Tuesday, May 29, 2012

booknotes: joining the resistance

Psychologist Carol Gilligan is something of a controversial figure in feminist circles. Her work on young women's psychological health (In a Different Voice) is widely read and widely criticized for dramatizing adolescent girls' experience in unhelpful, alarmist ways; I once had a Women's Studies professor, herself a psychologist, react to the news I was reading Gilligan's The Birth of Pleasure (Knopf, 2002) with caution, pointing out gently that her theories often seemed to rely on assumptions about gender essentialism that sat uncomfortably with many.

As an instinctive anti-essentialist (at least when it comes to gender) I remember being a bit surprised that Gilligan's arguments would be taken that way -- since that wasn't the sort of psychological landscape I saw her outlining in Pleasure. Weaving together reflections on canonical female truth-tellers (drawing on her background in English literature) and her psychological research, Gilligan is primarily interested in how individuals -- of any gender -- speak or stay silent about what they know. Drawing on theories of developmental psychology, psychoanalysis, a feminist analysis of the kyriarchy, Gilligan argues that human beings are born into the world with a full range of psychological resources which are then curtailed by gender policing which in turn causes psychic trauma.

Drawing parallels between preschool age boys and middle school age girls, Gilligan suggests that at points when growing beings are initiated into new levels of patriarchal control, we see increased instances of acting-out and destructive behavior (toward the self and others). Because girls experience this trauma at a later developmental stage than boys, she argues, women as a population are more likely to be able to articulate what they have lost in the initiation process, and to have the resilience to push back successfully. Men, she theorizes, can often identify the trauma of being forced into male-stereotyped behavior, but because it happened so early in childhood have a very difficult time accessing memories of their humanity before certain ways of being were rendered off-limits due to gendered expectations.*

Which brings us to Gilligan's latest work, a slim volume titled Joining the Resistance (Polity Press, 2011). Half reflection on her body of work, half call to action, Resistance shares some of the highlights of Gilligan's research in an accessible way and makes a passionate appeal for re-connecting with the parts of our humanity that the oppositional gender-binary has robbed from us. "Our ability to love and to live with a sense of psychic wholeness hinges on our ability to resist wedding ourselves to the gender binaries of patriarchy," she argues, in language that should make any feminist worth her salt jump for joy (109). This recalls the research Phyllis Burke cites in Gender Shock which suggests that the individuals least invested in maintaining oppositional gender roles are those most adaptive and resilient in the face of hardship and trauma.

Gilligan, following such humanist psychologists and philosophers as Eric Fromm, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers, pushes us to reconsider our assumptions concerning the fundamental nature of humanity. While resisting any simplistic arguments that human nature is "good" (vs. "bad"), she suggests that we might reconsider widespread assumptions about human self-interest and cruelty. We might do well, she suggests, to listen to those who resist inflicting violence and trauma -- and rather than frame them as exceptions to the rule, think of them as survivors of an indoctrination process:
I am haunted by these women, their refusal of exceptionality. When asked how they did what they did, they say they were human, no more no less. What if we take them at their word? Then, rather than asking how do we gain the capacity to care, how do we develop a capacity for mutual understanding, how do we learn to take the point of view of the other or overcome the pursuit of self-interest, they prompt us to ask instead: how do we lose the capacity to care, what inhibits our ability to empathize with others, and most painfully, how do we lose the capacity to love? (165).
With this as her guiding question, Gilligan challenges us to think about how we might re-formulate education (and society more broadly) to support -- rather than destroy -- "the capacity to love." This brings together notions of education, citizenship, social justice, and peace activism, in a combination that will be familiar to many progressive, counter-cultural educators who have been arguing for holistic education since at least the mid-1960s. One of my disappointments with Resistance was that Gilligan didn't acknowledge or engage with that counter-cultural community (of which there is a fairly active virtual and real-life network here in the northeast United States which she calls home!) within the text. I would have appreciated some evidence that she is at least aware of the dissident educators of the past sixty years (or more) who have insisted that this "feminist ethic of care," this more holistic vision of humanity, be central to our pedagogy as we nurture into adulthood the next generation(s). But one can't have everything!

