From Theory to Praxis: Gender and Sexuality Studies as an Interdisciplinary Critique

In Gender and Sexuality Studies 101, I learned a lot about the ways in which the way in which monolithic ideas and cultural hegemonies inform the ways in which people think and behave. I realized through this course the ways in which these ideas seep into every facet of human life, even through most supposedly unbiased and objective academic disciplines. As someone who has always valued the tangible and facts, the application of gender and sexuality studies critiques of what we take for granted, as “common knowledge” has really been eye-opening.
I’m planning to major in history and biology, two disciplines that, despite their different methodologies and focuses, both tend to focus on the demonstrable and “provable”. However, something about both disciplines that I’ve learned to critique from GSS 101 is the ways in which these facts are interpreted and applied. Both disciplines require logical continuity and frown upon intellectual leaps without grounding in data. Still, scientists and historians are still human, and still Foucaultian subjects not only influenced but created by the world around them.
Our discussion of feminist science studies is a great example of the ways in which my views had been challenged. I knew, of course, that science has often been misinterpreted or employed as a rhetorical tactic to reinforce societal inequality; just look at a movement like eugenics. However, I wasn’t really aware of the ways in which, down to the very textbooks we use to teach biology, the way we frame and explain biological concepts reinforces the ideologies of gender difference and heteronormativity.
Similarly, I had always heard about the phrase “history is told by the winners” and knew on some level the ways in which history has been interpreted to soften the historical oppressions of non-dominant groups and bolster the dominant groups in society. However, GSS 101 opened my eyes further on these topics. The ways in which we interpret history to impose our own hegemonic ideas was surprising. For example, I found it interesting to learn the ways in which the idea of a “traditional marriage” is a construction of our modern society. It was also interesting to learn the ways people have thought about homosexuality and heterosexuality in the past, since such terms and identities didn’t even exist in many societies and therefore, aren’t an accurate representation of the ways in which people in the past saw their lives.
I would like to pursue a project that looks at the history of science through the lens of feminist science studies, and looks at the ways in which scientific fields, especially biology and medicine, have served to reinforce ideologies of gender difference, especially around the time that “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” as terms came into being.
Through GSS 101, I’ve learned to look at the subjects I’m passionate about with a more critical eye. This course has taught me to challenge the hegemonic ideas that underlie much of human productions of knowledge. While I myself am a product of society, and can never truly free myself from its effects, I can still learn to be aware in which the ways my understandings are shaped by the society around me. Overall, I want to take what I’ve learned from this course to more fully investigate and interrogate the ways in which I understand the fields I’m passionate about.

Foucault and the Ottomans: A Review of Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World, 1500-1800

Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World 1500-1800, as a historical text, helps show how Foucauldian ideas about the construction of the subject, as it relates to sexuality and gender, existed within non-Western frameworks. As El-Rouayheb points out, Foucault argued that El-Rouayheb’s thesis is based on social constructivist ideas, in that he argues that “homosexuality”, as our modern, Western context constructs it, did not exist during the period studied in the book. Rather, many of the distinctions the current idea of “homosexuality” upholds as critical ran together, and, more importantly and saliently, the idea of “homosexuality” does not recognize or does not place the same amount of emphasis on many distinctions that existed in the Arab-Islamic world from 1500-1800.

As presented in the introduction, El-Rouayheb’s methodology is that of a historian. He engages with other historians at times in the book, but the bulk of his evidence comes from his presentation and analysis of primary source texts from the time, most of which are from the culture itself, and which include poetry, legal sources and other writings of the time. El-Rouayheb acknowledges the limitations of his work; by focusing on analysis of written texts, his survey of Arab-Islamic “homosexuality” tends to focus on urban, male members of the educated elite in the Ottoman empire, a group that doesn’t cover all of the Arab-Islamic world of the time as El-Rouayheb notes. Still, his use of primary sources seems to counter many of the misperceptions about what is and was labeled homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world from Western sources, both contemporary to the period and later.

