Theory To Praxis: Abortion Access and Class Equity Issues

Through our time in GSS, I learned more about something I am already very passionate about, reproductive justice issues. If I learned anything in our short time delving into these issues in class, it is that they are highly intersectional, something which is often omitted from mainstream discussions of them. While not the only reproductive justice issue in any regard, the most commonly discussed topic of our time is abortion access.  In popular media, pro-choice and pro-life narratives are heavily centered around towing the line of viability. Furthermore, a sticky compromise, legally, was made by founding the right to abortion in a constitution right to privacy. This has allowed the focus on abortion to be shifted on morality instead of looking at the many nuanced reasons that women reach out for these procedures.

In my literature review I focused on what the major ways in which pro-choice arguments have been founded and identifying some common themes that are seen across the literature. These themes did include some legislative basis, particularly regarding rights to autonomy and how we discursively construct or limit personhood, particularly in regards to the oxymoronic concept of fetal personhood. One of the more interesting themes that I found was the topic of class equity as a means for opening up abortion access. A lot of these arguments center around women lacking access to provide adequately for any child. A number of narratives have noted that it is not just to have children if they are unable to be provided for and cherished. These arguments have also been used in a similar fashion regarding the cost of maintaining a healthy pregnancy. Depending on a woman’s health needs and the state she lives in, the total cost of pregnancy can be a very expensive process in comparison to the cost of an abortion.

Due to these issues being more current than some that are often discussed, I would like to use this information to propose a DRI / some other research project specifically into the intersections of class equity issues and abortion access. I would specifically like to focus on class equity and how this concept interacts with race regarding these issues, as many of the books commented on token populations, and I would personally like a more thoroughly representative depiction of the wide experiences of women seeking out these procedures. I believe that, as this issue is one with many extremist attitudes on both sides of the aisle, this research is essential and would provide different points and voices in the reproductive justice conversation.

From Theory to Praxis: Bringing My GSS Experience Abroad

The most powerful aspect of Gender and Sexuality Studies that I will take with me after this class is how to examine the world intersectionally, through a lens that always includes race, gender, class, and all other factors that vary the experiences of people. I have found myself unable to turn off my critical eye when interacting with people, consuming media, and taking my classes at Davidson. I know that the analytical skills I gained from this class will stay with me as I travel abroad to Stockholm, Sweden for the fall 2017 semester. Sweden has been known internationally for its liberal and open policies in regards to gender parity, sex education, social programs, and government in general. After taking this class, I have seen how many structural and systemic power structures there are that are designed in order to hold down people sexually, politically, and socially and I think it will be interesting to experience a culture that did not form the way the United States did. While abroad, I’m hoping to collect information and learn more about what makes Sweden so different than the United States in hopes of returning and being able to join dialogues about what we as citizens can do in order to make our country a more open and equal environment for all.

In my time aboard, I hope to not only take my classes but also to learn outside the classroom and bring back to the United States the culture lessons that Stockholm teaches me. In my research on Sweden, I have learned that Sweden is considered one of the most progressive countries when its come to women’s rights. Half of Sweden’s government ministers are women and almost half (44%) of their Parliament is female. For my theory to praxis, I would like to look at the differences in the societal and political systems in Sweden as compared to the United States in order to find out why there is such a difference in the power of women in both countries. Although the American and Swedish systems of government are very different, I hope to experience the feeling of tolerance that is so foreign to our country and bring back that experience to America.

I can connect my travel to Sweden with my literature review by examining the differences in the ideas of masculinity in both countries. The problems that plague America, such as rape, police brutality, and domestic violence, are seen in much lower levels in Sweden. I believe it is because, unlike America, there is no institutionalized idea of masculinity that is bred into boys from an early age. The power systems that are at work in the United States and are pushed by our capitalistic, patriarchal societal design place men and women on very different levels, allowing men to feel as though they have a right to women’s and other marginalized people’s bodies. By removing not submitting to this power system, Sweden has been able to stop many of the rampant problems of toxic masculinity still happening in America today.

Works Cited

Edsall, Thomas B. “Why Can’t America Be Sweden?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 May 2013. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

“Sweden and Gender Equality.” Sweden.se. Swedish Institute, 21 Nov. 2016. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

Beyond Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law

“A woman married to a man for nine months is entitled to Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies; a woman living for nineteen years with a man or woman to whom she is not married receives nothing.”[1] The debate over marriage equality for same-sex couples was one that took over the country’s social and political agenda in the early 2000’s. Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage challenges this agenda by asking both straights and gays alike to consider a broader definition of what constitutes a family and how this structure should be protected under the law. Those protected by the institution of marriage have privileged status in regards to tax benefits, estate benefits, government benefits, employment benefits, medical benefits, and death benefits among others. Polikoff calls for a revamping of family law; one that takes into consideration the changing nature of family units while also deemphasizing the status of marriage in our society.

Nancy Polikoff is a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. She teaches Family Law and a seminar on Children of LGBT Parents and has been writing about, litigating about, and speaking about cases involving LGBT families for the past thirty years. Her accomplishments include co-founding the Washington, DC Feminist Law Collective, supervising family law programs at the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and co-authoring one of the first law review articles on the custody rights of lesbian mothers. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage is Polikoff’s first book. She has a daughter in her twenties and lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

The first half of the Beyond Marriage gives the reader historical context as to how we got to the position we are in with marriage today. It begins with the advances made by the second-wave feminist movement in the context of marriage, and then describes how those advances have been attacked since the 1970s by the religious right. Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem and others are cited in this section, along with groundbreaking legislature like Title IX. From there, she moves into the gay rights movement and the intersection of lesbianism and feminism. Eventually she delves into the marriage movement of the conservative right and the how the push for preserving marriage as an institution for heterosexual couples strengthened marriage’s societal status. She then brings the reader to the contemporary fight for marriage equality, the most thorough part of the first half of the monograph.