I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book, which I posted on Tumblr last week with the comment that, while "secure relationships" are obviously not limited to parent-child connections, this is a strong argument that if we want to strengthen marriage and families, we ought to be legalizing (and advocating for!) poly relationships:
The ideal environment for raising children turns out to be not that of the nuclear family but on in which there are at least three secure relationships (gender nonspecific), meaning three relationships that convey the clear message: 'You will be cared for no matter what.' (53)
I also want to point out that this is a really strong argument for those of us who plan on not parenting to get involved with people who are parents. Because by being a "secure relationship" person in the life of a child, or children, even (especially?) when they aren't our direct dependents, means we're creating a world in which more adults will be psychologically whole, secure persons. And that's a better world for us all.

*At the very end of Resistance, Gilligan brings in recent research on adolescent boys, which suggests that they, like the adolescent girls whom Gilligan has spent her professional life studying, experience the dissonance and limitations of patriarchy. I'd love to see her (and others) develop this further.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

booknotes: the morning after

After reading Bodies of Knowledge by Wendy Kline back in March, I decided to follow up one history of women and medicine with another: Heather Munro Prescott's The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States (Rutgers University Press, 2011). Part of the Critical Issues in Health and Medicine series, edited by Rima D. Apple (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Janet Golden (Rutgers), The Morning After focuses on the development of pharmacological postcoital contraception beginning in the mid-twentieth-century, the ad hoc off-label distribution of contraceptives in emergency situations, and finally the process by which a dedicated emergency contraceptive pill was approved by the FDA for production and marketing. Her narrative ends in the recent past, when emergency contraception was approved for over-the-counter sale to those over the age of seventeen.

Prescott's history is a fairly straightforward narrative which, while valuable in its own way, could have benefited from more analysis and a stronger historical argument. One of the interesting changes Prescott observes over time is in the attitude of feminist/women's health advocates. During the 1970s and 80s were incredibly skeptical (due to a number of high-profile drug failures) about the FDA's interest in, and ability to, ensure the safety of contraceptives and other women's health-related pharmaceuticals. By the 1990s, feminist rhetoric had shifted from safety to one of women's agency: access to emergency contraception became something women had the right to access, once they had been fully and meaningfully informed about their options. This shift from the authority of medical professionals to the authority of women to control their own reproductive capacity is something that I would have liked to see developed further, with particular focus on how it re-formed the politics around emergency contraception.

The other aspect the history of emergency contraception in the U.S. that is touched upon in The Morning After but largely passed over is the shift within the religious right from being fairly neutral about birth control and family planning mid-century (with the exception of the Catholic church) to actually conflating the pharmaceutical birth control options with abortion. Not just in that the two are morally equivalent, but that taking birth control pills (including postcoital birth control) causes you to abort. While medically inaccurate this  blurring of the boundary between what is pre-pregnancy birth control and what is abortion expands the backlash on women's reproductive agency exponentially. Birth control advocates can no longer gain allies among anti-abortion activists by arguing (as they did throughout the twentieth century) that the birth control pill will lower the abortion rate by preventing undesired or mis-timed pregnancies. Because "birth control" as become synonymous with "abortion" in many anti-abortion circles. This is a rhetorical shift with on-the-ground consequences, and emergency contraception had no small part to play in this tug-of-war over women's lives. I would have liked to see this particular chapter in the history of EC given a little more time.

Overall, The Morning After is a solid history of a specific type of contraceptive technology, and one which I am glad to have read, as both an historian of feminism, gender, and sexuality, and as someone who tries to stay current in the world of reproductive justice activism.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

booknotes: trans/love

Last week, my friend Minerva loaned me her copy of the recent anthology Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary (Manic D Press, 2012) edited by Morty Diamond. I'd been looking to read a copy since it was reviewed favorably by TT Jax over at Lambda Literary. It's great when your friends' libraries so nicely complement your own reading habits!

