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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Spider-Man Stars' Dust-up over Pseudo-Sexism

A new definition of the word sexism has taken hold in the English-speaking world, even to the point where it’s showing up in official definitions. No longer used merely to describe the belief that women are somehow inferior to men, sexism can now refer to any belief in gender differences. Case in point: when Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield fielded a question from a young boy about how the superhero came by his iconic costume by explaining that he sewed it himself, even though sewing is “kind of a feminine thing to do,” Emma Gray and The Huffington Post couldn’t resist griping about Garfield’s “Casual Sexism” and celebrating his girlfriend Emma Stone’s “Most Perfect Way” of calling it out. Gray writes,

Instead of letting the comment—which assumes that there is something fundamentally female about sewing, and that doing such a “girly” thing must be qualified with a “masculine” outcome—slide, Stone turned the Q&A panel into an important teachable moment. She stopped her boyfriend and asked: “It's feminine, how?”

Those three words are underwhelming enough to warrant suspicion that Gray is really just cheerleading for someone she sees as playing for the right team.  

            A few decades ago, people would express beliefs about the proper roles and places for women quite openly in public. Outside of a few bastions of radical conservatism, you’re unlikely to hear anyone say that women shouldn’t be allowed to run businesses or serve in high office today. But rather than being leveled with decreasing frequency the charge of sexism is now applied to a wider and more questionable assortment of ideas and statements. Surprised at having fallen afoul of this broadening definition of sexism, Garfield responded to Stone’s challenge by saying,

It’s amazing how you took that as an insult. It’s feminine because I would say femininity is about more delicacy and precision and detail work and craftsmanship. Like my mother, she’s an amazing craftsman. She in fact made my first Spider-Man costume when I was three. So I use it as a compliment, to compliment the feminine in women but in men as well. We all have feminine in us, young men.

Gray sees that last statement as a result of how Stone “pressed Garfield to explain himself.” Watch the video, though, and you’ll see she did little pressing. He seemed happy to explain what he meant. And that last line was actually a reiteration of the point he’d made originally by saying, “It’s kind of a feminine thing to do, but he really made a very masculine costume”—the line that Stone pounced on. 
            Garfield’s handling of both the young boy’s question and Stone’s captious interruption is far more impressive than Stone’s supposedly perfect way of calling him out. Indeed, Stone’s response was crudely ideological, implying quite simply that her boyfriend had revealed something embarrassing about himself—gotcha!—and encouraging him to expound further on his unacceptable ideas so she and the audience could chastise him. She had, like Gray, assumed that any reference to gender roles was sexist by definition. But did Garfield’s original answer to the boy’s question really reveal that he “assumes that there is something fundamentally female about sewing, and that doing such a ‘girly’ thing must be qualified with a ‘masculine’ outcome,” as Gray claims? (Note her deceptively inconsistent use of scare quotes and actual quotes.)

Garfield’s thinking throughout the exchange was quite sophisticated. First, he tried to play up Spider-Man’s initiative and self-sufficiency because he knew the young fan would appreciate these qualities in his hero. Then he seems to have realized that the young boy might be put off by the image of his favorite superhero engaging in an activity that’s predominantly taken up by women. Finally, he realized he could use this potential uneasiness as an opportunity for making the point that just because a male does something generally considered feminine that doesn’t mean he’s any less masculine. This is the opposite of sexism. So why did Stone and Gray cry foul? 

One of the tenets of modern feminism is that gender roles are either entirely chimerical or, to the extent that they exist, socially constructed. In other words, they’re nothing but collective delusions. Accepting, acknowledging, or referring to gender roles then, especially in the presence of a young child, abets in the perpetuation of these separate roles. Another tenet of modern feminism that comes into play here is that gender roles are inextricably linked to gender oppression. The only way for us as a society to move toward greater equality, according to this ideology, is for us to do away with gender roles altogether. Thus, when Garfield or anyone else refers to them as if they were real or in any way significant, he must be challenged.

One of the problems with Stone’s and Gray’s charge of sexism is that there happens to be a great deal of truth in every aspect of Garfield’s answer to the boy’s question. Developmental psychologists consistently find that young children really are preoccupied with categorizing behaviors by gender and that the salience of gender to children arises so reliably and at so young an age that it’s unlikely to stem from socialization. Studies have also consistently found that women tend to excel in tasks requiring fine motor skill, while men excel in most other dimensions of motor ability. And what percentage of men ever go beyond sewing buttons on their shirts—if they do even that? Why but for the sake of political correctness would anyone deny this difference? Garfield’s response to Stone’s challenge was also remarkably subtle. He didn’t act as though he’d been caught in a faux pas but instead turned the challenge around, calling Stone out for assuming he somehow intended to disparage women. He then proudly expounded on his original point. If anything, it looked a little embarrassing for Stone.