Generally, there are two dominant perspectives in the contemporary marriage debate. First, there are those who support the institution of marriage and believe that opening it up to non-heterosexual couples will undermine social structure. Second, there are those who support equal access to marriage for LGBT individuals since they deserve the same access to benefits as married heterosexual couples. Throughout the book, Polikoff makes reference to groups on both sides of the argument. Frequently mentioned supporters of the marriage movement include The Institute for American Values, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Liberty Counsel. Those often mentioned on the side of marriage equality include Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. All of these groups fight for legislation supporting their side of the argument or represent individuals in relevant court cases. Polikoff separates herself from these prominent groups by taking a third stance. She questions the legitimacy of marriage as the necessary qualification for receiving legal benefits and questions whether it is fair to exclude so many other family forms by limiting such benefits. This allows her to reframe the debate over marriage by making the point that the benefits associated with marriage are not inherent, they have been constructed over time and have increasingly drawn a line between families formed through marriage and families formed through other means. By fighting for the right to marriage for LGBT couples, dominant organizations like the Human Rights Campaign are reinforcing the place of marriage in our society as cultural institution that unfairly awards rights to the married and leaves those who are unmarried out to dry. She enforces the argument that marriage is outdated and the benefits that accompany it were developed decades ago when having sex outside of marriage was taboo, illegitimate children were considered outcasts, and marriage had gender roles legally entwined within it. Through the examination of historical movements, she determines that people have changed the way that they view and structure their lives and the current marriage equality movement does not reflect this change.

The second half of the book is dedicated to describing specific aspects of her proposed approach, called “valuing all families,” to make marriage matter less. The most important aspect of this approach is identifying the purpose of specific laws that currently grant marriage-specific legal consequences. By understanding the specific objectives of these laws, relationships can be identified that would further the law’s objective without creating a specific special status for married people. In regards to this approach, she addresses health care, medical leave, medical care, domestic partner benefits, the dissolution of relationships, death, and economic compensation. Polikoff argues that by taking this approach, our society can move more towards a legal system based on the nature of care and dependency in relationships, not just the relationship’s specific name. Her solutions are not only for same-sex couples, they are also for people non-conjugal relationships, like unmarried elderly people, caregivers and the people they help, or friends living together. For instance, through this approach she examines the current family and medical leave practices of businesses across the country, supported by anecdotes of those who were not allowed such leave to care for an ill family member. Many medical leave policies are limited to caring for a spouse or child with serious illness and are often unpaid. Polikoff proposes support of the “Healthy Families Act,” a bill that provides seven days of paid leave per year “to care for a child, a parent, a spouse, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”[2] This kind of reform breaks down barriers and helps to redefine the law’s narrow definitions of family that do not accurately reflect today’s society.

Polikoff’s breadth of knowledge of her field is evident as she provides a comprehensive overview of legal history as it applies to social movements throughout the decades. This method is extremely effective in giving the reader context into the foundational aspects of marriage and establishing the true dividing line that it has become. By making interdisciplinary links through feminism, sexual liberation, class, and justice, her argument is multidimensional and looks at marriage through the views of different legal lenses. The inclusion of a significant amount of laws and court cases is appropriate since the nature of her “valuing all families” solution focuses on reforming these laws. In contrast to the formality of the included law, Polikoff includes many anecdotes and case studies throughout the monograph to explain how the law has failed certain families because of the marriage dividing line. These short stories help to break up the dense law material and make it easy to envision why her reform needs to be implemented in real world situations.

Although at first the idea of diminishing and eventually removing the significance of marriage in a society may seem radical to the general population, Polikoff’s presentation of her argument makes it seem truly possible and reasonable. She provides concrete solutions for reforming laws, many based at the state and local level, and also provides several examples of places where similar laws have been successfully enacted. Even with the abundance of case law, the Beyond Marriage is very much readable by those without Polikoff’s extensive background. This monograph is meant to reach a broad audience due to its increasing relevance, however, due to its connectedness with the marriage equality movement and gay rights, the audience becomes more limited.

Polikoff reinforces in Beyond Marriage that people should have the choice to marry based on their individual beliefs, whether they be cultural, spiritual, or religions in nature. It should not be a choice that people are forced into to obtain unique legal benefits that are specific only to marriage. The end goal of her efforts is a system in which marriage is not the rigid dividing line between who is in and who is out regarding family law, through her “valuing all families” approach. This monograph is a valuable resource for people in all family structures and can help our society move towards a legal system that helps improve the lives of all individuals and families.

Works Cited

Polikoff, Nancy D. Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

[1] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), Cover page.

[2] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 172.

Women’s Progress and the Future of Marriage: Review of Generation Unbound

American social norms surrounding marriage and family structures have undeniably exploded since the 1950s golden age of Ozzie and Harriet-style unions. Over the past five or six decades, the United States has experienced a rapid decline in marriage and an enormous rise in births to unmarried mothers, especially among poorer, less educated Americans. Family sociologists agree that, in general, childbirth outside of marriage objectively increases poverty levels and inequality for children. In her 2014 work Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage,” Isabel Sawhill explores the causes and consequences of these striking changes in the United States’ marriage culture. She presents the reader with several explanations for the societal developments, including economic changes due to deindustrialization and globalization and a general liberalization of norms surrounding sex and marriage. However, unlike her colleagues in the field of family sociology, Sawhill identifies changes in women’s role in society as the overwhelmingly most powerful catalyst in the decline in marriage and increased childbirth to unwed mothers. In turn, Sawhill’s solution to the consequences presented by these developments is also ultimately a feminist one, as she argues that men must accept women’s changing roles and agree to function in a more androgynous union with a non-gendered divison of labor.