However, El-Rouayheb seeks to employ the work of other historians, like Foucault, in order to produce a thesis and a lens through which to view his primary sources. In addition to referencing Foucault as a source for the intellectual framework upon which he constructs his thesis, El-Rouayheb also looks at the work of other historians of the Middle East, such as Bernard Lewis and Marshall Hodgson who write about the societal “acceptance” of “what Islamic law prohibits”, but draws distinctions between their conclusions and his own, highlighting the difference between sodomy (liwat) and love (El Rouayheb, 3). He also warns about trying to make broad conclusions about the state of a large region of the world with many varying opinions based on a handful of resources (8- Note: Unless otherwise specified, all citations come from El-Rouayheb). His exploration of the current field is not entirely dismissive; El-Rouayheb cites other authors, such as Arno Schmitt, Everett Rowson and Thomas Bauer, as finding similar conclusion as he himself draws (7-8).

His first chapter, entitled “Pederasts and Pathics”, is an overview of what kinds of relationships or sexual encounters occurred between men and boys at the time. While he does spend some time in the beginning of the chapter discussing penetration as an act of aggression and violence, the center of this chapter are relationships between adult men and boys.

His second chapter, called “Aesthetes”, addresses the phenomenon of love poetry directed towards youths by adult men, in order to highlight the important distinctions and nuances that seem to refute the idea that “homosexuality”, as we conceive of it, existed in Arab-Islamic world of the time. Key to El-Rouayheb’s argument in this chapter are the divisions this culture placed between an aesthetic appreciation of beauty, pining and chaste romantic love and the sin of liwat. Additionally, such divisions sometimes, though not always, lacked the gendered dimensions that a concept like “homosexuality” would necessitate. For example, El-Rouayheb notes that the beauty of women and boys was considered comparable, and expressed through the same sort of language (67). More broadly, love poetry, in El-Rouayheb’s analysis highlights the ways in which romantic and sexual attraction between men and boys not only existed, but was celebrated through praise of boys’ bodies and expressions of the man’s romantic longing for the beloved in this poetry.

Finally, the last chapter of El-Roauayheb’s book, called “Sodomites” focuses on the legal codes that existed at the time, and examines the varying opinions about sodomy across different legal schools of thought.

According to El-Rouayheb, while there were certainly sexual and romantic relationships between men and boys in the pre-modern period within the urban elite of the Arab-Islamic world, to call such behavior “homosexuality” is an oversimplification. The modern, Western concept of the “homosexual” as we understand it today did not exist. Distinctions existed within what we would call “homosexual” behavior existed in the Arab-Islamic world of 1500-1800 that do not exist in the modern West today, or were emphasized much more saliently in this time and place than they are in our modern, Western context. Most important of these was the difference between the penetrator and the penetrated, a distinction that is not as emphasized in a modern Western context.

The distinction between penetrator and penetrated is not a simple one. While the penetrated does seem closer to the modern, Western idea of the “homosexual”, both the penetrator and the penetrated seemed to have different places in society, which in some ways seem to exist as an undercurrent in our own modern society. In many ways, penetrating another person was a sign of everything masculine: dominance, manhood and victory. The rhetoric of penetrating another man was sometimes employed by authors as a way to assert their dominance in quarrels over one another, as El-Rouayheb points out in his first chapter. This is not to say, however, that acting as a penetrator with another man acquitted one of any social stigma tied with sex with another man.

The penetrated was, in many ways, closer to the social idea of the “homosexual” developed in the late 1800s in Europe and persisting into the twentieth century. Like “homosexuality”, the desire to be anally penetrated in the Arab-Islamic world was sometimes treated as an illness (ubnah) and conceptualized as such (19). While a term for “sodomy” does seem to exist in the Shari’a (or legal guidelines based on the Qu’ran and hadith) and is prohibited, this term seems to imply that the burden of sin of this practice is placed on the penetrated. It is also important in this context to emphasize another important feature of Arab-Islamic “pre-homosexuality’: the relationship between man and boy. El-Rouayheb points out that much of the behavior that we would deem nowadays as “homosexual” occurred between grown men, assumed to be acting as penetrator, and boys, assumed to be the penetrated. El-Rouayheb complicates this simplistic notion, noting that there’s no way to predict what kind of sexual behavior occurred between men and boys behind closed doors, but does emphasized that the underlying assumption of the society was, should sex occur between the two, the boy would act as the more “passive” partner, and that the rhetoric of romantic poetry written for boys by adult men in this context does place the “beloved” in a feminized and more submissive role than the adult man pursuing him.