I'll say right off the top that I read this volume from the perspective of someone who is a cisgendered woman and doesn't identify as genderqueer. A lot of the specifics of these pieces, then, speak to a particular type of pain of dislocation, rejection, and longing, that I will never experience in my bones. At the same time, I'd push back against anyone who thinks Trans/Love is a book written exclusively by and for folks whose bodies, minds, and hearts pull them "beyond the gender binary." While the raison d'etre of this volume is trans* experiences with "sex, love and relationships," I'd argue that the most powerful essays in this volume do what creative nonfiction and memoir do best: speak to the universal through the lens of the particular. Gender identity aside, we're all struggling to connect with one another, to form successful relationships (sexually-intimate and otherwise), to imagine that others will find our broken, misshapen, all-too-human bodies and selves loveable, fuckable, worthy of care and attention.

The contributions to Trans/Love run the gamut from raw pain to domestic contentment; from fierce pride to playful lust. In essays like "Cherry Picking" by Julia Serano and "Fifty Reasons I Love My Man" by Bryn Kelly we get tender portraits of loving relationships that at their core are about lovers who delight in one anothers' form and being. Kelly is by turns sweet and hilarious, cataloging the everyday compatibility that are so often the glue of our intimate partnerships:
We are both messy people and we're messy together. He's the best roommate I've ever had. I've always lived with other girls -- specifically with the kind of girl who, though we saw each other six times a day, would tend to leave annoying passive-aggressive notes on the fridge saying things like, "Could the person who drank my almond milk please replace it? It is a very important ingredient in my agave-gingko-buckwheat smoothie at 6am every day as I am currently on a 700-calorie-a-day diet which is dangerous is not done consistently and accurately." With him, it's like, "Oh, man, there's no more almond milk. Let's go get some more almond milk." (65).
 And while many pieces explore the pain of dissociation from one's physical self, there are some beautifully-rendered meditations on the way in which relational sex can bring us back to earth, back to ourselves, into humanity. It's obviously not the only thing capable of grounding us in the here-and-now, but can certainly facilitate embodiment and connection. In "ReSexing Trans," Kai Kohlsdorf argues that "the validation and the comfort we experience in sex ... allows us to experience our identities in the ways we want and need to. Without that, I know I would be lost" (108).

I found the anthology worked best in small doses, an essay at a time to be read and digested. In part because many of the contributions are intense and personal articulations of loss, longing, anger, pain, injustice. In "Fat, Trans, and Single," Joelle Ruby Ryan writes about the multiple ways other people refuse to acknowledge hir right to embodiment. In "Out of the Darkness," Jakob Hero describes the messy process of learning not to apologize for his body, the path away from self-loathing to self-respect, the journey to a place where he can recognize that other peoples' discomfort with his way of being in the world is their problem, not his. The harsh flipside of this self-treasuring is -- for any of us who refuse mainstream dictates -- of course that even when we acknowledge that other peoples' bigotry is their own burden to bear, so often it still hurts us, still impinges upon us, still makes it that much more difficult to find that person (or persons) who'll turn around to us in the kitchen and say, "let's go get some more almond milk," or fuck us until we know we are found.

Trans/Love is a welcome addition to the small but growing collection of genderqueer literature that encourages all of us to think about sex, gender, relationships, and humanity, in all its glorious particularity.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

maurice sendak: first memories

When I got to work this morning, my Google Reader was rapidly filling with blog posts about the death of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, at the age of 83.

I don't have any big thoughts about Sendak and his the power for good his work was in the world, so instead I thought I'd share with you a couple of Sendak books that aren't as well known and are, in fact, two of his works I remember best from early childhood.

Before I was born, my parents adopted a golden retriever named Satch (after jazz musician Louis Armstrong, whose nickname was "Satchmo"). This was one of the books they had in their collection of dog care manuals, and I remember really loving the comic-strip layout, as well as the adorable and mischievous pup.