Throughout the expository introductory chapters of the book, Sawhill joins the existing dialogue of her contemporaries, including Charles Murray, Bradford Wilcox, and Robert Putnam, to establish a fact agreed upon by all family policy analysts and family sociologists: marriage is objectively the most successful union for stable parenthood, but marriage as an institution is rapidly declining in the lower socio-economic classes in the United States. What the U.S. has developed, in turn, is a cycle of poverty that fosters unstable family structures and unstable family structures that foster poverty. Sawhill’s main impetus to research the topic lies in the welfare of children. Her main argument is that marriage has seen such a rapid decline in recent decades because of the relative social progress women have made and the subsequent change in women’s opportunities and gendered expectations. Sawhill sees these developments as undeniably positive ones; however, progress for women has led to unintended consequences for children, as children have no autonomy over what type of family structure into which they are born, but must suffer any consequences assiociated with an unstable family. Sawhill’s argument develops into a suggested remedy for the future, in which she proposes that the government subsidize long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to drive down the fertility of women drifting into motherhood with little active intention to do so.

Isabel Sawhill works at the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow in Economic Studies. She serves as the co-director of the Center on Children and Families, as well as the president of the board of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In recent years, she has focused especially on economically disadvantaged children in the United States, though throughout her life her research has examined various economic and social topics. She has extensively researched unplanned pregnancy, the economic consequences unplanned children face, and how the United States can best prevent unintended pregnancy.

Isabel Sawhill lays out her argument with extensive discussion and analysis of empirical, quantitative evidence representing the trends in marriage in twenty-first century America. Along with her contemporaries in the field of family sociology, Sawhill uses statistical evidence to determine that children fare best when they grow up in a household headed by their married parents. Despite marriages’ positive outcomes for children, though, Sawhill tells the reader that “marriage is on the wane,” going so far as to claim that marriage is an “endangered institution” (Sawhill 17-18). The bulk of her research is thus to explain why marriage rates have fallen so drastically; her findings bring her to the conclusion that “the changing status of women is the most important driver of changes in the family” (Sawhill 28). From the advent of the birth control pill, to increased numbers of women in college and the labor force, women have far more opportunities now than they did the so-called golden age of marriage, making them less inclined to marry, especially at a young age.

Sawhill also engages with her contemporary interlocutors by highlighting the growing class divide in family structures between the well-educated upper class and the less-educated lower classes. While women in the less educated, lower socio-economic classes have increasingly forgone marriage, while having children outside of marriage more and more often. However, women of higher socio-economic status are entering into so-called neotraditional marriages, which resemble 1950s-style unions, but are predicated on much greater egalitarianism between the husband and wife. Sawhill suggests several remedies to the negative consequences for children produced from what Sawhill considers unstable family structures. She argues that the U.S. government should subsidize long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to push down the fertility rates among the lower socio-economic classes in which fertility is high but marriage rates are low. She also supports increases in traditional government welfare programs to provide monetary and medical assistance to those in need.

The greatest strength of Isabel Sawhill’s work, I argue, is her introduction of a new explanation for the divergences in family structures in the United States during the past few decades. Her thesis, arguing that changes in women’s status in American society have been the greatest catalyst for breaking down the traditional family structure of the twentieth century, is an argument relatively untouched by Sawhill’s contemporaries. While family sociologists and policy makers have engaged in debate over the cause of changes in family structures, Sawhill presents a perspective unique from her colleagues by making her argument centered around the cultural shifts that occurred due to feminist movements. This argument strong and logical; the advent of accessible and relatively affordable contraception, the legalization on abortion through Roe v. Wade, no fault divorce, women’s increased presence in higher education institutions and improved status in the work force, etc. have all undeniably shifted marriage norms and structures (Sawhill26-30). She explains the bifurcation between upper and lower economic class families through the lens of gendered norms as well; well-educated, wealthy women are delaying marriage and childbearing while they gain education and profession status, but “at the other end of the economic spectrum, families are falling apart” (37). Sawhill explains this development as a result of lower-income men refusing to approach partnerships and marriage with an egalitarian view of gender.

Arguably Sawhill’s biggest weakness in her text is her explicit call to drive down the fertility rates of the less educated, lower income rungs of American society. Though she provides copious evidence that the instability present in many lower income families harms innocent children, her suggested remedies evoke the disturbing history of eugenics and birth control. Though Planned Parenthood provides undeniable benefits in 2016, and although Margret Sanger is often portrayed as a champion of women’s rights and social progress, we must remember the initial intentions of Planned Parenthood and birth control in general. While Sawhill herself may advocate purely on behalf of blameless children, her call for government-subsidized fertility control of less educated, poorer women threatens the agency of women on the sole basis of their economic status, as well as treading frighteningly close to outright eugenics. While children do unfairly suffer due to their parents decisions, we must always respect the agency and value of people regardless of their education attainment or economic status.

Overall, Isabel Sawhill provides an interesting and important commentary on the developments of marriage norms in the United States, with her predictions for the future and suggested remedies for the negative consequences associated with these changing social norms. The book exists in a field presumably off the radar of the average person, even among the more educated ranks. However, family structures and practices affect the future generation of thinkers, leaders, and influencers of our economy and society, and evidence shows us that the environment in which they are coming of age has a much greater affect on them than we may realize. Because Sawhill’s topic of analysis includes such a broad range of people—that is, all of American society—everyone could benefit from reading her text. I would openly recommend this text, but would explicitly suggest any reader to examine closely her remedies for the future and approach the work with a critical eye.

Sawhill, Isabel V. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2014. Print.

Flirting with Danger

Every day, every single interaction, whether conscious or unconscious, shapes our identity and perception of the world. From the time we wake up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night, we are taking in information, processing it, and shifting our awareness of society based on the viewpoints we perceive. This impact of interactions and social cues has evolved over time into the hegemonic countercultures in different places around the globe. In her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn N. Phillips explores the ideology of power and choice within hetero-relationships formed by Western Culture through an in-depth analysis of the personal stories from young women.

