Vulture published an interview with American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy that touched on many of the points that I considered while watching the premiere of Coven last night. For me, the interview epitomizes the way in which the show often contains grand and somtimes compelling ideas that don’t always come across clearly (or at least readily, which of course is not necessarily the same thing). I am interested in what Murphy has to say and although I disagree with bits of it, I continue to applaud the show for putting forth something different that just makes me want to go along with it for 44 minutes.
In the Vulture interview Denise Martin picks up on the theme of youth and women, noting that both Kathy Bates’ Delpine LaLaurie and Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode express an interest in maintaining a sense of youth. Murphy responds:
Well, there’s a reason why Fiona’s aging: It’s not because she’s dying or because of a natural process. It’s because the next Supreme has declared herself and her powers are growing and they’re sucking the very sap from Fiona…She’s that kind of lady, and it’s very hard for people in power to give up power. That’s the real idea. She’s not feeling well and she doesn’t understand why her vitality is slipping, and it’s really because a new witch in town is sucking her dry.
Here, two things appear to be of note. While LaLaurie is invested in youth and beauty in order to maintain the affections of her husband (who is having affairs), Murphy positions Fiona as interested in youth as a synonym for power and vitality. Both representations/readings of youth are valid here but I am skeptical that the show will actually put these two in conversation with one another and contrast the various ways that youth plays out, much less what youthfulness means to a woman in various contexts.
The second thing of note to me is the way that power is the connective tissue between these women. Although LaLaurie understands power as force (e.g., physically restraining slaves in order to use their blood in a youth ritual), Fiona in some ways represents the opposite as a figure whose power emanates from her ability to force her will upon the world. Here I think that the show is treading on potentially treacherous ground because the show, to me, is so much about power that manifesting this theme through the rather literal theme of magic could either be great as it illustrates otherwise invisible forces or groan inducing as it is attempting to use power to talk about power.
The other dynamic that relates to power—control/subjugation/domination—also makes an interesting appearance through the tension between Cordelia Foxx and Fiona (Cordelia just happens to be Fiona’s daughter and headmistress of the school to train young witches). The premiere episode evidences Cordelia’s desire to harness and focus the powers of young witches while Fiona expresses the sentiment that witches must fight or they burn. Here we see a contrast of sorts between energy that is directed inward and that which is focused outward: control of the self as opposed to control of the world around you.
Another major theme throughout this season almost necessarily has to be women and gender, given the subject of the horror figures at play. In response to the question of how Murphy and crew came up with the powers that would be on display, Murphy says:
They were things that were attributed to witches back in Salem. One had been accused of fucking someone to death. The truth of the matter is the guy was probably a hemophiliac who got too excited. Clairvoyance, the power to read minds, the power to move objects, those are old tried-and-trued things that witches were burned for. The one we took liberties with, and that I love, is Queenie’s [Gabourey Sidibe] power: the human voodoo doll. That ability to do something to yourself and have it transfer to someone else is a voodoo-esque power that some voodoo witches do have. We just gave it to a Salem witch. And Queenie’s gonna be tempted by that Marie Laveau/Angela Bassett voodoo magic. Just wait.
In and of itself, I think the decision to recycle powers is very much what American Horror Story is about: the show reaches into the depths of well-worn horror tropes and tries to weave them together in a context that is both somewhat new and somewhat old. Here, however, I think the show is running the risk of doing a disservice to its subject matter by failing to acknowledge that the powers in question were born out of a suspicion and fear of women’s power and sexuality, which means that employing them as is in a modern context only serves to reassert the underlying assumptions behind those powers. I very much hope that the show will turn some of this on its head and interrogate why American society views women in a particular way and how these instances of uncontrollable women reveal flaws in our conceptualization of gender relations.
On a related note, I think there is an interesting sort of litmus test built into the premiere episode (although the show does not seem to expand on it as of yet). During the course of viewing, we are entreated to two major scenes of brutalization: the collective mutilation of slaves by Madame LaLaurie and the rather unsettling (or at least I hope) attempted gang rape of Madison at the frat party. I do not think that the show asks viewers to compare the two directly or sympathize with one over the other but I think that this is a form of introduction into two of the major oppressed groups in the show. The problem sort of comes with the way in which these scenes are shoved at us, however. Without discounting the severity of what these transgressions represent, the show positions us as viewers firmly on the side of the oppressed and I think that real life is rarely this uncomplicated. I want the show to ask us as viewers to question why we throw our support behind one group (over another at times) and what this says about as individual normal sane people.
The other moment of pause in Murphy’s answer comes from the conflation (which I was initially worried about) between voodoo and witchcraft. I think that one can certainly make some insightful commentary about the parallels between magic users of different traditions but I also do not think that practitioners of voodoo consider themselves witches (and certainly not in the sense of the popular use of the term and the way that the Salem witches do). I think that Murphy is creating a false point of contention here between voodoo and witches when the more interesting discussion (which maybe we will get to) is how both traditions are formed in conversation with Catholicism, although each took different paths. (And on that point, I remain stymied by the use of Pentecostals in the opening episode because those folks seem like a bridge—albeit an unlikely one—between voodoo and witches as people who believe in the channeling of spirits as a very real thing in the world. That they would persecute Lily Rabe’s character for what essentially reminds me of the laying of hands seems a misstep.)
Murphy: The Salem witches and the voodoo witches have been at war for years and years, but something happens where they question that and wonder if instead they should join forces. They realize there’s a common enemy.
Unfortunately, this division between voodoo and witches also takes on a raced dimension with voodoo largely being populated (at this point) by Blacks and Salem’s witches being White. Many others have discussed the inability of Murphy’s shows to deftly handle issues of race but here I think we see some potentially sensitive areas given that we are discussing issues of power and oppression. Early on I expressed trepidation over the show pitting persecuted Whites against oppressed Blacks and some of that seems to have come to fruition.
Murphy has expressed a desire to use the motif of witches to speak to the plight of minorities in America and I think that it is here that he gets caught up in perhaps trying to do too much.
During season one. Jessica and I were talking about how she was always attracted to that Salem story because her granddaughters are actually descendants of the Salem witches. I found that to be very interesting and cool, so I started researching it. I really locked into it when I thought about the witches story as sort of a metaphor for any persecuted and hunted minority group in this country.
Although this is a noble effort and an interesting topic to take on, I think what is missing here is a nuanced discussion of the way in which minorities are often pitted against one another in an attempt to conserve the power that they do have. Given Murphy’s comments, there might be some recognition of this as the factions band together in response to an even greater threat but I think the really interesting point is to see how groups can complain about their own oppression even as they are (unconsciously) working to subjugate others. Given the subject matter of witches it seems so obvious that one can pull in lessons from the history of feminism (in American and otherwise) and this very issue of coalition building and minorities but I think that this is something that the show is likely to miss.