This lushly-illustrated story with text by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrations by Sendak relates the quest of a child to find the perfect gift for her mother. I remember Mr. Rabbit feeling slightly threatening, even though he's kind and helpful, perhaps because he is more adult-sized in the illustrations than child-sized. Yet overall, it's a quiet low-key story with a sweet resolution, and a rhythmic feeling to it that was incredibly soothing when I was small.

Just looking over Sendak's bibliography of works reminds me how much of my childhood library was touched by his work. So thanks, man, for making my world that much more vivid and Truthful.

Cross-posted at the feminist librarian.

booknotes: hit list

Over the weekend I read Hit List, Laurell K. Hamilton's latest (#20) installment in the Anita Blake urban noir series (Berkeley, 2011). I first started reading Hamilton back around 2005-06 when I was working at Barnes & Noble. Since then, I've read and watched a lot more genre/horror material as well as more sexually-explicit fiction. I've done more thinking about sexual activity and negotiation, about sexually-intimate relationships, and the portrayal of all of these in fiction. And it's interesting returning to the series with all of that under my belt. A few observations (spoilers below):

1. I continue to appreciate the explicit sexual negotiation and emphasis on pleasure in this series. Yes, there's kinky stuff going on, and certainly an element of "dub con" (dubious consent) what with the metaphysical crap flying around and the fact that Anita, at this point, is a powerful necromancer/vampire servant/lycanthrope/succubus. She needs sex to survive. But even in the midst of metaphysical need, she's determined to make sure those she feeds from are giving informed consent, and there's lots of extended conversation woven into most scenes about whether people are feeling physically safe and good, what their headspace is like, etc.

2. She seems to have switched gears from erotica to "special victims unit" crime drama in the past few installments. My memory of the past three or four installments is a little hazy, but it feels like since writing Harlequin Hamilton has shifted from Anita's ongoing political, relational, sexual negotiations with Jean-Claude and those who count as the inner circle. So  ... Micah, Nathaniel, Asher, Jason, Damian, Requiem,  Richard (though I wish he'd just pack up his bitchy ass and leave), and probably a couple of others I'm forgetting. Mostly Jean-Claude, Micah, Nathaniel, and Asher. With Damian as her vampire servant alongside Nathaniel (yeah, the metaphysics are diagram-worthy at this point).

I'm not sure how I feel about this, as a reader. On the one hand, I enjoy the U.S. Marshal story lines with Edward, who's a really strong character (and I totally appreciate having a well-developed male character who Anita's not sleeping with). On the other hand, with Edward comes Olaf the serial killer who has his eye on Anita, and I am so totally not interested in his kind of creepy. And I'm not that into the crime drama stories. I find the vampire and were clan political negotiations a lot of fun (seriously), and I like how Anita is settling into her new metaphysical powers and working with her "sweeties" to organize domestic and sexual co-habitation. As melodramatic as the whole pregnancy-scare part of Danse Macabre was, I liked how one of the points of that plot point was to point out how Richard didn't take her disinterest in parenting seriously, while the men who she's formed close bonds with did and supported her unequivocally as the primary decision-maker. Similarly, Hamilton was starting to develop some much-needed discussion of queer sexuality, that I was looking forward (both from an intellectual and an erotic standpoint) to having her work out with her characters. Which brings me to ...

3. Heterocentric much? One of the reasons I got tired of the Hamilton books after mainlining the first ten or so was the growing realization that, while many of the male characters were bisexual or fluid in their sexual desires, Anita was only interested in men, and was actually kinda homophobic. All of the sex, even the group sex, is men focused on Anita, even the men who are interested in one another or otherwise inclined. To some extent, the metaphysical aspects of the stories dictate this framing, but it also got really boring. I wanted more women characters, I wanted more lesbian and bi/fluid characters, and I wanted Anita in bed with them (I won't lie). I also really didn't get Anita's problem with her boyfriends also being in each others' pants. Any sort of poly arrangement that involves multiple people all having sex with one spouse/lover but not with each other seems like a set up for inequality and rivalries, which is in fact what develops as the stories progress. By the end of Harlequin Anita as a character seems to be making serious headway with her own issues with gay sex (hooray!) and I'd love to see more exploration of that in future.

