Sunday, May 4, 2008

Stephanie Coontz-- Marriage, A History


For a long time, marriage was used primarily as a political and economic institution. However, in the 1950’s and 1960’s the male breadwinner / woman homemaker ideal became the most prominent form of marriage. In the eighteenth century love was seen as the primary reason for marriage. As the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came around, “sentimentalization” and “sexualization” of love based marriage became popular and widely accepted. Coontz makes clear one of her main points when she said: “As soon as the idea that love should be the central reason for marriage, and companionship its basic goal, was first raised, observers of the day warned that the same values that increased people’s satisfaction with marriage as a relationship has an inherent tendency to undermine the stability of marriage as an institution” (5).

My confusion with marriage as an institution is summed up in this one quote:

“For the next 150 years, societies struggled to strike the right balance between the goal of finding happiness in marriage and the preservation of limits that would keep people from leaving a marriage that didn’t fulfill their expectations for love.” (5)

I am completely dazed and confused by how people find a partner whom they find compatible and attractive, and manage to be satisfied throughout their many, many years (if that is what they want) together. (I realize that there are many people who do find this, I just haven’t yet so I have a hard time seeing how it’s possible).When we expect a person to be our lover, friend, business partner, companion, co-parent, mentor…the list goes on…how can we ever really be satisfied with this other person? We can not possibly be everything to one person…I don’t believe people work like that. We have different friends to fulfill different parts of who we are, to play out different aspects of ourselves. Then we get married and expect one single person to be able to handle all of those different sides? I can’t help but be skeptical of this kind of relationship. I think marriage makes sense when reviewing its historical transformation. Marriage as an economic choice makes sense, and marriage for love of another person makes sense. But today I feel there is a combination of all of these things it has been in the past. How can marriage live up to those kinds of expectations?

Chapter 1

Coontz starts off by quoting George Bernard Shaw’s joke about marriage: ‘“under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions. They are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”’ The main point being that historically love has not been the main reason for marriage. Coontz mentions how feelings for other person should not be put before other relationships (parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors or God) (16). Love has been seen as everything from a “derangement of the mind”, inconvenient, threat to society, disruptive, etc. It is interesting to think about how the definition of “love” has changed, and how it differs cross-culturally (i.e. in China love meant an “illicit, socially disapproved relationship” 16). Traditionally, people have looked for love and intimacy beyond the confines of marriage. Loving someone too much was considered “idolatry”. Endearing nicknames were seen as a threat to the husband’s authority rather than a sign of intimacy. Too much intimacy was seen as weakening a persons relationship to God. (…This makes me think about how the study of religion could be very important in this historical discussion of marriage). Some cultures, like that of the Fulbe people in Cameroon, don’t see love as a valid emotion. Love in marriage was not a necessity by any means. She quotes a common saying from early modern Europe: “He who marries for love has good nights and bad days”. I actually agree with this quote. Not that I don’t want romantic love in my marriage, or that I don’t think its possible—but I really think that marrying for reasons other than love is a good idea. I’d much rather have good days and bad nights with my best friend with whom I have no love interest, then good nights and bad days with my lover with whom I have no friendship. (Ideally a person can have both). I like that Coontz points out that there have been many couples who have been married happily but “have not been happy in our way” (20). In reading this chapter I am reminded of how powerful the prevalent norms are in our society. The fact that in some cultures a women sleeping with her husband’s brother is “normal and comforting” seems so completely strange to me. I realize I have been constructed to feel this way, but I can’t imagine ever being able to change my emotions if I were ever in a situation similar now. It is amazing that in Chinese marriages in was seen as “weak” to confide in your spouse, or even to share the news of your day (21). Sexual loyalty is new concept of modern day-- mutual fidelity has only recently become the norm. When a wife has sex with someone other than her husband it’s called “wife loaning”, whereas when a husband does the same it is called “male privilege”. Coontz brings up all these examples to prove that there is no universal ideal about how to have a happy and successful marriage. She explains that our most recent Western idea of marriage is to find a person who can fulfill not only your physical needs for sex and emotional needs for intimacy and affection. We have incredibly high expectations (that were never considered needed or wanted) for marriage now than ever before. She suggests that marriage as an institution is being threatened because of these new goals for marriage.

Chapter 2

Marriage has been known to be one of the most prominent social institutions throughout history, and if this is the case how can it be that it is so difficult to agree on one universal definition? Definitions range from what age is appropriate for marriage…to how many partners one can have…to if the marriage is about the individuals or families joining lives…to how much time a husband and wife should spend together or live together. On what grounds do we base the definition? One definition the Royal Anthropological Institute of Britain came up with is “a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of both partners.” I understand the need anthropologists have to define marriage, but this one is so incredibly restrictive. Let’s think about who’s perspective is this definition representing…

She goes on to discuss the impacts of marriage on children. In Japan there wasn’t a word for bastard until the Meiji Restoration when they adopted Western ideas about legitimate children. Coontz gives other examples of relationships with food as the main distinction for marriage. If a man and a woman eat together then they are married, and if a woman cooks for a man that they are married. Some men and women can never eat together because if they do, it signifies sexual intercourse (30). She mentions that throughout history generally the two partners in a marriage have shared responsibilities and tasks. People have done this because it simply makes life easier if two people are both contributing and helping with mundane duties of life. Usually these tasks tend to be divided by gender- but not always. In one Native American culture individuals are paired by who does the invariably labeled “men’s work” and “women’s work”. It makes no difference who is doing the “work” they need to have one person doing the “man’s” and one doing the “woman’s”. I would love to explore this idea further. I think it is so interesting that although the work is gendered, it is not confined to the person of that same gender. Coontz says the most important function of marriage has traditionally been the relationships with family and community (31). It gives families and communities the opportunity to share resources and create relationships / alliances.