That being said, I remain hopeful for the show to develop into something rather amazing. I think that the show has great potential to deliver something interesting because of its subject matter and, to that end, I believe that Queenie represents the make or break part of the show. For me, Queenie is, in many ways, exactly what the show is about: a black girl who is in a school for white witches and the way in which one must reconcile one’s identity with one’s environment. Murphy seems to indicate that Queenie will be a battleground in the plot of the show (and, really, could it be any more obvious with her power and race?) but I think that Queenie also represents the salvation of the magic community if the show plays it right. Queenie represents the literal bridging of these two communities, embodying the idea that voodoo/Salem isn’t an either/or proposition but in fact a both/and. Voodoo and Salem are not in contention in the way that American Horror Story wants to posit—they operate on entirely different levels!
As a final point, I am interested by this last direction of the show toward Frankenstein’s monster, which is so much about playing God on level (and thus ultimate power and life) but also about the reconfiguring of bodies (the direction that I think horror should be going in because these are the fears/anxieties that we are dealing with as a culture). As a preview to the next episode Murphy says:
The second episode is called “Boy Parts.” Zoe [Taissa Farmiga] is devastated because she had feelings for this boy. Madison wants to make it up to her. So they go into Cordelia’s stash and steal a spell. They go to the morgue, and it turns out all the boys have been horribly dismembered in this crash, and so Madison gets this brilliant idea. “Fuck it, let’s build our perfect boyfriend.” So they take all the best parts they like and create this teenage Frankenstein. Evan really loves playing him because he gets to do something almost like a silent movie, very physical and crazy. He watched a lot of those Frankenstein origin movies, but he’s come up with his own physical thing which is really amazing, and quite naughty.
Nitpicking, you see here how Muphy gets some of the little things wrong (e.g., the creature is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and Frankenstein always refers to the doctor himself although the usage is certainly slippery in modern references) and this makes all of the difference. That being said, I am still excited to see where this will go and I think that the inclusion of this has the ability to add to the central theme of the episode. (Which, for the record, I guess I tend to write off the comments that so much of the show is “random.” I agree that there is often a ton of stuff thrown in, but I continue to believe that much of it revolves around a central idea for each season. The trick is that intent/execution—as I’ve said before—do not always align and so it takes some work for viewers to get on the same page as the writers as to why things make an appearance. Example A being the aliens in season 2 of American Horror Story.)
Seen but Not Heard:
Feminist Narratives of Girlhood
Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011, 320 pp., $15.99 (paperback).
Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, New York: Harper, 2011, 256 pp., $25.99 (hardcover).
University of Southern California
The first thing one needs to know about Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (Harper Perennial, 2011) is that it is not an academic book, nor does it claim to be. Moran, a columnist for the London paper The Times, rightly asserts that the movement of feminism is too important to be discussed solely by academics and endeavors to use vignettes from her life to illustrate particular ways in which the question of feminism infiltrates meaningfully into the everyday lives of ordinary individuals. In and of itself, this effort represents a perfectly admirable attempt to reintroduce notions of feminism into mainstream culture but good intentions can only carry one so far.
Ultimately, when boiled down to its purest essence, Moran’s assertion that she has “stuff to say” (12) is really what this book is all about. Moran has assembled a collection of shorter pieces loosely linked by the fact that they all derive their thrust from a moment in which an experience has given her some insight into the condition of being a woman—and a pointedly white and heterosexual one at that—in the United Kingdom. Given Moran’s background as a columnist, one is not surprised that her book should take this form and, indeed, one might be inclined to deem the project successful if the book were conceived simply as a memoir of sorts. Instead, however, Moran positions her book in the tradition of the feminist practice of consciousness raising and readers must question what sorts of insights are gained from perusing this particular text.
“But wait!” Moran might argue, “I’m not a feminist academic!” (12) And she would be correct in that assertion. What the caveat does not excuse, however, is a demonstrated lack of rigor in thought or practice. As one example, Moran cites an “Amnesty International survey that found that 25 percent of people believe a woman is still to blame for being raped if she dresses ‘provocatively’” (203) which might very well be true but Moran does not provide any means to verify such a statement. It is precisely because feminism is such an important issue that Moran should do her due diligence and not allow her position to be undermined by an easy attack; Moran should force her detractors to confront her ideas and not her evidence, which is frustrating since Moran has some really good ideas.
For example, one of the themes that runs throughout Moran’s book is the way in which being a woman (i.e., female identity) is manifested through, and displayed on, the body and that women’s internalized sense of how to appropriately discipline their bodies plays a key part in becoming a woman in the United Kingdom and the United States. Pubic hair, in particular, occupies a bit of Moran’s attention as its initial appearance and subsequent removal remain closely linked to conceptualizations of womanhood and femininity. A notable section of Moran’s second chapter discusses how technical considerations of shooting pornography marketed to heterosexual men—again we must be wary that this constitutes conjecture for Moran provides no sources—have been imbued with a layer of cultural meaning that consequentially influences women’s grooming habits. Women, in short, are affected by a cultural product that likely does not have their best interests in mind and it is precisely this type of revelation that illustrates the continued relevance of feminism. And yet it is also interesting to note when and where Moran draws arbitrary lines: pubic hair, for example, should be trimmed but not waxed. But why, you might ask? Here Moran misses an opportunity to discuss the larger implications of the way in which women (and men) have been socialized to relate to women’s bodies and although Moran correctly notes that pubic hair is different from other forms of ancillary hair in that it is sexualized, she fails to touch on the broader issue of how hair management (of which trimming would surely be included) is related to perceptions and enactment of femininity.
And of course it would seem rather impossible to discuss female bodies and femininity without broaching the subject of the vagina. Moran muses on a conversation with her younger sister, “So now, in 1989, we have no word for ‘vagina’ at all—and with all the stuff that’s going on down there, we feel we need one.” (56) Although Moran goes on to talk about the various euphemisms that women have for their vagina, she does not touch upon the way in which this practice points to the way in which language plays a crucial role in configuring, maintaining, and enacting the relative subjugation of women. Moran notes, for example, that terms describing the vagina have the ability to cause discomfort but ultimately portrays this phenomenon as empowering—she notes that the most offensive male counterpart is “dick”—but not discuss the ways in which this difference is actually indicative of a problem. What does it mean, for example, that we are much more familiar with, and accepting of, dicks? Nothing particularly good for women, most likely. Compounding the problem, Moran makes a critique about how “pussy” evidences a disconnect between women and their vaginas but does not comment on the way in which a refusal to embrace “vagina” ultimately leads to the same conclusion. Here, instead of making a compelling argument about the way in which language can be used to excavate relationships, Moran merely produces a polemic about the vagina’s various names that ultimately boils down to a description of her personal taste without investigating how her taste—and here one might certainly nod toward Bourdieu—was cultivated in the first place.
And the vagina performs a key function for Moran as she provides a catchy, if unhelpful, survey on page 75 to determine if one is in fact a feminist: Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it? (Feminists, by the way, should answer “yes” to both.) Like Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, we see a way in which the vagina is made to stand in for the entirety of womanhood, essentially reducing the meaningful elements of a woman to her vagina. Surely, this is a provocative question but not incredibly feminist in the long run. Moreover, what about those who do not have a vagina (e.g., men)? How are they supposed to figure out if they are feminists or not? Compounding the problem, we must investigate what it means to be in charge of one’s vagina: in the abstract, one might state that being in charge means that one should be able to do whatever one likes with one’s vagina but we are left to question how such a practice manifests in the real world. Here, Moran’s ambiguity allows her to assume a position that is difficult to counter for who would argue that women should not have control over their own bodies in theory? Moran provides a good sound bite that is ultimately meaningless, however, for there are many ways in which the actions of men (and women) do not evidence a belief that total control of the vagina belongs to the women who bear them.
