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Moving Beyond Books: Reading Lives

Rhapsodica's picture
In my first paper, I wrote about how, as a child, I would get invested in the fictional worlds of books and find myself thinking of the characters as friends of mine. As I grew up, the “real world” took over my consciousness, and I stopped getting lost in books the way I once did. As a college student, I feel like this is partially due to the sheer lack of time that I have to read and engage with books, but also because I didn’t come to each book looking to extract its themes and motifs, to pull apart the narrative rather than simply enjoying it. Back then, I didn’t approach each novel with an agenda. The story sounded interesting, so I picked it up and read it.
At times, I want nothing more than to recapture that piece of myself that loved reading for the sake of reading. Yet, I now feel a pull toward learning more about the “real world,” toward trying to get involved in making change instead of focusing on my own personal enjoyment. I do want to go into texts with an agenda, but with a different one than before. Rather than just picking out and discussing the themes of a book, I want to be thinking about what it means for us in a bigger way. I want to do work that feels relevant to my life and those of others, connected to the world— not just completing a self-contained assignment to prove my ability to write a coherent paper. Essentially, I think that this should be our approach for the rest of the semester—studying theory and thinking deeply, but not getting wrapped up in theory and academic thought without connecting it back to the ways in which it is relevant in the world outside the pages of text. Although I didn’t set out to do so originally, I seem to have come up with a plan that doesn’t include a single piece of literature or poetry. That’s not because I do not think it is important or engaged with the world – it is because I am most familiar with how to approach those kinds of texts, and I really do want to do something different.
As I said in my first paper, I see my education in gender and sexuality as being part academic and part experiential. Academically, I have spent the last two years studying gender and sexuality primarily through cross-listed English classes. In Introduction to Critical Feminist Studies, I picked up some basic lenses for thinking about feminism and gender, and got a taste of many different subjects and by many different people— Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, Gertude Stein, Susan Stryker, and Sandra Cisneros, just to name a few. I have taken classes that focus on female authors (such as Toni Morrison), and others which touch on gender-related themes within literature (Performances of Gender in Renaissance Literature, for example). I also took a class last semester called Gender and Technology which I still find difficult to describe; the class blog can be found here if you’re curious. In addition to the material I have read for classes, I’ve also spent a fair amount of time reading articles on and elsewhere on the internet, and have occasionally picked up books about feminism from the library, such as Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, and Bitchfest by Lisa Jervis, Andi Zeisler, and Margaret Cho (which is a collection of articles from Bitch magazine).
So, what do I know?
Well, I find it hard to claim that I “know” anything for sure at this point, but I do know what I believe at this point. I believe that gender is a social and cultural construct that has existed for hundreds of years, and has become so centrally ingrained in our society that we often don’t even question (unless we identify outside of the binary, know people who do, or take classes like these, anyway). I believe that gender, as distinguished from biological sex, exists on a spectrum, and I hate that we are pigeonholed into having so few societally sanctioned options. Similarly, I believe that sexuality is fluid. I am very disturbed by how homophobia is still so prevalent in our society, and I hate that divisions and distrust exist even within the LGBTQ community. I know that labels are problematic and limiting, and that any word pertaining to one’s sexuality carries with it a whole range of connotations (which one may or may not want to associate with). I know that I am still hesitant to choose one and stick with it myself, but that being label-less feels nearly impossible in a society that is absolutely full of them. I know that a whole lot of things in our society are still unequal and oppressive towards different groups of people, but that we, as humans, have the ability and agency to change things if we set out to do so.
In trying to figure out how to go about making change, I have picked up bits of advice from many of our texts. I found Sherry Ortner’s conclusion in “The Problem of ‘Women’ as an Analytic Category” to be quite relevant: I agree that “the whole point of feminism [is] to bring about a situation in which women [are] not seen as a natural class of being, defined primarily by their bodies,” and that “we will have to learn to tread that fine line between reifying (and thereby ‘naturalizing’) the genders on the one hand, and, on the other, allowing the male/female distinction to disappear back into the fog of gender-insensitive ‘variables’” (Ortner 137-138). While I do not think that the study of gender itself is fading for us, I do think that we tend to believe that we have moved past discussing society’s distinctions between men and women; to a certain extent, I agree, and believe that there is much more work to be done looking at queer theory and other perspectives; however, because these categories still have an impact on who we are and how we live, and are still divisions that our society, and others around the world, use to classify individuals, that we cannot simply say that we are “done” with studying them.
I think that we can and should approach studying gender in a way that is different from second wave feminism, focusing more on our common, shared experiences as humans than on the differences between how we look and act. I agree with Peggy McIntosh in thinking that we need to move onto a new phase in our education: “history redefined or reconstructed to include us all,” rather than continuing to just focus on who has been missing; we should not give up looking at the past, but should also carefully examine the present and look toward the future (McIntosh 5).