Modern feminism has grown over the past decade to include the push for LGBT rights. Historically, gender roles were officially sanctioned and strictly enforced, so it was understandable that anyone advocating for women’s rights would be inclined to question those roles. Today, countless people who don’t fit neatly into conventional gender categories are in a struggle with constituencies who insist their lifestyles and sexual preferences are unnatural. But even those of us who support equal rights for LGBT people have to ask ourselves if the best strategy for combating bigotry is an aggressive and wholesale denial of gender. Isn’t it possible to recognize gender differences, and even celebrate them, without trying to enforce them prescriptively? Can’t we accept the possibility that some average differences are innate without imposing definitions on individuals or punishing them for all the ways they upset expectations? And can’t we challenge religious conservatives for the asinine belief that nature sets up rigid categories and the idiotic assumption that biology is about order as opposed to diversity instead of ignoring (or attacking) psychologists who study gender differences?

I think most people realize there’s something not just unbecoming but unfair about modern feminism’s anti-gender attitude. And most people probably don’t appreciate all the cheap gotchas liberal publications like The Huffington Post and The Guardian and Slate are so fond of touting. Every time feminists accuse someone of sexism for simply referring to obvious gender differences, they belie their own case that feminism is no more and no less than a belief in the equality of women. Only twenty percent of Americans identify themselves as feminists, while over eighty percent believe in equality for women. Feminism, like sexism, has clearly come to mean something other than what it used to. It may be the case that just as the gender roles of the past century gradually came to be seen as too rigid so too that century’s ideologies are increasingly seen as too lacking in nuance and their proponents too quick to condemn. It may even be that we Americans and Brits no longer need churchy ideologies to tell us all people deserve to be treated equally. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why I Won't Be Attending the Gender-Flipped Shakespeare Play

The Guardian’s “Women’s Blog” reports that “Gender-flips used to challenge sexist stereotypes are having a moment,” and this is largely owing, author Kira Cochrane suggests, to the fact that “Sometimes the best way to make a point about sexism is also the simplest.” This simple approach to making a point consists of taking a work of art or piece of advertising and swapping the genders featured in them. Cochrane goes on to point out that “the gender-flip certainly isn’t a new way to make a political point,” and notes that “it’s with the recent rise of feminist campaigning and online debate that this approach has gone mainstream.”

What is the political point gender-flips are making? As a dancer in a Jennifer Lopez video that reverses the conventional gender roles asks, “Why do men always objectify the women in every single video?” Australian comedian Christiaan Van Vuuren explains that he posed for a reproduction of a GQ cover originally featuring a sexy woman to call attention to the “over-sexualization of the female body in the high-fashion world.” The original cover photo of Miranda Kerr is undeniably beautiful. The gender-flipped version is funny. The obvious takeaway is that we look at women and men differently (gasp!). When women strike an alluring pose, or don revealing clothes, it’s sexy. When men try to do the same thing, it’s ridiculous. Feminists insist that this objectification or over-sexualization of women is a means of oppression. But is it? And are gender-flips simple ways of making a point, or just cheap gimmicks? 

Tonight, my alma mater IPFW is hosting a production called “Juliet and Romeo,” a gender-flipped version of Shakespeare’s most recognizable play. The lead on the Facebook page for the event asks us to imagine that “Juliet is instead a bold Montague who courts a young, sheltered Capulet by the name of Romeo.” Lest you fear the production is just a stunt to make a political point about gender, the hosts have planned a “panel discussion focusing on Shakespeare, gender, and language.” Many former classmates and teachers, most of whom I consider friends, a couple I consider good friends, are either attending or participating in the event. But I won’t be going.

I don’t believe the production is being put on in the spirit of open-minded experimentation. Like the other gender-flip examples, the purpose of staging “Juliet and Romeo” is to make a point about stereotypes. And I believe this proclivity toward using literature as fodder to fuel ideological agendas is precisely what’s most wrong with English lit programs in today’s universities. There have to be better ways to foster interest in great works than by letting activists posing as educators use them as anvils to hammer agendas into students’ heads against.

You may take the position that my objections would carry more weight were I to attend the event before rendering judgment on it. But I believe the way to approach literature is as an experience, not as a static set of principles or stand-alone abstractions. And I don’t want thoughts about gender politics to intrude on my experience of Shakespeare—especially when those thoughts are of such dubious merit. I want to avoid the experience of a gender-flipped production of Shakespeare because I believe scholarship should push us farther into literature—enhance our experience of it, make it more immediate and real—not cast us out of it by importing elements of political agendas and making us cogitate about some supposed implications for society of what’s going on before our eyes.

