Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"My Gender Workbook"


This is the kind of stuff I sometimes find in my departmental inbox.

It's like this stuff just gets goofier and goofier every year, and there's more and more of it.

It's not as if gender isn't a somewhat interesting topic. Yes, it is indeed somewhat interesting. But the ceaseless, breathless, and largely brainless obsession with it in the contemporary academy is annoying in the extreme. Its importance has been blown radically out of proportion and stuff of this kind basically has "protected species" status. You can basically write anything you want about the holy trinity (race, sex, class) and the penumbra of of topics surrounding them (e.g. gender) and, so long as what you write is sufficiently lefty and PC...well, you can basically say anything you want.

And I say this as a mostly-liberal.

And a workbook no less... Because academia is no longer about understanding, but it's now about vocational training (which the right pushes) and social transformation (which the left pushes). So, y'know, just studying the subject isn't enough. What's wanted is self-help...


And I'm kind of a hard guy to alienate on this point, incidentally...but this stuff has managed to do it.

I remember reading this collection of essays as an undergrad called Feminism and Philosophy, and was really struck by the observation, in one of the essays, that sex and gender aren't the same thing, and are separable, and can be mixed and matched, and that there's a tendency to move from generalizations to norms in this vicinity. That is, from the true generalization men tend to be more masculine than women, we, by the magic of social irrationality, move to the conclusion that men ought to be more masculine than women. And this kind of thing leads to not only discrimination against less-masculine males and less-feminine females, but it also leads to the lamentable tendency of some males to work hard to act hyper-masculine, and of some females to act hyper-feminine.

All, good, man. That's some stuff worth reflecting on, I say--or at least it was news to me at the time.

But lo, these many years later, and having had to hear the damndest, dumbest things said about gender...and having had to hear so many of them...well, it's hard not to view stuff like this "workbook" without a certain degree of cynicism.

These topics, the holy trinity and its penumbra, are, apparently, of endless fascination to certain academicians...but most of the sensible stuff got said about them long ago. But that didn't stop people from saying the non-sensible stuff... And, given its protected-species status, the dopier stuff doesn't get culled from the herd...and so it goes.

Ah, who knows? Maybe this publication is more reasonable than I'm guessing. Maybe it would surprise me...though, of course, I'd be surprised if it did. With a longer life and less to read, I might even check it out. But...probably not in the actual world...

(And thus do our preconceptions become self-reinforcing...  SMH)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the problem here is necessarily the content of the book. Sure, it may be the same tired hammering on the one obvious point that gender roles are mostly, if not entirely, conventional. But it might just be a self help book for people who are struggling with such issues, and might be very helpful to people who decide to use it. It's hard to tell the content, really.

What is troubling is the marketing. Of course, text book marketing is always terrible for the same reason pharmaceutical marketing is always terrible: they're not selling to the person who buys the product, but the person who forces other people to buy the product. Like drug reps, textbook salespeople focus on features that appeal to the authority, not the real product user. (They also offer bribes, like drug reps.) With textbooks, this results in high prices, and also features that express real contempt for students half the time, like "anti-cheating" scrambling of the problem sets that are really just made to force students to buy the 65th edition. In this case, the contempt for the student shows in the packaging: a book, presumably aimed at college freshmen, packaged to look like grade school composition book. One can almost hear the sales rep explaining how "non-threatening" this will be students, presumably in dire need of spoon feeding such radical, radical information as the conventional elements of gender.
But the packaging isn't the really disturbing part of the marketing, it's aiming at professors at all. Everything that might be appealing or comforting about a self help book people choose for themselves becomes deeply condescending, even Orwellian, in a book that is made mandatory. And that's clearly what this is being sold as: an assigned text in a mandatory class. (This isn't upper division gender studies, clearly, and "WNS114: Gender Discourses" doesn't get filled with volunteers.) When sold in the way it is, "My Gender Workbook" stops being an offered helping hand and becomes an element of compulsory therapy, generally the regimen of the committed and prisoners.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and it's $34.95 for a paperback of less than 300 pages, that came out 16 years ago. The hard back is $150; I guess we can't have the library stocking too many copies...

You know, the cruel irony with this stuff? This book is supposed to be conveying "gender anarchy", which I don't know much about but guess is not a pro-authority stance. But what better way to teach kids an acquiescent, lazy cynicism in the face of authority than to subject them to half-assed compulsory group therapy, with overpriced "fun" materials. This doesn't prepare kids to overthrow any paradigms, it gets them ready to tolerate arbitrary, condescending treatment from petty authority: corporate HR departments, mostly.

2:50 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

WOW, you WAY undersold the liklihood of that book being completely batshit crazy. By the time I was done reading your post, I thought "Well, yeah, maybe it won't be so bad a publication. I wonder what people are saying nowadays about this sort of thing!"

