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.

Breaking from the Confines of Normalization

“Never judge a book by its cover” – a seemingly simple phrase that surely every child has heard growing up, whether it is at school, at church, or at home.  This humble, concise phrase has taught children for decades that what is on the inside of a person is what truly matters, not what one sees in a person’s appearance.  However, this well-intentioned phrase is made up of multiple philosophical layers that address two parts of the self: the outer self and the inner self.  According to the common phrase, “Never judge a book by its cover,” only one of these entities of the self should be used as an indication of who one truly is; nevertheless, society also insists that individuals make the inner self known through changes in the body and one’s appearance.  In other words, according to society, the inner self is what truly matters, but this inner self can only be fully known and represented with changes to the outer self, or the physical body.  This idea of changing one’s body to represent the inner self is exactly what Cressida J. Heyes is challenging and objects to throughout her scholarly monograph Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, along with numerous other topics and ideas that relate to the body and one’s identity.  She discusses the idea that importance should not be placed on the body as a representation of one’s inner self and challenges these Western norms and expectations of appearance.

Plastic surgery is a perfect example of society’s normative culture that places emphasis on the body as an expression of the inner self.  More and more “average” individuals go under the knife every year in hopes of creating the outer self they have always imagined reflects how they truly feel on the inside and how they wish others to see them.  Heyes addresses this increasingly popular phenomenon of bodily changes in varied examples of cosmetic surgery, from discussing breast augmentations and nose jobs to forms of weight loss surgery.  She analyzes individuals’ desire for these surgeries and talks about how these desires for surgeries (and the surgeries themselves) are normalizing the process of identity representation or even transformation through changes to the outer self.  As the title of the book implies, Heyes places focus on breaking from the confines of normalization and suggests how individuals can change themselves in order to discover one’s authentic self while avoiding conforming to what society expects one to be.  She explores this idea by objecting to two main claims: the claim that the inner self has a “unique authenticity; that to know oneself… is to know the nature of this individual” (3), and second, the claim that the authentic self “must be made visible through changes to the body” (4).  She is objecting to society’s expectations that one’s true self must be made known through physical appearance, especially because the Western world has expectations of how the body should appear, placing emphasis on changing the “flaws” of the body so that one can express one’s true and “flawless” self, which is in itself conforming to society’s expectations of perfection.  In discussion of these expectations, Heyes discusses the technologies that are now available that give individuals access to processes that will change the body in order to supposedly bridge the gap between one’s inner self and outer self, such as plastic surgery, but also mentions the complexities of these ideas in procedures such sexual reassignment surgeries.  She questions where the line exists between necessary medical intervention that is needed to restore normal function and bodily enhancement that is aimed at making the individual closer to perfection and beyond normal capacities.  In arguing that one should resist society’s emphasis on the body as a reflection of one’s authentic self, Heyes insists that docility must be resisted, and frequently employs the use of “docile bodies” in her objections to conformity and in her support of breaking out of the confines of normalization and into the liberation of freedom.  The overall aim of the book, which Heyes states in the introduction, is to “recognize the moments of truth in such assessments, while offering a framework for ethics, in which not moral judgment but askeses of freedom are the primary goal of analysis” (8), with askesis being defined as a Foucauldian term referring to the “forms of care of the self that underwrite our art of living” (8).  The “assessments” she refers to in this context are evaluating the body as an expression of an inner self.

In order to demonstrate her credibility and both academic and personal experience which give her valid insight into these philosophical ideas, Heyes explains her world travels, research, and academic experience which lead her to write the book in her acknowledgements section prior to the introduction.  She explains how her education attained at Oxford University (where she obtained her undergraduate degree) and McGill University (where she earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy), along with her experience as Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Alberta and travels around the world, have allowed her to see the issues she discusses from numerous perspectives, thus allowing her to come to a educated and valid conclusion herself about such matters.  The book is only one among many books she has published, along with numerous journal articles, book chapters, and reviews she has published both before this book and since then.