There are many similarities in marriage as an institution, despite the many differences Coontz has suggested throughout this chapter. Marriage usually gives us a way to determine “rights and obligations connected to sexuality, gender roles, relationships with in-laws, and the legitimacy of children” (32). It has also helped people figure out and define their place in society. It has been useful in passing down property to the next generation. She mentions that becoming ‘in-lawed’ has been one of the most important purposes of marriage. The fact that parents and relatives and stopped being so much a part of the marriage process has given the married couple more freedom to create their own marriage, which in general, has led to couple being much more satisfied with their relationship. However, it has contributed to the “crisis” in marriages today.

Chapter 3

Coontz reviews the male provider theory. This theory has been used to explain why women have been the homemakers and men the breadwinners. It also supports the general claim that women want “powerful, dominant men” and men want “young women who will be good breeders and hearth keepers” (36). But, women have also participated in the hunting and gathering—they would just carry the baby while doing these activities. Although women were restricted in many regards by child-rearing, this doesn’t mean women were dependent on men. Because of this independence, women were able to learn other skills that men were not. For example, they learned how to “gather, process plants and shellfish, manufacture clothing, trap small animals, and make digging or cooking implements” (38). This perhaps led to an even greater separation and independence between men and women. Teaching ones children became something for a couple to invest in together, a way for a couple to spend time together as well. Foraging and hunting became something communities depended on each other for, it wasn’t just a couples responsibility. Everyone provided for everyone. This started many traditions, rituals, dances, and festivals where community developed and connections between families occurred. Social interactions were important because they were necessary for survival. Sharing and pooling resources was a smart economic choice in these communities so they could be sure to never waste or be depleted of food. These societies were all about sharing and reciprocity. A hunter spent time hunting for the whole group, not just for his nuclear family. Coontz goes on to address the time of trading women or ‘spousal exchange’. In an aboriginal society in Australia some daughters were distributed in a way that would ensure the community had equal amount of connections to the land and resources. Marital choices have been influence by location of resources and access to hunting. Some argue that marriage originated as a way to exchange women. Coontz brings up the 70’s feminists view that the protective theory was more to oppress women rather than to protect them even though she doesn’t agree with the idea. In this oppressive theory, women were considered to be forced into marriage. Brothers traded sisters, fathers traded daughters for power in the community, rich men traded women in replace of their debt. She says that although marriage has served a number of very different purposes, it seems marriage did at one point change from being about the common wealth of the whole group, to being about individual’s gain of power, wealth and people. As greater economic differentiation occurred throughout time, marriage became more about status. Low-status could not marry into a higher-class, and as expected, the dominant kin groups became more wealthy and powerful, their options for marriage became more restricted: “The more resources were at stake in the marriage alliance, the more the relatives has an interest in whom their kin married, whether a marriage lasted, and whether a second marriage, which might produce new heirs to complicate the transmission of property, could be contracted if the first one ended” (46).

As marriage became more and more about status and property, men and women began to feel more restricted in the ways in which they were ‘allowed’ to act. Sexual behavior was supervised, as bloodlines became very important. Beauty also became criteria for marriage and a main differentiator between high and low class women. Because of all of this marriage became very political. And there was no room for the discussion of love between the couple when they were dealing with economic and political negotiations between families. It has been only within the past 100 years that women have had the right to choose their partner. Although there is a growing notion that pre-marital sex and divorce is okay there are still many who hope that marriage as institution keeps sexuality and gender roles in its traditional roles. She ends the chapter with the revisiting the question of how we categorize and systematize our “rights and obligations now that our older constraints are gone is another aspect of the contemporary marriage crisis” (49).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Transformation of Intimacy: Chapters 8-10

In chapter 8, Giddens explores episodic encounters. He questions if this is a way of avoiding intimacy, or could it be a way of expanding on the relationship? I wonder if episodic encounters really are incompatible with the ‘norms’ and ‘rules’ of the “pure relationships”. (147) He also ventures into the concept of plastic sexuality. He essentially defines this as “sex detached from its age-old subservience to differential power” (147). He discusses the visible deconstructions of maleness: “the leather queen”, “macho gay”, and “denim groupie” Giddens brings up a good point that as much as they are pushing limits, they are simultaneously affirming what has already been taken for granted by phallic power in our society— and that our identity, all aspects of it is reflexive.

Giddens discloses thoughts from an interview with a woman on homosexual relationships. She claims that homosexual relationships can be very long term, but are usually not “for life” (148). She also says she feels heterosexual couples stay together longer than gay couples do, even though with recent movements that this is changing. I would argue she feels this way only because heterosexual couples have been the only “acceptable” type of marriage in the past. If the norm were that heterosexual couples traditionally didn’t get married to become life partners if she would still feel this same way about hetero and homosexual relationships/marriages? Heterosexual relationships are already so prescribed to be a certain way, that I feel homosexual marriages (if and when legally accepted) could be more freeing because the couple can really choose what they want the relationship to look like. At the risk of sounding really naive, could I suggest that gay couples maybe have more room to create a different kind of “marriage” because they are not confined by tradition?