Then I clicked on your link.

I'd like to note that you omitted the subtitle:

"A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity, 2nd Edition"


I've never really considered such a thing as "gender anarchy." Much less have I considered that it might be all it takes to actualize world peace.. somehow I think humanity's problems might be more deeply and variably rooted than in whether people feel manly, womanly, or neither..

The thing that's always really irked me about "gender studies" people is how intensely obsessed they are with how others perceive them. Didn't we all learn to get over this in grade school? Like you say, it's not as though there's absolutely nothing interesting or important to be said when it comes to issues of gender, and I'm not trying to minimalize issues of discrimination, coercion, or violence, but we don't need "gender studies" to know that discriminating against or assaulting someone for being "girly" or what-have-you is wrong.

And for all their desires for "gender anarchy" and the total freedom to define gender roles for oneself, they seem to constantly defend and promote this whole concept of being "transgender." Indeed, the author of this book considers herself a transgender activist. Is it just me, or does that seem really silly? I haven't read the book, obviously, but it seems to me that this author will make what appears to me a common point among the gender studies folks, arguing that everyone should be free from social considerations of gender roles, but they should also totally use social considerations of gender roles to their advantage by modifying themselves surgically and/or chemically to deceive others into treating them by those very socially assigned roles by which they desire to be treated.

The whole transgender thing is a mystery to me. I've tried very hard to understand it, and I have a friend who is, in fact, transgender, but to date, no one has offered to me anything more than a hand-wavy, that's-just-how-I-feel, you-can't-possibly-understand explanation for surgically and chemically mutilating oneself. It all seems to boil down to nothing more than an attempt to coerce others into behaving towards the transgendered individual in some desired manner.

I've been asked a few times, "Well, how would YOU feel if you were born as a woman?"

I can honestly say I wouldn't care. Not even a little. If I were a girl, I'd be a girl. But, I'm a guy, so I'm a guy. If there's something society thinks I should do and I think it's stupid, then I don't do it.

There, gender studies solved.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Jeez, I'm with ya, man. You put your finger on much of what bugs me about the stuff...the re-education campy nature of it.

This kind of stuff...and oh, how I hate to agree with the right on this...really does have the character of indoctrination. The folks in this quadrant of academia really do think of themselves as iconoclasts...but a more totalitarian bunch it's hard to find (in the West, anyway).

Yeah, I hear ya. I've always thought it made way more sense to try to be happy with the body you found yourself with, rather than get a bad surgical approximation of the other type. OTOH, the argument you mention does carry some weight with me--I'm not sure I'd be too comfortable if I woke up female tomorrow... You're a better person than me if you would be, IMO. But I'm kinda lame that way...

I took the "world peace' subtitle to be a joke. If not...*shudder*

5:00 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Oh man, now I'm interested! Now, I will point out that your hypothetical scenario in which you wake up as a woman tomorrow is distinct in important ways from mine in which I was born a woman to begin with, but, dismissing temporary acclimation discomfort, with what would you be most uncomfortable as a woman? Do you think there's a hypothetical situation in which you would consider becoming transgender? I'm really interested, actually, because my own view on these issues seems to me worrisome in its simplicity despite my inability to find flaw with it.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I think the thought experiment in which you wake up sex-switched is the only fair/correct one, since we're talking about cases in which a person of sex 1 feels like they ought to be of sex 2.

I think the thing I'd be most uncomfortable with as a woman would, honestly, be that I'd be weaker (presumable). I am happy being above-average in physical altercations...not that that comes up a lot...

But there'd also be all the hot girl-on-girl action...so...maybe I spoke too soon...

7:33 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

The biggest problem for me when it comes to understanding the whole transgender thing is that, for the life of me, I cannot understand what it would be like to feel as though I ought to be a certain sex. I guess in the thought experiment where you wake up sex-switched, it kinda approximates such a thought by giving you a life history in which you were one sex and then a present in which that is suddenly changed, but still that does little to incite in me the thought that I ought to be a certain sex.

I don't know how to work such a position into a thought experiment, really. To me, it seems nonsensical. "I ought to have been a girl" doesn't really mean anything, as far as I can tell. Like...the universe messed up? What's the "ought" all about? Given your characteristics and society's assumptions about gender, it'd be optimal if you had been a girl? The best I can do is construe the position as "I want to be a girl" or something like that.

I'm not sure your sex-switching thought experiment captures the position. In your thought experiment, you're presumably uncomfortable with your sex because it's been suddenly switched on you after a lifetime of experience which no transgender person actually has.

The experiment seems misleading to me, but I don't know how to make a better one. After much thought about this issue, I've pretty much concluded the transgender position to be either nonsense or desire run amok.

I'm probably being dumb. If you can point out where, I would be much obliged.

8:59 PM  

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