Medical professionals often have the final say in deciding what counts as a “defect.” Often, their decisions exceed the bounds of medicine, addressing bodies that may deviate from “normal” or “average,” but do not actually cause medical problems.

An alternative might be to allow the patient to decide if his or her body is acceptable, but in doing so they risk allowing people’s deeply subjective and often dysmorphic perceptions of their own bodies determine whether they undergo a risky procedure.

Is there another way?

Pediatric surgeon Norma Ruppen-Greeff and hers colleagues thought so. Pediatric physicians often correct hypospadias: a condition in which the meatus, or opening of the urethra, doesn’t quite make it to the top of the penis during fetal development, such that the urethra exits the penis somewhere along the shaft. This is generally corrected surgically, but physicians found that some men returned to them as adults with concerns that their penis still appeared abnormal.

Instead of dismissing men’s concerns or jumping with a knife, they decided to ask women if they noticed. They had 105 women fill out a questionnaire and rate which aspects of penile appearance were important to them. And, lo and behold, the shape and placement of the meatus was the least important. No need for surgery, plus they can reassure the guys that they’re okay. (Someone should follow up and ask gay and bisexual men; anyone for an awesome senior thesis?)

This is a great way to measure the sociocultural value of a surgery. Whereas we’re used to thinking about surgical issues as psychological (someone wants it) or medical (someone needs it), these physicians asked a distinctly sociological question. They measured how penises are widely perceived and which parts are socially constructed as important. That’s a pretty neat way to incorporate sociological realities into surgical practice.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Social science bloggers have been buzzin’ over whether drag performance is offensive and to whom. I have been researching and doing drag through a queer feminist anthropology lens for two years. I’ve taken an autoethnographic approach in an attempt to fill the scholarly gap where a male-bodied researcher, specifically a queer one, has lacked the enthusiasm to habitually perform as a drag queen. The motivations for this post easily align with my research as I hope to further develop the trending conversations of drag and its meanings.

Is drag offensive? It’s necessary to specify that this conversation is primarily about drag queening men. This is what most people would think of in terms of “drag queen,” a cisman who dresses as a woman on a stage, which I argue is a limiting definition. Five or ten years ago I would not have to specify “drag queening men,” but today there are genderqueer performers, ciswomen, transwomen – all bodies participate in drag as an expression, and not necessarily while cross dressing. Drag queens embody a range of femininities and masculinities (and sometimes species).

So, are drag queening men offensive? I keep in mind the ultimate queer mantra – both/and.

Looking to literature, this is an argument worked out back in the high Butler days. Esther Newton started this dialogue in the ‘70s and it was clearly closed out by Rupp and Taylor (and Shapiro) in the last decade. There are plenty of lit reviews to read on this [tired] subject.

Drag queening implies an individual who performs and embodies femininities for some kind of audience. Historically, and today, the majority of queens are male bodied. Some may continue this femininity off the stage, others do not. Their identities are assumed to be cis men, but this is incredibly complicated by the fluidity of drag bodies and the politics of the “transgender” category.

Regardless, you have male bodies who are distinctly breaking heteronormative ideas of identity and performance. Drag queening is a subversive outlet for male bodies to participate in gender play, oftentimes exploring femininity within themselves that they have been socialized to fear. Doing drag successfully is “working it” — you don’t give a shit about the patriarchy, your parent’s disappointment, getting fired from your job, or who will think you are date-able. It’s breaking out of boxes. Drag is a display of who you are (or just a part of yourself) and telling everyone to deal with it. If you like what you see, feel free to tip a dollar.

Drag claims the labels “offensive” and “radical” because its goal is to disrupt and show the audience that some identities, especially gender, are more fluid and performed than we think. Drag pokes holes into rigid ideas of gender and sexuality that most choose to ignore. Drag queening men are defiant, messy cyborgs, performing fluid and simultaneous contradictions of femininities and masculinities through their bodies. And of course, there is an entire history of drag acting as an important mode of protest, resistance, and survival for the queer community.