And yet perhaps the most problematic way in which Moran’s ambiguity affects her writing rests in the rather causal way she employs the term “the patriarchy.” On one hand the term is easy enough to define but where Moran fails is in her refusal to explain exactly what “the patriarchy” encompasses; patriarchy manifests in a variety of forms and through myriad agents as it operates on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels. Here one senses another distinct limitation in her work: How to Be a Woman is written by Moran to other women like Moran. For Moran, “the patriarchy” does not need to be defined because its meaning is assumed. Ultimately Moran’s overly simplistic attempts to define feminism and patriarchy also do a larger disservice as Moran fails to address the notion that individuals may benefit from feminism without ever being feminist themselves. Moran’s assumptions about feminism occlude the nuanced ways in which individuals can work to support both feminism and patriarchal hegemony in a manner that does not produce internal conflict.
In contrast to Moran’s efforts, one feels compelled to laud a work like Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (HarperCollins, 2011) for its ability to use personal narrative as an entrée to discuss the way in which female gender roles are configured and interpreted on a variety of levels. Using her experiences with her daughter as a narrative backbone, Orenstein carefully develops a series of thoughts about the effect that princess culture has on contemporary children.
Primarily focused on the influence of markets, Orenstein shows how economic concerns have played a large part in shaping the world that girls experience today. From the concept of Disney Princesses as an effort to revitalize a flagging corporate consumer products division to the way in which American Girl dolls promote intergenerational female bonding through consumption to the mapping of a family’s aspirations for social mobility onto child beauty pageant contestants, Orenstein illustrates how disparate aspects of girlhood are connected to each other and to a larger system of meaning. It is precisely because of the influence of marketing, Orenstein argues, that the transgressive core of “girl power” has been eschewed for the faux empowerment of “girlz.” The insidious bargain that girls strike is to gain claims toward empowerment by using consumption to reaffirm traditional gender roles. Even as fewer opportunities become salient for young girls—here reference is made to a classroom exercise in which young girls chose to imagine themselves as a princess, a fairy, a butterfly, or a ballerina in contrast to boys who assumed a variety of roles—Orenstein explores how performance of gender has become increasingly divorced from notions of female pleasure. Particularly notable are the ways in which Orenstein uses new communications technologies like social media and picture messaging to showcase how young girls’ identities have become, in part, more externally focused with the cultivation of the self as a kind of real-time performance piece that lies parallel to one’s physical existence. Sexting, for example, is not a post-feminist celebration of the body but rather constitutes a functional practice where girls demonstrate their ability to use their bodies as means toward particular ends (e.g., keeping a boyfriend). Orenstein also suggests that young girls develop a form of internalized self-surveillance as they learn to see themselves and their bodies as others do. Connecting this to chapters on body image and princess gowns, Orenstein builds a case for how body, femininity, and self are intimately related for girls; for many girls, how one feels is related to how one perceives one’s body to look. Ultimately, Orenstein challenges readers to question exactly what kind of practical power is provided by an empowerment that continues to be grounded in perceptions of the female body.
In contrast to the ambiguity that Moran displays about being a woman at the end of her book, Orenstein develops a clear plan of action that asks individuals to consider how they participate in the maintenance of a culture that might be detrimental for girls. Although both authors ground their analysis in the trappings of everyday life, the key to Orenstein’s success is the way in which she calls for a type of engagement that extends beyond Moran’s askance that readers get up on a chair and proclaim “I am a feminist!” In the end, it is a shame, really, for frank discussion of feminism’s importance is sorely needed in today’s society and Caitlin Moran owes the awkward thirteen-year-olds of the world—including the one who forms the core of her story, herself—better.
There are times, I think, when all of this just seems overwhelming. With a new section each week, we are asking each of you to grapple with things that you may not have encountered before and I completely understand that this may not be easy.
But, then again, who said it was going to be?
Although you have to find the balance with this, some part of me believes that, as investigators, we should be a little overwhelmed for it is in this moment that we begin to grasp just how large the problem really is. What was once so clear becomes infinitely murky and we struggle to find a foothold. The issues that Asians Americans face are complex and seemingly never-ending. How do I go about dismantling the myriad problems that we encounter every day? Will I even make a difference? Should I even try?
It’s taken me a few years to get to where I am now but I have to come to believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes.” I get called out for being impractical because I’m not as interested in deliverables, action items, and long-range plans; instead, I’m interested in the transformation that occurs on an individual level when one decides that he or she is capable of making a difference.
And the thing that they never tell you in school is that you don’t have to change the world in a grand way on your first go. Making a difference isn’t about spectacle and scale so much as it is about intent and meaning. There a million ways in which one can change the world on an everyday basis that have profound and lasting implications and it is these sorts of actions that I often think about when we come to issues of sexuality and gender in CIRCLE.
By now, all of you have gone through the exercise where we attempted to place ourselves in the mindset of someone who does not identify as straight. Although our session exhibited moments of laughter and sympathy, I hope that the exercise also went beyond this to generate a feeling of empathy. I get that it’s a bit heavy to think about some of these things on a night when you are coming off of class and looking forward to homework, but I would challenge my session to think about how they would react if they couldn’t just go home after all was said and done. How might you feel if you really had to tear off the corners of your star?
The thing that we strive to teach our students in CIRCLE is that all of these issues are linked (and, yes, messy) but that you can also apply what you’ve learned from one week to another. What if you thought about sexuality like you think about ethnicity? Students in our session can’t just stop being Asian American—just like other students can’t stop being GLBTIQ. How can you map your need to justify your worth as an Asian onto things like gender or sexuality?
But even if that’s a bit too heavy for you, I do want to mention something that I brought up at the conclusion of our session. Issues of gender and sexuality figure heavily into what I do, along with my experiences in college admission and psychology. I spend a lot of time thinking about self-harm/mutilation, eating disorders, depression, restlessness and projects like It Gets Better (which I can happily discuss the faults of). I spend a good deal of my time trying to think about ways to change educational policy to help students to recognize and feel of worth; I think about bullying in schools but also bullying on Perez Hilton, TMZ, and even by Dan Savage.
One of the things that I have learned in my years of college admission is that an increasing number of students are suffering from something that I call “floating duck syndrome”—on the surface, students are serene and perfect but, underneath the water, their legs are churning. Needless to say, students have some issues. I don’t mean to imply that students will not be able to overcome these things, but I must admit that I was shocked to learn about what they were dealing with.
However, I should also mention that I am incredibly hopeful for the generation of students that is following in my footsteps. I am hopeful that students will learn to brave the dark places of themselves, secure in the knowledge that friends and family will always be there to draw them back. I am hopeful that students will come to understand who they are and accept themselves for that. And, I am hopeful that students will learn to step outside of themselves in order to offer their help to those in need. I am lucky to be in a situation where I can empower future students to realize that, although occasionally overwhelmed by adversity, they are all survivors in some respect: any person who has ever been teased, ridiculed, outcast, or made to simply feel less than is a survivor and can embrace that. And, because you are a survivor, you have been imbued with the power to tell your story to others in similar situations in order to pull them through. Ultimately, I am also hopeful because I have learned that young people are incredibly resilient and innovative—you can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.