However, penetrator and penetrated was not the only distinction that is key to an understanding of the ways in which relations between males in this context can’t simply be boiled down into a homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy. For example, he notes the importance of the difference of the chaste desire of most love poetry in contrast to sodomy, in the second chapter (89). Even beyond the important distinction of chaste romantic love vs. the perceived lust of sodomy, some of the sources of the time suggest that some men chose to write romantic love poetry for fictional beloveds, reinforcing the difference between thoughts and actions that make “homosexuality” a problematic term in this case (110-111).

Certain distinctions that we hold as clear, too, may be different in the differing cultural contexts. For example, in El-Rouayheb’s last chapter, he discusses how many legal schools considered sodomy between both unmarried men and women and between men and boys equal under law, and many lesser sexual acts between men and boys (such as intercrural sex or fondling) weren’t even near the same level of punishment as unmarried fornication between men and women (138).

Overall, El-Rouayheb’s book is thorough and is well-supported. He effectively applies the idea that sexuality, like gender, is constructed, and supports this claim using a wealth of primary source documents and fellow historians’ work. He notes the limitations of his work, and seeks to avoid making broad generalizations based on limited sources. Despite the limitations he notes in his work, he is able to make a good, well-rounded argument by using a diverse set of sources such as poetry, first-person accounts and legal documents in a way that notes the nuances across the Arab-Islamic world but also is able to extract key conclusions.  El-Rouayheb’s book is not perfect, however. El-Rouayheb argues that many of the distinctions, like penetrator/penetrated and romantic love/sodomy, were indicative of a lack of the concept of homosexuality in this concept, because these distinctions do not exist in our modern, Western context. I would argue, instead, that some of them do exist, but have served to more clearly define gender categories do exist in the modern, Western world. For example, in the film “Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders”, the idea of penetrator vs. penetrated is broached in relation to gay men in the West. Almost all of the men asked identified themselves as “tops” as opposed to “bottoms”, not because they thought it made them any less gay men, but because it solidified their more masculine role in the relationship. Similarly, modern Western society does seem to recognize a difference between romantic love and sexual desire, but tends to ascribe romantic love as a “feminine quality” rather than the more “masculine” desire to have sex. While drawing parallels between the Arab-Islamic pre-modern world and our modern Western context, El-Rouayheb does help situate the topic in relation to a modern, Western reader. While this comparison is not always perfect and can ignore nuance, it does help remind us of the cultural relativity of our own context, even when El-Rouayheb’s conclusions about the modern world are not always completely crystallized. Despite this caveat I would place on El-Rouayheb’s work, his work is an insightful addition in the academic area of gender and sexuality studies.

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look”… An Analysis of “The Babadook”

“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of”… societal norms. The Babadook, especially in this trailer, both reinforces and questions many of the underlying assumptions our society has around gender and sex, class and sexuality. Amelia, the mother at the heart of this film, is simultaneously defined by her distance and increasing slippage away from norms, but also the societal pressures that she feels trapped and tormented by. The trailer looks at both Amelia’s perspective as a mother in society, but also society at large’s view of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a mother.

The expectations for Amelia seem to overwhelm her throughout the film. The most prominent of these expectations that Amelia struggles with are her responsibilities as a mother. As a mother, she is expected to be always emotionally and physically available to help her son, and able to quickly and effectively correct anything disruptive or societally detrimental that her child does. The first shot of Amelia in the trailer is her reading to her son, Samuel, in bed, a quintessentially maternal action as defined by our society. However, as the trailer continues, the world that Amelia lives in seems to be crumbling around her. Her son misbehaves and acts out in violent ways, like building a slingshot to fight the monster. Samuel is loud, disruptive and potentially violent, in ways that Amelia soon realizes she cannot always control. Samuel’s outbursts are Amelia’s “fault” as a mother, and through the institutions that surround her, she is blamed and shamed for her inability to control Samuel’s every move.

