Tuesday, June 02, 2009

dirty feminism

a comment that one of my friends/classmates gave to the presentation of the project another friend/classmate and i have been working on for the last quarter (what has presumably kept me from posting here, i've been posting here instead) has in turn brought me back.

when my collaborator referred to one of the pieces in our book as a "derive" on paper (a term taken from situationist guy debord) our peer told us not to sell ourselves short, not to compare what we were doing to something someone else had done before. she called what we had done, what she and her collaborator had done, what a lot of the people in our class had done "dirty feminism." i.e. feminism that does something real, gets its hands dirty, digs into the soil of our society (language, thought, film, performance, etc.) and comes up soiled.

so what is it that we are doing?

i hesitate to try to answer that question.

i have a relentless multiplicity innundating me. it makes it hard for me to type these sentences, a sentence moves forward in a single linear path, but my thoughts do not move like that. patriarchal values have moved forward on our planet in a singular linear path towards a singular ultimate "progress" or "good" or "truth." i must reject that goal of singularity. of ultimate cohesive unity. it's a lie, it's entirely false, everything that i have experienced in my life has proven that to me.

so, to write and dissect that idea. to let oneself go to the multiples. to speak around in a way that encourages others to do so. to embrace uncertainty and contradiction.

we will move forward, as a lady press. pressing words to the page. pressing pages to your hands. pressing hands to foreheads, to bodies. pressing bodies to bodies. to rivers and lakes. to grass.

please, join us.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Gender Journey: Embodying Self Expression

This is a paper that I just wrote synthesizing my work for this quarter for the class titled Gender and Sexuality: History, Culture and Politics. I think it's a wee bit navel-gazey, but it's supposed to be a mix of self-reflection and critical analysis.

This quarter has been scattered all over the map for me, along with my internship I have been working within a few different groups/committees, taking two four credit classes, maintaining two relationships, and trying to engage as much as possible with the greater community of Olympia. Luckily for me, though, the dynamics that I was most looking forward to studying in the context of the burlesque 101 class (what does gender look like? how does one perform one’s gender? what does it even mean to have a gender? what is the connection between one’s sexuality and one’s gender?) run solidly through all the different aspects of my life this quarter. So where to start? Let’s start with the obvious, Miss Indigo Blue’s Burlesque Academy.
Entering into this internship I had very little idea as to what I should expect. My hope was that in addition to the work I would be doing writing the manual (really, maybe in conjunction with would be a better terminology) I would be able to observe and dissect the processes of the students’ creation of routines in a way that addressed their concepts of their genders. In some cases I was definitely able to do this. To quote one student’s response when asked why she decided to take the class: “I've always loved playing dress up, costume parties, Halloween. The fun is in being something else for the night, bigger, out-there, an exaggeration. I am drawn to burlesque because of that caricature of femininity.” (Savannah Mae Twist) This quote gets at the heart of what I was exploring on my own time, and at least a couple of the students explored the concept of gender identity in their routines either directly or indirectly.

Shirley Tempting played out a scene of a housewife scorned. When she finds women’s underwear, condoms, and a “little black book” in her husband’s briefcase while dutifully cleaning the house one day she becomes enraged and turns into a sexy dancing angry WOMAN, pasties twirling and ruffled panties shaking. This act addresses a traditional conception of what a woman should be (prim, proper, wearing an apron and rubber kitchen gloves, dusting the house daily) in a campy and comical way. Her reaction to discovering her husband’s indiscretions also starts to address one of the other concepts I have been thinking about this quarter, the link between gender roles and accepted norms of sexuality. The traditional housewife pledges her undying monogamous devotion to her breadwinning husband…but at this point in our culture male “cheating” has become almost accepted as just another fact of life, while other forms of non-monogamy, such as intentional polyamory or swinging are seen as unnatural or just plain wrong. How has this come to be? Is Shirley Temping’s only recourse to poke holes in her husband’s condoms with a knitting needle? Well, that’s a start, but her real triumph is in taking charge of her own sexual expression, which includes dancing and stripping for an incredibly grateful audience.