And one of those amazing things is to realize just how much power you have. As I mentioned before, you don’t have to change the world overnight but I challenge you to realize that, just by being yourself, you possessed an incredible amount of agency: each and every one of you has the power to keep at least one point of that star intact. If they so choose, the you have the power to potentially save a life—and how amazing is that?
This week you were all given stars, but the thing that you need to realize—as cliché as it might sound—is that you are all, in your own way, stars. Go out there and burn bright. Shine like you’ve never had any doubt.
It should come as no surprise that the futurist perspective of transhumanism is closely linked with Science Fiction given that both areas tend to, in various ways, focus on the intersection of technology and society. Generally concerned with the ways in which technology will serve to enhance human beings (along the way possibly evolving past “human” to become “posthuman”), the transhumanist movement generally adopts a positivist stance as it envisions a future in which disease and aging are eradicated or cognitive processes accelerated.  In one way, transhumanism is presented as a cure-all for the problems that have plagued human beings throughout our history, providing hope that our fragile, corruptible, mortal, and impermeable bodies can forever be augmented, maintained, fixed, or reconstituted. A seductive promise, surely. Science Fiction then takes the ideas presented by transhumanist theory and makes them a little more tangible, affording us the opportunity to visit these futurist communities as we dream about how our destiny will be changed for the better while also allowing us to glimpse warnings against hubris through works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Without giving it much thought, it seems as though we are readily able to spot the presence of transhumanism in Science Fiction—but what if we were to reverse the gaze and instead use Science Fiction as a critical lens through which transhumanism could be viewed and understood? In short, what are lessons that we can garner from a close reading of Science Fiction texts can be used as tools to think through both the potential benefits and drawbacks of this particular direction for humanity?
Although admittedly an oversimplification, the utopia/dystopia binary gives us a place to start. Lest we become overly enamored with the potential and the promise of a movement like transhumanism, we must remember to ask ourselves, “Just whose utopia is it?” Using Science Fiction as framework to understand the transhumanist movement, we are wary of a body of work that has traditionally excluded minority perspectives (e.g., the female gender or race) until called to explicitly express such views (see the presence of, and need for, works labeled as “feminist Science Fiction”). This is, of course, not to suggest that exceptions to this statement do not exist. However, it seems prudent here to mention that although the current landscape of Science Fiction has been affected by the democratizing power of the Internet, its genesis was largely influenced by an author-audience relationship that drew on experiences and knowledge primarily codified in White middle-class males. Although we can readily derive examples of active exclusion on the part of the genre’s actors (i.e., we must remember that this is not a property of the genre itself), we must also recognize a cultural context that steered various types of minorities away from fiction grounded in science and technology; for individuals who did not grow up idolizing the lone boy inventor/tinkerer or fantasizing about the space race, Science Fiction of the early- to mid-20th century did not readily represent reality of any sort, alternate, speculative, future, or otherwise.
If we accept that many of the same cultural factors that worked against diversity in early forms of Science Fiction continue to persist today with respect to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (Johnson, 1987; Catsambis, 1995; Nosek, et al., 2009) we must also question the vision put forth by transhumanists and be willing to accept that, for all its glory, the movement may very well represent an incomplete ideal state—invariably all utopias need revision. Although we might consider our modern selves as more progressive than authors of early Science Fiction, examination of current discourse surrounding transhumanism reveals a continued failure to incorporate discussions surrounding race (Ikemoto, 2005). In particular, this practice is potentially problematic as the Biomedical/Health field (in which transhumanism is firmly situated) has a demonstrated history of legitimizing multiple types of discrimination based on dimensions that include, but certainly are not limited to, race and gender. By not attempting to understand the implications of the movement from the viewpoint of multiple stakeholders, transhumanism potentially becomes a site for dominant ideology to reinforce its sociocultural constructions of the biological body. Moreover, if we have learned anything from the ways in which new media use intersects with race and socioeconomic status, we must be wary of the ways in which technology/media can exacerbate existing inequalities (or create new ones!). The issue of accesses to the technology of transhumanism immediately becomes pertinent as we see the potential for the restratification of society according to who can afford (broadly defined, including not just to cost but also including things like missed work due to recovery time) to have these procedures performed. In short, much like in Science Fiction, we must not only question who the vision is authored by, but also who it is intended for. Yet, far from suggesting that current transhumanist aspirations are necessarily or inherently incompatible with other strains, I merely argue that many types of voices must be included in the conversation if we are to have any hope of maintaining a sense of human dignity.
And dignity plays an incredibly important role in bioethical discussions as we being to take a larger view of transhumanism’s potential effect, folding issues of disability into the discussion as we contemplate another (perhaps more salient) way in which society can act to inscribe form onto a body. Additionally, mention of disability forces an expansion in the definition of transhumanism beyond mere “enhancement,” with its connotation of augmentation of able-bodied individuals, to include notions of treatment. Although beyond the scope of this paper, the treatment/enhancement distinction is worth investigating as it not only has the potential to designate and define concepts of normal functioning (Daniels, 2000) but also suffers from a general lack of consensus regarding use of the terms “treatment” and “enhancement” (Menuz, Hurlimann, & Godard, 2011). But, looking at the overlap of treatment, enhancement, and disability, we must ask ourselves questions like, “If one of the potential benefits of transhumanism is the prevention and/or rectification of conditions like disability and deformity, who should be fixed? Who deserves to be fixed? But, most importantly, who needs to be fixed?”
Continuing to apply perspectives used to analyze the intersection of race, class, and technology, we see the potential for transhumanism thought to impose a particular kind of label onto individual bodies, inscribing a particular system of values in the process. Take, for example, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough who have been criticized for actively attempting to conceive a deaf child (Spriggs, 2002). Although the couple (both of whom are deaf) do not consider deafness to be a disability or a liability, a prevailing view in America works to force a particular type of identity onto the couple and their child (i.e., deafness is abnormal) and the family will undoubtedly be forced to eventually confront thinking informed by transhumanism in justifying their choice and very existence.
However, even seemingly straightforward cases like Olympic hopeful Oscar Pistorius have forced us to grapple with new questions regarding the consideration of recipients of biomedical augmentation. Born without fibula, a state that would likely be classified as “disabled” by himself and others, Oscar Pistorius won gold medals in the 100, 200, and 400 meter events at the 2008 Paraolympic Games but was initially banned from entering the Olympic Games due to concern that his artificial legs conferred an unfair advantage. Although this ruling was later overturned, Pistorius failed to make the qualifying time to participate in the 2008 Olympics Games. Pistorius has, however, met the qualifying standard for the 2012 Games and his participation will assuredly affect future policy regarding the use of artificial limbs as well as a renegotiation of the term “disabled” (Burkett, McNamee, & Potthast, 2011; Van Hilvoorde & Landeweerd, 2010). Interestingly, Pistorius also raises larger issues about the nature of augmentation in Sport, an area that has long wrestled with the concept of competitive advantages conferred through body modification and enhancement.