At the same time, drag queens are people who live in the same society that we all do. Drag is an institution that still exists — and always will — within the larger social structures. So, drag queens can be racist, transphobic, homophobic, and even more problematic. The best example for this is the drag queening man who takes her microphone privileges too far, such as a joke about a trans audience member’s genitals.

Drag queening men will often claim immunity under the trans umbrella or argue for the sanctity of comedy, but the reality is that drag queening men do have an underlying rhetoric of transphobia. The reminders that they return to presenting as men after the performance (“This is just a job, I don’t want to be a woman!”) are an unneeded distance created by drag queening men who are afraid and feel an attack against their masculinity. The heteropatriarchy suggests that male bodies who express femininity should fit into a more complicit, fictionally ideal “transsexual woman” category where all parts match behaviors. Some drag queening men respond to this pressure with transphobic masculinity, disastrously reinstating the binary they work to dismantle. It’s also in part to the idea that hegemonic forces continually pressure marginalized groups to create an Other, even if they are part of the same “community.”

Similarly, drag queening men still participate in hegemonic masculinity, and so they may make misogynistic jokes or may think domestic abuse makeup is some kind of “high fashion” (which is the WORST). Drag pageantry can be racially segregated and transwomen can be discouraged through the exclusionary bans of hormones and surgeries. Drag queening men can be soaked in privilege — using the T-slur, blackface, or feeling authority over female-bodied audience members. Most drag queening men have the ability to take off their wigs and makeup to “pass” outside queer spaces.

This in no means is an apology toward these actions, but I feel a stress needed to be made that the tradition of drag queening, a male body performing femininities, is not offensive. It stands as a transgressive act of male bodies deviating from and deconstructing the binary of gender. When drag queening men remind an audience they have a penis, it explodes the heteropatriarchy and dislocates gender from the body. For my own purposes in research and performance, drag is a safe place to explore forbidden femininities, freely navigate bodily inscription, and embrace corporeal versatility.

The tradition of drag queening is not an offensive act, but drag performers may abuse privilege and create problematic messages regardless of their intent. The problems of drag as an institution are the pre-existing racist heteropatriarchal structures that impede upon it. These difficulties with drag are the same hegemonic forces which delve deep into our film, art, video games and universities.

In closing, it is impossible to ignore the reality that groups of people think drag is offensive and no feelings should be ignored. I have no answer as to how this claim of offense can be processed besides our scholarly discussions, but I do hope that drag performers take care to be consciously aware of their privileges and prejudices, remembering their duties as queens who take down the heteropatriarchy one lip sync at a time.

Ray Siebenkittel is a student in the anthropology MA program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. They take a feminist anthropologist approach to studying drag performance. You can follow their blog, where this post originally appeared, or meet them on twitter.

Content Note: This posts discusses various forms of transmisogyny and TERFs

2Photo taken at the Napoli Pride Parade in 2010

On Tuesday, Lisa Wade posted a piece, asking some important questions about drag- Is it misogynistic? Should it be allowed in LGBT safe spaces? How can pride organizers enforce drag-free pride events, if such an idea is useful? The good news is that many of these questions are already being asked in some circles. The bad news, is that outside of these circles –where specifics are unknown and the cis experience takes centre stage– such questions can lead to some harmful conclusions.

First some basics. Wade contends that a recent Glasgow Free Pride event “’banned’ drag queens from the event, citing concerns that men dressing up like women is offensive to trans women.” The event didn’t ban drag queens, but rather decided not to have any drag acts perform on their stage, but even this decision has now been reversed. In any case, the initial decision to go without drag performances was not made because of offence caused, as Wade says, but rather because the Trans/Nonbinary Caucus of the event felt that it would “make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable”. Wade’s misunderstandings seem to come from having used the Daily Beast article on the matter as a source rather than the actual press release from free pride.

The title of Wade’s essay, and the repeated references to “girlface” in the essay itself, not only misunderstood the critiques levelled at drag, but also conflated blackface and drag. This misconception is appropriative of black struggle- it stems from conflation of the two separate histories, one of which was a major tool in the subjugation of black people across America and another which grew as part of queer (then, gay) liberation in a diverse, working class environment, led by women of colour. Comparing the two of them is highly disingenuous.