Another student, The Luminous Pariah, addressed gender role binaries in an even more direct way. He starts his routine engaging in incredibly “masculine” behavior. He’s at the gym in his gym clothes, with his boxing gloves, and WOW, isn’t he so manly and sexy? His gestures emphasize his bulging biceps; his eyes and his movements signal a masculine cockiness, an assumption conveyed with a flick of his chin, or a thrust of his pelvis: “Yeah, I know you all want me.” As he works out he gets sweaty, he starts to peel away layers of his clothes, and then he reaches for his towel to reveal…a pair of high heels sitting on the floor! The Luminous Pariah is uncontrollably drawn to the shoes; he can’t resist putting them on, and his struggle to stand in them, to gain his footing and walk around the stage mirrors the struggle one might feel trying to re-acquaint one’s self to a new conception of gender. He slides around and stumbles until finally he steadies himself, and that’s when the real magic happens. He looks out at the audience with a sexy smirk, the bulge quite obvious in his gender bending purple panties? Underwear? Who knows!? They come off, though, and beneath lies a brightly neon colored new expression of who he is, high heels, bulges and all. My favorite part of The Luminous Pariah’s routine, though, is when he walks off stage. His strut is a harmonious blend of feminine sway and masculine swagger, and just before he exits he shoots the audience one more cocky head tilt, accompanied by a punch to his chin, as if to say, “You may not know what it is exactly that I’ve transformed into, but, I know you still want me.”

When Susan Stryker came to talk with us she brought up the concept of embodiment. Basically she theorized (and I tend to agree) that one learns differently when one’s body is an integral part of the learning. She connected this embodiment with the concept of a facilitative environment, a safe space in which one can test out new ways of thinking about or “doing” one’s self or engaging with the world at large. I have been a part of quite a few groups or environments that could be called facilitative spaces in my lifetime, and I clearly recognize Miss Indigo Blue’s living room as a facilitative space for the students of the burlesque 101 class. Across the board in the responses to the survey I conducted with them the students refer to newness within themselves. Some of them seem to have made steps toward getting past body image issues, for others it’s about confidence: on a stage, walking down the street, or even in bed with a lover. On top of the explicitly expressed gains that the students have shared with me I have observed other changes in them that they maybe haven’t noticed yet, or weren’t thinking about when they filled out their surveys. As the weeks went by I saw an opening up happen on many different levels. This is the real advantage to a classroom setting as opposed to doing something, like deciding to plan a burlesque routine, on your own. I would venture to guess that one of the key ingredients to a truly remarkable and life-changing facilitative environment is other people. As the students became more comfortable with each other socially they became more comfortable with their routines and with the very notion of getting up to perform at the recital. The fact that they had a group that was going through all of the things that they each were going through obviously helped a lot. Someone rips off a piece of clothing to expose rolls of fat, dimples, stretch marks, moles, whatever, and nobody really seems to notice those imperfections, in fact, damn! That was sexy! This environment allowed the students to redefine sexy for themselves, as Catalina Sol put it in her survey response “I almost went on a diet before the performance but then that kind of defeats the purpose of owning my hawtness! So I had a cupcake!”

My outside reading for the quarter really centered around Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein. This was not my original intention, but once I started reading it I started to drift in a sea of fluid gender concepts that has sort of overtaken my brain.