In one of Hite’s studies she found that heterosexual women said they wanted more “verbal closeness”. Is it socially constructed that women need more “verbal closeness”? Are women training to think like a “woman?” I just don’t see how that need can be biological. I feel its all about expectations and roles-- and because women and men have been socialized to have different expectations then they inevitably act accordingly because that it what they have been taught to feel (148).

Giddens discusses “equalization” as a very important part of the transformation of intimacy. He tends to make huge generalizations when discussing this, “women are angry at men for…” and “men’s anger against women is because of…”(149). He mentions that men are becoming zombies—“all playing the rules of the male game plan and as a consequence have lost touch with, or are running away from their feelings and awareness of themselves as people’ (149).

He then moves on to a (dramatic, in my opinion) discussion of Goldberg’s ideas about the “hazards of being male”. I mean, saying “men are in a no-win situation” if choosing to be in a relationship—really? (Maybe this offended my because I do have a unwarranted fear of being in a relationship with a person who only feels confined, and over-bared by the relationship itself). It seems he does a lot of blaming the woman, as if it were her fault for choosing such a guy to be in relationship. Well since he generalized about men so much, it seems women wouldn’t have much of a choice since apparently all men feel the same about relationships with women anyway (i.e. “Women become angered by the very characteristics that attracted them in the first place”. (150)). It must be the woman’s fault because “many women are likely to long precisely for the kind of man who won’t commit; indeed, an aversion to commitment, for reasons already explained, often maximizes both his attractiveness and the challenge he offers” (154).

Barbara Enhrenreich brings up the ‘male rebellion’—to stay free a male has to stay single. She addresses the historical notion that men once were supposed to live longer, until the stress from being the sole provider and harder workers built up and they became physiologically weaker than women (because women were probably never ever stressed themselves, right?). Men therefore, began to renounce their breadwinner role- taking care of themselves financially and pushing off all other responsibilities to the women. Goldberg recommends that men change themselves by enhancing their friendships with other men, by developing a feminine side and by choosing to be with women who are autonomous.

Chapter 9 was not easy for me to understand. Between the conflicting yet consistent viewpoints of Reich, Marcuse and their comparison to Foucault, it was hard to follow. Nevertheless, these were the main points. Reich makes the statement that a sociopolitical reform without sexual liberation is practically impossible, because freedom and sexual health are the same thing. He does value Freud’s Free Association technique; he feels it deviates from a persons true problems. Herbert Marcuse criticizes ego psychology and explores the burden of repression and its negative effects on our society. Both Reich and Marcuse believe that modern civilization is inherently repressive.

Giddens take a second to figure out what it means to say that we are fixated with sexuality as a culture. He suggests three interpretations. The first is that because sexuality breeds pleasure and pleasure is the basis of our capitalist culture, then we can therefore assume that sexuality is a production of a capitalistic order. The second interpretation is construed under the influence of Foucault and Freud, whom suggested that “sex as truth” is the basis of modern thought in our society. The third interpretation he poses is that sex is an addiction. This addiction is seen as central to our compulsive qualities of sexual behavior-- which is exhibited through our addiction to porn, media, films, magazines (and other ways in which we can pursue our sexual desires). Giddens proposes that the solution is in recognizing the “confinement or denial of female sexual responsiveness and the generalized acceptance of male sexuality as unproblematic”…he goes on to say “the more sexuality became detached from reproduction, and integrated within an emerging reflexive project of self, the more this institutional system of repression came under tension” (178). Sexual emancipation, “what used to be called perversions are merely ways in which sexuality can legitimately be expressed and self-identity defined” (179). I like that he talks about how by recognizing these “perversions” it can eventually lead to an acceptance of many ways to carry out sexual lives. Radical pluralism becomes an “emancipatory endeavor” in which we can open new doors for our sexual choices without the barriers of moral judgment.

In chapter 10“Intimacy as Democracy” he defines democracy and shows how they are invariably linked to autonomy. Democracy essentially means that people can develop, learn, think, feel, free of judgment and will be heard even if of the minority.

The principle of autonomy is “individuals should be free and equal in the determination of the conditions of their own lives; that is, they should enjoy equal rights (and, accordingly, equal obligations) in the specification of the framework which generates and limits the opportunities available to them, so long as they do not deploy this framework to negate the rights of others” (186). He discusses how institutionalizing the principle of autonomy means “specifying rights and obligations, which have to be substantive, not just formal” …he goes on to say “rights are essentially forms of empowerment; they are enabling devices” (187). And as I agree, rights are empowering—they tend to be empowering for some, not all people. I think that is important to acknowledge. However, I do like how he mentions that “rights and duties thus have to be made a focus of continual reflexive attention”. He moves on to say that the promise of intimacy is the promise of democracy. We need democracy in a relationship in order to achieve intimacy. Women need it as empowerment so they can get out of abusive, violent or oppressive relationships. With democracy comes the dissolution of arbitrary power (which is usually given to males). Giddens also mentions the importance of trust in this issue. Without trust you can have no accountability because one or the other is inspecting and analyzing the motives of the other person. I don’t like that Giddens compares parent-child relationships to political order. I’d like to think there is something different, maybe more emotional, vulnerable and human, about a parent-child relationship than what exists within our political sphere.