Lynn N. Phillips coined the phrase “flirting with danger” in order to summarize women’s approach toward hetero-relations as established by previous interactions and media influence. In common situations of hetero-relations, the boundaries between “seduction and domination, pleasure and danger, responsibility and exploitation, agency and objectification, and consent and coercion” often become variable and murky (Phillips 3). However, women interpret this risky behavior as a “part of the ‘normal’ experience of their daily hetero-relational lives” (Phillips 3).  Through her research and analysis of women’s personal reflections of their relational experiences, Phillips successfully explores how women’s view of hetero-relations has evolved into the “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).

Lynn N. Phillips draws on previous literature from feminist theorists in order to analyze her qualitative data. In doing so, she successfully creates a framework to guide our understanding of how society has shaped the subjectivity of power, choice, and desire within hetero-relations. In writing this book, Phillips aims to stimulate discourse regarding aspects of hetero-relations that are often excluded from feminist and social science literature. She specifically highlights the absence of conversation promoting “male accountability” and “female pleasure without penalties” (Phillips 77). While women do have the same sexual desires as men, “structural, ideological, and interpersonal barriers” created by Western Culture often prevent women from expressing these desires (Phillips 77).  Further, she hopes to gain a greater understanding of how women’s judgments, specifically regarding the meanings of male domination and sexualized power in their lives, have been shaped by personal experiences and outside influences. These subjectivities, formed from popular media and past hetero-relational experiences, are exemplified through four common themes of discourse: (1) “how to be a ‘good woman’,” (2) “what constitutes ‘normal’ male behavior,” (3) “what counts as ‘real victimization’,” and (4) “what should be expected from men and hetero-relationships” (Phillips 38, 52, 61, 69).  Through her comprehensive investigation of power and desire from personal narratives about hetero-sexual relations, Phillips successfully sets up a foundation for institutional change and further research surrounding “how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relations” (Phillips 205).

Lynn M. Phillips consults with organizations on issues of sexuality, education, and victimization. As a Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College of the New School University, she has experience in teaching and working with young adults. She has also written several other books on the topic of gender, sexuality, and relationships. For example, she was commissioned by the National Council for Research on Women to write The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female, and she is the author of Planned Parenthood’s Unequal Partners: Exploring Power and Consent in Adult-Teen Relationships. Her research in the field of gender and sexuality studies has sparked further inquiry surrounding the formation of the beliefs and messages guiding hetero-relations.

Phillips wrote Flirting with Danger in order to investigate her three central research questions: (1) How do “young women conceptualize the distinctions between good relationships and bad ones, between consent and coercion, and between agency and victimization?”, (2) How do “young women make sense of the violence and manipulation that all too often invade their hetero-relationships?”, (3)  What do young women “tolerate,…resist,…or perceive as ‘normal’ or ‘inevitable’ in their own and other women’s hetero-relational encounters?” (Phillips 5). In addition to using previous literature from feminist theorists such as bell hooks, Butler, Bartky, Collins, and more, Phillips conducted her own research study by interviewing young women from a small, progressive liberal arts college in the northeastern United States (Phillips 6). She placed letters in the campus mailboxes of all female students, inviting them to be interviewed about “power and intimacy in various relationships” (Phillips 6). She had in-depth conversations with the thirty young women who responded regarding their own personal experiences within hetero-relations as well as the hetero-relations of those around them.  Surprisingly, of the thirty young women that responded, twenty-seven of them “described at least one encounter that fit legal definitions of rape, battering, or harassment” but “only two women ever used such terms to describe a personal experience” (Phillips 7). Though Phillips does not discuss the official legal reporting of rape, battering, or harassment, this fact demonstrates the challenges of under-reporting. Many women are aware of what constitutes sexual assault and abuse, but refuse to consider themselves a victim when placed in the exact context. When in this situation of victimization, women have a “tendency to downplay the severity of their experience and blame themselves for their own abuse” (Phillips 157).  However, Phillips uses this fact alone as well as the contexts in which these young women’s hetero-relational subjectivities were constructed to understand young women’s personal perceptions, decisions, and attributions within hetero-relations. By placing these perspectives within cultural contexts, Phillips is able to identify common themes which contributed to their formation.

Through exploring prevailing themes within popular discourse relating to hetero-relations, Phillips creates a structure for the contexts, formulation, and application of “flirting with danger.” She specifically outlines four dominant themes of discourse with two conflicting discourses within each. For example, one dominant theme throughout her discussions was “how to be a ‘good woman’,” which broke down into “the pleasing woman discourse” and “the together woman discourse” (Phillips 38-39, 47).  The “pleasing woman” encompasses “the desire and ability to be pleasant, feminine, and subordinate to men,” stressing “morality, sexual ‘purity,’ and service to men and children” (Phillips 39). The “together woman” is “free, sexually sophisticated, and entitled to accept nothing less than full equality and satisfaction in her sexual encounters and romantic relationships” (Phillips 47). As exemplified though “how to be a ‘good woman’ discourse,” the two discourses within each dominant theme are viewed as mutually exclusive, thus creating the need to “flirt with danger” in order to obtain a “normal” hetero-relational experience (Phillips 38). As Phillips discusses, however, these two discourses should be seen as a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive, as hetero-relations will vary within each discourse based on the situation. Through exploring, establishing, and breaking down the social constructions of these dominant discourses, Phillips hopes to stimulate discussion surrounding the promotion of young women as sexual subjects who can find pleasure and safety within their hetero-relations with the final goal being a society without a “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).

Within feminist literature, Phillips specifically draws from bell hooks’s Feminist Theory from Margin to Center in order to build off of previous theories regarding sexuality. In a passage referenced by Phillips, bell hooks describes “naming and criticizing the negative aspects of sexuality” as a “simple task for women” (Phillips 190). Further, bell hooks discusses difficulty of changing the norms of sexuality for women due to cultural constraints. Though Phillips agrees with the difficult task of creating new sexual ideals, especially in the present culture, she argues that naming is not such as simple a task as bell hooks portrays. Referencing the stories of the young women she interviewed, Phillips argues that women have difficulty making “straightforward claims about their own victimization” (Phillips 190). Women were able to speak against male sexual aggression in general, but unable to identify male sexual domination as victimizing within their own experiences. Similar to the views of bell hooks, Phillips contributes the inability to identify personal experiences as victimizing and the failure to establish new sexual paradigms to the cultural constraints of society today. By analyzing and critiquing the work of bell hooks in the context of her research, Phillips contributes to the conversation regarding feminist literature, enabling further research in this field.