“Going through a gender change is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but I went through it because I was so tired of all the lies and secrets. It was a strange kind of lie. It was a lie by action – I was always acting out something that everyone assumed I was. I wonder what it would have been like if someone had come along and in a quite friendly manner had asked, “Well, young one, what do you think you are: a boy or a girl?” (Bornstein 8-9)

“Belief in biological gender is in fact a belief in the supremacy of the body in the determination of identity. It’s biological gender that most folks refer to when they say ‘sex.’ By calling something ‘sex’ we grant it seniority over all other types of gender by some right of biology.” (Bornstein 30)

Ideas stemming from these two quotes have been swimming in my cerebral gender sea for months now. When we were kids my little sister was a prime example what people call a “tomboy” (a horrible word, as far as my current perception goes, but I haven’t thought of a replacement that can clearly convey the meaning yet). She always wanted her hair cut short; she hated being made to wear “girly” clothes, in fact her favorite outfit was a kids’ version of a blue Air Force flight suit and red cowboy boots. My mom tried her darndest to get Meg to wear something else once in awhile, but her efforts were usually pointless. By the time we moved to Texas when Meg was in the third grade she could easily pass for a boy, although I don’t think that was ever her intention. The girl who later turned out to be her best friend initially thought that she was “the new boy,” and had a crush on her. One time when she was walking into the girls’ restroom and a teacher stopped her by shouting “Young man! You cannot go in there!”

These stories have turned into funny familial anecdotes at this point, but I can’t imagine what experiences like that did to my sister. People’s perceptions of what a girl looked like did not include the young Meg Robinson. I also find it troublesome that we look back on these stories and laugh, but we have never talked about them with any sort of seriousness, with any sort of analysis of the structures that would lead to those awkward situations. Ironically, as soon as she got breasts her gender expression changed dramatically. She started dressing in ways that showed off her body more, and she started to realize the power that she could wield over boys. To this day I watch my sister struggle with an eternal conflict between wanting to be different, to truly be herself, a weird mash-up of “feminine” and “masculine” expression and wanting to be the sweet girlfriend who takes care of everything for “her man.”

Society has constructed these boxes labeled “male/boy/man” and “female/girl/woman,” and it is our responsibility to put ourselves into one or the other. Actually, we do this to all living animals. Have you ever thought about how ridiculous it is that we ascribe gender to our pets? Aside from spaying/neutering, and maybe a few other health related issues, does it really matter if your cat is a “girl” or a “boy?” If you don’t fit into one of those boxes “naturally” you are faced with a hugely daunting task: either force yourself to adhere to the “natural” gender your genitals have determined for you, or risk being seen as some sort of monstrous other. If you’re neither male nor female in our society, you may as well not even be human. This doesn’t even begin to account for those of us who were born with hard to categorize genitals. In her introduction to the Judith Butler essay titled “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault” Sara Salih writes:

“Gender may be ‘chosen’ only from within the parameters of culturally available terms which always pre-exist the subject. To acknowledge, as Marxists and psychoanalysts do, that the subject is not free to create herself or himself at will, necessitates scrutinizing language in order to reveal and preclude productive gender dissonance and multiplicity.” (Judith Butler Reader 22)

This quote recognizes the false choice set before us when it comes to gender (and I do realize that most people don’t think that an individual has any sort of choice in the matter of gender). Theses boxes are built to support the power structures that exist in our capitalist society, they are not there to support real people, real people can’t really move around that much in boxes, and the male/female binary excludes more people than one might initially think. I look like a woman to most people, but I sure as hell don’t act like one as far as a lot of people are concerned. Women shave their body hair and coat themselves in scents and makeup. Women have simple pleasures and opinions, and they definitely don’t argue.

Bornstein’s book has done far more than break apart the gender binary for me; it has completely exploded my concept of gender. What exactly does it mean to me to be a woman? Am I a woman because of my breasts and my vagina? Am I a woman because people on the street perceive me to be a woman? What if a person on the street perceives me to be, say, stupid, am I that too? The more I explore the concept of gender the less tied to the gender of “woman” I am. Like my sister I have had struggles in my life around the way others perceive me to be based on my physical appearance. A person with large breasts and a protruding ass wearing a dress walking down the street is apparently public property. This person is a “woman” to the straight man leaning out of his car yelling, “Show me your tits!” She is a “prostitute” to the man who solicits her sexual attention for his money, and she is a “slut” to the insecure girl with body image issues put in place by our fantastic social gender structures. I have had all of these things happen to me and then some, over and over again, and there are probably countless other moments at which I have been judged to be a certain type of “woman” based on my appearance that I am entirely unaware of. What I look like is only a small portion of who I am, but being someone who is perceived by most everyone as a woman, I find that my primary being (as far as others are concerned) is my body.

