This post quickly questions notions of gender normalisation by connecting ideas from queer studies to the notion that people have multiple identities. It concludes that we should not judge one woman against another when seeking to appreciate their contribution to the world. We should understand each woman for who she is.
One of the key aims of my next two posts is to celebrate a diversity of womanhood and counter ideas of normalisation that seek to silence women’s complex identities.
Normalisation involves the view that there is a correct way for a person’s body or identity to be. Children get normalised messages about gender at an early age, messages about how to be ‘good’ boys and girls. These messages are not routinely embodied, Children don’t just slavishly accept them, but children are very aware of difference and the dangers of standing out from the norm.
Children work with normalised messages, perform them, and tailor them to fit with other messages they encounter. Some children resist and others feel powerless to resist. Some teachers are brutal power freaks who exploit this vulnerability, love to impose uniform notions of ‘normality’ and employ power as a manipulative tool (usually because they are feart to deal with their own everyday anxieties, inadequacies and life pressures).
Not all children accept, nor, use normative messages to alienate others. But, some children do utilise normative process in a nasty way and such children can make school a very dispiriting place for those they pick upon.
For example, my skin crawled and a felt a jolt of pain in my heart the first time my younger daughter came home unhappy from primary school because her, apparent, ‘friends’ had judged her inadequate to take the role of the female lead singer in their, apparently, ‘fun’ play-ground game of X factor.
It did not surprise me that the two self-appointed judges had mothers who were just as disapproving of other parents whilst gossiping with each other at the school gates. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in those households.
The way that some children put forward sexist, racist and disablist ideas about difference was reinforced for me when reading a couple of recent PhDs which identified settings and processes that involved, among other things: girls expressing sexist ideas about boys being superior to them; boys refusing to accept a playmate was Scottish because they did not have the same skin colour as them; and teachers assuming that inclusion meant a disabled child having to explain every personal detail of their impairment in circle time.
In each of these cases biological difference was used to categories, differentiate, create social distance and reinforce (rather than reduce) prejudice.
People utilise ideas of difference in different ways yet some people, like my daughter’s playmates, enjoy the process of ‘lording it’ over others and view entitlement, hierarchy and discrimination as natural.
Yet, Male/female impaired/non-impaired old/young, black/white and country of birth differences shouldn’t matter in the post-modern socially justice world we currently live in, should they?
BBC’s Scotland’s dire political coverage in recent years has meant that I don’t engage much with the BBC. Yet, I recently ran my eye over one of their websites about ‘authentic old style country music’ (see the site here).
We are all judgemental at different times and I am certainly judgemental about the BBC at the moment. In a rush to express some concerns about the site on my twitter account, I accidently fell into the trap of ageism by referring to some of the acts as newbies. I wrote the tweet unthinkingly and shouldn’t have used this ageist term, I should have been clearer about what I liked and didn’t like about the site.
What I should have said was that the BBC page reminded me of how difficult it is for bands, that don’t meet a standard photogenic tradition, to be successful in the music industry. I should have pointed out in my tweet that this prejudice affects acts of all ages.
The BBC page especially reminded me how difficult it has been for women to make it in country music over the years. Particularly if they don’t conform to male expectations.
Some people in the music industry think that sex, particularly women’s bodies and fresh faces sell more records. So it was good to see the parts of the BBC website that highlighted that recently successful country music acts have written some pretty thoughtful and challenging stuff about various equity subjects such as: homophobia, gender stereotyping and drug abuse (not that the BBC site had the time to expand on all of these topics).
The BBC site made me remember that we should not assume that just because some women have managed to break through the gender glass ceiling, everything is hunky dory. Not a great deal has been resolved, gender equity wise, in country music. It’s still not that easy for women to succeed and get their music played on country stations and sexist stereotypes still need to be challenged in the industry (see this Taste Of Country article for a more considered analysis).
This is the thing about social justice, we can make some quick strides but then find ourselves back on our heels. Normalisation is a dangerous thing that silences the possibility for recognition of diverse ways of being, it is also a pervasive thing and if we are not vigilant it creeps back into people’s thinking.
Indeed, when trying to write about men and women there is a danger that we privilege these categories in a way that assume they are normal terms – that we end up reinforcing rather than troubling stereotypes.
So let me disavow you of any misapprehension that in this or any other post I have sought to discuss social justice from a type of, ‘them and us’, male/female, straight/gay, old/young, black/white, English/Scottish, false dichotomy perspective.
As Steven Seidman tells us when he analyses queer theory, normalisation processes seek to ignore the social and historical context of people’s lives and presuppose a natural way of being that doesn’t actually exist.
