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Monthly Archives: August 2011

I taught some selections from Anne Fausto Sterling‘s Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality to my Gender in the Media class this past week, and it was an interesting experience.

The students were predictably horrified at cutting up infants to make them conform to normative genital configurations, especially within 24 hours of birth and without giving parents enough information or time to make a reasoned decision.Some wondered if it was feasible to wait and let the child decide for her- or himself.

They were (perhaps, in hindsight, also predictably, though I didn’t see it coming) not sure that deciding not to correct intersex babies was ethical either, worrying that this might lead to social or psychological distress.

That is, when I asked them to think about the quote from a surgeon calling ambiguous genitals “a medical and social emergency” (p. 45), they were certain that it wasn’t a medical emergency, but they thought it might be a social one.

But what I didn’t expect at all was their reaction to the discussion of sex testing in sports. They were pretty adamant—the women as much as or more than the men—that sports had to be-sex segregated. Men are stronger, they said, and it’s not fair to women, end of story.

I reminded them of Hermann Ratjen, who competed as the woman Dora Ratjen in the 1936 Olympics despite being a man . . .

Hermann “Dora” Ratjen

and didn’t win. Surely here was evidence that women can beat men at sports. But no, they didn’t find that compelling.

(Incidentally, there are a number of conflicting stories about this athlete. Wikipedia says Ratjen was named Heinrich, raised as Dora, and only found out about hir biological maleness much later and competed innocently as a woman. But elsewhere in the article, it says the Nazis put him up to it deliberately, which Fausto-Sterling also says. Except that, if you believe Halberstam [who I often cal J-Hal just to refuse/mock the Judith/Jack hipsterfest] the Nazis would have been totally opposed to men behaving in any way feminine. So, this is a bit of a mystery and possibly not the best example.)

I tried again. Okay, so men might on average be stronger (though, I pointed out, averages mean that sometimes they aren’t), but not all sports are won by strength. Women might be more agile. Or they might have superior endurance. What about sports that are won on those criteria?

They really weren’t having any of it. The idea that women can’t compete with men was just too much the truth for them to be able to think anything else. And it was a little disappointing. I was a little frustrated by how far gender politics had not come. Or maybe I had stumbled into a time machine and not noticed. Something.

One male student told a story of the one girl in his football league (whether high school or youth it wasn’t clear) and how “she had a target on her back” as all the boys went after her because “if you’re going to play you have to take the consequences.” And he was totally unabashed about it, probably seeing it more as “this is a rough game and we’re not going to take it easy on you” even if the reality was more like “this is our game and we’re going to hurt you to show you you’re not welcome.”

But right alongside finding it sad, I found this fascinating. People dismiss or dislike feminism because they feel like it makes women into victims. That was the reason for the anti- or post-feminist sentiment at the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel I blogged about a couple of weeks ago.The panelists wanted to feel empowered, not like if they chose to be sexy they were being objectified by men or pandering or anything but owning their own bodies.

But here were a group of young adults who probably don’t identify as feminists, who chuckled (as intended) when I showed them a “OMG women are victims” YouTube video and then told them I wasn’t teaching that class, reproducing the exact “women are weaker” party line all by themselves.

And I guess that’s why classes like mine are important (which I say with no self-aggrandizement). That’s why paying attention to gender is important, either in day-to-day life with one’s friends or for part of a class session or the whole semester. I have to hope that by the end of the semester my students at least will be able to start questioning the obviousness of this kind of thing.

So, despite the dis-ease with feminism I expressed in the Sexy Geek post, maybe we do still need it—at least, in the non-victim flavor. This incident would seem to call for feminism (or something like it) to continue to point out

a) the pervasiveness of these assumptions about what it means to belong to gender categories and

b) the fact that they’re only socially real and it could actually be another way if we worked to change them.

Because, as much as I thought it would be obvious to a group of relatively bright people once it was pointed out, it apparently still isn’t.

Among the hats I wear, I’m an educator. I’m also someone who already has one postgraduate degree and is working on another. So when Laura Pappano of the New York Times discussed “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,” it hit close to home on a couple of fronts.

