Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Science, Technology, and Gender Course, Online Discussion Writing and Group Presentation Introduction, Spring 2005

This is the twenty-ninth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In Spring 2005, I was a member of Professor Carol Senf’s LCC 3304, Science, Technology, and Gender class. Professor Senf–who I now consider a good friend and colleague–organized the class around online discussions, in-class discussions, and a final team-based, research/presentation project. In this post, I am including my introduction for my team’s final project on the transsexuality/transgenderism in film and my eight online discussion postings. In the former, I am including only my introduction, because I do not have permission from my teammates to post the completed project. In the latter, I am including my saved files, some of which appear to be fragments of the online postings–perhaps notes or drafts that I revised online. The discussion postings are based on readings and viewings. They involve analysis and exploration. Aside from the fragmentary nature of some of the postings, the writing and focus seem to improve over time. Everything is posted as-is.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

Spring 2005

Introduction to Transsexuality in Film Presentation

Opening slide that I created for our presentation.

Opening slide that I created for our presentation.

Our group is exploring transsexuality as presented in contemporary film.  Transsexual theorist Sandy Stone defines a transsexual as “a person who identifies his or her gender identity with that of the ‘opposite’ gender.  Sex and gender are quite separate issues, but transsexuals commonly blur the distinction by confusing the performative character of gender with the physical ‘fact’ of sex, referring to their perceptions of their situation as being in the ‘wrong body'” (Stone, sec. 2, par. 2).  A transsexual person feels his/her gender to be disconnected from or other than his/her sex.  This is an interesting topic for discussion because transsexuality calls into question the assumed de facto nature of binomial sex.

Film is a popular entertainment medium that mirrors currently held beliefs, and it can educate and challenge the status quo by bringing stories (otherwise unheard) to a larger audience.  Additionally, film and transsexuality are both technologically based and they both “came of age” during the twentieth century.  Film and transsexuality double one another in that both record performances (i.e., the former on film and the latter on a person’s body).  Teresa de Lauretis (as quoted in Hausman 14) goes so far as to say that gender is “the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, as well as institutional discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices.”  In the last chapter, Hausman writes, “Transsexuals seek to become the true representatives of a gender”  (193).  Gender, in part, is a technologically manufactured construct.  Thus, film and transsexuality are linked because both are manifestations of recording technologies and film is part of the mechanism that constructs the idea of gender for all, including transsexuals, to emulate.

There are many films with main characters that are transsexual.  These films range from biographies to inventive dramas.  We will be taking a cross section of these films to look more closely at how transsexual characters are presented and how other characters interact with and perceive them.  Our presentation will point out common themes as well as stereotypes that we find in these films.  We will look at different reactions to male-to-female transsexuality and female-to-male transsexuality.  Additionally, we want to look at what these representations tell us about the perception of transsexuals today.

In the course of our research we found four narrative types employed in films that feature transsexuality.  Those four categories are:

  1. aversity or challenge
  2. bildungsroman or a coming of age story
  3. doppelganger or the transsexual is a double of other characters
  4. farce or fantasy

Mind you, we are putting the films, not the people, into categories.  These categories serve as shorthand that allows us to build connections between movies and the way that they each present transsexuality.  These filmic presentations of transsexuality form a broad spectrum ranging from cookie-cutter stereotypes to solid character development.  The ways in which the transsexual characters in these films are portrayed as well as the way in which others around them perceive and interact with them tells us much about the cultural moment in which these films were made.  Some films instigate thought and discussion whereas others perpetuate stereotypes.  Therefore, transsexuality in film is a valuable resource for learning more about past and present presentations of transsexuals and they also reflect on the attitudes and beliefs of the filmmakers and the audience.