One of the strengths of Phillips’s book is that it is relatable to a wider audience, concerning race, socio-economic status, and religion, as she draws on stories from all of the women in order to form her analysis. She uses specific examples of situations women found themselves in or brought upon themselves through poor decisions or risky behavior as evidence for all of her claims, further aiding her argument. This detailed investigation, however, is limited only to heterosexual relations; though some of these women identify as bisexual or questioning, she limits her research to only their hetero-relational experiences, excluding all other relations since she believes that “all women regardless of sexual orientation or sexual identity, are engaged in hetero-relations of some sort” (Phillips XI). Phillips did not take into account that these women’s same-sex relations could have made an impact on the formation of their ideas surrounding hetero-relations.  Therefore, in order to expand upon her study, Phillips suggests researchers should “explore how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relationships as well,” building off of her framework and findings (Phillips 205).

Overall, in her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn M. Phillips successfully analyzes the hetero-relational experiences of thirty young women in order to create a structure for the formation of the beliefs behind their actions. Other feminist theorists as well as young women and men should read Phillips’s book in order to stimulate discourse and change the culture constructing these views and beliefs surrounding power, desire, and choice within hetero-relations.

 

Works Cited

Phillips, Lynn M. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and

Domination. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.

Moppa, Interrupted

 

The lives and experiences of trans* people are rapidly becoming more commonplace in conversations in mainstream media. I Am Cait, Orange is the New Black, and Katie Couric’s interview of Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera on Good Morning America (however problematic) are evidence that television is becoming more representative of cultural diversity in terms of race, sexuality and, more recently, gender. Jill Soloway’s critically acclaimed Amazon original series, Transparent, has gained traction and interest beyond the trans* community for its raw, honest portrayal of the confusion experienced by a family accepting that its patriarch has come out as transgender. The Pfefferman family does not take the announcement in stride, but battles grief and denial with regards to the loss of its father figure in order to make way for another mother. The show broaches the question of whether a series so uniquely diverse in its field ought to assume an educator’s role for its viewers. The show-runners faced the dilemma of whether or not to accept the didactic responsibility of representing the underrepresented. Does a series about topics newly introduced to public conversation have the luxury of serving their audiences’ basic need for entertainment? As evidenced by the second episode of season two, Transparent says yes. The series serves to entertain its audience with education, but is not a visual textbook. Ultimately, Transparent is not didactic and maintains the right to ambiguity.

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Discussions of identifying beyond the traditional gender binary necessitate the destruction of the perceived notion of “realness” or legitimacy associated with being a man or a woman. Thus, the International Bill of Gender Rights as adopted in 1995 asserted each individual’s right to define or change his or her own gender. According to Riki Wilchins in Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, there is a “fascism of meaning” behind the association with certain physical or personality traits with femininity or masculinity; it is “an assault of meaning that forces people to live as gendered impossibilities” (38). Maura Pfefferman, known affectionately as “Moppa” (an amalgamation of “mom” and “poppa”) by her children, is depicted in the arc of each episode of Transparent as attempting to liberate herself from those “gendered impossibilities.” By the second season, she has succeeded, to a vast degree, by identifying as a woman to her family and to strangers. She proudly presents and lives as female.

screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-8-42-14-pmIn episode 202, “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” Maura is forced to confront the emotional implications her ability to fulfill her sense of self has on her interpersonal relationships while engaging in digital penetration with her friend and ex-wife, Shelly. The scene is set in the bathroom of Shelly’s retirement condo, where the two once again live together. Shelly relaxes in the bathtub while Maura scrutinizes her image in the mirror, wearing a black bathing suit with synthetic breasts. Their conversation derails from Maura’s body image to a reflection on their previous life as husband and wife. While Shelly is enthusiastic to reflect on their sexual experiences together, Maura resists. Her expression shifts from the frown of a perfectionist, searching for physical flaws to one marred by pain and resentment. Even as she engages Shelly, Maura is emotionally disengaged from the experience. She glowers down at Shelly, ignorant to this in her ecstasy. While Maura can dress, walk, dine, and sleep as a woman, Shelly displays one pleasure Maura cannot know. Shelly, as per usual, is oblivious to her ignorance of Maura’s emotional needs. Afterward, Maura shakes off her feelings by wrapping herself in a kimono, checking her hair and replying to Shelly’s offers of reciprocation with a curt, “I’m good.” The sumptuous nature of the kimono’s material, for Maura, must patch the divide between giving and receiving pleasure and emotional fulfillment.

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Despite the groundbreaking nature of a sex scene between two older women, one of whom has a penis, the continuously muddied waters of the relationship between Maura and Shelly are the focus of the scene rather than the mechanics of their sex. In an article for The New York Times Magazine, Emily Bobrow describes the Pfeffermans as a “loving family in which everyone seems uncomfortable in their skin.” Her observation, while not subversive, is true. The Pfeffermans’ discomfort with their evolving family dynamic is at the heart of the series’ intrigue. Thus, in order to propel a dynamic and engaging plot, Maura’s discomfort, physical and emotional, cannot be shied away from. The silent tension at the conclusion of the pivotal scene in “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump” exists solely because the writers chose to reject conversation of Maura’s genitals. The richness and depth of the tension, both emotional and sexual, stems from the decades of imbalance in Maura and Shelly’s former marriage. Maura’s actions are indicative of her weariness of giving all of herself to Shelly’s demands without the emotional reciprocation or attention she deserves. The episode’s power lies in its illustration of Maura’s life as complicated because of the typical strain of interpersonal relationships, not because of her transition.