In order to incorporate this experience throughout the book and to more effectively provide her own insight into the arguments of other scholars and experiences, Heyes uses the first person perspective.  She specifically addresses this method in her introduction, stating that her “ethical commitment to situating the author as a partial, prejudiced, and invested theorist” is the motivation behind why she wrote the book “self-consciously” in the first person (13).  She discusses how she includes her own personal experiences and personal disclosure about her own embodied identity, despite its possible contradictory effects.  Heyes explains how publicly displaying personal experience can invite other individuals’ critique or disappointment, but she is willing to do this because of the possible positive ramifications, such as others being able to identify with her.  She also explains how she takes pride in her use of first person because her goal is also to stand in solidarity with others who are afraid to speak up and be wrongfully judged and misunderstood.  This courageous yet plausibly risky technique is in the end successful because it empowers both the author and the reader because of the boundaries broken and criticisms ignored.  This method perfectly displays Heyes’ intention to teach others how to break away from conformity and to discover how to freely express one’s inner self.  Personal experience is certainly not her only method of demonstrating the legitimacy of her research and exploring the material she covers.  Another very effective and substantially more valid manner she utilizes is analysis and incorporation of the work of numerous authors, including renowned philosophers.  As mentioned in the title of the monograph, Foucault is central to a lot of Heyes’ analysis, but she also includes the arguments of philosophers such as Charles Taylor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Kathy Davis.

The book in its entirety contains numerous strengths, whether one examines the methods Heyes utilizes throughout the book, the content itself, the dense philosophical analysis, or simply the topics themselves.  I think the use of the first person is especially successful and is definitely a strength of the book.  The use of Foucauldian rhetoric and philosophical analysis are also especially effective; Heyes’ use of excerpts from Foucault’s famous works (and from numerous other philosophers and authors) gives the book a depth which simply would not be attainable without its presence and the critical analysis which Heyes provides.  These strengths of the book allow each page to contain such densities of ideas that it most definitely takes an educated and experienced reader to fully comprehend the concepts presented.

All of these immense strengths of the book leave few weaknesses; the only area which could be supported or explored a bit more thoroughly is intersectionality when it comes to the topics she discusses.  For example, Heyes does discuss the intersection between socioeconomic class or race and normalization of the body, but does so most specifically in chapter two: “Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender.”  Here she rejects the idea that there is no demand for transracial medical interference, citing examples of cosmetic modifications that are used with the intent to make identifying ethnic features less noticeable or different from the white majority, next mentioning how socioeconomic class can also be brought into this picture of changing the body in hopes of reducing telling signs of belonging to a lower class.  Heyes’ incorporation of these intersectional ideas in this chapter is exceptional and critical in fully exploring the norms she is rejecting, yet I think that she can incorporate this intersectionality for frequently throughout the book, such as in her chapter on weight loss and her experience with Weight WatchersÒ.  I am curious as to how race and socioeconomic class intersect with programs such as Weight WatchersÒ, so I think that there is a small weakness in Heyes’ exploration of intersectionality in some parts of the book.

In conclusion, Heyes’ analysis of and objection to normalization in her book Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies is rich in complexity and vastly intellectual in density, thus a highly-educated academic audience with experience in philosophy and sexuality studies would benefit most from reading this book.  Overall, the monograph has far more strengths than weaknesses, and Heyes’ exploration of cultural norms and bodily change through the use of her own experiences, along with her analysis of renowned philosophers’ views, causes her arguments to be highly credible and valid.  Her argument against focusing on appearance and her questioning of Western norms truly makes the reader think about the inner self and how one can be authentic without adhering to societal norms, which is an idea that can be universally beneficial to all who delve into the pages of this scholarly monograph.

Works Cited

Heyes, Cressida. Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

The Politics of Our Selves

 

9780231136228

Society is built on learned behaviors based on the values of the time. The most impactful source of power comes from social constructs. Social constructs start to have an effect on people as soon as we begin to identify as an individual being. A child will start to look at social queues in order to begin to form their individual personality, and a lot of it is based on what they are able to observe others doing. We mimic behaviors in order to belong to the group. As children, it is very easy to take to heart a lot of what we are told, and there is little speculation on why things are the way they are for children.  The autonomy levels of a person keep expanding as we get older because we are better able to think of ourselves in separated ways. Amy Allen, in her work, will take a deeper look into the autonomy of subjects and frame it along some of Foucault’s theories.