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Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

01/25/2005

Online Discussion Post 1

Olivia Judson responds to the question, “Isn’t anthropomorphism something biologists try to avoid?” in the following excerpt from the FAQ section of her website:

 

“When I studied animal behavior in college, I was told anthropomorphism was a Big No-No. But as I read more widely, I concluded this stance is misguided. Two of the greatest evolutionary biologists–Darwin and Bill Hamilton (my PhD supervisor, and my nomination for the 20th century biologist most like Darwin)–regularly put themselves in the place of the organisms they were watching, and I think that doing so helped them to some of their most profound insights. As long as everyone understands that we don’t know what is really going on inside an animal’s head–that anthropomorphism is a metaphor, not a description–considering life from an organism’s point of view can be a powerful aid to the imagination, and therefore, a powerful tool. Indeed, I think the real danger with [anthropomorphism] is in treating it as an intellectual sin. A taboo on anthropomorphism has the effect of leading us to believe that humans are so different from other animals that we can’t possibly relate to them. But that’s wrong (http://www.drtatiana.com/faq.shtml#anthro).”

 

She makes the point “that anthropomorphism is a metaphor, not a description.”  Metaphor and analogy are models that help us better understand something that is foreign to our experience.  Judson uses anthropomorphism as a tool to better understand the biology and behavior of organisms that lead very different lives from humans.  Additionally, she is able to convey detailed information in a more “friendly” way than an elitist scientific text.  Anthropomorphism is engaging for the layperson and the scientists alike.  Judson is saying that even scientists such as Darwin, Hamilton, and herself use anthropomorphism as a tool in their work thus it shouldn’t carry the taboo that is often associated with it within scientific circles.

 

Similarly, Marlene Zuk’s writes, “A model system is one that is used to obtain general results about some aspect of biology” (24).  Zuk describes a model system as taking detailed observations of one group and then applying the collected results to other groups (e.g., another sex of the group species, another age group, or another species).  A scientist may lose objectivity in an experiment or observation due to anthropomorphism and they may over generalize the results of their experiments and observations due to relying on a model system beyond its scope.

 

A model system is like a rock being dropped into a pond.  At the center there is the largest disturbance of the water.  This corresponds to the model system and the group it was based on.  The model system can be used much more accurately on this central group than any other.  Then there are ripples emanating from the center.  These ripples lose intensity as they get further away from point where the rock/model system impacted the water.  The ripples correspond to the other groups that the model system may be applied to.  In the case of many drug tests, the model system is based on data derived from the “average male.”  When the drug is released for sale, the model system for drug interaction and side effects may vary for other groups that will be taking the drug (e.g., young women, older women, older men, men or women with other health problems, etc.).  If care isn’t taken in the application of a model system to groups farther out from the group that was used for building the model system, then it may result in problems.

 

Linking this back to Judson, if the bounds of objectivity are pushed too far, the data collection in building the model system may be corrupted.  As Darwin wrote, “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened” (Chapter 21, 1st paragraph).  It is the responsibility of the scientist to be aware of what extent he or she utilizes anthropomorphism and model systems.  Zuk’s personal account (using “I” and writing about Brother Loon) and Judson’s anthropomorphism combined with wit are two ways to write about science without losing sight of what they are writing about.  Additionally, Zuk’s description of a model system applies to Judson’s anthropomorphic descriptions.  Judson writes on her website, “As long as everyone understands that we don’t know what is really going on inside an animal’s head…considering life from an organism’s point of view can be a powerful aid to the imagination, and therefore, a powerful tool.”  Zuk and Judson both use anthropomorphism as a valuable tool to convey their respective stories and scientific information.  Anthropomorphism, like model systems, is an important tool that comes with a disclaimer limiting the scope and depth of its utility within a scientific discourse.

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Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

2/7/2005

Online Discussion Post 2

David Reimer is quoted on page 262 of John Colapinto’s As Nature Made Him:

 

“You know, if I had lost my arms and my legs and wound up in a wheelchair where you’re moving everything with a little rod in your mouth–would that make me less of a person?  It just seems that they implied that you’re nothing if your penis is gone.  The second you lose that, you’re nothing, and they’ve got to do surgery and hormones to turn you into something.  Like you’re a zero.  It’s like your whole personality, everything about you is all directed–all pinpointed—toward what’s between the legs.  And to me, that’s ignorant.  I don’t have the kind of education that these scientists and doctors and psychologists have, but to me it’s very ignorant.  If a woman lost her breasts, do you turn her into a guy?  To make her feel ‘whole and complete’?”