However, that the scene includes Maura’s hesitance to fully engage sexually with Shelly rather than allowing Shelly to reciprocate confronts some feminists’ argument to exclude trans-women. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ essentialist notion of womanhood excludes trans-women because of their genitals. While the voices of these feminists may not be the majority, their opinions are relevant in the modern conversation of trans* experiences’ place in a culture only beginning to accept that life exists beyond the gender binary. Michelle Goldberg encapsulates this in her article “What is a Woman?” for The New Yorker, when she addresses the seemingly anachronistic perspective of these women, “at a time when transgender rights are ascendant, radical feminists insist on regarding transgender women as men, who should not be allowed to use women’s facilities, such as public rest rooms, or to participate in events organized exclusively for women.” Thus, addressing what would have happened if Maura had decided to stay in the bathroom with Shelly becomes relevant. According to trans-exclusionary radical feminists, Maura is not a woman at all. However, her womanhood is the driving force for the inception of the series’ intrigue.

The writers ignore all of this. In the context of the greater conversation between the show-runners and the audience, the focus on the emotional side of Maura’s transition rather than the physical aspect is representative of their choice not to fully engage in questions of gender politics. The position is a strange one to take by those at the helm of a show with content that can be so easily politicized. The episode effectively introduces the audience to conversations of what Leila Rupp calls “different-status sex” in Toward a Global History of Same-Sex Sexuality in order to address the correlation between transgressions of gender norms and transgressions of the norms of sexuality. However, the show is simply that, it is entertainment. The intrigue of “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump” signifies Transparent’s acceptance of the right to function as entertainment as any other series with less subversive subject matter. Ultimately, Transparent exists to expand perception of trans* lives, not educate on trans* bodies.

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Works Cited

Bobrow, Emily. “How Two Producers of ‘Transparent’ Made Their Own Trans Lives More Visible.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.

Goldberg, Michelle. “What Is a Woman?” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 28 July 2014. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.

Rupp, Leila J. “Toward a Global History of Same-Sex Sexuality.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001): 287-302. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.

Wilchins, Riki Anne. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. Los Angeles: Alyson, 2004. Print.

 

 

When Humor Reinforces Pre-Existing Social Structures Rather Than Satirizing Them

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“9 Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women,” was a heavily shared graphic article during the summer of 2016. Sarah Cooper published the article on her satirical “office humor blog” known as The Cooper Review, which generates a variety of cartoons, listicles, and videos under the descriptor tagline, “Funny because it’s true.” However, as I dig into the complexities of the article’s simplistic assumptions, this tagline becomes less ironic and more revealing in how the media it promotes is actively harmful in reinforcing particular norms and binaries.

The graphic article begins with an introduction that suggests the audience (females in business work environments), the antagonist (males and “the patriarchy”), and the purpose (how to alter female leadership style in order to avoid negative perception from men): “In this fast-paced business world, female leaders need to make sure they’re not perceived as pushy, aggressive or competent. One way to do that is to alter your leadership style to account for the (sometimes) fragile male ego.” The full introduction, brimming with sarcasm and humor, sets the reader up for the satire to come: “Should men accept powerful women and not feel threatened by them? Yes. Is that asking too much? IS IT? Sorry I didn’t mean to get aggressive there.” The piece goes on to present nine graphics, each with its own caption and “strategy” for women in the workplace. This framework alludes to the “corporate manual” and variations of leadership strategy guides in the corporate world. These guides permeate the business world in the form of books, magazines, online publications, and are sometimes specified towards women, such as Levo League, an online platform dedicated to providing resources, advice, and connections to businesswomen.
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Each of the graphics in the article is a colored square framed by the article’s name “9 Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women” on top and
The Cooper Review branding on the bottom. Between that framing, bold black letters spell out “#1” through “#9” and range from simple actions (e.g. “sharing your ideas” and “emailing a request”) to responding to external incidents (e.g. “someone steals your idea” and “hearing a sexist comment”). Each square is split by a black line, the left side title “THREATENING” highlighted black and enclosed in sarcastic quotes, while the right side title “NON-THREATENING” is not highlighted and is not enclosed in quotes, making it more approachable. Underneath each title is a simple gray scale drawing of a woman or a woman with a man and a text bubble above the woman’s head. The only differences between the left and right sides of each graphic are the characters’ facial expressions as linked to the text (“threatening” vs. “non-threatening”), showing that the “non-threatening” responses are supposedly more polite and happier for all those involved. The left to right transition, imitating the normal English reading pattern, also subconsciously implies which situation is the “right” way for women to act in order to be respected by men.

Despite the biting sarcastic humor of the graphics and their respective captions, the graphic article makes several assumptions that detract from its explicit attempt to undermine particular gender societal expectations. Most glaringly obvious throughout the nine graphics is the reinforcement of the gender binary and gender stereotypes as well as a complete lack of racial and body size diversity. Cooper’s article is fixated on women versus men and their respective perceptions in a corporate work environment. Every “woman” has long hair (either white or black), white skin, is thin, and wears some sort of blouse or suit jacket. Almost every graphic also includes the image of a “man,” also white with either white, gray, or black hair and a collared shirt and/or tie. In promoting such homogeneous images though, the graphic article reinforces a deeper problem of norms in the corporate world. The graphic images only present two categories of gender identity, one type of body size, one race, and most likely one social class, which perpetuates the same normature that the aforementioned “corporate guides” already promote. By showing one type of person, Cooper falls right into line with the large marketing structures that subconsciously promote homogeneous images and what is acceptable in the corporate world.

