Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary

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

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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

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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

Merrick_Garland_speaks_at_his_Supreme_Court_nomination_with_President_ObamaThe 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”

Save the ‘Nads! (And Other Things We Do Not Say)

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As many of us are aware, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Despite the relative longevity of this particular disease awareness campaign, I remain intrigued by the story behind the origin of the Susan G. Komen foundation, one wherein Komen’s sister, Nancy Brinker, described her desire to start a foundation to raise awareness about breast cancer at a time (the early 1980s) when the diagnosis was still surrounded with secrecy and stigma.

One reason for my ongoing interest is that I wonder if the stigma surrounding breast cancer has been lifted or if it has merely changed. It is true that we are now able to openly discuss breast cancer in a way we never did before, and it is also true that much more money goes to breast cancer research now than in past decades. Yet if stigmas are nothing more than public attitudes that create social liabilities for those who bear them, then perhaps something more is going on. Continue reading “Save the ‘Nads! (And Other Things We Do Not Say)”

The Complete Inverse

Picture 7Have you seen that pic, or that article, making the rounds of social media? There seems to be a script problem on the source’s page but click the graphic if you want to try to find the article, concerning how the upcoming Supergirl series flies in the face of the stereotypes of male superheros — notably the recent “Man of Steel” depiction of Superman (all dark and brooding). Continue reading “The Complete Inverse”

Identifying Threats of Violence

5810753486_4142bc5cb7_bWith discourses surrounding terrorism and gun violence, which have become prominent again in the wake of Charleston and Chattanooga, people want to find patterns that illustrate the source of the threats of violence. Looking for these patterns, people engage in an act of comparison, which, as we have discussed on this blog previously, is more about the person constructing the comparison than some reality outside of him/her. For example, I have seen various social media posts recently that include lists of acts of violence, ranging from 9/11 and the storming of the US Embassy in Iran to the Chattanooga shootings, all attributed to people who identified as Muslims. While these posts appear to be direct descriptions of reality, they reflect the choices of the creator of the list as to which acts of violence to include and which identifications to include. Continue reading “Identifying Threats of Violence”

Whose Sex Change Was It?: Caitlyn Jenner and the Boundaries of Public Identity

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Lately, there has been no shortage of commentators eager to discuss Caitlyn Jenner’s recent Vanity Fairy cover (featured above). In the public eye, Jenner has been a famous male athlete-turned reality show husband-turned transgender femme fatale, and this series of transformations has inspired plenty of ogling. Conservative outlets seem to decry the former Bruce’s sex change as something bewildering and strange (if not disgusting and unnatural), while more progressive ones praise her as a heroine who has had the courage to publicly reveal her “true self.” Continue reading “Whose Sex Change Was It?: Caitlyn Jenner and the Boundaries of Public Identity”

The Memory That Forgets: The Women in Military Service for America Memorial

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At the small liberal arts university where I work, we offer a travel course entitled “The Rhetoric of War.” The course examines the way that rhetorics (both verbal and graphic) depict war, patriotism, and the nation-state in the American context. Midway through the semester, the class takes a whirlwind trip to Washington D.C. in order to directly engage the ways in which war is memorialized.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Amy Milakovic, is one of the faculty who teaches that course; she has a forthcoming paper about the experience, with particular focus paid to the Women In Military Service For America (WIMSFA) Memorial. As Dr. Milakovic argues, the attempt to honor military women at WIMSFA happens through a narrative that works only to the degree that it actually diminishes women. WIMFSA achieves this by reinforcing traditional gendered stereotypes at the same time that its physical appearance emphasizes invisibility and insignificance, two terrible ironies achieved in a place that claims to highlight and celebrate women in the military. Continue reading “The Memory That Forgets: The Women in Military Service for America Memorial”

“If you’re not sexy, you might want to be easy”: Some Thoughts On Ratemyprofessors.com

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“If you’re not sexy, you might want to be easy.” So wrote David Epstein in an Inside Higher Ed article written about the website ratemyprofessors.com, which allows students to provide public feedback about their professors. In addition to reporting some basic information like the student’s interest in the course material and their perception of the necessity of the textbook, class attendance, etc., each student grades their professors by providing feedback on three major scales:  “Helpfulness,” “Clarity,” and “Easiness.” A fourth measure, “Hotness” (symbolized by a chili pepper), is awarded when students deem a professor suitably attractive. Continue reading ““If you’re not sexy, you might want to be easy”: Some Thoughts On Ratemyprofessors.com”