Recently I had a male classmate tell me that he had dropped out of our experimental writing class because of a new student who he perceived to be female that had entered the class. He said that this girl had “hit every branch of the ugly tree on her way down.” I was appalled and vocally expressed this to him, to which he responded “Don’t worry, Kate, you’re quite a lovely lady yourself.” Oh, well, then. That surely comforts me, to know that what I add intellectually to a class matters not if I’m either too unattractive for you to sit in a classroom with me, or attractive enough that you can stomach staring at my breasts while I talk. Once after a long and deep conversation with a new lover who had spent quite a lot of time and energy in pursuing me he turned and said to me “Wow! Kate! All this time I thought you were just a cute girl!” If that’s all I was to him, then why was he so interested in me to begin with?

Which brings us back to burlesque. Through embodiment the burlesque performer shows the audience how to perceive cos body. The performer constructs the reality in which co exists, co controls what gets shown to the audience as well as when and how it is shown. The definitions of perception are entirely defined within the world of the performance and only draw from wider societal perceptions as far as those perceptions are useful to the performance. I find this to be incredibly exciting! The boundaries are limitless on the burlesque stage, the performer’s make-up, costume, movement, and reveals all work together to construct a concept of a body that is entirely unique to that particular performance.

This quarter has really and truly been an arduous journey of self-reflection and subsequent self-discovery. My mind is actively burrowing tunnels into my concept of gender almost constantly at this point. When a discussion of gender recently erupted on the Olympia Punk Indie Underground Music (OPIUM) email list serve I dove in head first to shake things up. My e-voice along with the raucous e-voices of a handful of other women in the music community has sparked an intense discussion that has continued on for days, and it looks like a face-to-face discussion group may be birthed out of it. Here’s to hoping that we can collaboratively create a facilitative environment where people of all genders within the arts community of Olympia can come together and talk about what experiences they have had tied to their genders, ask questions of themselves and each other, and listen and be supportive of the struggles we all go through with these oddly shaped gender boxes we’re supposed to fit into. Maybe I can get them to all make up a burlesque routine!

In her essay “In the Shadow of the Shadow State” Ruth Wilson Gilmore states that “norms change along with forms.” (Wilson Gilmore 43) She is referring to the ways in which both the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex have shaped our society and its people’s understanding of their world, but I want to expand that concept beyond those two institutions, because I see it bleeding over into many other aspects of my life. In writing, experimental or “monstrous” texts force their readers to go outside of their normal conceptions of language, and in doing so these texts have the capacity to change the theories of language that their readers hold. I believe that something like burlesque, or gender queerness, or a discussion group in which people actively break down the forms of the societal structures in which we move can make giant leaps forward in changing societal norms about what is an acceptable way to express one's self. Like Gandhi said “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Monday, March 02, 2009

Claiming Control

This post is of a speech I gave on the steps of the Washington State Capitol on this year's anniversary of Roe V. Wade. I was surrounded by about 30? supporters and facing the Pro-Lifers standing on the steps of the justice building with their graphic and hateful signs. It was a somewhat transcendent experience.

Last summer I got pregnant. When I told my friends the first question most of them asked was “How did you your boyfriend react when you told him?”

And I didn’t know how to answer this question. I didn’t “tell” him, he was sitting there on the edge of the bathtub when I peed on the stick. He sat with me in anticipation while it changed; he cried with me when we read the results, and he knew like I did what our decision was before we’d even spoken. We had talked about this scenario before, more than once.