Giddens write that “the advancement of self-autonomy in the context of pure relationships is rich with implications for democratic practice in the larger community” (195). He suggests a similarity between democracy of the personal life and democracy of political life. He supports this statement by saying “through mutual threats and attrition, one side or other is worn down and an outcome achieved” (196). Principled negotiation leads to respectful conversation, which inevitably is good democratic communication between any two parties—no matter which sphere political or personal. He discusses how sexuality awakened personal politics and therefore how institutional reflexivity of life politics (i.e. self identity) is a topic we should all pay more attention to.

He discusses how the question “who will I be?” goes hand in hand with “how shall I live”, and these two questions are wrapped up around our (binary) conception of gender. He lists five gender attributions: every person is either male or female, characteristics are either masculine or feminine, gender cues are assessed within the barriers of typical gender behavioral patterns, the difference between gender only enhances our limited views of sexual identities, how we act is because of what we have “naturally” been given. Sex identity is slowly becoming less confining, as society accepts our bodies as something other than what nature gave us. He ends the chapter with a discussion of how emotions affect our behavior, judgments and communication within relationships. I think that it is important to recognize the power of emotional responses. Not every aspect of a relationship can be compared to the realm of communication within politics.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Masculinities: Introduction & Chapters 2, 3

In the Introduction Connell proves that he has thought much about the importance and implications of his book. By reconstructing the concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ we will be able to apply it to more practical issues (like the prevention of violence, fathering, health, etc). He wants masculinity research to be integrated with more general analyses of social change. “He argues that a binary division between sex and gender, as well as other binaries (man/woman, hetero/homosexual, for instance) pervade research on masculinities, and need to be disrupted” (xix). I like that Connell brings up the Global Dimension. He states how complicated and difficult it is to recognize a “world gender order”, and how understanding local problems are no longer good enough and we need to begin to face the larger issues of our institutions and cultural conflicts. I like that Connell takes the time to discuss this problem—and really begin the process of understanding masculinity on global level.

In Chapter 2, Connell immediately brings up one main common thread belief that is perpetuating the gender binary-- there is a fixed, “true” masculinity. And that this true masculinity is inherent and displayed through the male body. He supports this when he says either “the body drives and directs action” (ex) men are more aggressive than women), or “the body sets limits to action” (ex) men naturally do not take care of infants) (45). So he suggests we, as a society, should work harder to understand the current conception of the male body. He defines two misconceptions: the body is a natural machine which produces gender difference, and the other is that the body is merely a surface by which we are socially imprinted. It is so confining to think that our tendencies such as who we are as a parent, friend, how we act politically, how we act territorial are defined just by what we inherited. He makes a good point when he says “where difference appear, they are small compared to variation within either sex, ad very small compared to differences in the social positioning of men and women” (47).He argues that men are not ‘hard-wired’ to be extremely aggressive and dominant, like many assume. He suggests that when we turn globally, there are examples of cultures that do not fit the “norm” of women raising children, and men being the most aggressive. Connell directs his research to how the medical world has been designed to reinforce gendered bodies. Cosmetic surgery is commonplace and accepted as something a woman should want, but become so naturalized that a woman may feel she it is a need. In addition, there are now penile implants to ensure masculinity for every male. Connell does not deny the fact that bodies are important, “there is an irreducible bodily dimension in experience and practice” (51). He asks if we can settle for the assertion that both biology and culture are responsible for our performance of gender, and questions “if biological determinism is wrong, and social determinism is wrong then it is unlikely that a combination of the two will be right” (52). Because social practices elaborate, complicate, deny, modify bodily difference we need to find a new way to think about gender and go beyond the compromise of biological and social determination.

Connell goes on to discuss ‘the Body Inescapable’. He acknowledges that “maleness” and “femaleness” is the predominant way of interpreting gender in our cultural. Because our bodily experience is central in our memories of whom and what we are, it therefore becomes imperative in understanding of ourselves. Organized sports serve as a specific example of this symbolized bodily performance. As much as it perpetuates the idea that men are superior and more “masculine”, it also shows that kinetically, by running, jumping, throwing etc we tend to move differently—and these two aspects depend and reinforce each other. Connell discusses the faulty connection between masculinity and machinery. The fact that physical capabilities are promoted as economic assets by our labor force reflects our social construction of an economic reality, this “emphasis of masculinity in industrial labor has been both a means of survival, in exploitative class relations, and a means of asserting superiority over women” (55). He turns to our cyber oriented world to show how the man-machine relationship is reinforced through the gendered language, graphics, advertisements, etc. He states although the ‘body is inescapable in the construction of masculinity, the inescapable is not fixed’ (56).