Those ‘natural’ stereotypes are then employed to create space, division and dualism that presupposes a ‘natural’ paternalistic social order that cannot be challenged or overcome.
Ironically, songs about ‘natural’ ways of being are often utilised to celebrate diversity. For example, the Aretha Franklin song, ‘you make me feel like a natural women’, acts as a celebration of Black womanhood at the same time as it acts as an iconic song concerning LGBT rights.
This song’s flexibility stems from the possibility that the listener does not assume there is one kind of ‘natural woman’. Men can sing the song with just as much gusto as women, if we assume (as Judith Butler points out) that gender can be performed.
The words to this song are often sung in night clubs with a sense of ambiguity, their meaning need not be rigid and they can be collectively vocalized with limitless possibility.
Seidman’s work is important as it tells us that we can view the world from other people’s perspective without actually having to possess their genetic or social identity. He argues that you can engage with the aspirations, emotions, perspectives and politics, of LGBT identity whilst being straight.
Indeed, his work troubles the dichotomy of gay/straight. I was thinking of Seidman’s work when Alicia Garza spoke at the RISE event this weekend in Glasgow, where she closed by saying:
‘We have been accused not just of been idealistic but of being solely about identity. But how can we not talk about who we are in a capitalist world. How can we not talk about the experience of what it means to be excluded, to be disenfranchised, simply because of how you look. And then, how can we not organise our people to say black women and black queer people and black trans-people and black immigrants and black disabled people deserve to be leading the movements for change that we seek. So what we say, what we say quite simply, without talking about socialism, although many of us, many of us believe deeply that another world is possible. The way that we talk about it with our people is that we say simply none of us are free until all of us are free. And so if we are to build a world where all lives matter then it means we need to fight like hell for black lives today’ (see international plenary at this page)
‘None of us are free until all of us are free’, that statement requires us to engage with identity politics at the same time as recognising our connected and multiple identities. It tells us that we need to see our struggles as interconnected but we do not have to give up our identities to make the connection.
I was also thinking of Seidman’s work and this idea of fluid yet connected identities on Friday night when I was so successfully doing gay banter with a gay friend in a bar, that a person in our group (who didn’t know me that well) asked questioningly and in all seriousness, ‘didn’t you have a wife the last time I met you?’
This led to a great deal of laughter when my Gay friend quipped, ‘you’ve just outed him as straight’. Our humour had troubled our listener’s sense of normality and he needed to put me back in my box.
The banter was fun whilst it lasted but I would not be so simplistic to think that my short-lived performance gave me a gay identity – it merely troubled another person’s view of my identity at the same time as celebrating my gay friend’s way of being.
This was a very public moment, yet, people have identities and capabilities that we only see in certain contexts. In my early twenties I shared an office with two very nice people, one a woman from South Africa who had been involved in local township politics, the other a male ex-teacher of a some-what short stature.
Teacher-bloke was incredibly generous and earnest kind of guy who could cook a tremendous Peking Duck, did the majority of childcare at home (his wife worked shifts) and was greatly respected by others for his thoughtful way of working. Indeed, my co-workers were both in their mid-30s and being younger, I learnt a heck of a lot from them.
We got on very well and had a lot of laughs. One day, teacher-bloke was teasing our South African colleague on gender issues. He stated that he was all for equality but you had to agree that men were biologically superior to women.
I said something along the lines of, ‘You can keep me out of that conversation, sounds like sexist BS’. I was also just thinking how this small minded and normative position was very out of character for a person who considered himself a ‘new man’. Then, he got the shock of his life. Our colleague demonstrated her physical capabilities by Karate kicking just above his head.
To shouts of bravo from me, she asked him, ‘are you sure?’ He did not accept the opportunity to repeat himself. As demonstrations of absolute power go, this was very impressive.
Indeed, she had always been a very impressive woman, committed in her politics and generous in the time she shared with you to help you unpack thinking on everything from equity and justice in South Africa to the plight of Scottish Independence.
She was also a single mother, had escaped the apartheid regime through an international grant and had led educational development processes in her home country. On coming to Scotland she generously shared her community development knowledge by connecting with local groups like Scottish Action Aid For Development.
She was a person who sought social change through every fibre of her body and has since gone on to be a very successful social entrepreneur and leader for change. Not all women are the same and I wouldn’t suggest that being able to Karate Kick, bear children or run successful social enterprises are necessarily helpful criteria by which to judge all women.
What am I getting at here? Well these are the criteria that my friend would be able to explain as having at one time been key markers of her identity but she would not use them to measure other women against her-self. So to end the first half of this post on gendered identities I would like to conclude that just as there are multiple diverse types of women (and men), there are multiple ways in which we can value their contributions, identities, perspectives and ways of being.