By Rachael Liberman
If the normalizing laws against gay marriage weren’t enough of a reminder that heterosexuality is being “threatened” in the United States, the case of Constance McMillen and her “prom saga” appears to discredit any naive notion that homosexuality is widely accepted. McMillen, a lesbian-identified teenager living in Mississippi, was initially denied admittance to her high school prom due to her otherwise “abnormal” sexual orientation. After taking the matter to a federal court (along with the ACLU), she was allowed access and attended what she thought was the reinstated “official” high school prom, and only later discovered that she had been sent to a prom simulation (seven students attended, including two with mental disabilities), while the rest of her colleagues were enjoying a covert, parent-sponsored private prom in a lesbian-free zone. She told The Advocate: “They had two proms and I was only invited to one of them. The one that I went to had seven people there, and everyone went to the other one I wasn’t invited to.” Aside from the details of this elaborate plan and how it was carried out, this situation highlights the disturbing lengths that schools, parents, and students will go to preserve both heterosexuality and the ritual of the high school prom, or, heterosexual courtship and performance.
This “prom saga” illustrates a point that Judith Butler famously makes in her foundational essay, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”: the notion that heterosexuality is perpetually “at risk” and that work needs to be done in order to normalize compulsory heterosexuality and situate other sexualities on the margins. She writes, “That heterosexuality is always in the act of elaborating itself is evidence that it is perpetually at risk, that is, that it ‘knows’ its own possibility of becoming undone: hence, its compulsion to repeat which is at once a foreclosure of that which threatens its coherence.” In this case, McMillen’s lesbian identification was a “threat” to the normalized heterosexuality of her high school, and drastic measures (elaborate “fake prom” ruse) had to be enacted in order to situate (stabilize) heterosexuality as “acceptable” and neutralize the threat of homosexuality. Interestingly, while legislature is typically on the disciplinary, to use a Foucauldian term, side of policing homosexuality, this time the judge ruled in favor of an individual that was facing discrimination. What is disturbing, however (among other issues), is that so many individuals – parents, teenagers, etc. – orchestrated this diversionary scheme and have the Facebook pictures to prove it.
Building Boxes and Policing Boundaries: De(Constructing) Intersexuality, Transgender and Bisexuality
Judith Butler from The Blackwell Companion to Major Contemporary Social Theorists
Dress codes in schools have long been a source of intergenerational conflict, control, and increasingly obvious, a way to police gender norms and sexuality. In an article that interrogates these instances of specific gender and sexuality “violations” through clothing and accessories, we can see both an increase in apparel as a means of identity formation and exploration but also a trend that has received little attention. Why is it that anytime a child or teen decides to transgress norms through clothing in particular there is an assumption of gender ambiguity and homosexuality? Certainly when women first began to wear pants in place of skirts they were not necessarily declaring their lesbianism nor a desire to be men. The ability to use clothing as an expression of the exploration of gender, of sexuality, of trans identities is certainly an important aspect of psychological development but so too is using clothing to articulate a sense of individual identity, to challenge parental authority, to mark oneself as part of a collective. This notion that somehow a boy who wears a dress is automatically gay and feminine only reveals what Judith Butler argued in Gender Trouble, that we continue to uphold a binary gender system that is perfectly mapped onto a particular sexual binary. In other words, a girl who wants to wear a tuxedo probably wants to be a boy, and gay. As the saying goes, the clothes make the man (as long as he is attracted to girls and wears pants!)
NYTimes, “Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School?”
Judith Butler in the Blackwell Companion to Social Theorists
“It takes tremendous courage to think for yourself and examine yourself, this Socratic imperative requires courage.” This quote is taken from the trailer of the second documentary from Astra Taylor and is spoken by Cornel West in the back of Taylor’s car. Taylor’s first film, Zizek, was a documentary in which the ‘intellectual rock star’, Slavoj Zizek, is shadowed on his lecture circuit. Taylor’s new film “Examined Life”, set to open in New York City, once again attempts to bring the erudite musings of social thinkers into the gaze of the public. This documentary includes interviews from eight of the world’s foremost and exemplary social commentators (Kwame Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Cornel West, and Slavoj Zizek). Though the film perhaps falsely conflates intellectualism with progressive political views, a thread in its fabric is Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach. This thesis states “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” The leitmotif of this film is Marx’s sentiment. Too often have our greatest thinkers been isolated and removed from the very individuals, collectives and environments they claim to elucidate. This film dislocates the philosopher from the safety of their ivory tower and places them in the trenches, or more specifically in the back of a car, on Fifth Avenue or in a waste disposal site. The interviews take place with the public sphere in mind. In order for the dialogue of these academics to escape the boundaries of their own limited spaces and circles, bombastic language is avoided and context is provided. If, what Marx suggested one hundred and sixty years ago should be the telos of academics, then films like these, even if they only dip their feet in the ocean, create a space in which social critique can effect change. Academics must be willing to take center stage touching ground ‘in the real’ and thus possibly transforming what it means to be a social analyst.