 

David is addressing the idea that Dr. John Money summed up by saying, “You cannot be an it” (248).  David compares an apparent physical disability with the unseen lack of a penis.  He calls into question the belief that if one’s sexual identity is ambiguous, then their identity as a person is considered less than the identity of a person with a clear sex identity.  He cannot find the logic behind the doctor’s (such as Dr. Money’s) belief that sexual identity is necessary for personal identity.  David clearly delineates what our culture considers important concerning identity when he says, “It’s like your whole personality, everything about you is directed…toward what’s between the legs.”  He considers this “ignorant” because this classification neglects the person in toto.  David has thoughts, feelings, and dreams like any other person.  Even though he endured a botched circumcision, surgeries, hormone treatments, and counseling to help acclimate him to living a life as “Brenda,” he knew on the inside that he was in fact male.  David had not been given a choice about what sex he should be.  His parents and his doctors chose a sex for him based on physical characteristics derived from his injury.  David turns the table on this reasoning by saying, “If a woman lost her breasts, do you turn her into a guy?  To make her feel ‘whole and complete’?”  A woman’s breasts are one of the most obvious signifiers of being female.  His point is that if the physical manifestation of what we see and identify as being a male or female trait is removed then by the logic of doctors, such as Dr. Money, the person should have their sex reassigned so that they appear to be the sex that their scarred body appears to be.  This can be extended to Bob from Fight Club.  Bob had “bitch tits” and he had been castrated because of testicular cancer.  Should he have been transformed into a female because of his loss of his testicles as well as the way that he looks?

 

Dr. Money’s stand links back to Darwin’s primary sexual characteristics in his theory of sexual selection.  Darwin’s use of primary sexual characteristics is to denote what elements of an organism that are necessary for reproduction.  For human beings, these primary sexual characteristics are used as cues for sexual identity.  This extends to the way in which the individual interacts with others as well as the way others may interact with the individual–based on the perception/understanding of what sex the individual is.

 

Colapinto’s book is not a scientific text.  He uses journalistic investigation and personal narratives to build his argument.  The author gives David, Brian, their parents, and others a voice through their personal narratives.  Without Colapinto’s book and subsequent television appearances, their voice would have been oppressed within anonymous case studies.  In giving David and his family a voice, they were able to dispel the claims made by Dr. John Money concerning the “John/Joan” case.  Additionally, sexual identity is something that is more than the sum of its parts.  Being male or female (for the individual) is more than a checklist (e.g., penis–check, testicles–check, etc.).  David knew that he was male despite being told he was female.

 

It should also be noted that Dr. Money does not appear to have followed the scientific method in developing his theory that nurture is capable of reassigning biological sex or intersexual ambiguity.  Instead of rigorously following up on the John/Joan case, he effectively dropped the ball.  Also, in light of new evidence presented by the Diamond and Sigmundson paper, Dr. Money and others who promoted intersexual infant surgeries did not change or reevaluate their standing on this procedure.  Case studies are based on observation and extrapolation from particular cases.  For example, Freud’s psychoanalysis was based on case studies that he made with only a limited number of patients.  Diamond and Sigmundson paper was “powerful…in presenting anecdotal evidence of the neurobiological basis of sexuality” (210).  The doctors on both sides of this issue have to rely on the case studies of extreme cases in order to derive their theories regarding the basis of sexual identity.

 

Colapinto’s book reveals that more than scientific discovery is taking place in these investigations.  It reads like a drama because of the personal stakes that the doctors have in their work.  Dr. Money’s personal attacks erupt within his books that are supposed to be scientific texts.  Additionally, Dr. Money is presented as being less than objective by not disclosing certain elements of why he chose to not report what he knew had happened with Brenda/David and he would not explain his own shift in beliefs that took place between his doctoral dissertation (which presented a positive picture of intersexuals who had not undergone surgeries in infancy) to his profound belief that a person with ambiguous physical characteristics must be made either physically male or female while they are very young.

