact. 1994. Barbara McCaskill
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Rape Jokes and Equal Opportunity Killing: Pros and Cons of Female Progress in the Macho Worlds of Comedy and Video Games

Women comedians thriving in their industry draw on a realm of issues to tickle, shock, or gross out audiences more familiar with the male-centered scene. But the racy topics rising from the likes of Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer push more than the glass ceiling or the “taste taboo ceiling.” A recent article in the New York Times touches on rising female comics and the use of rape humor in their acts.

Jason Zinomen writes, recounting Silverman, “if you had to pinpoint one joke as a breakthrough for this new generation of female comedians, it might be this one: ‘I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.’”

Rape may fall logically on the list of things more approachable by female comics. But for my part, too many people avoid, or remain ignorant of, the realities of sexual assault. Making light of sexual violations belittles the physical and psychological trauma of the experience. That said, I am not here to criticize the risqué aspects of stand up comedy, whose primary purpose seems provocation.

I am interested in the way that women make a place for themselves within comedy entertainment. Vanity Fair, in 2008, printed the article “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” It covered 12 contemporary funny women, remarking on the requirement that they be simultaneously clever and sexy. The article featured Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, whose recent movie Bridesmaids included female-centered humor, and some ground breaking gross-out scenes with women.

But female comedians aren’t the only ones breaking ground.  Female reviewer Emma Boyes touts the third installation of Saints Row, a violent, gangster genre video game, as “good for women.”

This game which features gratuitous violence and prostitution allows players to control the gender of their avatar. Within both realms (game playing and character creating) players experience gender neutrality uncharacteristic of video games in general.

Boyes writes, “the best thing about the way women are depicted in Saints Row is the fact that it never seems to occur to anyone to treat them any differently.”

The game, according to Boyes, includes a substantial number of bad-ass female characters and no diminutive language when referring to them. Male and female prostitutes are featured and objectified. Players have a great deal of flexibility when creating their avatars.

“All outfits, makeup, and hair styles are available to both genders, so there’s nothing stopping you from, say, being a girl with a beard or a fella with pigtails, lip gloss, and high heels. You can wear a sexy dress. You can wear a power suit. You can be androgynous,” writes Boyes.

Boyes’ review also includes disclaimers that the game is saucy, provocative, and sometimes immature. Gender equity will not necessarily draw a flock of female gamers if they weren’t already interested in gangster games. And the benefits, or consequences, of playing at theft and death remain debatable for all genders.

Does the new installation of Saints Row demonstrate progress? Yes, definitely. Although equal opportunity violence and rape humor still leave a bad taste in my mouth, women deserve a place  in these fields. I remain hopeful that females advance in comedy and gaming on their own terms.

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Exploring Gender-Bending on Halloween

A mormon church in Utah posted fliers for a Halloween event and requested “no masks or cross-gender dressing.” This sends two messages:

1) the gender binary is fixed, and

2) it is never acceptable to assume a gender you weren’t born with.

The first point here precludes the second. The gender binary depends on the belief in two separate and immutable sexes: male and female. Images that support the gender binary bombard us daily: advertisements, television shows, and public figures portray beautiful, stylized women and stoic, powerful-seeming men. Reinforcement of the gender binary is ubiquitous.

The gender binary is not the only way to consider gender. Many people throughout the world do not identify with their birth-determined-gender. Jessica Who? (a blog) explores personal transgender experiences and transgender issues in society. Native Americans refer to those who occupy mixed gender roles as “two spirit.” (Check out the award-winning documentary Two Spirits which tells the story of  Fred Martinez who “was nádleehí, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture.”) The binary leaves little room for all people, of various identities, to occupy the liminal space between maleness and femaleness.

In one regard, Halloween cross-dressing may reinforce traditional roles, because that subversive behavior is confined to the holiday. But why shouldn’t a little girl dress as superman? What are her other options? Maybe she fits the binary and identifies as a girl, yet also aspires to superman’s strength and heroism. Should she be discouraged? Consider the controversy last year over a little boy in Ohio who wanted to dress as Daphne from Scooby Doo. His mother supported him, despite criticism from other parents.

Every family and every community value different things. While one neighborhood in Utah prohibited cross-dressing for a holiday that lends itself to subversion, Girl Scouts of Colorado agreed to let a 7-year-old boy — who identifies as a girl — join a local scout troop. The mother of the child,  Felisha Archuleta, told a reporter, “He had a princess birthday, and last year when he turned 7, he had a Rapunzel birthday. I have just basically supported him.”

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