Friday, January 26, 2007

Feminism and Academia

There are levels in the sky. I'm not talking about the Islamic seven floors of heaven story, but the clouds where academics sit. I have great respect for people who stop and try to look at the situation they are in from outside. You try to identify the variables and cause-effect relationships in order to understand the motivations behind your own actions. But if you look at reality for too long from too far above, you might start to see things that are only intelligable to you, and all your theorizing and big words are no use to most of the people who are actually living the reality.

I guess one of the most difficult "situations" to step out of and examine objectively is our sexuality and gender roles.

Yesterday I went to Angela McRobbie's lecture Illegible Rage: reflections on young women's post feminist disorders. I was hoping to hear something that I could relate to as a young woman with no extreme problems but some discontent, anxiety and fatigue. To be honest, I did hear some interesting things: Of course I knew about how fashion photography and girls' magazines make us all over-conscious of our body image. Everybody knows that (although this doesn't reduce the importance of this fact.) But she called looking at these pictures "fascinated gazing," which hints not only at admiration, jealousy and inferiority that always hangs on the backdrop, but also lesbianism.

She cited Judith Butler quite a lot, and not having read any of her work, last night I did a little search online to find out what she says. I found this essay written by Sally Young (who was apparently a first-year undergrad when she wrote this) about Butler's Gender Trouble. (Please feel free to correct me if you know more about Butler!) The question I think she's trying to answer with her work on sexual identity is, "To what extent are our actions driven by biological instincts, and how much of it is guided by socially constructed norms?" The heterosexual categorization of sexes and sexual identity assumes that the male has masculine characteristics, and the female has feminine characteristics. Butler disintegrates biological features from sexual identity and argues that both sexes are conditioned by the society to perform the role expected from them. She argues that both men and women may perform "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics according to the situation they are in. And femininity does not necessarily bind all woman together. Young gives the example of a "poverty-stricken factory worker woman from the The Third World" who will more easily relate to a male co-worker than to a powerful businesswoman in New York. Butler argues that if we give both males and females the right to perform both masculine and feminine acts, the problem of inequality will be resolved by itself. She gives the examples of drag queens and pop stars who feel strong enough to resist the pressure of the society.

Here's my cut at the whole situation. I do think gender identities have a certain, tangible biological basis, and the different ways male and female brain works remains a very interesting research area. I think men and women do pursue different goals which do not always complement each other.

At the same time, I feel like gender roles and responses are taken to the extreme, caricaturized by the mass media and passed on from generation to generation. Take romantic comedies and soap operas, for example! All the characters behave very predictably. People who watch them, including myself, assume that people in the real world are so clear-cut like that and develop false expectations from our relationships with the opposite sex. Likewise, fashion magazines create perfect prototypes of ideal women and then market the products that can take us closer to the ideal.

On the other hand, I believe women are increasingly adopting masculine characteristics (as they were encouraged by the feminist movement), and men feminine characteristics, but this is not the be-all end-all solution. I can speak for women that having to be masculine at work and feminine in private life takes way too much energy. Women are expected to be strong and focused at work, and sexy and emotional in their private lives. Our happiness now depends on success in both spheres. This is a very difficult balancing act, and sometimes it gets very difficult to keep one sphere from the influence of the other. Women feel the pressure and stress in this rat race, and they perceive the competition from other women more threatening than competition from men. I think this is proof to my claim that gender roles do have a biological basis, and they cannot be adopted and dropped so easily.

Lastly, I do understand that women are not the only ones who are trying hard to achieve. I sympathize with the insecurities of men in their business and private lives, the society's traditionally high expectations from them, and their big responsibilities. Moreover, the society is not as tolerant with straight men showing feminine characteristics as with straight women showing masculine characteristics. It will take us more time to accept that men can be weak, than asserting that women should be strong.

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