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Cooper’s #whitefeminism mission leaves out several gender and racial identities, but she also goes further as to pinpoint and use male stereotypes. For example, “#6 When You Already Knew That,” depicts a “threatening” standpoint in which the female character tells the male character that she has already explained something to him. The “non-threatening” side presents the woman saying she would love to hear him explain it again. In the caption below, Cooper states “Men love explaining things.” While she might intend to present men as stereotypes in defiance of the generalized representations of women, such a statement doesn’t lead to a productive outcome for her assumed female audience. In breaking down expectations of women in the workplace, she builds up and reinforces stereotypes and expectations of men. In the last graphic, “#9 When You Disagree,” the only change between “threatening” and “non-threatening” is the fake mustache on the female character. She claims that wearing a mustache makes you “more man-like.” But what does “man-like” even mean? Having facial hair? “Growing a pair”? Although Cooper intends this comment as a joke, there’s also an unfortunate underlying assumption about what masculinity even means. But, her assumption that men receive more respect in a work environment due to their biology also reveals a subtler point about gender characteristics and perceptions. As we discussed in class, butch and femme characteristics receive different treatment outside the LGTBQ+ community, and perhaps more masculine qualities (i.e. butch) receive a greater degree of respect in the office environment. Studies have shown a counter-intuitive wage gap in which gay men receive a smaller salary than straight men while lesbian women receive a larger salary than straight women. Not only does the graphic article present the characters as cisgender, they also appear heterosexual, which brings us back to another corporate normature that Cooper sustains. One of our takeaways from the Wilchins piece discussed in class was that with sexual queerness comes a level of gender queerness and vice versa. Meanwhile, the characters in Cooper’s graphics seem to all fit the socially constructed gender and sexual norms that the typical corporate guide would also promote, whether intentionally or not.

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Cooper sets out to critique and disrupt the man/woman dynamic in the corporate workplace and model that has been promoted by countless publications, advertisers, and media. She focuses on women’s oppression in the workplace and uses a male/female inversion to prove the lack of respect women receive. However, this graphic article fails to act as a didactic piece and comes across as only entertainment because she only inverts the heteronormative male/female relationship and reproduces other homogeneous racial, sexual, and class expectations in the corporate world. If she wanted it to be more than a piece of entertainment, highlighting the intersectionality of oppression in the workplace would ultimately teach and flip her audience’s expectations of who really does work in the business world.

An Analysis of Facebook Misogynists

Last year, in my high school class’s Facebook group there was a debate I’d like to discuss as it still infuriates me to this day. For context, I’m from a very small, affluent town in Connecticut. My town is known for being quite liberal, generally pretty progressive , and very well-educated. The public school that we all attended is ranked by U.S. News as being number 4 in the state and number 184 in the country. 99% of students who graduate from our high school go to college. For comparison, the national average of high school graduates who enroll in college is 65.9% according to The New York Times (2014). The percentage of Americans who actually attend and graduate from college is even lower. Every single person involved in these conversations is now attending a reputable college, including University of Indiana, Southern Methodist University, and University of Michigan. I don’t say this to brag, but rather to contextualize these comments and explain why I was so shocked by them. Given our shared background and education, this incident was unexpected. To further contextualize this, this occurred on social media with the knowledge that is was a form of mass communication. The people involved were aware of who would be seeing their posts. In order to analyze this, I will be examining some screenshots I have from the private group in which they were posted, and relating their contents to a variety gender and sexuality studies concepts, such as gaslighting, identity politics, and misogyny.

Despite having been graduated for nearly a year at the point when this incident occurred, someone decided resurrect our class Facebook group by creating a post in support of Donald Trump. When a fellow classmate, who happens to be female, spoke up about her dislike of the candidate, two male students felt the need to respond with the following comments: “95% of Hillary 12814413_964920363584441_1240800165149743160_nsupporters are women…BOOM roasted” and “You’re allowed to vote from the kitchen these days?” These comments led me to believe that these boys thought that female supporters of Hillary Clinton do not count and are invalidated in their belief simply because they are women.

 

As degrading as these comments were, what happened next was, to me and to many others, absolutely enraging. Another former classmate of ours posted a porn video that depicted a female porn actor advocating for a woman’s right to voice her opinion, only to be interrupted by a male porn actor shoving his penis in her mouth. Many people, including myself, were shocked that this boy would look up this video and post it in a group that was intended for school-related information. Despite this, many of my former classmates, both male and female, liked this post before group administrators (who were former student government members, so ex-classmates as well) removed the post. Prior to this however, more hatred and misogyny were spewed at the students who asked for it to be removed. Though it was a relatively small group of boys participating in this hatred, I was still shocked at the number of students participating and what they believed was okay to say, particularly coming from as liberal and well-educated of as place that we do. Ironically, this all occurred on International Women’s Day (March 8th), which, in my mind, solidified the point that we need this day to celebrate women seeing as we still face this misogyny, even from our classmates and supposed friends who are college educated.

I’ve included some of the comments below. These comments included such things as “#nomeansyes,” followed by “and yes means anal,” which reflected an incident we had during our Senior year, when the Women’s Empowerment Club created a rape awareness campaign, and put posters around the school with the statement “Rape is not a joke,” many of which were vandalized with the phrase “lol”. This displays the mindset of many of the students involved in this debate, where they truly don’t see women’s rights or rape (which certainly extends to more than just women) as an issue.
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Their comments showed to me that these boys see gender as a clear dichotomy; there are only men and women. Not only that, they perceive these two genders in a clear hierarchy where women are the lesser of the two. Their statements not only diminished women but also served to reinforce this dichotomy and created a notion of having to “choose sides” between men and women, or even between feminist and misogynist. The fact that this one boy thought he was “roasting” Hillary and her supporters by calling them women furthers this notion as it’s clear he thought this was an insult of some sort. Furthermore, this displayed a weak and simplistic version of identity politics, where these boys tried to create a sense of comradery and alliance because of their gender. Their beliefs are being shaped by their gender identity and the convictions that come with that. I believe that many of these students, as white, cisgender men, who were raised in a very affluent town, have never been the subject of oppression or faced anyone telling them they are lesser. Most of them have never truly faced hardship, which I can say confidently as I have known the majority of them since they were in diapers. They are able to make these statements because of their position in society.

