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Gender Equality … Sort Of

I cringe when I hear the suggestion that gender equality has been achieved, or that we are now living in a post-gender society, or something of the sort that suggests that women now occupy an equal status to men.  But, I do acknowledge that major gains have been achieved for women, inching further away from an exclusively subordinate status and, sometimes, closer to an equal status to that of men.  (I do not, however, buy arguments that men are now a disadvantaged, subordinated group, even if women numerically outnumber men in some contexts, like college.)

Gender Equality For Which Women?

If we learn only one thing from Black and multicultural feminism, third world feminism, lesbian feminism, working-class feminism, and other strands of feminism that challenge the narrow perspective and actions of mainstream (white, heterosexual, Western, middle-class) feminism, it is that the category of “woman” does not consist of one universal set of experiences, needs, and interests.  Acknowledging this point, I regularly correct people who suggest that women began entering the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s.  Rather, white heterosexual middle-class women in the West were beginning to enter the labor force upon the weakening of the societal norm that a woman’s place is in the home.  Women of various disadvantaged backgrounds would have experienced the freedom to stay home as a luxury, for they were/are forced, either due to enslavement in our ugly historical past or poverty in our ugly contemporary present, to work to support themselves and their families.

As such, it is crucial that we attend to whether all women have achieved equal status in society, or at least inched closer to it.  In many ways, gains toward gender equality are realized for the relatively privileged class of women but not others; worse, sometimes those gains are experienced at the expense of disadvantaged classes of women.  (Who do you think is taking on housekeeping and childcare responsibilities while white middle-class women are off working full-time jobs when they aren’t doing it themselves?)

Equality For Two

By virtue of their gender identity and expression, transgender and gender non-conforming people are not treated as equals in our society.  Rather, transphobic people, groups, and institutions attack, exclude, and belittle transpeople in ways that suggest more than a subordinate status — their humanness itself is challenged.  This is seen in the resistance to acknowledging individuals who occupy spaces outside of the female-male/woman-man sex/gender binaries, resisting individuals’ right to define their own gender identity and expression, and, in more subtle ways, like referring to transpeople as “it,” as if they are inanimate objects.

Liberating Gendered People, But Not Gender

Yes, gains have been made for women and, to a lesser extent, transgender and gender non-conforming people.  But, what we usually miss in our assessment of the presence or absence of gender equality (besides thinking of equality/inequality in binary terms) is whether all components of gender have moved toward equality.  There are a number of dimensions of gender: gendered people, sexed people, gender identity, gender expression, among others that I likely have missed here.  We typically focus on the full and equal inclusion of gendered people.  For example, we attend to whether equal access exists for women and men in education and the labor market, and whether household labor is equally divided between female and male partners in heterosexual couples.  (Again, note that transpeople are regularly excluded from these assessments, seen instead as a special case or even a matter of sexuality rather than gender.)  Now that we think about gender instead of sex, we seem to fail ask about the inclusion and treatment of particular sexed people.  One need only to look at the treatment of intersexed people to see evidence of this reality.

Finally, what I find most ironic about traditional assessments of gender equality is that we fail to ask about individuals’ freedom of gender expression.  To be frank, it appears that women are increasingly welcomed in traditionally male-dominated spaces if they become men — not to literally transition their sex to become males and gender to become men, but to become masculine.  Women are freer today to express themselves in masculine ways (e.g., wearing suits, jeans); however, men are not substantially freer today to express themselves in feminine ways.  In fact, femininity is devalued, even at times when women themselves are not.  The policing of gender is sometimes seen in the most surprising places: the “no femmes” and cultural femmephobia seen in gay male spaces, women criticizing other women for being too feminine or “girly” especially in male-dominated space, men snapping at other men to “man up,” and so forth.  Further, society still expects gender conformity.  This means for women, in particular, the double bind of needing to behave like men to get ahead in life, but the expectation to be women at the end of the day to avoid any challenges to their woman-ness and sexual orientation.

What’s My Point?

My overarching point is that we must acknowledge the complexity of gender equality and gender inequality to comprehensively assess whether they are reflected in society today.  This means fully understanding the complexity of gender itself: there is no universal category of “woman,” nor are humans limited to the two gender categories of women and men.  We must acknowledge the experiences, needs, and interests of transgender and gender non-conforming people, as well as women of various racial, ethnic, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and religious backgrounds to begin to assess equity.  We must also acknowledge that there is no universal category of “man,” a point that reflects that men of disadvantaged backgrounds do not fully enjoy the privileged status as men.  Finally, we cannot miss the absence of full liberty to express one’s gender freely without risk of harm or consequence.  For to see women and transpeople equally valued while femininity and gender non-conformity are devalued is only halfway to equality.