I first became aware of the upward push of credentialing when one of my students, not a particularly hardworking or brilliant one, mentioned that he was thinking of going to grad school. Thinking that maybe he was a nonmajor who was actually a smart and involved student in his home discipline, I asked him “In what?”

His reply? “I don’t know, but you have to have a master’s to get a job these days.”

This was immensely irritating to me, because he seemed all ready to go to grad school without having the slightest sense of how it works—even something so basic as the fact that it doesn’t work like undergrad where you figure out your major later. And, honestly, it offended me a little personally, since it felt like a lack of appreciation for my education.

But thinking back to that master’s degree of mine, maybe I should have been aware sooner that lots of people go to grad school in a way that feels to me like not really meaning it. Most of the people I went to school with, in fact, weren’t planning to be academics.

Particularly for the students in their early 20s, many of them were just used to being students and kept going. Or they wanted to have more time to figure out what they wanted to do with themselves. For this kind of master’s student, grad school was a place to take a time out on growing up.

This probably sounds patronizing, but it’s not. Just because I knew I wanted to be an academic as soon as I got over my teen-angst desire to be a poet in a garret (so, like, when I was 18?) doesn’t mean everybody is as certain about their path, as evidenced by the wide range of ages among my colleagues in my PhD program. If you don’t know where you’re headed, it’s definitely better to pull over than to keep driving.

Another subset of my MA colleagues had, in the snarky-fabulous words of a friend,

a very narrow interest in one subject and they saw getting a sociology degree as a conduit to being able to study the subject that they really cared about personally. Those were the students who were totally disengaged in all of our classes because they really only wanted to study that single thing and instead, they got stuck with 2 huge books of Weber or Bourdieu or Foucault.

And I do think that desire to study a particular thing is valid, even if I’m not sure getting a master’s degree is the right way to go about it.

However, quite a few of the students in my MA classes just wanted to have a piece of paper that showed they were smarter or more dedicated than a BA because, as the NYT article suggested, that’s not enough anymore. In the communication department, for example, one was an office worker—I think maybe an HR manager?—trying to improve her options by getting a master’s with a focus in organizational communication.

This last group I find troubling. I feel like there are things you legitimately need a master’s degree to do, but there are also all kinds of things you don’t, and you shouldn’t get one just to get one, particularly since student loan debt never, ever, EVER goes away even if you declare bankruptcy.

I mean, seriously, there are things you don’t even need a bachelor’s degree to do. We need plumbers and roofers and all kinds of other tradespeople, and those are jobs that are way too important to be as socially devalued as they are. That’s a problem. That’s a place where we need a cultural intervention to change how we think about those careers.

Additionally, a surprising number of young adults who really aren’t cut out for academics feel compelled to get a college degree anyway. Which also might sound patronizing, but I don’t mean to say that these students aren’t bright; what I mean is that there are different ways to be smart and we’re increasingly tending to put everyone into only one box labeled Bachelor of Arts (or Sciences). Again, here’s a site where an intervention is sorely needed.

These are complex issues that have, I’m sure, inspired voluminous publication among researchers of education. They deserve careful, measured attention beyond what I’ve got to give to a blog entry. I’m no expert, and the question of college becoming de facto compulsory affects broad swaths of the population—not least those who don’t go and then find their possibilities radically curtailed.

If the expectation of universal college degrees is a First World Problem, degree inflation to the master’s is definitively a Bourgie People Problem. However, even though wealth does not “trickle down,” norms and the hoops one has to jump through to succeed do. This means that, just as college went from being middle class to being the ticket to the middle class, the master’s degree may well follow suit.

Eric A. Hanushek, whom the NYT piece describes as “an education economist at the Hoover Institution,” argues that “We are going deeper into the pool of high school graduates for college attendance,” which makes a “bachelor’s no longer an adequate screening measure of achievement for employers,” and I find this incredibly telling.

Hanushek means to make an argument about the students who are not in the top 10 or 25 (or maybe even 50) percent of their high school class, such that people who get college degrees aren’t only the spectacular students anymore.

However, that class rank correlates quite strongly with other categories in a way that matters. The kids at the top, who traditionally had access to professional jobs, are disproportionately middle class and white, but now the college pool is expanding beyond those privileged categories.