In this spirit, I think it is important to represent a range of different perspectives and experiences over the rest of the semester. That is what the image to the left represents to me – the multiplicity of perspectives that are all important to our understanding of gender and sexuality, small pieces which constitute a far greater whole. The areas that I would like us to cover in the second half of the course are transgender, masculinity, contemporary feminist issues/the third wave of feminism, and activism.
My logic behind the ordering is as follows: since we are arranging a trip to Kate Bornstein’s performance (or perhaps having lunch with her?), I think this would be a good place to start so that we have a stronger base of experience to draw on when seeing her performance, or perhaps engaging with her in a more personal atmosphere. Then, I think it would be valuable to spend some time working within the area of masculinity, a topic with which I have personally had little experience so far. Once we have expanded our scope to include more of the gender spectrum, I think we would be well-positioned to start looking at the actual movements and changes that are taking place. I think that it would be valuable to think about the third wave of feminism, talk about what it is and clarify what the goals/issues at hand even are, and think about it in relation to the second wave. After reading more about transgender and masculinity, I think we will have a more complete picture of where we are, and be able to think about what we want to infuse into the movement. Finally, I think it follows from this to talk about activism, and to learn more about what people are doing locally and globally in order to enact change. Depending on how we do this part of the class, I think it allow us to bring in cultures other than that of the U.S., and allow us to get a better sense of how to carry our academic learning into the “real world.” In addition to the readings, I think it would be cool to have some kind of running assignment to interview individuals who have some connection to the topics we are discussing each week—perhaps speaking to alums of Bryn Mawr and Haverford, activists, bloggers, etc. Perhaps each of us could choose an area that interests us most, develop our own questions based on what we want to know more about, identify someone to interview, and conduct the interview in person or through email?
For the transgender portion of the course, I think we should read Kate Bornstein’s book, Gender Outlaw. Reading her book will give us a greater base of knowledge to take with us as we see her performance and/or speak with her, and allow us to further learn about transgender issues on both individual and societal levels. If we have the time, I think it would also be worthwhile for us to take a look at some of her blog entries, just to see her commentary on popular culture and get more of a feeling for her writing and point of view. If we wanted to look at works by other authors who write about transgender issues as well, I think it would be worthwhile to look at writings by Susan Stryker (who came to our Critical Feminist Studies class two years ago), or at parts of Whipping Girl by Julia Serano (I have only read the first chapter or so, but learned a lot just from that much).
Although I am not personally familiar with any texts about masculinities, I know that Anne posted some suggestions she received from Howard Glasser, and I am sure that those would be good options for us to consider. If we were to spend two classes on this topic, I imagine we could probably read at least 3 of the 4 articles posted, if not all of them.
Once we have familiarized ourselves a bit more with thought about transgender issues and masculinity (i.e. gender as it relates to those who do not identify as ciswomen), I think it would be valuable to read a book (or selections from a book) that discusses gender in our contemporary society, ideally in relation to the third wave of feminism. Since we seem to be in the middle of it, I think it would be interesting to read critical thought about where we are right now, and about how it relates to the second wave. In “redefining and reconstructing history to include us all,” I think it is important that we do not forget about the history of the women’s movements that preceded our time, while thinking of ways that our generation’s movements can be even more far-reaching. We need to use the same kind of critical lens to look at our own contemporary contexts and consider that one day, what is present to us will be history to others (see the above picture—isn’t it funny that most of the books on the table about “history” are from the last few decades?). We have the ability to change the history we are creating. One book about this subject that seems particularly interesting to me is Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild by Deborah Siegel. Another is Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy. There is also Manifesta, which I mentioned earlier, but it is now almost 10 years old, and I was looking for something even more recent.
Finally, I think it is important that we talk about activism in this class. This is one piece that I have hoped to find most in a class on gender and sexuality: ideas of how we can get involved in making a difference, and a working knowledge of what feminist and gender-related activism is going on in other parts of the world. Here is one idea of how we might approach this (I got the idea for the structure from my Educational Psychology class): instead of having all of us read the same texts, we could split up into groups (perhaps based on geographical area or a particular types of activism), research different aspects of our topic individually, and then in class, come back together to share our findings. We could structure this as a jigsaw, in which the groups first get together and discuss what they found about their larger topic, and then we would mix up the groups to allow for sharing across topics and seeing what kinds of parallels can be drawn between everyone’s areas. I think it would be interesting to think critically about organizations in the U.S., such as NOW and HRC, and look at what their missions are, how they strive toward their goals, who they are fighting for, etc. If we were to do the interviews, I can see those also informing this portion of the class (or even being a main focus for one of the last classes).
I would like to leave you with this song:
(Fuel by Ani DiFranco)

I see it as our charge to dig deeper into our past and deconstruct the conventions that we have come to accept as given, and to use what we uncover to make things different for our generation and those following it. The first several times I listened to this song, I didn’t understand what Ani meant by the “fire that’s just waiting for fuel,” but now I think I have come to see it as the desire to change. I see it as us… those who are willing to look and think deeper, rather than being apathetic and complicit in allowing things to just stay the way they are.
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