Although our bodies are malleable, and can be used as tools and instruments, they do have their limits—“bodies cannot be understood as a neutral medium for social practice. Their materiality matters” (58). Examples could be sex, sports and manual labor. Gender-switching becomes an important issues as well, seeing as it is changing ones body to fit the symbolic notion of what one initially felt confined as before. Connell is arguing for a theory in which we are able to see our bodies as sharing, shaping and generating social agency. The body reflexive practice is the notion that the public gender meanings are instantly merged with the activity of the body and the inevitable emotions of the relationship between the two. The story of Adam shows how the body-reflexive plays out in sports. Adam didn’t want to throw the ball because he was scared that his father would see his ability to throw as “girly”, which threatens his seen and felt masculinity. “The social semiotics of gender, with its emphasis on the endless play of signification, the multiplicity of discourses and the diversity of subject positions, has been important in escaping the rigidities of biological determinism.” (65). He ends chapter two with recovering how practice reinforces what we see as normal, constituting and re-constituting structures—making the reality we live in. “As bodily reflexive practices they constitute a world which has a bodily dimension, but is not biologically determined” (65). Gendered politics is an embodied-social politics.

Connell starts Chapter 3 with the suggestion that “‘masculinity’ is not a coherent object about which a generalizing science can be produced” (67). We should try and see masculinity as a part of a larger construction. Connell claims all societies have meaning that constitutes gender but not necessarily the term ‘masculinity’. In defining masculinity, he makes it clear that it is not in contrast with ‘femininity’. Although historically this may have been true in regards to how women were treated merely as opposite of men, we need to abandon this idea of ‘separate spheres’ conjured during this time. Connell points out four main strategies that our culture uses to characterize masculinity: essentialist, positivist, normative and semiotic.

Essentialist definitions tend to take one trait or aspect central to the common view of ‘masculinity’. The obvious problem with essentialist definition is that the one trait or aspect chosen is completely arbitrary, and reinforces universality of these ever so subjective traits. Positivists turn to the ‘facts’ so they can have one distinct definition of masculinity, “what men actually are”. This is problematic because it discriminates against women and men (especially in research) -- validating only what they feel fits into this single definition and rejects what does not. By having just one archaic definition, we are losing sight of many identities (i.e. those who are ‘women’ but act ‘masculine’ and those who are ‘men’ but act ‘feminine’). Although it is useful for research and science purposes to have just one definition, “the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ point beyond categorical sex difference to the ways men differ among themselves, and women differ among themselves, in matters of gender” (69). Normative definitions acknowledge and validate these differences and suggest that “masculinity is what men ought to be” (70). In this way men are able to ‘be’ masculine in many different ways and to varying degrees. This approach becomes difficult when taking into account personality. The semiotic approach defines masculinity through structural linguistics. In one way or another, masculinity is defined as ‘not-femininity’. This idea is commonly used in studying structural and cultural constructions of gender, and has been effective in this way. Although it leaves behind the randomness of essentialist definitions is it limited in its range of social discourse. Connell wraps up nicely by saying “Rather than attempting to define masculinity as an object (a natural character type, a behavioral average, norm), we need to focus on the processes and relationships through which men and women conduct gendered lives” (71).

Connell finishes this chapter by suggesting gender “as a way in which social practice is ordered” (71). Gender is not a social practice condensed to the body, it is a social practice that suggest our bodies and what they do. In other words, we are not a fixed set of genes or biological determinants. When we refer to ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ we are referring to our constructions of how we practice gender. We should try and understand ourselves as ‘gender projects’, as ‘configuring gender through practice” (72). In the analysis of masculinity it is important to consider three important structures of gender: power (dismantling patriarchy), production (gender divisions of labor) and cathexis (emotional attachment). Seeing as how gender is “a way of structuring social practice in general not a special type of practice” it is inevitably intertwined with other social structures such as race and class (75). I appreciate the way Connell bring up these other factors such as race and class. By doing this he is choosing to complicate his thoughts and the issue at hand—for he could write another book just on that topic. Connell goes on to discuss four relations in ‘masculinity’: hegemony, subordination, complicity, and marginalization. He examines how these relationships give us a way to analyze masculinity in a more fluid way. He then discusses historical dynamics, violence and crisis tendencies, and how this effect gender relations. By recognizing they ways in which society is so intricate and complex, he is pushing further his cause of writing this book to enable others to do more research and reach further and more globally. To recognize masculinity (and femininity!) we have to look at these relationships between social structures, which he seems to effortlessly bring to our attention. Connell does an impeccable job of defining masculinity without actually defining it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Judith Butler Part III Chapters III, IV & Conclusion

Butler beings Part III with a discussion of Simone De Beauvoir’s thoughts: “gender is the variable cultural construction of sex, the myriad and open possibilities of cultural meaning occasioned by a sexed body”. She considers gender to be to something that one becomes, an activity in itself, rather than an activity, or a substantial thing. She runs across the classic problem—the avoidance of “fate of an impossible utopian project”—but suggests that with a new language we can resist the limitations of the binary world we live in today.

She goes on to explore Monique Wittig’s thoughts on how “one is not born a woman”. She claims there is no reason to divide up human bodies into male and female sexes. This process is merely a habit of heteronormative society which is revitalized through our economic, political and social institutions. And therefore there should be no distinction between sex and gender. She delves into the concept of being “naturalized but not natural” (153). Stating that a woman “only exists as a term that stabilizes and consolidates a binary and oppositional relation to a man; that relation is heterosexuality”. She says that sex is oppression to women, gays and lesbians, and in order to fix this, women need to assume the ‘authoritative’ position and overthrow the category of sex. “The repeated practice of naming sexual difference has created this appearance of natural division. The naming of sex is an act of domination and compulsion, an institutionalized performative that both creates and legislates social reality by requiring that discursive / perceptual construction of bodies in accord with principles of sexual difference”. (157)

She concludes “we are compelled in our bodies and our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us…’men’ and ‘women’ are political categories, and not natural facts” (157).