The politics of the self is centered around synthesizing the ideas of many theories. The first thing in the introduction of the is Foucault. The title of the book is taken from one of Foucault quotes; in the quote from Foucault, he is talking about the manner in which to understand the self, there is less of a need to understand the positive aspects of the self, but rather the way in which outside influences such as history and technology have come to affect the politics of our selves. Amy Allen, in her work, she works to analyze the power of subjection and looking at autonomy as a force of self-construction. The book is an intersection of feminism and critical theories. Along with the theoretical accounts, she looks into analyzing the subordination caused by race, class, and sexuality. Her approach critiques these subordinations and considers the social changes that need to come about in order for the changes to be accomplished. In the introduction she states she wishes to create a “Framework that illuminates both aspects of the politics of the self” (Allen, para 4). The two aspects she is talking about in regards to the politics of the self are: power and autonomy (Allen, Para 4).

Allen is a Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. She has done some of her work focusing on how gender subordination must not only encompass race, class, sexuality and gender but must also confront issues dealing with social structures and the effects of colonialism (DesAutels). She brings in a very philosophical approach to the way in which she evaluates the politics of the self and how they are built in a very intersectional manner. The way she writes the book reflects her way of interconnecting ideas because she creates a discourse among many of the different theories relating to feminism, sexuality, and race among other things. Power and autonomy play a big role in the development of social structures because power is the driving force, while autonomy relates to the development of the self within the complex power structures.

A lot of her arguments are integrated with looking at a lot of Foucault’s ideas. What we looked at in class was Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis.” The repressive hypothesis believes that since the rise of the bourgeoisie in the Victorian era, any outflow of simply pleasurable activities has been frowned upon. As a result, sex has been confined to more private spaces and was restricted in open discourses. The only practical and accepted manner of display of sexual discourse took place between a husband and a wife. Sex outside these confines is not simply prohibited, but repressed. That is, there is not simply an effort to prevent extra-marital sex, but also an effort to make it unspeakable and unthinkable. Discourse on sexuality is confined to marriage. The power structure in his idea relates to how the book analyzes the subordination that is caused by repressive discourse. The autonomy of the person is therefore hindered because of the restrictive nature of the power of social norms and ideologies.

Discourse is important to Foucault because to him, language and knowledge are closely linked to power. Speech and writing are not simply the communication of facts that occurs in a vacuum, but instead, they give momentum to ideas and criticism. In her second chapter, she evaluates Foucault’s relationship with Kant’s work. “What Foucault is calling for is a critique of critique, which means not only a criticism of Kant’s project for the way in which it closes off the very opening for thought that it had created”(Allen, ch 2) She evaluates the different theorist through the lens of Foucault. In this, she is trying to relate the arguments by saying that Kant’s writing transcends and helps him shape the notion of subjectivity. To Foucault, Subjectivity is a means to explore the conditions in which subjects are created via discourse and sociocultural conditions. These conditions allow for an analysis of the self in order to evaluate the modern self. What is helpful in her evaluations is how she brings together the ideas jumping back and forth between the different theorist in order to create an argument of her own. In her evaluation, a lot of the theories, such as the one mentioned above, are in discourse with each other in helping to expand the idea of the subjectivity and how people are created through various elements. When she mentions power in parallel to Foucault she ties it into the relationship it has with the repressive hypothesis. She mentions in chapter three how power is a relation of repression, her aim with this is to reconstruct autonomy and argue about how it extends to power and subjectivity (Allen, Ch 3).

One of the things I liked about the book that makes it have a strong argument is the intersection of the different works of theory she incorporates into her evaluation of power. The book has a very introspective form to writing. It doesn’t directly ask the reader to look at themselves through her personal theory alone, but instead, it synthesizes a lot of the different theories of subjectivity that help create the individual in relation to power and autonomy. The points she makes are easy to understand, because before starting to read there are subheadings within the chapter to help guide you to her main arguments. Having the sub-headings allows for her work to follow a flow and move from the different ideas of power, subordination, and autonomy.