This doesn’t mean that it was an easy decision. My partner and I in particular seem to be besieged with the baby bug. When a child comes near neither of us can hardly contain our glee, but a broke baker and a striving student make for terrible parents, and that’s what we were.

Hell, that’s what we ARE!

At least for now.

Now this little story is sort of sweet and heartbreaking, a young couple in love making a difficult decision, but this part of my story does not completely highlight the point I want to make here today. Not every experience with unwanted pregnancy goes that way. Depending on how old you are, where you live, who you’re having sex with, who your parents are, how much money you have, what other people perceive you to be, the list could go on…you could have an entirely different experience.

When I actually had my abortion I was in Texas visiting my parents; they were supportive and understanding. My only remaining friend from high school dropped me off and picked me up because my parents were working. I had to pay in cash. When the receptionists and nurses talked to me it was with coldness at best, condescension at worst. The friends I had talked to about their experiences in the Northwest told me that they had been approached warmly and openly. During their surgeries they were put completely under anesthesia, they had felt nothing. I was only given a shot of pain medication (morphine, maybe?), and it definitely hurt. Neither the doctor nor the nurse said much of anything to me, and I stared at a cheesy Hallmark-esque inspirational poster on the ceiling. I felt almost as if I were being punished.

A friend who had had an abortion at Eastside Women’s Health a few years ago had a picture from the ultrasound that she showed me when I asked her about her experience. She said that it was nice to have as physical evidence that this had happened to her. I wanted to have that evidence also, but when I asked the nurse who gave me my ultrasound before the procedure if I could keep the picture she printed out she gasped at me horrified.

“We only give it to you if you keep the baby!” she almost shouted at me.

So, if we don’t keep it, it hasn’t happened?

Afterward I sat in a small room full of drugged women in medical gowns and La-Z-Boys who had just had the same experience I had. I wanted to talk to them about what had just happened to us, about what they had gone through before they came in, and how they were reacting to the entire experience, but the drugs and the social taboos wouldn’t let me. Who knows what the staff would have done if I had.

Instead I’m here today. I’m exposing this very personal thing that happened to me to all of you here because I think one of the biggest reasons that our reproductive rights are being threatened right now is silence. Women and men are discouraged from discussing their direct experiences with abortion. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to say that people in the United States are discouraged from talking about abortion period. In our culture (popular or otherwise) it’s either a huge horrific tragedy, or an invisibility altogether. Women feel afraid to talk about what they have gone through, positive or negative, out of fear of judgment, or even threat of bodily harm.

What would happen if we left that fear behind us? What would happen if people talked about abortion? Maybe movies could even say the word “abortion.” Maybe if your conservative uncle from Pasco knew you’d had an abortion he’d think a little bit more before voting for a legislator who threatens your rights.

So, I didn’t get to keep my ultrasound picture, although the thought of trying to forcibly obtain it has definitely crossed my mind. My sister did give me a t-shirt, though, after this happened, and I think that it gets at why I had to make the choice that I did. I wanted to wear it today, but I couldn’t find it. The shirt says “Wonderful Mother” across the chest. Maybe some would think that an odd sentiment, but I like to think that by making this choice I am a wonderful mother, both to the child that I wasn’t prepared for and the one I hope to raise in the future.


There's an ad on another tab I have open, a Facebook tab, I've seen this ad many times. It says "surprise her with a bigger penis" and has a surprised looking young woman with wide eyes and her hands over her mouth.

I'm mentioning it because I have never seen the word "vagina" in an advertisement. Or anywhere public that wasn't a gynecologist's office or Planned Parenthood.

It's like the really great Bataille lecture that my friend Dan gave to my experiments in text class last quarter. He was talking about expulsion and genitalia, and he gave a list of all the different parts of the male genitalia and then said "and the corresponding parts of the female." It ruined it. I was so engaged, and now, months later, all I can remember is that little glaze over my "corresponding parts."