Wittig argues that concepts are formed and maintained in the realm of the materiality of language. And this language works in a material way to construct the social world. (162). She discusses the “universalization” of language. It is in language that we are lessoning the availability of gender / sex identity and promoting universal points of view. She states this clearly when she says “To universalize that point of view of women is simultaneously to destroy the category of women and to establish the possibility of a new humanism”. (162) Butler suggests that literary works give Wittig an opportunity to experiment with the pronouns within this universal language. For example in her book Les Guerilleres, she changes “he” to “il” and states that this switch is “not to feminize the world but to make the categories of sex obsolete in language” (163). Wittig argues that the only way to effectively fight this heterosexual world is to take over this universal point of view and make it ‘lesbianized’. Butler brings up a good point when she quotes Wittig: “Language has a dual possibility: It can be used to assert a true and inclusive hierarchy in inclusive universality of persons, or it can institute a hierarchy in which only some persons are eligible to speak and others, by virtue of their exclusion from the universal point of view, cannot “speak” without simultaneously deauthorizing that speech”. (164). The main point Wittig offers is that the only way to leave the current heterosexual language context is to become lesbian or gay, because participation in heterosexuality can only be a repetition of this heteronormative oppression. Butler disagrees with this statement, pointing out that there are many other sources that generate power discourses that construct and structure homosexuality and heterosexuality. Butler also acknowledges that Wittig’s idea of everyone becoming gay or lesbian (and therefore no longer knowing your ‘sex’) “makes sex an impossible category of identity”. (166).

Butler goes on to discuss Wittig’s interpretation of lesbianism and what it means to be butch / femme. She sees lesbianism as a refusal of heterosexuality, but Butler argues “If sexuality and power are co-extensive, and if lesbian sexuality is no more and no less constructed than other modes of sexuality, then there is no promise of limitless pleasure after the shackles of the category of sex have been thrown off” (169), arguing that lesbianism depends on the terms that Wittig suggests it is attempting to transcend. One of Wittig’s main goals is to end the divide between materiality and representation that has for so long that portrayed “straight” thinking. She wants to find a way to offer a “deconstructive and reconstructive set of strategies for configuring bodies to contest the power of heterosexuality” (171). Again, Wittig stresses the importance of breaking down the binary system of categories through lesbianism.

In part IV (Bodily inscriptions, performative subversions) raises many questions about the significance of the “body”. Is the body shaped by gender / sex discourses or political forces? What denotes “the body” as subject to signification? Why are gender significations inscribed as the “body”? Wittig’s opinion is that __ Foucault suggests that the body is “figured as a surface and the scene of a cultural inscription”. He also claims the body as “always under siege, suffering destruction by the very terms of history…and history is the creation of values and meanings by a signifying practice that requires the subjection of the body” (177). If the body is a reflection of cultural values then this medium must be destroyed in order to rid the body of this subjection, and enable culture to move beyond it. In a similar way, Mary Douglas believes that the body is recognized through cultural codes, and “any discourse that establishes the boundaries of the body serves the purpose of instating and naturalizing certain taboos regarding the appropriate limits, postures, and modes of exchange that define what it is that constitutes bodies” (178). Her point suggests, in Butler’s opinion, the body is always limited by these taboos and is trapped by the hegemonic discourse of our social world. Douglas notes that all social systems are in fact susceptible or at risk in their limits and boundaries. We can see this in looking at the way society relates AIDS to gays and not to lesbians. Butler goes on to discuss how “inner” and “outer” inevitably exist and re-establish each other through maintained and damaged boundaries. She asks “what language is “inner space” figured? What kind of figuration is it, and through what figure of the body is it signified?” (183). Eventually, Butler comes back to the notion that gender is nothing but a fabrication of social institutions through which we are all produced and effected by. She suggests drag as a way of undermining and almost mocking this true notion about our gendered society. She asks if gender is a performance, then what kind of performance will show gender itself in a way that destabilizes the “naturalized categories of identity”. And what language is there to describe and embody this performance? She ends the chapter in contemplation of how gender is an act, and how “this repetition is at once a reenactment and re-experience of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimization” (191).

