gender: transgender/intersex

Media depictions of trans people (almost entirely produced by non-trans individuals) tend to be fascinated by bodies. Since the (presumed) inappropriately gendered body is automatically monstrous, weird — or at the very least, available to be gawked at — the accessibility of trans bodies becomes a feature of their depiction.

A big thread that runs through most visual media depictions is a fixation on stripping trans people naked, implying the naked body as “true.” The Crying Game’s big reveal comes when Del undresses, while the penultimate moment of self-fulfillment for Bree in Transamerica is represented by her naked in the tub, touching her vagina. Pre-op Bree’s “parts” trap her in-between, as the movie poster so helpfully informs prospective audiences—without surgery, she’s “really” just a man in a dress.

Chest surgery fills much the same function for images of trans men. The body-centrism was so prevalent in the recently released Becoming Chaz, the documentary following Chaz Bono’s transition, one critic titled his review: “About a Boy or About a Body?”  We see a similar interest in trans-bodies in Boys Don’t Cry and the teen soap Degrassi:

(Still shot from film Boys Don’t Cry. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Films)

(Still shot from Degrassi. Courtesy of Alliance Atlantis)

In all of these cases, the trans person’s emotional and social existence is tied to the state of their body. Bree can’t possibly be fulfilled until she’s had surgery and can strip naked in front of an audience. Bono can “really” be a man only after top surgery and he can go shirtless. Most importantly, trans people appear to have no life outside of their body, and their transition sometimes forms a narrative arc of beginning (bad body), middle (fixing the body), and end (good body).  They are allowed to be a part of the story only as a person transitioning, their trans-status overwhelming everything about them that makes them unique individuals with complex personal stories.

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Avery Dame is currently a master’s candidate in American Studies at the University of Kansas, where he studies media depictions of trans folks and trans vloggers on YouTube. He also blogs at the improbably named Ping Your Spaceman.

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The Stonewall Inn is a bar in Greenwich Village in New York.  In the ’60s the bar was frequented by, among others, gay, lesbian, and transgender locals.  On June 28, 1969, in response to frequent harassment by police, the patrons rioted.  The description on Wikipedia, I must admit, is worth the read.  Suffice to say that the police were roundly trounced.  The riot is often cited as the birth of the LGBT rights movement.

This is purported to be the only photograph of the riot:

And this is a picture of the Inn, three months later, with a sign in the window that reads:

We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village.

Images borrowed from Wikipedia.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sociologists use the term “androcentrism” to refer to a new kind of sexism, one that replaces the favoring of men over women with the favoring of masculinity over femininity. According to the rules of androcentrism, men and women alike are rewarded, but only insofar as they are masculine (e.g., they play sports, drink whiskey, and are lawyers or surgeons w00t!). Meanwhile, men are punished for doing femininity and women… well, women are required to do femininity and simultaneously punished for it.

Illustrating this concept, much more concisely, is this altered photograph of James Franco in drag. Sent along by Stephanie V., the photo was originally for the cover of Candy, a “transversal style” fashion magazine.  I’m not sure who added the copy,* but I like it:

* So Caro Visi, where I found the image, credits Virus, but I can’t find it there.  I’m happy to properly credit if someone can point me in the right direction.

UPDATE: Sarah and John, in the comments thread, pointed out that the language is borrowed from a movie titled The Cement Garden.  Jennifer points out that Madonna used it, as well, in her song What it Feels Like For A Girl.

Clip from The Cement Garden:

More posts on androcentrism: “woman” as an insult, making it manly: how to sell a car, good god don’t let men wear make up or long hairdon’t forget to hug like a dude, saving men from their (feminine) selvesmen must eschew femininity, not impressed with Buzz Lightyear commercialdinosaurs can’t be for girls, and sissy men are so uncool.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Last week we received ten requests* to discuss the furor over a J. Crew ad featuring a 5-year-old boy in pink toenails, with his mom, Jenna Lyons, the President and Creative Director of J. Crew.

Fox NewsMedia Research Network Center (MRNC), and One Million Moms criticized the ad for supporting a liberal agenda aimed at mainstreaming gender-bending behavior and causing this particular child to be confused about his gender or sexual orientation.  Their criticism was picked up by mainstream news outlets, including ABCNewsThe Wall Street Journal, CNN, and the Los Angeles Times, who mostly just posed the question as to whether they were correct, while balancing opposing views in support of the idea that painting a son’s toenails pink was consequence-less.

Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of this “furor” (as I called it).  On the one hand, the criticism of the ad is a cautionary tale to all companies and a lesson to us all.  Here at SocImages, we frequently criticize companies that portray and assert rigid gender roles, especially for boys.  But look what happens when a company dares to do something different?  Outrage!  Accusations! Perhaps we’re short-sighted to imagine that companies can just tell whatever cultural story they want to tell.

On the other hand, perhaps this isn’t a story about advertising, perhaps it’s a story about media more generally.  It’s true that there were objections to the ad.  But I didn’t find many of them; just a few high-profile examples.  Perhaps what really happened was what is sometimes colloquially referred to as a “slow news day.”  Only the choir would have been preached to if the criticisms weren’t picked up and highlighted by many more media outlets.  And those outlets, as I did above, beg audiences to pay attention to the “furor.”  A furor that might have been largely of their own making.  Say “hello” to ratings.

These are my thoughts. Yours?