It is an argument that is about as novel as it is accepting of trans people’s existence. Sheila Jeffries, among many other TERFs, is infamous for using this line of argument to capitalize on the widespread condemnation of blackface in her efforts to attack trans women. Wade is, whether she intends to or not, using this dog whistle in her essay.

Getting a few facts wrong (Which is understandable if you are not part of these conversations. The Daily Beast got it wrong too and this is why allies are usually asked to take a seat in these debates.) and using terminology that is usually reserved for deeply transphobic arguments are somewhat superficial problems that lay on the surface of a much bigger problem: the centering of cis feelings on trans issues. Wade seems to think that the biggest problem, with the Glasgow Free Pride decision is that drag parodies femininity and womanhood.

While this is true in the general sense, drag is understood in the trans community to be oppressive because of the central conceit of the parody: that the performer, while affecting womanhood, is “actually a man.”

It’s about the bulge in the dress, the errant chest hair and the deep voice from the sculpted body. The fact that they’re “always PMSing” is a joke about how they don’t have uteruses. Their stage names, often punning on genitals (“Conchita Wurst”), act to center not their femininity, but the “failure” to produce a cis femininity. This was the drag that the gay media was insisting be reinstated, and that Glasgow Free Pride allowed on their stage again when they reversed their decision.

Drag is not monolithic –both historically and sociologically, different drags have and do exist– which is why Glasgow Free Pride specifically critiques “cis drag” (drag performed by cis people) as making people uncomfortable.

Many of the drag queens of color who led S.T.A.R. and Stonewall were not people who played a woman on stage or in a bar for a few hours a week, but people who lived their lives as women, and their drag is fundamentally different from that of people who perform in televised competition today.

Maybe these drags belong on a pride. Maybe there are decolonised drags which would be welcome. But contemporary western cis drag isn’t about femininity, it’s about the drag queen’s failures to produce an impression of cis womanhood, the upshot of which, also produces a caricature of trans womanhood, seen by society as a flawed womanhood.

Given this, it is possible to see drag as an attack on transwomanhood first and foremost, and cis women more as collateral damage in a long controversy within LGBTQIA+ communities. Glasgow Free Pride understood this, and this is why the call came from their trans caucus, not their women’s caucus.

Writing a post which centers the debate on cis women while spending a minimal time on trans women derails a conversation that should be about the transmisogyny of contemporary drag. It is an issue which is actively causing damage by perpetuating stereotypes and, yes, making pride parades unwelcoming for trans women and other maab trans people.

Wade should rest assured that the “conversation” she calls for is, actually, happening. It happens in trans communities all the time. It bubbled over into the mainstream for a few days, and trans people lost a safe space in a radical pride alternative in the process. What she’s actually asking is that the conversation become permanently legible to cis women by focusing on the minor issues that effect them, rather than the transmisogyny of drag.

T.Walpole is on twitter. More info at drcabl.es/awesome/. She originally wrote this post for Cyborgology.

I saw “Trainwreck” last night. The 7:00 p.m. showing at the 68th Street AMC was full. Maybe people had come just to get out of the apartment and yet avoid the beastly heat, but they enjoyed the movie.  Sometimes the laughter lasted long enough to cover up the next joke.

The “Trainwreck” story is standard rom-com: Amy Schumer plays a young woman who rejects the idea of commitment and love. Circumstances put her together with a man she seems to have nothing in common with. You can guess the rest.

But this is Amy Schumer’s movie, so there’s an important twist – the conventional sex roles are reversed. It’s the man who is sweet and naive and who wants a real relationship; the woman has a lot of sex with a lot of different guys, drinks a lot, smokes weed, and resists love until at the end, she decides to become the woman he wants her to be.