In the conclusion Butler revisits the idea of universality, and discusses the draw backs in using “we” because it leaves no room for “internal complexity” and “indeterminacy” of individuals. I wonder if there is no normative or unitary concept of "woman," can we have feminism as movement/theory? If there's no single "woman," then there can be no single feminism. So in this way how can we, as individuals, progress and live out one common goal of feminism ?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Fair Deal

Virginia Braun, Nicola Gavey, and Kathryn McPhilips begin the article by suggesting that sex is socioculturally produced. If sex is occurring in certain contexts only this is shaping a discourse of sex that eventually becomes limiting to possibilities of sexual activities. Wendy Hollway proposes three discourses in heterosexual sex. The first being the biological sexual drive in men where they need orgasm. The second is a discourse which embodies a typical romantic model where the woman acts as the “gatekeepers of male sexuality”. The third is more a of libertarian discourse where sexuality is expected and good as long as no one is getting hurt. These discourses have undoubtedly influenced our sex discourse in the West. The main goal of the article is to talk about reciprocity in heterosex. More specifically to “identify how a discourse of reciprocity is articulated in accounts of heterosex and heterosexual relating, and discuss the effects such a discourse might have in practice”. (238)

Both Vance and Siedman identify a reciprocal ethic of sex that is mutual, respectful, and responsibility. In Our Bodies Ourselves it is suggested to “think of intercourse as reciprocal- you open up to enclose him warmly, you surround him powerfully and he penetrates you” (239). I can’t help but wonder how important it is for women to have this picture or mindset about sex. And why don’t men have to think about it in the same way? Isn’t it more important that two people are having the same idea about what the sexual encounters mean, rather than having two people think independently—figuring out whatever works for themselves?

The article discuses how this discourse of reciprocity has been included in integral writing, and not just among feminist writers. Reciprocity in marital sex has been promoted in the 20’s and 30’s, and through the equity theory which is based on reciprocity. And overall, relationships that are equal / balanced are preferred. When addressing “marriage between equals”, Hare-Mustin talks about how a message of perceived equality for the woman may work in some cases to “conceal relations of actual inequality” (239).

Reciprocity in heterosex is centered on the idea of giving and receiving. However, the giving still seems to be gendered, women more than men, and so it can be argued that reciprocity continues to be unequal—it is still about the male giving to the female. The article states that perhaps the “reciprocal gift discourse is just as problematic as others…men are positioned as active, as agents, giving and taking pleasure”. So what is seen to be reciprocal is not actually real reciprocity. Braun, Gavey, and McPhilips are curious how a discourse of reciprocity functions and interacts with other discourses in the way that it promotes ‘norms’ for heterosex. Theoretically they analyze how this discourse is socioculturally constructed, and in this way, see how reciprocity as a discourse can “enable and constrain people’s options for how to be and act in the social world” (241).

Through many interviews Braun, Gavey, and McPhilips discovered that women are subject to “coital imperative” through sexual relations with men. A discourse of reciprocity is subject to a “he” language, in which the orgasm is still a result of what he gives her. In this discourse orgasm is seen as the ultimate goal, something both people should get. However, it seems reciprocity can encourage both people to orgasm, but giving the woman her orgasm so he can get his. This can be problematic because if the sexual encounter does not end in orgasm, then something must be wrong. If the woman doesn’t orgasm then the male is left with guilt, feels as if he “used” her, or failed in someway. Reciprocal sex means trading, giving and taking simultaneously. So then what does reciprocity really enable? The limits of this discourse suggest that male orgasm signals an end to sex, and female orgasm functions “as a justification for this desire / activity” (247). It also reinforces a traditional role of men and women in that women want sex to feel loved and men want sex to feel pleasured. Women may find themselves feeling it is “difficult to escape the straightjacket of passive female activity and / or find room for their sexual desire within heterosexual relationships” (248). Reciprocity becomes not about having equal pleasure but about men succeeding in giving pleasure. A woman orgasm is a sign of male competence, therefore, perpetuating a current discourse of inequality in heterosexual relations.

However much I agree with a discourse of reciprocity, I am discouraged by how many limits still exist. Although reciprocity disrupts a traditional discourse that is so prevalent today, and offers women power and privilege in experiencing orgasm, it denies both men and women the ability the break through traditional gender roles. I would like to see a discourse where there were truly no constraints or pressures for any gender.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

“A vision of new porn”

Professor Sabo presents an article that makes it clear that the movement of re-visioning porn is well on its way. Feminist porn producers Candida Royalle, Span and Erika Lust create, in many different ways, a discourse for the new generation of young women ready to embrace their sexuality and push beyond the barrier of traditional male-centered porn. This article shows that porn is not only becoming more centered around women’s pleasure but also more gender conscious. In her article Sabo explores “what porn can offer young women (and men) as they try to establish and express their gendered identities in a world that is itself shifting in its boundaries” (222).

Professor Sabo touches on Simon Hardy’s belief that porn “can be a ‘means of establishing a female subject who might play a decisive role in transforming the traditional balance and pattern of heterosexual eroticism” (223). Hardy raises questions of how to change the existing power relations and how to create a new erotic expression. I agree that feminist porn will help change this current discourse, but I also think that what we find erotic, what “works” for us, as a culture of sexually repressed people is so ingrained in the fundamental elements of our once Puritan society. How do we change the ground rules that set up our culture? How long will it take feminist porn to become normal?

Sabo uncovers (Haha….sorry) a view of porn made in the United States. Candida Royalle, one of the largest producers of porn, is known for her quality films. Her films, focused around a woman’s point of view, are more realistic and believable. They invite viewers to sympathize with the characters sentiments, which are not always a violent lust for a penis fucking them hard, but rather ones of longing, fulfillment, and romance. Sabo admires how Royalle not only has “a capacity to avoid the phallic gaze, but to capture a gaze that is mutual and democratically exchanged between two individuals” (226). She also brings to light that Royalle’s way of dealing with the current hegemonic discourse is to “engage it reflectively and ironically” (226). I really appreciate that Royalle is working on “a new gaze”. Although I have not viewed any of her films, I am glad that she is attempting to change degrading the way we objectify each other. It seems that in her film, Under The Covers, she is making what our culture sees as the common / boring / ordinary sex “sexy”. By making porn videos about things that less fantastical and that more people can relate to, she is opening up more doors for communication between partners.