That means that, whereas once the B.A. separated out the middle class kids from the working class ones, that’s no longer true now that everyone’s going to college. The rush to the M.A. begins, then, to seem a bit like “OMG, poor kids are getting bachelor’s degrees! Better raise the bar!”

As the Times article says, “browse professional job listings and it’s ‘bachelor’s required, master’s preferred,'” and it makes me wonder whether what they really mean is “upwardly mobile required, middle-class preferred.”

Hanushek argues that there’s “some devaluing of the college degree going on,” which makes the master’s more valuable as an indication of ability. As Pappano argues, “perhaps all this amped-up degree-getting just represents job market ‘signaling’ — the economist A. Michael Spence’s Nobel-worthy notion that degrees are less valuable for what you learn than for broadcasting your go-get-’em qualities.”

This devaluing of the B.A. and signaling ability with the M.A., then, is a trend that’s likely to continue. After all, as the Times article pointed out “Nearly 2 in 25 people age 25 and over have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s or higher in 1960,” and that’s probably not a historical coincidence as much as an indication that the former will follow the latter’s trajectory.

So, who knows? Give it 50 years, and we might well be having this conversation about the PhD. (Though the life expectancy for when I was born has me dying sometime around 2058, so I might not be around to see it.) That aspect of history repeating itself means that Hanushek may then be less hyperbolic than he intended when he quipped that “in 20 years, you’ll need a Ph.D. to be a janitor” as part of his condemnation of “credentialing gone amok.”

Now, as I said above, there are things you legitimately need master’s degrees to do. Generally, those are professional degrees: the MBA is helpful in learning how to run a business, the MSW helps you be a social worker, the MFA is good for being an artist or architect. The degrees that are proliferating are variations on these degrees: a “master’s in public history (for work at a historical society or museum), in art (for managing galleries) and in music (for choir directors or the business side of music).”

That is, there seems to be something of a “shift of graduate work from intellectual pursuit to a skill-based ‘ticket to a vocation.'” Pappano is pretty critical of this: “What’s happening to academic reflection? Must knowledge be demonstrable to be valuable?” she asks. “Or have we lost the ability to figure things out without a syllabus?” I am sympathetic to this, as this has been my gut reaction—to my student, and to my M.A. colleagues.

But, upon further reflection, if these degrees mean we can stop the professionalization of the bachelor’s, I might be in favor of it. That is, there’s an increasing push to turn the undergraduate curriculum into a factory for white-collar workers. There’s a tendency toward teaching students “skills” that they can immediately apply in the jobs they (apparently won’t) get after graduation.

But college is a time to learn how to think. Not what to think, despite the exactly one student evaluation form every semester concerned that I am “too liberal,” but how.

As the product of a really good undergraduate education (Cal has consistently been somewhere in the top 5 in the world in the numbers I have. And, we beat Stanford in 2010. Go Bears!), I had a leg up on people I encountered when I worked in the business world.

Yes, I walked into my first office job without specific knowledge about business, but I knew how to think critically and ask questions, which ended up serving me pretty well and maybe actually being the “skill” set I needed to work that professional job after all, despite the tendency toward vocationalization.

That’s what we owe undergraduates. To extend the platitude, it’s not to give them a fish, but it’s also not to teach them how to fish. We have to teach them how to figure out how to fish. It’s second-order. Or maybe third-order. Something. And if they then want to go and get specific skill training in a master’s degree instead of doing research, I suppose I can be down with that.

As long as I get an asterisk next to mine that shows I did do research.

Up front, two confessions:

1. I didn’t attend the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” Panel at Comic-Con. I didn’t even attend Comic-Con. Never have, in fact. But I have consumed a number of recaps of the panel (including a video excerpt, which I rely on pretty heavily here) and I do study fandom, so the terrain is relatively familiar

2. I’m deeply uncomfortable with feminism, because that word and the movement it describes have a lot of historical baggage of gender essentialism and insufficient attention to race, class, and sexuality (among other structures). But I do know a thing or two about gender and the media (enough that they’re letting me teach an upper division college course on it, at least).

Therefore, despite these two confessions, I’m wading in.