Here is the R-rated version of the trailer:

What interested me was not the movie itself, but the reaction in some conservative quarters. For Armond White at the National Review, the movie triggered something like what Jonathan Haidt calls “disgust” – a reaction to the violation of strong taboos that surround things like food, sex, blood and other bodily matters, and death. These taboos are often arbitrary, not rational. Pork is an “abomination,” for example, because… well, because it is, and because pigs are “unclean.”

“Trainwreck” has no pork, but it does have what some find unclean.

Schumer’s tampon jokes and gay jokes, female versions of locker-room humor, literally drag pop culture to the toilet. A girl-talk scene set in adjoining restroom stalls — one revealing dropped panties, the other panty-less (obviously Amy) — is just Apatow using women to show off his indecency.

As a comedian and now as a filmmaker, Schumer talks about women-things: body functions and body parts. These jokes seem to elicit two different kinds of laughter. Back when researchers studying small group interaction were trying to code and categorize behavior, laughter posed a problem (see this earlier post). It could be coded as “Shows Tension,” but it might also be “Shows Tension Release.”

With Amy Schumer jokes, the male laughter is mostly a nervous, full of tension about a taboo subject. But the female laughter seems much less inhibited – tension release, maybe even a relief, as if to say, “Someone is finally talking publicly and frankly about things we could only whisper about,” since most of the time they have had to pretend to share the male taboo.

Indecency indeed. But something is indecent only to members of groups that deem it indecent. Some groups are not at all disgusted by pork.  And for some audiences, tampon jokes and toilet-stall conversations about Johnny Depp movies are not indecent; they’re just funny. What audiences might those be? Women.

Take the tampon joke that the National Reviewer finds indecent. It would seem obvious that used tampons look different depending on where you are in your period – less bloody on the final day, more so a few days earlier. But at the mere mention of this fact in “Trainwreck,” hilarity ensues, especially among women in the audience.

The thing about taboos – ideas about what is indecent or disgusting – is that entire social structures get built around them. To violate the taboo is to threaten the entire edifice. Powerful taboos on women-things often go with male domination. So for the National Review, the “Trainwreck”reversal of rom-com gender roles makes the movie dangerous and subversive.

Here are some excerpts from the review just to give the flavor of this Purity-and-Danger-like conflating of taboo, female sexuality, and social/political threat to the established order (emphasis mine):

Schumer turns female sexual prerogative into shamelessness

the degradation of sex — and women

uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness.

She enjoys a sexual license

Amy brazenly practices the same sexual habits as men

Lacking
. . . old-fashioned sense of shame,

It’s merely brazen, like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls (also about a promiscuous female writer

Schumer’s film can be seen to distort human relations into smut.

This is not just disrespectful, it confirms Schumer’s project of cultural takeover,

she aims to acquire cultural power

Schumer disguises a noxious cultural agenda as personal fiat. She’s a comedy demagogue who okays modern misbehavior yet blatantly revels in PC notions about feminism, abortion, and other hot-button topics

Wow.

I should add that not all conservative publications felt so threatened. Joe Morganstern at the Wall Street Journal gave the movie a warm review. Breitbart saw the movie’s essential conservatism (“The anti-slut message is a healthy one”) and praised Schumer as a comic actor.  Still, the National Review piece seems emblematic of something broader in the cultural conservative camp: a taboo-like reaction to female sexuality.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Flashback Friday.

Many sociologists argue that gender, as we know it, is not innate, but put on and performed. Certain moments of our lives, like weddings and quinceañeras, are opportunities to really emphasize femininity and masculinity; but gender is also performed in mundane ways every day in the ways that we talk, move, dress, and adorn ourselves.

These photographs of child beauty pageant participants, taken by Susan Anderson and published in her book High Glitz, illustrate how much of feminine sexual allure is put on and performed.  These kids are adultified with make-up and they also often wear false teeth and hair extensions. You can browse additional images at Powerhouse Books.

HighGlitz_Jacket_060209

People often object to this sort of adornment on a child being unnatural, but when adult women use these same strategies — fake eyelashes, makeup, veneers, and hair extensions — it is no more natural. Adult women are, no less than those kids, performing femininity.