4. Oh my freakin' god the gender essentialism drives me nuts as you probably would have guessed. Everyone is relentlessly described in terms of their masculine/feminine characteristics, particularly when it comes to cross-gender interactions. It's a constant, constant game of Who Has the Biggest Dick, and usually a major component of that is various male characters wanting in Anita's pants, or in her heart, or just generally being pissed she's having sex with other men. Irrespective of whether they want sex with her. It's relentless alpha-male jockeying and wow does it get old. On the plus side, it gets old for Anita, too, who basically responds with, "And I'm the Biggest Dick in This Room." And to the extent that Anita is "one of the boys" she's defying gender stereotypes in interesting ways. But this gender non-conformity the main character doesn't seem to have prompted Hamilton to revisit the idea of gender essentialism in a more basic sense. It feels like male characters are still treated as male first and as individuals second. And women, too, generally either behave in gender atypical ways (i.e. Claudia the bodyguard, who's a front runner in my list of Women I Want to See More Often/See Anita Fuck) or various forms of female stereotypes -- jealous vamps, sirens, unhappy career women, soccer moms.

So in sum ... I hope in the future there's lesbian sex, more vampire politics, that Jean-Claude/Asher/Anita threesome I was promised back in Danse Macabre, and Richard's ass handed to him on a platter. And Olaf dead.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Would It Make a Difference?

Over the weekend, I've been perforce following updates from the Supernatural Jus in Bello 2012 convention in Italy. Why perforce, ask you? Well, since Doctor Who has no particularly exciting new updates lately -- and I duck spoilers from Steven Moffatt as if they were plague germs -- I've turned my Tumblr dash into a little shrine to the Winchesters. It's more fun than endless mourning of the loss of Rose Tyler, believe me!

Also, don't ask me why there's a huge, massively attended SPN con in Rome -- all I can say is that I see why it's relatively easy for them to get the whole damned cast to attend. :) Rome? April? Right after we wrap filming? In Canada? Gee...I don't know....which flight leaves earliest, guys?

And there's been lots of terrifyingly amusing stuff coming out of the con, I have to say -- it's not my normal style of fangirling, but it's kind of fun to watch other people do it. One of the things I've been noticing -- as other people follow Twitter accounts, Tumblrs and various panels and signing sessions and whatnot as if the cast were representatives of endangered species -- is that (and here I'm going to add myself in) we dive on any suggestion from the cast (or crew) that the interpretations of the show we like are also the ones they like.

For instance: this morning when I got up there was a post from someone on my Tumblr hailing the fact that Misha Collins (Castiel) had said something to the effect that he thought there was chemistry between his character and another recurring character on the show, Meg (I don't know who plays Meg these days). This particular person was overjoyed that "Meg/Castiel is real, you guys!"

Well. Okay. Yes. Fine.

Personally, I'm always way happier to see signs of Dean/Cas -- of which there were lots, let me tell you! -- but it's a fair question for either one of us: would it matter?

If Misha Collins and Jensen Ackles were to come out on stage and, in response to an audience question or totally unprompted be like, 'We don't know what the hell you guys are smoking but Dean and Cas? Are you kidding? Sober up and fly right, folks.' Yeah, okay, it'd be an 'oh darn' moment, but it would be quickly followed by an 'eh -- says you' moment because it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference to what you can see in the show between the characters.

I absolutely understand why folks go to these things -- or even look to the coverage from other fans -- for validation of their particular flavor in the show: "God, I knew that's why Sam did X" or "Ok, so X writer thought that was weird, too." It's totally awesome to have the creators of the show validate what you see in it! God knows I love it that the scenario I described above will never ever happen and, in fact, both actors pretty much slash their own characters for us.

But if they didn't -- it wouldn't make a difference to what I, personally (and apparently 9/10ths of the rest of the SPN fandom personally!) see in the show between Dean and Castiel. It's great to have back-up -- but I don't think we need it.