Male Privilege 101: Safety From Sexual Harassment and Assault

Me - GI BeyonceI won’t lie – I pride myself on my pro-feminist ideology, further extended and nuanced through a black queer lens through which to view the world. I spend a considerable amount of time agonizing over the privileges that have been bestowed upon me because of what is assumed to be between my legs and its extension into my self-presentation to the world.  I am aware that, even with a genderqueer identity, my masculine gender expression, especially in terms of clothing and name, grants me an indefinite number of conveniences, leg-ups, head-starts, and other forms of unfairly distributed advantages that are denied to women and transpeople. But, no matter how hard I work to recognize and reject my male privilege, there will always be a block of privileges that are unknown to or unseen by me; hence, this is how privilege sustains itself – it is invisible to its beneficiaries, even those who fight to challenge inequality.

Again, another admission: I wish I could dress and behave in ways that more accurately express my genderqueer identity. But, I’m both too comfortable in boys’ clothing and too afraid/unmotivated to deal with the expected harassment, violence, outcasting, and discrimination that I would face if I were to stop dressing in masculine clothing.  So, dressing in feminine or androgynous attire for Halloween is the next best thing. This year, I donned a feminized and sexualized army uniform.  I supplemented the costume with my own blonde wig, leopard print bra (that I stuffed for additional bust), fishnet stockings, and men’s combat boots.

My goal was not to pass as a woman, so I didn’t shave my facial hair, legs, or chest – and all of these areas were exposed. If anything, I wanted to be a sexy expression of both masculinity (i.e., hair, boots, and failure to feminize my voice or behavior) and femininity. I would say that the numerous compliments from friends indicated a success!

But, from others at the local gay bar I attended for Halloween fun and dancing, I found that complimenting was not limited to pleasant appraisals of my outfit. In fact, the first two people that approached me decided to grab my breasts in order to measure their authenticity – both were men dressed as drag queens. Then came the man dress as a mail carrier who insisted on giving me a chance to select a free drink from his bag of random goodies. (To his disappointment, I pulled a note that said “happy Halloween!”, the same note I pulled a second time later. Eventually, he just pressed to buy me a drink and I caved so he’d leave me alone.)

Then, there was the heavily intoxicated woman, whose costume wasn’t much more than a ball gown, who decided to give me what seemed to be a mammogram because she was so fascinated by my breasts. (As an overweight male, yes, I have breasts, but I stuffed with a couple pairs of underwear in a way that pushed up the real breasts to achieve an authentic busty look.) There were long, shameless stares; an attempt to see if I had “tucked” my penis; a few anonymous grabs of my butt; two “motor boats” (essentially vibrating one’s head between a woman’s breasts); an attempted kiss by the cowboy friend of the mail carrier, to whom I was introduced as the mail carrier’s boyfriend; and a bit of following during the night (mainly by the cowboy and mail carrier).

Lessons Learned?

I do not attempt here to suggest that I now know what it’s like to be a woman.  This experience was limited to a few hours, which were otherwise fun. Most of my “admirers” were men, though there were a few drag queens, one drag king, and one woman.  And, this happening in a gay bar rather than a predominantly-heterosexual bar makes this experience somewhat qualitatively different than a night a woman might experience. But, this experience, brought on my by appearance, is one that I do not otherwise have access to.  Even if different, I was able to gain some insight into what it’s like to be stared at, felt up, given “free” drinks under the implicit expectation of sex in return, and followed.  I could see that others, even if in masculine attire, who bore some skin were often the target of aggressive, sexual attention. In that women face greater pressure to wear very revealing clothing, this skin-as-invitation-for-harassment experience is faced to an enormously greater degree by women than by men.

And, I am certain that any complaints I would make about being harassed would be rebuked with, “well, what did you expect, coming dressed like that?” At one point, I felt it was implied when I did complain. I am well aware of the victim-blaming that is practiced when women are victimized by sexual assault, rape, and intimate partner violence, but I had no idea that victim-blaming was so pervasive, that to bare one’s skin is read as an explicit, intentional invitation to be gawked at, fondled, and propositioned. The double-bind is ever-apparent: wear sexy, revealing clothing in order to get attention, be desirable, and not to be dismissed as an inauthentic or unsuccessful woman; but, then, when you do bare some skin, be aware that you are essentially “asking for” any and everything that comes your way.

Back To Life, Back To Reality?

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming. The drag is off and I’m back to my usual genderqueer-identified and masculine-expression self.  Though inappropriate touching, staring, and commenting are always a possibility, the rate at which I experienced them last night will never be seen again unless I re-transform into my sexy GI Beyonce self. But, this unintended breaching experiment’s results will not disappear. I am debating, today, about whether to address this new found awareness of gendered sexual harassment and assault in my lecture tomorrow on sexual assault and rape. But, my fear is that my male privilege allows for me to speak openly about a one-time experience, while women and transpeople experience sexual assault and harassment, or at least the threat of it, on a daily basis. In some ways, I resign myself to capitalizing on the privileges I cannot avoid by speaking out against injustices that are otherwise dismissed as a woman’s issue, or a play of the “race card”, or cry-baby complaints.

In any event, even if my Halloween experience does nothing to help others become more aware of the rape-encouraging culture we live in and gendered violence more broadly, I find comfort in the eye-opening of at least one person: myself.