“The Power of Subtle Arrangements and Little Things”

This semester I’m teaching a course on Religion & Gender, and one of the books I use is Julie Ingersoll’s Evangelical Christian Women.  Ingersoll wrote the book in part as a response to the scholars who have argued that some evangelical Christian women claim to feel “empowered” by complementarianism and the separate spheres discourse (i.e., the discourse that separates out public from private life and relegates men to the former and women to the latter). Ingersoll allows that that might be true for some women in evangelical communities, but that other evangelical women report finding evangelical gender ideology oppressive and discriminatory — and she supports the claim with ample evidence gathered through interviews with evangelical women.

One of the claims of the book is that the contestation of gender is central to evangelicalism, or what we might call the evangelical habitus. That’s why, according to Ingersoll, that debates over whether women can be ministers, leaders, or teachers, as well as the debate over gay rights, generate so much heat within the evangelical subculture. Continue reading ““The Power of Subtle Arrangements and Little Things””

On the Spot with Martha Smith Roberts

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

An image of Martha Smith Roberts1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

My short answer to this question has actually changed a bit in recent encounters. I used to answer by referencing my sub-field and saying something like, “I study American religions.” However, I now try to answer with something more like “I study religions in the US” or “I study religion in American culture.” While in some ways these statements seem quite similar, there is actually an important distinction. Over the years I have found that the former answer is pretty meaningless and confusing to non-specialists — What is an American religion anyway? — while the latter can be a bit more helpful in designating both the geographical space and the plurality of things that I might be examining. Some assumed that “American religion” was synonymous with Protestant Christianity, and so after underwhelming many a flight companion with my lack of biblical expertise, I started shifting my language to more accurately reflect what I think I do. The longer answer is that my research interests revolve around questions of religious diversity in contemporary US culture, including the ways in which concepts and practices of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, and embodiment affect the classification of human behaviors (e.g., as religious, spiritual, or secular). Continue reading “On the Spot with Martha Smith Roberts”

“Guess Who?”: A Game of Differentiation

An image of all the pieces that come with the Guess Who Game

When I was a kid, “Guess Who?” was a very popular game with me and my friends at my after school program. It was always a pretty quick game, which had friends gathered around while waiting for their chance to play the winner. Perhaps you recall the game — two players, each choose a yellow card, which had the picture of one of the faces on the board, and take turns guessing which card the other person has. While each of the pictures has a name on it, players can only ask yes or no questions about physical appearance: hair color, hair style, age, etc. Continue reading ““Guess Who?”: A Game of Differentiation”

It’s the End of the World As We Know It…

An image of a cover of Time magazine with the headline

On the eve of the Women’s March in Washington last year (the first one, for those counting), I found myself in the very conundrum that the picture below depicts. As a knitter, I just assumed that I could go to my local yarn shop a couple of days in advance of my city’s march and pick up some pink yarn to make my pussy hat. This didn’t seem like an unrealistic expectation, since, after all, there’s usually plenty of pink yarn sitting around when I’m there buying the more neutral shades that usually populate my closet. But on this particular weekend, it seemed that many others in the city had the same idea — there was virtually no pink yarn in sight.

An image of 4 cartoon women with pink winter hats and yarn

Indeed, from all appearances, the Women’s March was an important kickoff moment in a renewed wave of advocacy in the United States addressing many issues, gender bias among them, and it was motivated by the concerns of large groups of American women who have grown increasingly fearful about their social and legal standing in a Trump presidency. As we know, the march was followed by a series of other activist moments; most recently, the #metoo phenomenon has led to the widespread toppling of many powerful American men whose power and success was at least partially built on misogyny (presidents notwithstanding).  Continue reading “It’s the End of the World As We Know It…”

Taking the Popular Wisdom Seriously is a Little Disturbing, No?

Dylann Roof

As a quick following-up to this morning’s earlier post on how quickly we tend to conclude, but only in some cases, that certain gunmen in mass shootings are “lone wolves” (whose actions couldn’t be anticipated), it occurred to me that there’s a largely unseen ramification to attributing individual, psychological motives to the actions of white guys as opposed to the ease with which many of us seem to attribute planned, political motives to pretty much everyone else who does something heinous. Continue reading “Taking the Popular Wisdom Seriously is a Little Disturbing, No?”

Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary

An image of a gender question with the options female or male

When we go to a new doctor’s office or meet someone new, most people identify my younger son as female. He has let his straight, black hair grow longer, reaching a bit past his shoulders now. He is also small for his age, quiet (in public), and generally shy, and his name (being Chinese) does not suggest a gender for most people in the United States. These markers, it seems, lead people to mislabel him.

While he seems unfazed by this, others are not. When people discover their error, they suddenly become extremely apologetic and embarrassed. But why? It is an understandable mistake, and neither he nor my wife or I take offense at the mistake. Of course, they do not know that it is not a big deal to him, so the common assumption/fear may be that someone will be hurt or angry over the error, but that does not seem to be the whole situation.

We all assume that we can identify a person’s gender. The 1990’s Saturday Night Live skit “It’s Pat” (see one example here) featured a gender ambiguous, nerdy character and highlighted how uncomfortable others are if they cannot identify someone’s gender. Ambiguity about such an “obvious” binary is unsettling for many. While we assume that the difference of gender is naturally significant and readily identifiable, the assumption that everyone easily falls into one of two genders is inaccurate, as the recent posts on social media about the different chromosomal combinations of X and Y highlights. We have similar issues about ethnicity and race, assuming that we should be able to visually identify someone’s heritage, which creates problems for multi-ethnic people and makes the discovery that someone is “passing” as a member of a race/ethnic group when their ancestry does not conform to the social construction of that group into a newsworthy event. Continue reading “Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary”

Making the Arbitrary Natural

The olympic flag being raised

Despite the rhetoric about the Olympics bringing the world together peacefully to celebrate athletic achievement, the competition is oddly divided according to “their genitalia and the patch of land on which they were born” (as colleague Craig Martin put it on Facebook). We see some wonderful examples of international goodwill, certainly (some listed here), but the arbitrary divisions dominate, both through the flag-waving spectators in the stands and the daily medal counts according to nation in the media. Whether it is people in India cheering P.V. Sindhu, who reached the Badminton women’s individual finals last Friday, or people in the United States cheering for Simone Biles’ five medal performance in gymnastics, the division into nationalities takes on the appearance of being a natural description.

The organization of the Olympics, demonstrated from the Opening Ceremony Parade of Nations, and the media coverage that focuses on the nation’s athletes make the nation appear to be a natural division, an obvious identifier (a la Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities). We often cheer for people from our own country because their victory brings us status, even though we have little if anything in common with the athletes, potentially being from different regions, living within different social networks, holding different commitments, etc. Continue reading “Making the Arbitrary Natural”

Marketable Misogyny

A woman holding a gun with a cigarette in her mouth

In the ever-growing torrent of op-eds about Donald Trump, the subject of the candidate’s misogyny has increasingly become a topic of interest and focus. Most recently, I came across this New York Times piece by conservative columnist David Brooks. In it, Brooks bemoans Trump’s bombastic misogyny that seems predicated upon competitive alpha male one-upmanship. Continue reading “Marketable Misogyny”

The Privilege of Being Unremarkable

Obama watching Merrick Garland speakThe reporting surrounding President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice both reveals and complicates the concept of privilege in an intriguing manner. Many of the articles, such as this Politico piece, were notable for what they refrain from stating, that he is a white male. This contrasts with the emphasis on ethnicity and gender in earlier pieces about those being considered for the position, such as Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Judge Sri Srinivasan. After the Garland nomination announcement, one article noted Garland’s judicial experience and legal training and specified how he would not add diversity to the Supreme Court. The article continued, referencing Justice Sonya Sotomayor as Latina and Srinivasan as both Hindu and Asian-American. The choice not to relate Garland’s racial, ethnic, and gender identifications reflects the privilege of a white male in the United States. Continue reading “The Privilege of Being Unremarkable”