Or that part in Teeth (movie) where they're having sex ed and the students open their books to the diagram of the female genitals and they're all covered with a giant gold sticker.

Everybody, repeat out loud after me:









Repeat until you could say these words out loud in public.

And Not So Fuckable

Recently I had to do something that I have never had to officially do before, break up with a friend.

This friend and I have a somewhat volatile history. We have had conflict around feminist issues for almost as long as we have been close, which is probably about 3.5 years or so. He is a white gay boy, and he is basically of the mindset that feminism is outdated, that feminism just means equality in the eyes of society, that women have attained this equality and should quit bitching, that as a gay man his lack of rights is far more egregious, and therefore fuck feminists. To him all feminists are "hate-mongers," which is particularly ironic as I have never known another person who used the word "hate" so much.

The "fight" that broke the camel's back, for instance, was instigated when he woke me on the morning that I was to give a speech at the pro-choice rally about my abortion experience with a text that said simply "I hate lesbians."

Anyway, fuck him. I'm done having that same fight over and over with him. he is not the main point of this post.

This is about my community, in particular the music community.

OPIUM is a list serve (olympia punk indie underground music), and it's pretty vibrant. Technically it's a music list (show postings, other musically related posts), but it frequently blurs boundaries, people post a lot of community oriented stuff, as well as silly stuff like youtube videos and weird pictures.

Two threads have gotten somewhat heated over the past week or so. One of them originated around the name of a band playing at the pizzeria tonight, DAD FAG. People expressed wonder about the use of the word "fag," it stimulated a discussion about meaning that I found to be quite interesting and worth having (especially when people actually responded when I brought up Wittgenstein, my current philosophical boyfriend), and a lot of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN tried to squash the conversation by mocking it or just being stupid.

The other thread was started by Sarah Utter, who some of you may be familiar with because of her musical projects (Bangs, Witchypoo) or her art (letterpress/painting). The other night at a show a popular boy about town said some pretty fucked up shit to her. What was exactly said is hotly debated, but either way it was fucked up. He either insulted her attractiveness and devalued her because of this apparent lack of attractiveness OR he overtly praised it and made comments that assumed she'd fuck him if he were available. So she brought this to the attention of the community, and the first responses to it were from STRAIGHT WHITE MEN telling her that the OPIUM list was not the place to bring this up, that she should have called this guy out on his behavior when it happened (which, she did, I was there and saw it happen, she called him out over the microphone in front of the entire audience), and that she should just ignore him because he's a drunk idiot.


The OPIUM list is exactly the sort of place that this shit needs to be discussed. If we're going to be such a community that we want to infiltrate each others' email in-boxes, we need to be able to discuss the hard and nasty shit that is going on at shows or other places in which members of our community are moving.

This post, unlike the last, ends optimistically. Once women started speaking up for themselves and sharing their experiences around this issue a pretty awesome conversation was stimulated. There's even talk of trying to organize a cross gendered discussion group around all of this. I see the potential for amazing things to happen here, and you know what? It never would have happened if Sarah hadn't had the guts to say something publicly about what happened to her.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

So Very Fuckable

Goddamnit, I am tired.

Every single day I am besieged by assaults on my perceived gender while my personal concepts of gender dissolve into a sea. I feel at this moment, a forceful urge to vocally fight back on behalf of those perceived as less than by a large portion of our global population.

Today after class I had a male former classmate tell me that he had dropped out of our class because of one particular female perceived student who "looked like she had hit every branch while falling out of the ugly tree." The presence of said student was enough for him to not only leave the class, but to casually mention it to me as if I would agree, or at the very least not complain.

At my protestation he responded, "Well, don't worry, Kate, you're quite an attractive lady yourself."

I told him to go fuck himself.

Looks like a lady, is a lady? As long as she feels attractive, she'll allow me to say whatever I want.

This fight is so repetitive and tedious. Honestly, though, the more I fight it, the more energy I seem to have to continue. Here is a vessel in which to pour that energy.