 

A final important point that Colapinto makes in As Nature Made Him is that David exists has a hybrid.  David identifies himself as male now even though he was raised as a girl.  He said, “I feel sorry for women.  I’ve been there” (262).  He then talks about gendered roles for women such as staying in the kitchen and being told to leave chopping the firewood to the men.  David goes on to say, “I remember when I was a kid and women were fighting like hell to get equal rights.  I said, ‘Good for them.’  I kind of sensed what position women had in society.  Way down there.  And that’s who I was portrayed.  And I didn’t want to go way down there.  I felt, I can do whatever anybody else can!  But ‘Oh, you’re a girl–you might get hurt playing ball'” (262).  He has walked the proverbial mile in another sex’s shoes.  His hybridity allowed him to see the demarcation lines because he had crossed over them in his transformation from Brenda to David.

——————-

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

3/3/2005

Online Discussion Post 3

Doppelgangers in The Stepford Wives destabilize female identity and agency.  The American Heritage College Dictionary 3rd edition defines doppelganger as, “A ghostly double of a living person, esp. one that haunts its living counterpart.”  Doppelgangers are a mirror of a person, but not an exact duplicate.  Additionally, a double is not natural and it is usually dangerous because of its encroaching on the identity of the original.

 

There are two kinds of doppelgangers or mirroring in The Stepford Wives.  The first mirroring takes place between the women of Stepford (i.e., Carol Van Sant et al) and the women who have recently moved to Stepford (i.e., Joanna, Bobby, and Charmaine).  The established women think and behave as a representation of an ideal of femininity held by the men of Stepford (and reinforced by the culture at large such as in advertising of housecleaning products).  The women who have recently moved to Stepford are trying to maintain their own identity and agency.  There is a conflict between the constructed identities of the Stepford women and the recently arrived women.  Joanna and Bobby can’t identify with the Stepford women because they are embedded (literally) with a diametrically opposed view of what it means to be a woman, and in particular, a wife.

 

Underlying this is the obvious level of doppelgangers between the original woman and the ideal Stepford wife that she “becomes.”  The robot/animatronic doubles are revealed at the end of the film when Joanna stabs Bobby to see if she bleeds.  Bobby does not and she falls into a loop of her preprogrammed motions and words.  The women of Stepford are replaced with robotic replications.  These robot doubles are built by the Men’s Association to give the husband what he considers an idealized housewife.  These doubles are unnatural (they don’t bleed and they are mechanical instead of organic) and they are dangerous to the not-yet-replaced women of Stepford.  The doppelganger has to usurp the place of the real woman by killing her.  The synthetic replaces the organic.  Additionally, this point is interesting because it means that the men can only enjoy their ideal of the female if that ideal is a constructed, synthetic being instead of an alive, organic one.

 

The doppelganger is important to our study of gender because it makes apparent how one group is objectified by another group (e.g., in this case women/wives are objectified by men/husbands).  The men already objectified the women before they were replaced with robot doubles.  Joanna didn’t have a choice in their move to Stepford and her husband doesn’t respect her choice to be a photographer.  Because Joanna is a “thing” instead of a person, Walter is able to replace her with her robot double.  In doing so, Joanna is killed and her voice (i.e., choice, creativity, and identity) is destroyed.

——————-

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

3/3/2005

Online Discussion Post 4

Alice Domurat Dreger quotes Donald Bateman (a hemophiliac) in the Epilogue of her book, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, as having said, “the social history of medicine is usually recorded by its practitioners, by social workers, or researchers.  Not much of it is chronicled by its victims or the recipients of treatment.  The sick, like the poor, leave very few archives behind them” (167).  The medical professionals usurp the voice of the individual who they objectify as the patient.  The body of the individual is made to “tell a story” through the doctor’s descriptions, photographs, and drawings.  The individual/patient is denied a voice in the medical literature because it is meant to be “objective.”  Science and medicine considers things, not individuals.