Ultimately we see that while improvements in human-computer interfaces, computer-mediated communication, neuroscience, and biomechanics paint a resplendent future full of possibilities for a movement like transhumanism, the philosophy also reveals a struggle over phrases like “human enhancement” that have yet to be resolved. Although I am personally most interested in issues of identity and religion that will most likely arise as a result of this cultural transformation (see Spezio, 2005), I want to suggest that larger societal issues must also be raised and discussed. Although we might understand the fundamental issue of transhumanism as a question of whether we should accept the body the way it is, I think the more instructive line of inquiry (if perhaps harder to initially understand) thoroughly examines the ways in which transhumanism builds upon a historical construction of the concept of the body as natural while simultaneously challenging it. Without such critical reflection, transhumanism, like many utopic endeavors, runs the risk of limiting our future to one that is restricted by the types of issues that we can imagine in the present; although our path forward is necessarily guided by the questions that we ask today, utopia turns to dystopia when we fixate on a idealized state and forget why we even bothered to seek advancement in the first place. If, however, we apply the theoretical frameworks provided by Science Fiction to our real lives and reconceptualize utopia as a process—a pursuit that is ongoing, reflexive, and dynamic—instead of as a product, we stand a chance of accomplishing what we sought to do without diminishing individual autonomy or being consumed by the very technology we hoped to integrate.
 Interestingly, in some conceptualizations, aging is now being understood as a disease-like process rather than a biological inevitability. Aside from the radical shift in thinking represented by a movement away from death as biological fact, I am fascinated by the ways in which this indicates a changing understanding of the “natural” state of our bodies.
 This should not suggest that a utopia/dystopia binary is the only way of considering this issue, but merely one way of utilizing language central to Science Fiction in order to understand transhumanism. Moreover, like most things, transhumanism is multidimensional and I am hesitant to cast it onto a good/bad dichotomy but I think that the notion of critical utopia can be instructive here.
 A complex notion itself worthy of detailed discussion. A recent issue of The American Journal of Bioethics featured a number of articles on the concept of dignity and how transhumanism worked to uphold or undermine it. See de Melo-Martin, 2010; Bostram, 2008; Sadler, 2010; Jotterand, 2010. Although “dignity” seems difficult to define concretely, Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard suggest a “personal optimum state” based on cultural, socio-historical, biological, and psychological features (2011). One might note, however, that the highly indivdualized nature of Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard’s criteria makes implimentation of policy difficult.
Bostram, N. (2008). Dignity and Enhancement. In A. Schulman (Ed.), Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (pp. 173-207). Washington, DC: The President’s Council on Bioethics.
Burkett, B., McNamee, M., & Potthast, W. (2011). Shifting Boundaries in Sports Technology and Disability: Equal Rights or Unfair Advantage in the Case of Oscar Pistorius? Disability and Society, 26(5), 643-654.
Catsambis, S. (1995). Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Science Education in the Middle Grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(3), 243-257.
Daniels, N. (2000). Normal Functioning and the Treatment-Enhancement Distinction. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 9, 309-322.
de Melo-Martin, I. (2010). Human Dignity, Transhuman Dignity, and All That Jazz. The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 53-55.
Ikemoto, L. (2005). Race to Health: Racialized Discourses in a Transhuman World. DePaul Journal of Health Care Law, 9(2), 1101-1130.
Johnson, S. (1987). Gender Differences in Science: Parallels in Interest, Experience and Performance. International Journal of Science Education, 9(4), 467-481.
Jotterand, F. (2010). Human Dignity and Transhumanism: Do Anthro-Technological Devices Have Moral Status? The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 45-52.
Menuz, V., Hurlimann, T., & Godard, B. (2011). Is Human Enhancement Also a Personal Matter? Science and Engineering Ethics.
Nosek, B. A., Smyth, F. L., Sriram, N., Lindner, N. M., Devos, T., Ayala, A., et al. (2009, June 30). National Differences in Gender: Science Stereotypes Predict National Sex Differences in Science and Math Achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(26), 10593–10597.
Sadler, J. Z. (2010). Dignity, Arete, and Hubris in the Transhumanist Debate. American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 67-68.
Spezio, M. L. (2005). Brain and Machine: Minding the Transhuman Future. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 44(4), 375-380.
Spriggs, M. (2002). Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf Like Them. Journal of Medical Ethics, 283.
Van Hilvoorde, I., & Landeweerd, L. (2010). Enhancing Disabilities: Transhumanism under the Veil of Inclusion? Disability and Rehabilitation, 32(26), 2222-2227.
This week, our class continued to explore ideas of gender in the world of Caprica. Focusing primarily on the women, students began to contemplate the ways in which sexuality and gender intersect. Although I study this particular overlap extensively in respect to Horror, our class evidenced some interesting ideas in this arena and I will leave it to them to carry on the discussion.
Before proceeding, I should take a quick second to differentiate the terms “sex” and “gender”: I use “sex” in reference to a biological classification while I see “gender” as socially constructed. Although patriarchal/heteronormative stances have traditionally aligned the two concepts, positioning them along a static binary, scholarship in fields such as Gender Studies and Sociology has effectively demonstrated that the interaction between sex and gender is much more fluid and dynamic (Rowley, 2007). For example, in our current culture, we have metrosexuals coexisting alongside retrosexuals and movements to redefine female beauty (the Dove “Real Beauty” ads were mentioned in class and their relative merits–or lack thereof—deserve a much deeper treatment than I can provide here).
Although a number of students in our class focused on the sexuality ofAmanda Graystone, Diane Winston poignantly noted that the character of Amanda also invoked the complex web of associations between motherhood, women, and gender. Motherhood, I would argue, plays an important part in the definition of female identity in America; our construction of the “female” continually assigns meaning to women’s lives based on their status as, or desire to be, mothers. (Again, drawing upon my history with gender and violence, I suggest that we can partially understand the pervasive nature of this concept by considering how society variously views murderers, female murderers, and mothers who murder their children.) In line with this idea, we see that almost every female featured in the episode was directly connected to motherhood in some fashion (with Evelyn perhaps being the weakest manifestation, although we know that she has just started down the path that will lead her into becoming the mother of young Willie).
Amanda, the easiest depiction to deconstruct, voices a struggle of modern career women as she feels the pressure to “have it all.” Although Amanda tells Mar-Beth that she suffered from Post-Partum Depression, and explains her general inability to connect with her daughter as a newborn (the ramifications of which we have already seen played out over the course of the series thus far), she later informs Agent Durham that she circumvented Mar-Beth’s suspicions by lying (we assume that she was referring to the aforementioned interaction, but this is not specified). For me, this moment was significant in that it made Amanda instantly more relatable—something that I have struggled with for a while now—as a woman who may have, in fact, tried desperately to connect with her daughter but simply could not.
Both Daniel and Amanda, it seems, had trouble fully understanding their daughter Zoe. While Amanda’s struggles play out on an emotional level, Daniel labors to decipher the secret behind Zoe’s resurrection program (a term charged with religious significance and also resonance within the world ofBattlestar Galactica). Here we see a parallel to the female notion of motherhood–Daniel, in his own way, is giving birth to a new life (he hopes). Yet, as the title alludes to, Daniel experiences a false labor: his baby is not quite ready to be let loose in the world. Moreover, like his wife, Daniel attempts to force something that should occur naturally, resulting in a less-than-desired outcome.