Sabo goes on to talk about how the Norwegian magazine, CUPIDO, did not want to buy Under the Covers—most because it is gung-ho about Anna Span’s productions. As CUPIDO’s best selling producer, it is obvious that Span’s porn speaks to many people. Apparently this is due to the comfortable way she approaches sex. The Norwegians seem to be attracted to Span’s work seeing as how it speaks to “a new generation of more sexually active and self-confident females” (230). Sabo compares and contrasts Royalle and Span’s work, and in doing so suggests that Span moves away from the romantic and cuddly sex to the more let’s just have fun kind of sex. I think that it is great to portray both kinds of sex. But the kind of sex that is most often viewed in porn is the fun, crazy, totally erotic and fantastical kind of sex. Is it not the point to convey a new kind of porn? Something different than that? Let’s redefine what is “sexy” and “erotic”.

At the end she states that overall the message we receive when viewing Royalle’s porn is that we should embrace our sexual desire without any inhibitions. Whereas Span’s porn is more geared toward people whom are already very comfortable with their sexuality and are looking for the fun element to having sex that we should embrace. There is also a difference in humor. Royalle uses it as a political commentary and Span’s is more to build sexual tension. With the lack of music, good film quality, and elaborate plots, Span’s porn seems to lack a professional quality that Royalle truly grasps. On the contrary, Span does a great job of more intimate close up shots, and uses the camera in an unrestricted egalitarian way, allowing perspectives of both genders. Span porn productions seem to reach out to this a new generation of women who are confident, intimate and are not shy to put their own pleasure first.

Sabo goes on to talk about Lust Films, a company made by an intelligent young Swedish woman, Erika Lust. Lust films are known to be a higher quality with its very intentional lighting, framing and music that comprise each movie. Unlike Span, each shot is carefully constructed to create a certain mood. Lust films do a good job of including different kinds of women (however most of the same class) giving the public more opportunities to relate with the characters. Lust “points to the vulnerability as well as the empowering excitement of women and men in a time of changing gender arrangement” (232). I’d like to see the issue of class addressed within the porn industry. As much as women need to be able to relate to many different kinds of women this should reaching out to a different class than middle and upper.

In her conclusion she remembers to point out the positive effects of porn. It can be a great outlet for women who feel empowered by viewing it. Porn is now something both men AND women can use to break the barriers of traditional gender roles in our hetero-normative world. It is hard to state my opinion about these productions when I haven’t viewed the porn myself. As someone who had a bad experience with an initial viewing of porn, it is promising that I am excited to see what these women have to offer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

CAKE: Part 1

Well, I'm not sure if I should be publishing my true response to those first eighty some pages. Reading CAKE was far from enlightening for me. In fact, it was more embarrassing than anything. I felt like I was reading a thicker more expensive trashy magazine / self-help book. I didn't feel "liberated" in the way I felt the authors had intended (or maybe what I had hoped they intended) the readers to feel. Maybe it is important to acknowledge a contributing factor to this sentiment-- my location at the time of reading. The Ref room, at least in my opinion, is not the ideal place to read masturbation manual. The ambiance of the quiet library made me acutely aware of the explicit words I was reading, and therefore very uncomfortable. (Or maybe I'm just too sexually repressed to enjoy it? : ) )
Beyond that, I do appreciate the authors’ efforts to be “real”. I mean, Gallagher and Kramer do bring up some interesting facts: "vibrators are still sold primarily by the porn industry as a novelty item marketed to men. The sexy women on the covers of most vibrators boxes are there to convince men that including a vibrator in their sex life will be good for them." It goes on to state "the sale of vibrators is still outlawed in some states (even where Viagra is widely available), and women have been arrested for selling sex toys door-to-door.” At times the material is raw and in that way refreshing. They try to incorporate women’s personal stories and “real life” fantasies, positions, techniques, etc to make the reader feel more comfortable exploring herself. But I’m not sure it serves that function.
In the first 'pleasure tip' Gallagher and Kramer suggest "…redefining what a sexy woman looks like is up to us. Let those women's magazines know how tired you are of the unrealistic images in their glossy pages". As much as I think this is a great suggestion, I think it is a little too simplistic. Redefining what a “sexy” woman looks like is a much more complicated issue that needs more than just a letter writing campaign addressing the problem to the editor. I was hoping to find suggestions with some more substance.
At one point Gallagher and Kramer state: "Insecurity eats up our appetite for sex, whereas confidence makes us hungry for all the pleasure we know our hot bod deserves.” (22) I think that this is a typical self-help book response. It seems easy to blame a lack of inspiration to exploration our bodies on insecurity. I know plenty of secure women who have no interest in their ‘appetite for sex’. I don’t know if that “appetite” can be explained biologically or culturally. I’m sure it has to do with both. Nevertheless, it’s still interesting to think about why we feel the way we do about our bodies. What if we were in a different social group?... grew up in a different family or town?... or went to a different college?...would we feel differently?