Amelia’s problems, especially with regards to Samuel, are often treated in an institutionalized way through a male perspective, as seen throughout the trailer, in ways that contradict and cause conflict within Amelia as a character. For example, the male administrator of Samuel’s school tells Amelia, in response to Samuel’s bringing a weapon to school, “the boy has significant behavioral problems” (while the female administrator remains silent), and the medical professional that Amelia sees tells her “all children see monsters”. Even the governmental agents of order, as seen through the police at 1:22 into the clip, are distorted and unhelpful in Amelia’s plight. The police officer is a reflection of the torment Amelia faces, with his gray skin and sunken appearance, much like the Babadook that plagues her and her family. The film simultaneously questions and reinforces the idea that the home and the family are the “woman’s sphere”; Amelia is situated in a context where her inability to mother Samuel “properly” is a reflection of both Samuel and her own failures in a medical sense. Samuel “promises to protect” his mother if she can protect him in the trailer; however, neither characters seems to be able to offer the other protection.

The character of Amelia also reflects and questions the stereotype of the “hysterical woman” and the dichotomy that society often situates between the sane, put-together mother, and the “crazy”, overworked mother who can’t handle her children. Much of the film appears to be presented as though it is from Amelia’s perspective. The quick glimpses of the monster that the trailer shows the audience, such as the knock on the door at the 1:00 mark of the trailer, the shadowy figure in the neighbor’s house at 1:19 and the graying skin of the police officer at 1:23, combined with the increasing desperation in Amelia’s voice and more unkempt appearance seem to suggest that perhaps “the Babadook” is only a figment of her imagination and a hallucination created by stress. Amelia herself seems to buy into the idea that what she’s seeing is not real; as she tells her coworker, “I’m fine…just a bit stressed at the moment.” The Babadook addresses a real consequence of society’s belittling of women and children; Amelia and Samuel face real dangers when what they see with their own eyes is dismissed as the ravings of an overworked, hysterical woman and the overactive imagination of a child. The belittling that Amelia faces as a woman is compounded by issues of class, and represents an example of how intersectionality can affect a person’s place in society.

Though the trailer doesn’t often address these issues as fully as the movie does, the trailer does help reveal how Amelia, by virtue of her class, is often judged and belittled by those of higher class and power. For example, though not addressed in the trailer, Amelia struggles in the upper-class world of her sister, and the assumptions and judgments that higher class women place on Amelia for not being able to “do it all” as both a working woman and a mother. Much of the judgment Amelia receives as a “bad mother” and “hysterical” seems to be compounded by her social class; Amelia has to work and cannot afford childcare for Samuel, and society around her seems to judge her for her inability, by virtue of her social class, to constantly keep watch on and act as an authority figure for Samuel. Directly addressed in the trailer, however, is how wealthier men of higher social status treat Amelia. The administrator and doctor, in addition to being men, are indicated to be of higher class than working-class Amelia in the trailer, and their opinions that they understand her situation better than her because they are men are compounded by the privileges they enjoy over her due to class. They are implied to be “experts” in their fields, which means that, in the context of dealing with Amelia, they assume they understand her life and situation better than she herself does, which, as the film progresses, soon becomes evidently fallacious.

The Babadook, as an entity, is also very interesting from a gendered perspective. While the Babadook is clearly not human, it is still slotted into the gender binary in this movie. It is gendered as male, referred to as “mister”, and wears clothes that Samuel and Amelia take to mean it is male. The gendering of the Babadook helps feed into the storyline of the loss and grief Amelia feels, and her isolation from the world around her. The male Babadook represents the two male people in her life that precipitate her decline. He represents both her deceased husband, who, like the Babadook, acts as an unseen effect on her life that keeps her from being able to live as society expects her to. He also represents her son, Samuel, who, like the Babadook, represents her fear of being unable to handle being a mother, her fear that she has created or “let in” a violent monster into her life and her fear that Samuel is unable to distinguish reality from fiction, into which Amelia herself fears that she is digressing.

The Babadook, while on the surface simply a traditional monster movie, is also a critique and presentation of societal norms and requirements expected of women and people of lower class. Amelia feels simultaneously far from, and dragged towards, societal expectations of her as a woman, a mother and a member of the working class. Just like “Mister Babadook” who Amelia tries to rid herself of, the expectations of society just won’t let her alone, whether or not she “lets it in” or not.