There was a lot of theories we have not discussed yet in class, but it was interesting to be exposed to a wider world other thoughts regarding critical theories. What I think is a point of improvement would be, on the basis of no being as familiar with all of the different theories, would be to give a quick summary as to the main points of the theories. In the book, she talks about the different theories and how they are related to each other, but that is assuming you are familiar with all of their theories and have a deeper understanding of them. If her goal would be for a wider range of people to understand her work, framing the theories before going into deeper analysis of them and making connections would make it easier for someone like me to better understand a lot of her arguments. She does go into the contextualization of Habermas and Foucault at the end of her book, but I feel like the contextualization should occur earlier on in the work. Her points on power would be much clearer with the context.

The book was very thought-provoking especially in the way it exposed me to more of the critical theories. I liked looking at the relationships between power and autonomy and their intersections along with race class and gender. The book included theories I had not been exposed to, so I would say some of the things I read went over my head. What I did understand I thought was interesting. I think this book would be better enjoyed by people who are focused on gender and sexuality, or even philosophy. For someone looking to learn about the different theories, the book would not be as great. Her work on Foucault was definitely interesting, and if you would like to learn about a more in-depth analysis of the repressive hypothesis and how it ties in with power and autonomy this is a good book.

Citations

Allen, Amy. The Politics of Our Selves : Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory.New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Web. New Directions in Critical Theory; New directions in critical theory.

DesAutels, Peggy. “Amy Allen: November 2013 – APA Committee on the Status of Women.” Amy Allen: November 2013 – APA Committee on the Status of Women. Committee on the Status of Women, 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2016. <http://www.apaonlinecsw.org/home/woman_philosopher/amyallennovember2013>.

My Anaconda Don’t Want None…of the Intersectional Norms

The famous pop and rap musical artist Nicki Minaj debuted the music video for her chart-topping single Anaconda in the summer of 2014 and it became an immediately viral sensation. With over 617 million views on YouTube, the video homage to female physicality has been met with a wide range of opinions, some honoring it for promoting sexual liberation and some abhorring it for vulgarity and objectification. The intended audience of this video was certainly young, probably those born mostly in the 1990s and perhaps the 1980s. This intention is evidenced by the millennial-aimed product placement, use of contemporary slang, and the song’s content reflecting the relaxation of societal norms around sex over the past few decades. However, the nature of the Internet and the immediate infamous reputation of Anaconda presumably made the audience much wider than just twentysomethings. The obvious superficial task of this video is to entertain, but Minaj herself claimed on Twitter that it was “impacting culture.”[1] The Anaconda video does present undisguised sexually imagery that reflects aspects of culture and the sexual, racial, and gender norms that pervade it. A closer look at the media, however, presents a challenging contradiction as to whether Minaj subverts these norms, or plays into them and encourages their prevalence within a societal framework.

The Anaconda video presents the viewer with four minutes and forty-nine seconds of hypersexual and choreographed cinematography to accompany the song. However, in just a twenty-second clip from 0:40-1:00 we see many of the images that Minaj repeats and that offer insight into the norms she is representing. Minaj presents the following scene: several individuals, all wearing little clothing, dancing in the jungle. Minaj herself, lip-syncing to the slang and double entendre filled lyrics of her single and adorned in gold, is the clear focus of the scene. She is surrounded by several other people, all dressed in black, appearing in various poses illustrating their flexibility on the wooden structure on which they all stand. The scene features copious amounts of twerking, a dance move closely associated with black hip-hop culture. Some people have argued that, with this scene, Minaj is “calling out society’s view of black women as exotic and animalistic,” adding to the argument made in her tweet that she is impacting culture.[2] Minaj is certainly presenting this norm, and, though she attempts to interrupt it, her broad audience may not pick up on her effort to push against this norm; consequently, the video may reinforce the hypersexual, exotic stereotype of black women for those individuals who do not realize that Minaj is trying to ironically undercut those very norms. The broader audience to which I refer includes the over 600 million viewers of the YouTube video, as well as many others who have heard the song in another context. Minaj attempts to undercut these norms by seemingly playing directly into them. That is, she blatantly plays the role of a hyper-sexual, exotic (literally set in a jungle) black woman to prove that she controls her sexuality and can ironically inhabit this stereotype as a way to push back against it. This is recognizable to someone who has studied gender and sexuality in a formal setting, or is simply exposed to GSS theory. However, with no contextual understanding of the stereotype Minaj is undercutting, and no knowledge of her intentions to “impact culture,” I imagine many viewers saw the video as reinforcement of the stereotype.