Regarding that political point, I see no contradiction in accepting, even celebrating, our culture’s gender roles while at the same time supporting equal rights for both genders. Sexism is a belief that one gender is inferior to the other. Demonstrating that people of different genders tend to play different roles in no way proves that either is being treated as inferior. As for objectification and over-sexualization, a moment’s reflection ought to make clear that the feminists are getting this issue perfectly backward. Physical attractiveness is one of the avenues through which women exercise power over men. Miranda Kerr got paid handsomely for that GQ cover. And what could be more arrantly hypocritical than Jennifer Lopez complaining about objectification in music videos? She owes her celebrity in large part to her willingness to allow herself to be objectified. The very concept of objectification is only something we accept from long familiarity--people are sexually aroused by other people, not objects.

I’m not opposed to having a discussion about gender roles and power relations, but if you have something to say, then say it. I’m not even completely opposed to discussing gender in the context of Shakespeare’s plays. What I am opposed to is people hijacking our experience of Shakespeare to get some message across, people toeing the line by teaching that literature is properly understood by “looking at it through the lens” of one or another well-intentioned but completely unsupported ideology, and people misguidedly making sex fraught and uncomfortable for everyone. I doubt I’m alone in turning to literature, at least in part, to get away from that sort of puritanism in church. Guilt-tripping guys and encouraging women to walk around with a chip on their shoulders must be one of the least effective ways to get people to respect each other more we've ever come up with.

But, when you guys do a performance of the original Shakespeare, you can count on me being there to experience it. 


The link to this post on Facebook generated some heated commentary. Some were denials of ideological intentions on behalf of those putting on the event. Some were mischaracterizations based on presumed “traditionalist” associations with my position. Some made the point that Shakespeare himself played around with gender, so it should be okay for others to do the same with his work. In the end, I did feel compelled to attend the event because I had taken such a strong position. Having flipflopped and attended the event, I have to admit I enjoyed it. All the people involved were witty, charming, intellectually stimulating, and pretty much all-around delightful. 

But, as was my original complaint, it was quite clear—and at two points explicitly stated—that the "experiment" entailed using the play as a springboard for a discussion of current issues like marriage rights. Everyone, from the cast to audience members, was quick to insist after the play that they felt it was completely natural and convincing. But gradually more examples of "awkward," "uncomfortable," or "weird" lines or scenes came up. Shannon Bischoff, a linguist one commenter characterized as the least politically correct guy I’d ever meet, did in fact bring up a couple aspects of the adaptation that he found troubling. But even he paused after saying something felt weird, as if to say, "Is that alright?" (Being weirded out about a 15 year old Romeo being pursued by a Juliet in her late teens was okay because it was about age not gender.) 

The adapter himself, Jack Cant, said at one point that though he was tempted to rewrite some of the parts that seemed really strange he decided to leave them in because he wanted to let people be uncomfortable. The underlying assumption of the entire discussion was that gender is a "social construct" and that our expectations are owing solely to "stereotypes." And the purpose of the exercise was for everyone to be brought face-to-face with their assumptions about gender so that they could expiate them. I don't think any fair-minded attendee could deny the agreed-upon message was that this is a way to help us do away with gender roles—and that doing so would be a good thing. (If there was any doubt, Jack’s wife eliminated it when she stood up from her seat in the audience to say she wondered if Jack had learned enough from the exercise to avoid applying gender stereotypes to his nieces.) And this is exactly what I mean by ideology. Sure, Shakespeare played around with gender in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. But he did it for dramatic or comedic effect primarily, and to send a message secondarily—or more likely not at all.

For the record, I think biology plays a large (but of course not exclusive) part in gender roles, I enjoy and celebrate gender roles (love being a man; love women who love being women), but I also support marriage rights for homosexuals and try to be as accepting as I can of people who don't fit the conventional roles.

To make one further clarification: whether you support an anti-gender agenda and whether you think Shakespeare should be used as a tool for this or any other ideological agenda are two separate issues. I happen not to support anti-genderism. My main point in this post, however, is that ideology—good, bad, valid, invalid—should not play a part in literature education. Because, for instance, while students are being made to feel uncomfortable about their unexamined gender assumptions, they're not feeling uncomfortable about, say, whether Romeo might be rushing into marriage too hastily, or whether Juliet will wake up in time to keep him from drinking the poison—you know, the actual play. 

Whether Shakespeare was sending a message or not, I'm sure he wanted first and foremost for his audiences to respond to the characters he actually created. And we shouldn't be using "lenses" to look at plays; we should be experiencing them. They're not treatises. They're not coded allegories. And, as old as they may be to us, every generation of students gets to discover them anew. 

We can discuss politics and gender or whatever you want. There's a time and a place for that and it's not in a lit classroom. Sure, let's encourage students to have open minds about gender and other issues, and let's help them to explore their culture and their own habits of thought. There are good ways to do that—ideologically adulterated Shakespeare is not one of them.