*  Many thanks to Katrin, Zoe S., Jeff H., Prof. Mary Reiter, Sara P., Andrew Slater, p.j., Brian K., Ben Y., and Dmitriy T.M. for the submissions!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In Afghanistan, girls are not supposed to obtain an extensive education, be in public without a male chaperone, or work outside the home.  This is typically discussed as a burden for girls and women but, as an article in the New York Times sent in by Dmitriy T.M. explains, it can also be a burden on families.  Families with sons can send all of their children out in public with the boy as a chaperone.  This is useful for the whole family: the girls get more freedom and the parents can send their children on errands, to school, or on social visits without their supervision.  Since boys can also work outside the home, boys can be a source in extra income for a family.  Families with all girls, then, are not only pitied from a social perspective (because girls are devalued compared to boys), but from a practical perspective (because gendered rules make daily life more difficult).

One solution is to bend the rules.  Journalist Jenny Nordberg explains that some families without sons pick a girl-child to be a boy.  One day they cut her hair, change her name, and put her in boy clothes.  They then send her out into the world as a boy.  er mother explains:

People came into our home feeling pity for us that we don’t have a son… And the girls — we can’t send them outside. And if we changed Mehran to a boy we would get more space and freedom in society for her.  And we can send her outside for shopping and to help the father.

Her father concurs:

It’s a privilege for me, that she is in boys’ clothing… It’s a help for me, with the shopping. And she can go in and out of the house without a problem.

The practice isn’t new, but long-standing.

Nordberg is unsure how many families do this, but it is common enough that most people are unsurprised when a biological girl suddenly becomes a social boy before their very eyes.  Teachers have become accustomed to such sudden shifts.  Relatives, friends, and acquaintances accept and participate in the farce. There is even a name for this kind of child, “bacha posh,” which translates into “dressed up as a boy.”  Later, when the child reaches puberty, she typically becomes a girl again.  Meanwhile, the family might choose a younger sibling to take over her role.

One of the interesting things about this, from a sociological perspective, is how easy it turns out to be to break these extremely rigid gender rules.  If the family simply decided that their daughter should be able to go outside without supervision, get higher education, work outside the home, and interact as an equal with men, it would be a slap in the face of the gender regime.  By dressing her a boy, however, they are effectively nodding to the rules, even as they break them.  They are saying, “Yes, it is true that girls should not be able to do these thing,” but we need a boy in the household for social and practical reasons.  And, because other Afghanis understand, they are willing to look the other way.

These sorts of adaptations are often lost when we hear about the cultural rules in places we deem oppressive.  People in these narratives often seem unbelievably oppressed.  Often they are living under extreme conditions, but it’s important to also be exposed to the ways in which individuals find ways to wrest autonomy from rigid rules through ingenuity and creativity.  This wresting of autonomy, further, is often part and parcel of the culture, allowing for far more flexibility than outside observers are sometimes capable of seeing.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Dmitriy T.M. sent in an interesting discussion of tax collection in Pakistan by the New York Times.   The narrator argues that rich Pakistanis, among others, do not pay taxes, forcing the government to rely on foreign aid.  Essentially, then, it is argued, “[t]he American taxpayer is subsidizing the Pakistani rich.”   Since the politicians are rich themselves, and happily evading taxes, there is little will to change the system.

One solution? Send in a team of transgender people to embarass homeowners into paying their property taxes, of course!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I wish I could spend all of my time in New Orleans, my favorite city in the world, so my friends are kind enough to send anything they run across that involves the Crescent City. Two friends forwarded a recent New York Times article on the rise of “sissy bounce,” a new take on bounce — an energetic form of rap/hip hop that originated in New Orleans. “Sissy bounce” refers to a handful of transgendered/gay rappers, some of whom perform in drag. Katey Red and Big Freedia are two of the biggest names in “sissy bounce.”

Like New Orleans itself, the effects of “sissy bounce” are visceral — raw and invigorating, and its club success surely represents an important interruption in a genre known for its homophobia. Looking beyond its woman-hating name, the mere presence of individuals in “sissy bounce” who challenge norms of masculinity and sexuality in bounce is a move toward gay equity.

But I take exception to Times reporter, Jonathan Dee’s claim that “sissy bounce… creates an atmosphere of sexual liberation — for women.”  He describes the typical “sissy bounce” scene: women gathered around the performer, grabbing their ankles and hoisting their gyrating arses in the air.  Dee deems this sexually liberating because, he argues, the female attendees are dancing “for Freedia.” That may well be the case, but videos and pictures from the Times article also show a constant group of men gathered on the perimeter, leering — snapping photos, filming, and shining flashlights on the dancer’s body parts.

Transgender/gay rappers spitting arguably misogynistic lyrics over a sea of throbbing female posteriors while a crowd of men looks on is not sexual liberation. It’s the same old tired show where women’s sexuality revolves around pleasuring the male gaze.

 

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Amanda brought our attention to a photo project by L. Weingarten called “A Series of Questions.” The ongoing project is designed to draw our attention to how the kinds of questions we ask transgender people makes them feel like inexplicable Others. From a description of the project:

The subjects, self-identified people of transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, gender-variant, or gender non-conforming experience, hold signs depicting questions that each has had posed to them personally — some by strangers, others by loved ones, friends, or colleagues. Presented on white wooden boards, the questions are turned on the viewer, shifting the dynamics under which they were originally asked, and prompting the viewer to cast a reflective, self-critical eye upon him or herself, revealing how invasive this frame of reference can be.

In other words, these questions get asked not only because transgender people break the rules, they get asked because the rest of us can be so inflexible, utterly confounded when other around us challenge our assumptions about the world.

 

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.