What’s readily apparent to me about the Sexy Geek panel is that it had at least two purposes or personalities, a fact which has tended to be glossed over in the discussion about it. It was, first, a discussion of whether it is “pandering” when women dress as sexed-up characters—this was its explicit goal. But it somehow also became a referendum on female fan costuming practices and female fandom itself—whether women are ever, or can ever be, “real” fans.

And in fact, much of the discourse around fandom tends to rely on the premise that women aren’t actually fans, but instead—as Suzanne Scott points out in the blog post that prompted me to look into this incident in the first place—”female attendees are constructed through and defined by their male cohort’s gaze and companionship.”

That is, as Scott parses out in her analysis of the July 25, 2008 sidebar in Entertainment Weekly cataloguing Comic-Con archetypes (which is available at her blog but not, sadly, in its original context on EW’s website), they’re either a “Princess Naked” trying to look sexy for men or a “Dr. Girlfriend” dutifully following their fanboyfriend. What do we learn from the vision of fandom put forth by this set of images? Well, off the top of my head:

1. Women are never really fans and don’t want to be there for their own sake.
2. Women are always heterosexual (and, according to the pictures, white).
3. Women’s behavior exists solely in relation to men (who are also always heterosexual and white).

These three factors, then, are why a panel about sexy costuming and pandering (apparently) turned into a discussion of female fandom more generally: sexiness = heterosexuality = women are there for men = women aren’t real fans.

Okay, then, what about the sexiness part of what the panel was supposed to be about? The idea of “pandering” suggests that women are insincere when they dress sexy. They aren’t actually fans and they don’t actually like the characters, but they wear the revealing costume in order to prey on the desires of “genuine” heterosexual male fans. This is, the argument goes, either for their employer—as with the so-called “booth babe”–or because they themselves like this sexualized male attention.

One response to this “it’s pandering and really for men” idea is to take a stance that often gets called (or gets to call itself) feminist—but is actually more specifically associated with second wave feminism—and deplore the exploitation of women for the male gaze. This is a point of view often derisively called the “humorless feminist,” which the lone scholar-like representative on the panel, Jennifer Stuller, author of Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology joked about being when she was the only one to raise this sort of question.

However, though there is something to be said about resisting the idea that female sexuality exists only for male pleasure, this sort of thing is exactly why I’m not down with feminism. It constructs women as victims of men, who coerce them to bare themselves for the men’s gratification, rather than agents making decisions within cultural constraints.

Way to reinforce the idea that women are weak and men are strong, y’all.

Of course, as evidenced by Stuller’s complaint that she was the only feminist on the panel, this wasn’t the stance that the panel tended to take. Instead, the argument was that, in Scott’s words, “many fangirls choose to cosplay in sexually explicit garb and claim that choice as empowering.”

Alternately, the attitude can be described, as pointed out over at Feminist Fatale, as the contention that “women who were critical of sexy geek culture in any way were just jealous, had no confidence, and were projecting their issues with self-esteem onto the women who felt empowered by walking the Comic-Con floor in a Slave Leia costume.”

Or, there’s the point made by one of the panelists that “I like many characters. Some of them are less dressed than others. I can’t help that.” That is—though the panelist didn’t mean it this way—regardless of what fans decide to do with their costuming practices, they’re working with characters that already exist, and particularly female characters that tend to be scantily clad and unrealistically proportioned. (As I say in my Intro to Media Studies lecture on gaming, accompanied by a suitably cleavage-y photo, Lara Croft is so busty that Angelina Jolie, of all people, had to wear a padded bra, and this body type is not unique to video games.)

It is with these three pro-sexy-costuming positions that things get complicated. Feminists have, rightly, pointed out that the demand that women be sexy is offensive and should be resisted. As audience member Seth Green interjected when he took the mike, it’s no longer the case that women have to rely on their sexuality to get ahead, and there are different opportunities now, so we should be wary of reinforcing the idea that all women have to offer is sex.

We should also be critical of the narrowness of the beauty ideal represented in mediated bodies. A very large percentage of the time, these are bodies people don’t tend to actually have. With roughly equal frequency, they’re quite fully displayed in garb that’s either skin-tight or skin-baring.