For Daniel, this product is a virtual Amanda, who was discussed by some of our class as they pointed out stark differences in sexuality and sexualization. Although the contrast between the real and virtual versions of Amanda holds mild interest, the larger question becomes one of the intrinsic value of “realness.” Despite Daniel’s best attempts, he continues to berate the virtual Amanda for not being real, much to her dismay as she, through no fault of her own, cannot understand that she is fundamentally broken. Although not necessarily appropriate for this course, we can think about the issues raised by virtual reality, identities, and reputations along with our constant drive for “authenticity” in a world forever affected by mediated representations. Popular culture has depicted dystopian scenarios like The Matrix that argue against our infatuation with the veneer—underneath a shiny exterior, some would argue, we are rotting. Images, according to critics like Daniel Boorstin and Walter Benjamin, leave something to be desired.
Sub-par copies also appear in Graystone Industries’ newest advertisement for “Grace,” the commercial deployment of Daniel’s efforts, along with a contestation over image. Daniel quibbles about his virtual image (which is admittedly similar to the one that Joe Adama saw the first time that he entered V world) but doesn’t balk at selling the bigger lie of reunification. (Exploring this, I think, tells us a lot about Daniel and his perception of the world.)
On one level, what Daniel offers is a sort of profane/perverted Grace that is situated firmly in the realm of the material; although it addresses notions of the afterlife and death, it attempts to exert control over them through science. Drawing again from my background in Horror and Science Fiction, we can see that while Daniel’s promise is appealing, we can come back “wrong” (Buffy) or degrade as we continue to be recycled (Aeon Flux). Media warnings aside, I would argue that the allure of Daniel’s Grace is the promise of eternal life but would ultimately be undermined by the program’s fulfillment. In a similar fashion, religion, I think, holds meaning for us because it offers a glimpse of the world beyond but does not force us to contemplate what it would actually be like to live forever without any hope of escaping the mundanity of our lives (Horror, on the other hand, firmly places us in the void of infinity and explores what happens to us once we’ve crossed over to the other side).
Perhaps more importantly, however, the reunited parties in the commercial for Grace reconstitute a family: after panning over a torch bearing two triangles (which, if we ascribe to Dan Brown’s symbology lessons, could represent male/female), we see a husband returned to his wife and children. Needless to say, the similarities between the situation portrayed and Daniel’s own are obvious. On one level, the commercial has a certain poignancy when juxtaposed with Daniel’s low-grade avatar but also subtly reinforces the deeper narrative thread of the family within the episode.
Picking up on a different representation of the family, classmates also wrote about the contrasting depictions of motherhood as embodied in Mar-Beth andClarice. Although some students focused on the connections between genderroles and parenting, others commented on the divergent views of Mar-Beth and Clarice concerning God and family. One student even mentioned parallels between Clarice and Abraham in order to explore the relationship between the self, the family, and God. Culminating in a post that considers the role of mothers and females in the structure of the family, this succession of blog entries examines family dynamics from the interpersonal level to the metaphysical.
Although we each inevitably respond to different things in these episodes, I believe that there is much to gain by looking at “False Birth” through the lens of the family. For example, what if we look back at a relatively minor (if creepy) scene where Ruth effectively tells Evelyn to sleep with her son? Much like Clarice (and arguably Mar-Beth) is/are the matriarchs of their house, Ruth rules over the Adamas. Since we are exploring gender, let’s contrast these examples with that of the Guatrau, who holds sway over a different type of family—how does Clarice compare with Ruth? Ruth with the Guatrau? How does the organizational structure of the family in each case work with (or against) religion? We often talk about the ability of religion (organized or lived) to provide meaning, to tell us who/what we are, and to develop community—and yet these are also functions of family.
Hinted at by the inclusion of Atreus, whose story is firmly situated in family in a fashion that would give any modern soap opera a run for its money, we begin to see a pattern as the writers continually reinforce the connections between family and the divine. The short version of this saga is that Atreus’ grandfather cooked and served his son Pelops as a test to the gods (and you thought Clarice was ruthless) and incurs wrath and a curse. After Pelops causes the death of his father-in-law, Atreus and his brother Thyestes murder their step-brother and are banished. In their new home, Atreus becomes king and Thyestes wrests the throne away from Atreus (after previously starting an affair with his wife). In revenge Atreus kills and cooks Thyestes’ son (and taunts him with parts of the body!) and Thyestes eventually has sex with his daughter (Pelopia) in order to produce a son (Aegisthus) who is fated to kill Atreus. Before Atreus dies, however, he fathers Agamemnon and Menelaus, two brothers with their own sordid history that includes marrying sisters (one of whom is the famous Helen). As most of you know, the Trojan war then ensues and Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia; although Iphigenia is happy to die for the war, her mother, Clytemnestra, holds a grudge and sleeps with Aegisthus (remember him?) and eventually kills Agamemnon out of anger. The son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Orestes, kills his mother in order to avenge his father and, in so doing, becomes one of the first tragic heroes who has to choose between two evils. If we want to take this a step further, we can also examine the resonance between Orestes and Mal from Firefly, to bring it back full circle.
The name of Mar-Beth may be an allusion to MacBeth (although it is entirely possible that I am reading too much into this), which is also a story about power, kings, and family. Although I am most familiar with Lady MacBeth and her OCD (obsessed with her guilt, she is compelled to wash invisible blood off of her hands), I would also suggest that Lady MacBeth overlaps with Clarice and the relationship between the MacBeths is similar to that of the Clarice and her husbands.
As much as our class does not focus on institutional religion, a background in the Christian concept of Grace provides some interesting insight into Daniel’s project. Although I am not an expert in the subject—I very much defer to Diane—I think that we could make a strong argument for the role of Grace in Christianity and its links to salvation as thematic elements in “False Labor.” Building off of my reaction post, we might think about the role that Grace plays in Daniel’s life and how Joe’s words to Daniel on the landing of the Graystone building speak to exactly this concept.
There seems to be an interesting distinction developing between notions of the earth/soil and the air/sky. The Taurons/Halatha, as we have seen before and continue to see in this episode, evidence a strong spiritual connection with the soil (and are also called “Dirteaters”) as Sam utters a prayer before he is about to be executed. We also see the Halatha grumble when the figure of Phaulkon on a television screen, whose name can be associated with flying and the sky. Moreover, in their ways, Daniel and Joe embody this duality as they both show concern for their families but attempt to resolve their issues in different ways–Joe, as is his want, concentrates on the material while Daniel looks toward the intangible.
To this day, I still remember the first time that I rejected Gender Studies as a valid area of concern: in college, a friend had joined the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and I had declined an invitation to attend. I was, at the time, sympathetic toward women but still too caught up in notions of second wave feminism to identify with a cause in any formal way (well, that and the challenge to the already fragile male ego made joining such an organization an impossibility for me at the time). I am not proud of this moment, but not particularly ashamed either—it was what it was.