Within the twenty-second clip previously mentioned, Minaj and the other individuals in the jungle scene play into the existing paradigm within American culture of fetishizing lesbian eroticism. While the contemporary United States still very much exist within a strict heteronormative matrix, there has existed for many years an obsession with eroticism between women. Even while sex between two men has been considered taboo and unacceptable, sex between women has been labeled as hot and sexy, with hours upon hours of so-called lesbian fetish pornography readily available, for free, on a host of internet porn websites. Minaj’s Anaconda reinforces the paradigm of lesbian eroticism being connected to a fetishized sense of desire—male desire, as the paradigm exists in the modern United States. Within the twenty-second jungle clip, the audience witnesses several images reinforcing this norm: another woman mounts Minaj and twerks as Minaj caresses the other woman’s thigh, and the clip features several other moments on intensely intimate touching between all of the women, again within the framework of exotic, animalistic sexuality.

Many have argued that, through Anaconda, Minaj has paid homage to female physicality and sexuality and, in turn, created some visual representation of sexual liberation. However, if we examine Anaconda more thoroughly, it may present an inaccurate representation of how power structures operate in society. If power is simply repressive, Minaj’s hypersexual ode to female bodies and sexualities would be seen as liberating and powerful as it pushes against the power that tells society not to talk about sex, particularly if you identify as a woman. However, the intersectional power dynamics explored in Minaj’s video are clearly more complicated than her simply pushing back against the power repressing her sexuality. Again, a wider audience not exposed to excepted thought and theory in gender and sexuality studies may not understand that she is attempting to make a statement about women—black women in particular—and the repressive stereotypes and norms under which they exist sexually and in general. Thus, the video may in fact reinforce those norms and stereotypes.

Minaj’s video as a whole presents a complex mixture of messages for the audience, especially an audience knowledgeable about Foucault’s understanding of how we internalize power. While Minaj may be attempting to subvert the norm of male sexuality and female submissiveness, her video for Anaconda nevertheless presents a host of images that reinforce certain intersectional stereotypes of race, gender, and sexuality, all the while operating within the male gaze. Though she displays acts of female homoeroticism, they are presented within the fetishized matrix of lesbian sexuality popular in the porn industry and mainstream media. Nicki Minaj’s video appears on the surface a strong step forward for female sexual liberation and I, personally, respect her attempt to impact culture and challenge norms by ironically embodying an exaggerated version of a commonly held stereotype. However, the Anaconda music video presents challenging contradictions as it plays into lesbian fetish norms, and may in turn simply reinforce the stereotype of the sexually liberated, exotic and erotic black woman.

[1] Nicki Minaj, Twitter post, 21 July, 2015, 3:23 P.M., https://twitter.com/NICKIMINAJ

[2] Mueller, Kate. “‘Aaconda’: Why You Should Watch Nicki’s Video Again.” The Huffington Post, November, 11, 2014. Web. September 16, 2016.

 

The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal Governance

9780226895291

On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Thousands of LGBT couples can now receive state recognition for their partnerships. Some of these couples had been together for decades and they understood better than most heterosexual couples just what their marriage meant. Homosexual couples now had access to 1,138 federal rights only available to married people, they could rest easy knowing they would not be barred from seeing one another and their children in the hospital, and they hoped that this legal decision would increase public acceptance.  This issue had become a social focal point for the LGBT community taking precedent over issues such as improved welfare state. Jaye Cee Whitehead’s 2011 The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage & Neo-Liberal Governance explains the arguments leading up to this historic decision and explores the reasoning and exclusions that made marriage equality the focal issue for the LGBT community.