The student who posted the video defended his actions the next day with this post below. He felt he was justified because, supposedly, girls from our class had messaged him telling him that they agreed that the other girls in the group, who were defending their right to be seen12814811_964485743627903_3451060346602791121_n as equal, were being ridiculous. Because he had some support from females, it was okay. This again ties into the idea of identity politics where he is attempting to justify his beliefs on the basis of his gender and the support of the other gender. Additionally, it could be argued that he is gaslighting, where he is manipulating others into questioning their own beliefs. He refers to this whole situation as a “joke,” trying to diminish the impact of his words and mold the perception of his actions. He tries to defend his own character, implying that if he’s a kind person he couldn’t have done something offensive,insisting he’s “never said a mean thing” to any of his opposers. This likely won’t be shocking, but he was not a kind person in school. He considered himself a class clown of sorts, and was constantly making fun of others, but always under the guise of humor.

The outrage that followed these posts were undermined by the original posters complaining that feminists don’t have a sense of humor and that they couldn’t take a joke, which, from their perspective, is clearly these posts were. The people involved in both these posts and the anti-rape poster incident (which are groups that include many of the same members, unsurprisingly) excuse their words and actions with humor. Words have power. Actions have power. They are not excused because you think they are funny. There were many comments in this thread that told people to “take a joke” or “chill out” or “get a better sense of humor”. However, I believe that the comments they made are rude and insulting, and should certainly not be taken as a joke. This idea that women don’t have a sense of humor when they try to defend their rights as people is derogatory and degrading. This “joke culture” is harmful because it invalidates feminists’ claims as humorless without at12814530_964920476917763_3029247096580930692_ntempting to understand their arguments, valuing humor as the most important factor. It also attempts to minimize the impact of the offending statements and the culpability of those who make them because they “aren’t meant to be taken seriously,” which is problematic because not only are the perpetrators not seeing the other side of the argument, they often don’t even recognize that there is a problem. They don’t see that feminism and comedy can coexist, and that one does not negate the other.

The claim was made that “feminism definitely doesn’t have a sense of humor,” to which I must respond: I’m sorry that I don’t find rape funny. I’m sorry that you think I’m a “bitch” for arguing that all humans –  male, female, or otherwise – should be seen as equal. I’m sorry that I can’t “just chill my nips” and accept injustices. I’m sorry that completely undermining another human and treating them like subhuman for factors that are out of their control is not hilarious to me. If that means that I don’t have a sense of humor, then so be it. I’d rather be able to see the value of a human than be able to take a joke. I’d rather be a feminist than a comedian.

Sport Athletes Treated Differently Based on Gender

Continuing the post I wrote awhile ago about U.S. women’s soccer team not receiving the same amount of payment as the U.S. men’s national soccer team, I found this video a couple of days ago and found it relevant. In this video, male sport stars are asked a series of questions referring to their bodies, relationships, etc. that are framed in a way that would be so called “acceptable” to ask female athletes. What I found interesting in this video is the reactions of the men; their faces are utterly confused and disgusted by the questions and seem to reflect the sentiment “Why on earth would you ask such a pointless, objectifying question?” But at the end of the video, instead of expressing similar facial and vocal responses as the men, the women athlete interviewed simply laughs and “acts like a lady,” which was disheartening to watch.

Performing Parts Symposium

Erica Miller

Grant Proposal Alternative

Performing Parts: Gender, Sexuality, and Media Symposium

Prior to the symposium, we were instructed to watch Edouard Lock’s Amelia. At first watch, I thought the performance was constructed to create a piece in which gender roles did not influence the piece. In other words, a piece that was completely “gender free.” Upon further discussion, the deeper meaning of the piece was revealed. Lock created this piece to not only question gender roles on the performing stage, but also display how gender equality does not necessarily equate with gender neutrality and equality does not necessarily equate with progressiveness.

Our discussion focused around two of the duets in the piece. In the first, both individuals, one male and one female, were wearing suits, slicked back hair, make-up, and female point shoes. One would assume the goal was to become gender neutral. However, these performers were very gendered wearing both male and female stereotypical outfits. Lock intended to show that this elimination of strict gender roles did not by necessity promote female empowerment or gender equality. Similarly, he wanted to show that by just because you have a gender equal performance it does not by necessity be gender neutral. Emily Martin argues, “Stereotypes imply not only that female biological processes are less worthy than their male counterparts but also that women are less worthy than men” (485-486). I believe Lock would agree with this statement, but would argue that when on the stage, it must be displayed and constructed differently. Females on the stage can embrace these stereotypes, such as wearing tutu’s and pointe shoes, while their male counterparts are in suits, and demonstrate their strengths, creating gender equality without succumbing to gender neutrality.

The second duet involved two individuals that were often indistinguishable, and instead of focusing on the bodies exclusively, the camera would focus on the silhouettes of the individuals. However, the movements of the individuals were very controlling, making one individual submit to the will of the other, as a puppet to a puppeteer. Again, Lock is pushing against the notion that equality on the stage automatically links with progressiveness. As the Beijing Declaration reads, “inequalities between women and men have persisted and major obstacles remain,” however forcing equality will not always be the most effective way to go (2). Instead, a more progressive movement would have been partners alternating lift sequences, challenging the notion that females must rely on their male counterparts to lift them.

Lock challenges his viewers to look at the different representations of gender on the stage and how these representations fit into the mold of equality that we have envisioned in our lives. Holla summed it up best with, “The fact that there are still such incendiary notions should tell us that American women have a way to go before they enter the promised land of equality” (9).

 

 

Works Cited

Amelia. Chor. Edouard Lock. Performance.

Holla, H. “Blame It on Feminism.” Editorial. Mother Jones Sept. 1991: 24. Print.

The Fourth World Conference on Women. Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. 15 Sept. 1995. Web.

Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16.31 (1991): 485-501. Web.

 

GSS – Artist Statement – Seminar GSS -Seminar Proposal – Performance Lecture