How ironic, then, that issues of gender have become one of my primary focuses in media: the representation, construction, configuration, positioning, and subversion of gender is what often excites me about the texts that I study. Primarily rooted in Horror and Science Fiction, I look at archetypes ranging from the Final Girl and New Male (Clover, 1992), to the sympathetic/noble male and predatory lesbian vampires of the 1970s, to the extreme sexualities of the future.
In particular, I enjoy the genres of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction because they allow us to grapple with deeply-seeded thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in ways that we could never confront directly. And, unlike traditional religion, which often attempts to tackle “the big questions” head on, media can provide a space to explore and experiment as we struggle to find the answers that we so desperately seek. The challenge for our students is that so much of American culture is steeped in traditions that reflect underlying aspects of patriarchy; from economics, to religion, to politics and culture, America’s values, thought, and language have been influenced by patriarchal hegemony (King, 1993). All of a sudden, we begin to question what we have been taught and wonder how history has been inscribed by men, afforded privilege to males, restricted the power of the female, and subjugated the female body (Creed, 1993).
And, the female body, as a site of contestation, provides a solid point of entry for a discussion of gender issues; gender is inextricably linked with sex—Clover, for example, argues that sex follows gender performance in Horror films (1992)—and also inseparable from discussion of the bodies that manifest and enact issues of gender. Consider how women’s bodies have traditionally been tied to notions of home, family, and reproduction. The basic biological processes inherent to women serve to define them in a way that is inescapable; as opposed to the hardness of men, women are soft, permeable, and oozing. On another level, we are treated to an examination of the female body through depictions of birth gone awry: from Alien, to possession (and its inevitable consequence of female-to-male transformation), to devil spawn, we have been conditioned to understand women as the bearers of the world’s evil.
Issues of birth also raise important notions at the intersection of science, gender, and the occult. Possession movies, in particular, have an odd history of female “victims” that undergo a series of medical tests (evidencing a binary that our class has come to label as Science vs. Magic/Faith) and feature male doctors who typically try to figure out what’s wrong with the female patient—they are literally trying to determine her secret (Burfoot & Lord, 2006). Looking at this theme in a larger context, we reference the Enlightenment (which was previously discussed in our course) and La Specola’s wax models as examples of scientific movements in the 17th century (and again in the 19th century) that sought to wrest secrets from the bodies of women, evidencing a fascination with the miracle of birth and understanding the human (particularly female) body. (La Specola as a public museum had an interesting role in introducing images of the female body into visual culture and into the minds of the public.) Underscoring the presence of wax models is a desire to delve deeper, peeling away the successive layers of the female form in order to “know” her (echoes of this same process can assuredly be found in modern horror films). It seems, then, that the rise of Science has coincided with an increased desire to deconstruct the female body (and, by extension, the female identity).
In similar ways, we saw echoes of this mentality embodied by Daniel Graystone as he struggled to understand Automaton Zoe’s secret earlier in the season. Speaking to a larger ideology of Science/Reason/Logic as the ultimate path to truth (as opposed to emotion/intuition), we again see an example of the female body being probed. And although Automaton Zoe is not a cyborg in the strictest sense of the term, we can understand her as a synthesis of human/machine components–this then allows us to incorporate previous readings on the presence of the female cyborg in Science Fiction.
Given our class’ focus on faith in television, however, we can also consider how female transgression has roots in Christian tradition as demonstrated by the story of Eve (which is also a story about the consequences of female curiosity in line with Pandora and Bluebeard)—how many ways can we keep women in check?
Restricting depictions of female sexuality and pleasure represents one such method according to Kimberly Pierce, director of Boys Don’t Cry (Dick, 2006). Tied to a morality influenced (in America, at least) by Christianity, we have come to consider sexuality (in general, and female sexuality in particular) as something sinful and worthy of shame. We see sex as something grounded in the material, or indicative of lust; sex, necessary on a biological level, can cause tension as we fail to reconcile its presence in our lives.
Addressing this notion, Gary Laderman argues that we might benefit from a reconsideration of our moral position on sex and religion, likening an orgasm to a religious epiphany or ritual. In essence, Laderman suggests that, as we climax we are released from the concerns of this world (even if for just a moment!) and exist in a timeless space where our individual sense of self melts as we commune with an entity/feeling that is larger than ourselves (2009). Put simply, we transcend. Further, as we continue with issues of the sacred and sex, we begin to see that the relationship between religion and sexuality becomes more complex as we look to Saint Teresa (as popularized by Bernini’s sculpture) and Saint Sebastian with an eye toward BDSM. Here, we have religious ecstasy depicted in visual terms that mirror the orgasmic andcontend with issues of penetration with respect to male and female bodies.
Picking up on the discrepancies between male and female bodies, our class began to note ways in which traditional gender archetypes of male and female were challenged by “Things We Lock Away” (here, here, here, here, and here) while others chose to examine the ways in which lived religion was embodied by females. Are these particular manifestations of lived religion typical for women? To what extent does the show support traditional gender norms and it what ways does it challenge them (if at all)? We can argue that Zoe takes charge of her life, but she does so by ascribing to the role of “Woman Warrior,” a role that might be viewed as empowering, but is, in fact, degenerative as aspects of femininity are stripped away–in becoming a warrior, the female transforms her body into that of a male through the use of force. (We can also certainly talk about the imagery conveyed by the sword as Zoe’s weapon of choice.) Women, in short, are powerful when they emulate men. Contrast this with portrayals of the “new” female hero as seen through the eyes of Miyazaki (Spirited Away) or del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and we begin to understand just how much Zoe ascribes to traditional notions of masculine/feminine.
But all is not lost. “Things We Lock Away” saw the birth of Chip Zoe (in reference to Chip Six from Battlestar Galactica), who, like her namesake, represented a manifestation of the divine born out of a connection with that which makes us human. Recasting power in terms of self-acceptance and love, the truly progressive feminist heroes and heroines are the ones who tap into the strength that we all have, showing us that we all have the potential to become more than we ever thought that we could (think Buffy before and after the end of Season 7 minus the Slayer Potential birthright).
But, as we all know, braving the depths of ourselves and coming back alive is no easy task–we need only look back at “There Is Another Sky” in order to understand just how fraught this path is. And so, throughout the episode, we see examples of people suppressing and repressing their base instincts: running to V world and indulging in illicit behavior in order to remain “civilized” in Caprica City; the lingering shot of Daniel’s floor, upon which Tom Vergis’ blood will forever be inscribed (notice the one at peace is the one who acknowledged the brutality of the situation at hand); Amanda and Lacy allaying their guilt over their acts of betrayal; Tamara clinging to her human identity as the only sense of self that she’s ever known. When it comes to our humanity, we hide, protect, obsess over, and fetishize the best and worst parts of ourselves; if only we could take a page or two from the new hero and realize that the answer has always been–and will always be–love.
T.S.Eliot once wrote that “Aprilis the cruelest month.”
While I don’t know if I would call it cruel, I will admit that, between work, the weather, and life, things have been pretty bad in the past few weeks. For example, my alma mater has been mentioned on the news several times for incidents regarding student safety with one item in particular causing a fairly strong reaction from students and staff on campus.