Whitehead expertly explains neo-liberal governance and how this ideology structures the arguments both for and against marriage equality in the United States. Neo liberalism is the application of efficiency and practicality to the management of the population. Whitehead emphasizes the use of governance rather than government because often this management occurs not through formalized laws but through underlying institutions. Neo-liberal governance stresses methods of self-governance by pushing responsibility away from the state and on to the self. Marriage is, therefore, a technology of neo-liberal governance because it transfers problems such as poverty or care for the sick from the social sphere to the private family sphere.

Whitehead argues that the prominent LGBT dialogue, particularly from Marriage Rights Now[i] (MRN) the group she investigated, plays in to the neo-liberal framework by promising to reinforce rather than destabilize the social structure. In the “nuptial deal” homosexual partners agree to maintain marriage systems that reduce state expenditures and the state in return provides privacy and legitimization to their union. The nuptial deal of course only benefits those who have enough resources to share or pass on, and the book focuses almost exclusively on these privileged stories. Whitehead demonstrates how nearly every argument for marriage equality is structured, and sometimes censored, so that it fits a neo-liberal narrative. Through the obvious argument of increased tax revenues for the state, the argument that marriage benefits all homosexuals by promoting acceptance and understanding in society, homosexual’s desires to internalize their family health and economic concerns, and an overemphasis on the homonormative monogamy in the LGBT community Whitehead demonstrates why homosexuals traded other social concerns to fight for same-sex marriage. One powerful quote reads, “Proponents of same-sex marriage do not question the symbolic power of the state to create social groups or categories… instead, they struggle for the capital of recognition that these categories afford” (108).

Dr. Whitehead is aptly positioned to render this study and discuss its results as she is a sociologist with specializations in gender, sexuality, family, emotions, and social theory. A professor at Pacific University in Oregon she has contributed a great deal to this field of literature through books, papers, lectures, and opinion pieces. Although The Nuptial Deal is partially ethnographic, and Whitehead therefore recounts many of her own experiences, she refrains almost completely from including her own opinions about the marriage equality movement or the efforts of MRN activists. The reader’s only insight is a brief paragraph in chapter one where Whitehead announces her own opposition to legal marriage as a restrictive institution, and although she celebrates the victories MRN achieved she is discouraged by the neglect necessary for these victories.

The Nuptial Deal is interdisciplinary in nature as it draws upon Whitehead’s background in sociological theory, ethnographic observations and interviews, and textual analysis of official court documents to present its arguments. Additionally Whitehead’s work situates comfortably between several literature narratives while adding an otherwise absent ethnographic component. She writes,

The concurrent development of the ‘right to marry’ and assaults on those who fail or refuse to live up to the neo-liberal model of the dual earning-couple have been at the forefront of queer, feminist, and gay and lesbian analysis of the family. With my discursive ethnography of same-sex marriage activism, I build on this literature by explaining how marriage can make neo-liberal calls for self regulation of population-level problems so enticing (18).

She additionally relies on, though does not elaborate, upon literature describing the history of same-sex marriage and its social contexts, and utilizes Foucault’s work on government and Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic power to craft the reader’s understanding of neo-liberal governance.

While I found all components of The Nuptial Deal compelling, it is Whitehead’s unique use of ethnographic interviews that served to best convince the reader of the influences of neo-liberalism in the marriage equality movement. She includes quotes and stories both promoted and silenced by MRN, and through these she uncovers what is unnatural about the argument that marriage is a natural union. The first example is one of careful language choice that demonstrates how pointed MRN’s argument was. Whitehead observed a discussion between new members; they used the phrase “same-sex marriage” several times before being interrupted by a leader. “It’s called ‘marriage equality,’ not ‘same-sex marriage.’ We really don’t want to use those words because it brings the bedroom into it” (96). This quote serves as a convenient and convincing way for Whitehead to articulate MRN’s desires to normalize the gay community to the public.