To argue that it’s a problem that women have to be sexy, then, is not to be “just jealous” of people who’re rocking the faux-metal bikini. It’s an important conversation that needs to be had.

However, the contention about empowerment does have some merit. It can be empowering to dress sexy if the intention is to seize control of your own body. If it’s not about someone else’s gratification (male gaze) or following someone else’s rules (humorless feminist forbidding), there’s agency to be had.

After all, it is, as I’ve noted in blogs about policing Lea Michele’s sexuality or the occasionally unfree nature of what gets to stand as freedom, equally offensive to demand that someone be sexy and to demand that they not be sexy.

The challenge lies in the fact that the same scantily-clad body has multiple meanings. What happens if you’re being proud of yourself but some sleazy boy informs you, as incredibly unprofessional panelist Chris Gore said to his co-panelists, that he’d like to put his penis into you?

What if you’re expressing self-ownership but some feminist tells you you’re delusional and antifeminist and playing to the male gaze?

What about if you actually like the character and know everything about her, but you get read as just another Princess Naked by male fans who may actually be less invested than you but get to count as real in a way you don’t?

Despite this variety of scenarios—and I didn’t even include all the scenarios that might arise if one was cosplaying in a not-revealing fashion or not costumed at all—there’s a fair amount of consistency in the solutions: take action, get in their face, and tell them off.

If women were to collectively tell people like Chris Gore to keep their penises to themselves (or put them into something else, the garbage disposal maybe?) and stop assuming that all female-bodied individuals are always flattered by that kind of sexualized attention, eventually they’d get the message.

It has to be everyone, or a general trend, though, because, as Stuller pointed out at her blog, a lone response could “reinforce the ‘humorless feminist’ label I had tried to joke about – and which was later suggested as the problem of anyone who didn’t get the joke via Gore’s Twitter feed, along with accusations of sexual repression.”

That is—and this is one thing feminism’s gotten right—wanting to look sexy doesn’t automatically mean that you’re interested in sexual attention from random men (or women) you encounter, and not wanting that attention doesn’t mean you don’t like sex. It just means you don’t want people you don’t know to act as if they have a right of access to your body.

The exact same response of getting in people’s face can be used toward actual humorless feminists, whose demands that people not dress sexy seek to take away ownership of female fans’ own bodies just as much as catcalls do.

Finally, a good throwdown of “look how extensive my knowledge about this realm is” can shut up the naysaying male fans who consider women at conventions to be accessories for men.

As Seth Green—who, as many have pointed out, was sort of the best thing about the panel—argued, the question is about authenticity and costuming, sexy or not, can’t be pandering if it’s sincere. The “girls” (his word, not mine, and I’m not totally thrilled about it) who enjoy these sort of cult fan objects have had to fight to participate and they’ve been considered definitionally inauthentic, but as long as they really love the object of fandom they should be allowed just like anyone.

Because, as Green asked, what does it get you to say that other people aren’t allowed to like it because they haven’t liked it as long as you have? Someone has got to push back on this hipsterization of fandom—”it was better before it was so mainstream” is an absurd argument, even more so when those same fans are completely invested in mainstream normativity on a number of levels: masculinity, heterosexuality, whiteness, notions of appropriate media consumption, etc.

With respect to this panel, then, it seems pretty clear that it needs a sequel, or maybe two. The question of what sexy costuming means in fan culture deserves more than it got. And the question of female fandom in general sort of deserves its own panel.

But even if there’s only one “Sexy Geek Redux,” it has to be different. My wishlist? For the love of god, can there be fewer postfeminist bloggers? Because, though it’s a valid position to have involved in the debate, they were totally overrepresented. I’d also want more academic representation. Someone who studies sexuality, maybe? And to have something other than a skeezy boy representing men. Seth Green seemed pretty interested in these questions; why not actually put him on the panel this time?

With Comic-Con rapidly becoming the go-to destination for promotion of damn near everything (Really, 24? And Glee?), the character of the convention is changing. And this is as good a time as any for the broad and amorphous subculture that circulates through its halls to really take a look at these issues.

So let’s try that next year.

I’m moving again next week and then it’s the first week of school. I do sincerely hope this won’t cause an interruption in the blogging, but it might.