Reading the article, I found myself appalled. I will never be able to understand how the campus community can mobilize so quickly to evidence blame and hate. Some student reactions to the incident have mentioned that the girl should have expected nothing less from a fraternity party, that she was drunk and/or slutty, or that she felt regret about having sex and called rape unfairly. Other students made light of the situation by noting the implausibility of such an incident occurring in a fraternity house that holds a reputation for having a number of gay members.
“Why do you think the vast majority of people on here don’t believe this girl’s story? They’ve heard it too many times before.”
“Also to the girls who got raped, waking up the next morning and feeling bad about being a slut is no reason to suddenly cry rape, don’t go to these parties if you don’t want sex and intoxicants.”
“It may not be the case here, but when girls make bad decisions (i.e., get too drunk and make a mistake like hooking up with a random dude), crying “rape” can be a way to receive sympathy instead of scorn. This may not be the logic of many (or even most) girls, but there is a segment of the female population that does this.”
“However Lambda has a great defense as nearly 1/2 the house is gay. Most girls leave that house at 3am with better clothing, hair and make-up then when they left home earlier that night.”
For all the good things the school does, there are times when I am absolutely disgusted by my peers who think and feel this way. Regardless of who this girl was or how many drinks she had, she did not deserve to get assaulted (allegedly). I do not see how people cannot have compassion for her or how people can disparage this young woman’s character. Suppose that this girl was not actually assaulted but just thought that she had been—does she not still warrant some measure of respect and sympathy? Even if it were later discovered that she had called rape falsely, does the matter not deserve to be investigated and treated sincerely?
However, just because the alleged perpetrator is at fault does not mean that the female student isn’t wrong. Let’s be clear, I’m in no way blaming this girl and while no woman (or man, for that matter) deserves to be raped, it seems like smarter choices could have been made all around.
Undoubtedly this is not the first incident of sexual assault on a college campus, but all of these girls are someone’s daughter, possibly someone’s sister, and perhaps someone’s future mother. More than that, these women are people and fellow human beings—doesn’t that count for something? What man would ever say, “It’s okay that my female relative got raped. She secretly wanted it.”? I don’t think that all men are evil or to imply that fraternity parties are inherently bad—I get the spirit of having fun at a house and I certainly have no moral qualms about consensual (safe!) sex even if it’s on a somewhat suspect couch that may or may not glow under a black light (Not that I’ve ever done that. Seriously.)—but I do think that college students need to actively engage in, and evaluate, their environments in order to figure out which ones are suitable for them.
I began walking toward my car anxious to escape the cool air and the crowds. Turning to Kim, I asked, “So, we almost joined a cult, right?”
This was, to be sure, not where I had ever pictured myself on a Sunday morning.
Scott had been trying to get me to attend a spiritual movement called Agape for about a year or so and I finally caved with the stipulation that Kim came along. Perhaps it was my skepticism, or perhaps it was my nature, but I began to question my surroundings as words rained down around me. I didn’t go in with the mindset that I wanted to disprove or discredit anything, but I did want to figure out if this made sense for me.
A part of that morning’s discussion focused on the “Big I” (a representation of the true self) and the “Little I” as an amalgamation of external influences. The “Little I” is the summation of being told what we should think instead of thinking for ourselves. I didn’t disagree with the duality, but I did struggle with the concept that the two selves were mutually exclusive.
In my mind, gender is one of the arguments against the distinctiveness between the “Big I” and “Little I.” The conception of male and female is integral to our fundamental nature but is also something that we learn. (I should take a moment to differentiate gender as a societal creation reacting to the biological sex of a person and not the actual physical sex of a person.) I understand the tendency to confuse the two types of “I”—the difficulty arises when we are unable to see the influences that these exterior constructions have on us. In a sense, we are like the Bluepills in “The Matrix”: it is impossible to see the fabricated world around us until we step outside of it.
Traditional gender roles and heterosexuality are no exception to this idea as they represent, for many people, the “normal” way of thinking and are, as such, frequently invisible. The notion of heterosexuality is pervasive and ideas of gender are constructed in the schema of heterosexuality. Others’ normative heterosexual perceptions continually affect who we think we are, and our identity is often built in reaction to the world around us, for we do not develop in a void. Yet, heterosexuality also depends on our ability to create, identify, and define gender—how can you conceptualize “straight” without first defining “man” and “woman”? Our general inability to escape heterosexual standards (not necessarily a bad thing) means that our sense of self is continually tied to gender and, thusly, our “Little I.”
Although we may not have always consciously debated the issue, we have been continually exposed to the constructed nature of the self. Take Superman, Anya from Buffy, or Cylons—these figures in popular culture mirror the process of learning to become human (and/or people!) and all of their processes necessitated a struggle with what it meant to be male or female in a society. The archetypes of gender that these outsiders have come up with are both incredibly false but undeniably true.
Even if the “Little I” were always bad, some followers of Kant would argue that there is nothing wrong in maintaining one’s inclusion in an ultimately detrimental system if one had made an informed choice to participate. So, rather than eschew the “Little I,” we should strive to understand how we assemble our self-images. The real danger lies in those times when we only define ourselves by external criteria or our “Little I.” Although I might disagree with Agape’s execution, I do believe that it is cautioning us against this perilous tendency, telling its followers, like every other religion, that “this is not all that we are.”
She scratched her head for a second and slowly placed her hand back on the table.
“I guess the most important thing that I’ve learned is that Feminism isn’t about hating men, but…well…more about equality of the sexes.”
The process of interviewing had been long and tiring but here, at last, was what I had been waiting all day for. Finally, as some might call it, was the breakthrough moment when this student understood that something that she had learned had actually changed the way in which she viewed the world. I left the interview room happy that this student had come to a deeper understanding about a subject but didn’t think much about our conversation for a couple of days.
Then, while catching up on e-mails, I happened upon a news story where a group of men marched against domestic violence. “Great!” I thought, “It’s always nice to see males take on this issue.” But as I looked further into the event I realized that the primary focus of the march was to end domestic violence instigated by men on women.
Okay, sure, if you play the odds, male on female violence probably represents the cases that you hear about most often. However, the question that I had was, “Why did it matter?”
While I certainly don’t want to imply that any type of domestic violence is necessarily less deserving of attention than any other, why is it that we are so eager to get fired up about protecting women but not about protecting men from females? Or even from other males for that matter? Can you make a case where a male is physically able to defend himself from a woman and therefore doesn’t need outside help? What about non-physical abuse? If so, what does this say about your assumptions about gender roles? What happens to this argument when the aggressor and the victim are of the same sex? Is this any worse or better than an assumption about Feminists?
For me, sex education is not just about the act itself but also the host of things that surround the deed; gender roles, gender stereotype, and perception of gender all engender inform the various ways that we interact with our sexual partners. How do our expectations for our partners (or others) depend on our preconceived notions of their gender? For that matter, how do our expectations of ourselves hinge upon this?
Sometimes I think that it would be easier if we had been assigned roles in life—we would know our job, our lines, and our costume. The other way to think about it, though, is that we now have the freedom and the opportunity to define ourselves as we see fit. Instead of asking ourselves “Who should I be?” we get to inquire “Who will I be?”