To take it one step further, as The Spinster Aunt does, if you react to the idea of child beauty pageants with horror, then than horror should be applied to the project of femininity itself, not just the fact that children are participants:

I submit that anyone who is uncomfortable with [the] Little Miss Perfect [pageant] is ethically obliged to be just as uncomfortable with femininity in general. Little Miss Perfect is merely one of a gazillion equally nauseating points on the Porno-Feminine Continuum within which all female citizens of the globe are confined by a culture of oppression.

So, if it’s troubling when girls do it (and, for that matter, also troubling to many when men do it), then why isn’t it troubling when women do it?

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Most women in the U.S. go to considerable lengths to consistently protect the majority of men from their unmasked faces (it’s a “disguise,” remember?). Comedian Amy Schumer wonders what might happen if men saw the real us…

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Sociologists are interested in studying how our institutions — in addition to our ideologies and interactions — reflect social norms in ways that tend to reproduce the status quo. A great example happened recently in South Carolina. In this case, the institution is the Department of Motor Vehicles, the norm is that boys and men don’t wear makeup, and the case is Chase Culpepper, a male-bodied trans teen who wanted to wear makeup in her driver’s license photo.

The officials at the DMV told her that she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup in the photo because it would be a “disguise.” As reported by NPR:

The department… cited a 2009 rule that prohibited applicants from “purposely altering his or her appearance so that the photo would misrepresent his or her identity.”

They told Culpepper to take off her makeup or go home without a license. She did what they said. She shared these before and after photos with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, who shared them with the public.

1c

It’s hard to defend the idea that somehow makeup distorts a man’s identity, but not a woman’s. It has exactly the same illusory power on a female face as a male one; that’s exactly why women wear it. The DMV’s policy did nothing, then, to help it do its job, it only served to press citizens of South Carolina to conform to the gender binary, at least as far as their primary form of identification went.

With the help of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Culpepper sued and the DMV settled. As part of the settlement,

[they] agreed to change its policy to allow people seeking drivers’ licenses to be photographed as they regularly present themselves, even if their appearance does not match the officials’ expectations of how the applicant should look. The department also promised to send Culpepper a written apology and train its employees in how to treat transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in professional settings.

This is what institutional change looks like, at least potentially. Thanks to Culpepper and her advocates, the South Carolina DMV is a little bit less gender binary than it was before.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

The D.C. Council’s Committee on Health released a report after surveying high school students about sex education. One of their questions was about the source of sexual health information. The pie chart below shows that students name, in order, their parents or guardians, health workers, teachers, friends, and boyfriends or girlfriends as the most common sources of information.

Capture

I asked a similar question in a study I did with college students (full text). The students in my sample rated their friends, secondary school teachers, books, their sexual partners, and the media as their most important sources. Men also included pornography. Very few students counted parents among their most valued sources. (Significance indicators are for sex difference.)

Capture1

My co-authors and I were interested in how those sources correlated with actual knowledge, specifically knowledge about the clitoris. And so we gave them a “cliteracy test,” we had them answer a set of true/false questions about the clitoris and find it on a diagram of the vulva.

We then compared their scores on the test to their reported sources of knowledge. The table below is a regression showing which sources of knowledge were most predictive of a high score. The findings were interesting: only two sources predicted significantly higher scores on the test: media (for men and women) and self-exploration (for women).

Capture2

So, only one of the most frequently used sources of information, media, actually translated into real knowledge. And, ironically, the best source of information for women, their own bodies, was among the least often cited source of information for women, beating out only pornography and parents.

In other words, the best source of information about the clitoris is probably the… clitoris, but female college students would rather read books to learn about it.

This puts the D.C. study into some perspective.  The high school students in that study reported that their parents or guardians, health workers, teachers, friends, and boyfriends or girlfriends were sources of sexual information, but that doesn’t mean that they are good sources. It could be that they’re giving them misinformation or good information only about certain things.

Originally posted in 2009. You can see a summary of our findings on the correlation (or lack thereof) between knowledge about the clitoris and orgasm for women here.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.