Another key argument in The Nuptial Deal is that the same-sex arguments fights the slippery slope argument my buttressing the superiority of monogamy in promoting stable societies. This secures gay marriages without leaving the door open for a fundamental change in the institution of marriage or allowing similar rights to polyamorous relationships. Whitehead’s interviews with various MRN members reveal how strongly this point is emphasized as well as the opinions of members who disagree but do not speak out. For example when she asked one member about marriage’s discrimination of alternate forms of intimacy he replied, “It’s definitely on the fringe… I am just personally such a strong believer in monogamy that, um, I don’t [see it]. I have a hard time seeing it as discrimination” (144); while others expressed agreement with Whitehead’s point and did not agree with the inherent dangers at the end of the “slippery slope.”

Much like the speaker in the quote above the reader is unfortunately not brought to see the true discrimination of marriage. Whitehead includes stories of middle class gay couples struggling with school pick-ups or filling out forms, but she does not include stories of those truly marginalized by the institution of marriage. She looks for blind spots within MRN noting that all leadership positions are held by white upper-middle class homonormative couples, but she does little to correct for these blind spots in her own analysis. An ethnographic account of someone who rejects marriage, even the author herself, would have served her argument well, and without it we are left, like many in MRN, “not seeing” the full oppression of marriage.

Whitehead is convincing in her claims of the influences of neo-liberalism on the discourse of marriage equality, but as a reader I was left desiring a stronger historical exploration of just how the two ideas emerged and eventually converged. Whitehead contrasts the current gay respectability to the more radical standpoints of the 60s and 70s. She also contrasts current neo-liberal concepts to an earlier time when the state was seen in opposition to the free market, but she does explain how we got where we are today. Although a full discussion of these two evolutions might prove too lengthy or beside the point, I was disappointed by the lack of historical discussion on the two prominent ideas in the book.

As is mentioned above I found The Nuptial Deal to be clearly written, expertly argued, and generally compelling[ii]. As a child from a single-parent household I am no stranger to the structural and sociological benefits marriage provides. For this reason I was, like Whitehead, able to appreciate the strides made for marriage equality while still being conscious of those that were excluded from the nuptial deal. I believe the author focused too narrowly on her fieldwork with MRN, and an increase in the dissenting opinions throughout history and today would give the reader a fuller understanding of the problem at hand. Nonetheless the book excels in its contributions to queer studies, sociological and family studies, and the general public’s discourse on same-sex marriage. Although written during the pinnacle of the marriage equality debate The Nuptial Deal remains an important discussion of the impact of neo-liberal governance and will remain relevant long after the court’s 2015 decision.

[i] Marriage Rights Now! is a pseudonym for the actual organization Whitehead studied.

[ii] Although I don’t recommend reading most of the book on Valentine’s Day, as I did, if you plan to celebrate the inherently monogamous holiday.

 

Bibliography

Whitehead, Jaye Cee. The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal      Governance. University of Chicago Press. December 2011. Print

“Jaye Cee Whitehead, PhD.” Pacific University Oregon Website. Pacific.edu. n.d. Web. 15 February 2015.

 

 

Bossy (Power of Language in the Workplace)

When reading Bell Hooks’ Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory, I came across the following quote: “Women [spend] a weekend in an expensive workshop that guarantees to teach you how to become assertive (but not aggressive).” Immediately, I remembered a commercial I saw a couple years ago sponsored by Pantene. This commercial compared the language used to describe educated women in positions of power, such as politics or CEOs, with their male counterparts in the same exact job. Not only are women discriminated against in the workplace financially, they are also put at a disadvantage for holding positions of authority by male coworkers and male identification. For so long women have be instilled with notions of proper “femininity” and what it means to be a woman, and to an extent a good housewife. According to Foucault’s repression hypothesis, this innate nature of women is actually institutionalized by the patriarchal society and is a form of oppression. How we describe women and men is very important in the language we use. Due to society’s interpretation of words like “bossy” and “boss,” these words have been engendered and therefore serve as a form of discrimination against women or less masculine men.

What is queer about queer theory?

Marcus is less queer than Rich but more queer than Foucault/. Marcus is less queer than Rich but more queer than Foucault/. Marcus is less queer than Rich but more queer than Foucault/. Marcus is less queer than Rich but more queer than Foucault/. Marcus is less queer than Rich but more queer than Foucault/. Marcus is less queer than Rich but more queer than Foucault/. Marcus is less queer than Rich but more queer than Foucault/.