 

An example of this is a gynecological examination.  The woman to be examined has her body covered in such a way to section off the upper portion of her body from her lower portion.  The doctor is meant to conduct his/her examination on “body parts” that are in a sense removed from the individual.  This has come about in order to establish the objectivity of the medical professional as well as lowering the possibility that some may consider the doctor conducting the examination in a non-professional way.  This objectivity may also make the woman more comfortable in a situation that elicits the taboo against persons (particularly of the opposite sex) looking at our naked body.  The objectification of intersexual individuals however extends beyond this example.

 

Intersexuals have had decisions made about their bodies and their sexual identity without their voice being heard.  These decisions may be made while he/she is very young and it may be made by the medical professional along with input from the individual’s parents or the parents may go along with the “professional opinion” of the doctor.  The dynamic of this decision-making has a lot to do with many factors such as socioeconomic background of the parents, education, and geographic location of the parents and doctor (people in one location may have accepted mores or ideas that are different from people in other places).

 

Dreger goes on to say that a shift took place after the “Age of Gonads.”  Dreger writes, “The late twentieth century, however, has seen the emergence of the voices and claims–to autonomy, to authority–of medicine’s subjects.  Intersexuals, like hemophiliacs and other medical patients, have begun to record and make known their stories in ever greater numbers” (168).  We have been reading about these voices such as Herculine Barbin’s memoirs and David Reimer’s story in John Colapinto’s As Nature Made Him.  There are stories to be told that are important both to the teller of the story and to an anticipating audience.  We have also read stories and seen movies where a person isn’t give a choice such as Joanna in The Stepford Wives and Yod in Piercy’s He, She, and It.  Joanna wants to be remembered through her photographs.  Yod leaves a message for Shira where he gets to tell his own story and make his own requests.  Barbin dealt with medical and legal authorities in his transformation from woman to man.  Reimer had to contend with the accepted authority on intersexuals–Dr. John Money.  The individual challenges authority in order to make their voice heard.

 

Individuals “placed under the microscope” struggle for agency and the authority of the self.  Intersexuals, like anyone, want control of their bodies and their identity.  Certain authorities exert their power over the individual and in so doing render the individual an object without a voice.  Authority exerted by the medical profession continues to the present from the “Age of Gonads” that Dreger looks at.  Intersexed individuals have come a long way to gaining a voice, but there are areas that there is still a conflict on whose authority reigns supreme.  What form do these conflicts take?  What other areas do there exist conflicts between the intersexual as an individual and an authority that denies the intersexual a voice (e.g., the law or the church)?

 

 

 

 

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Intersexuals and others identified as in need of help by the medical profession are objectified as patients instead of individuals.  The scientist and the doctor does not name them nor does he (more often than she) allow them a place or venue to tell their own story.  The object is voiceless whereas the individual has a voice to tell his/her own story and to make choices for his/herself.  Because medical professionals saw these individuals as objects of study, they also were denied a voice in the choices made about their own bodies.  Authority to medicine and law overruled the unacknowledged authority of the self.

 

The issue of authority has been present in most of the works that we have considered thus far in the course.  David Reimer had choices made about what sex he should be raised as in Colapinto’s As Nature Made Him.  Yod was created to serve a purpose in Piercy’s He, She, and It.  Joanna faces the lesser decision made by her husband to move to Stepford, and then she is made to forfeit her life when her husband has a robot double created to assume her role as wife and mother.  There is a constant struggle between those of authority and those victim to the whims of that authority.  The issue lies in those persons [fragment]

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Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

3/18/2005

Online Discussion Post 5

Destabilization of Normality and Reactions from Authority

 

Before Callie/Cal runs away from Dr. Luce and her parents in Middlesex, Eugenides writes:

 

I had miscalculated with Luce.  I thought that after talking to me he would decide that I was normal and leave me alone.  But I was beginning to understand something about normality.  Normality wasn’t normal.  It couldn’t be.  If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone.  They could sit back and let normality manifest itself.  But people–and especially doctors–had doubts about normality.  They weren’t sure normality was up to the job.  And so they felt inclined to give it a boost.  (Eugenides 446)

 

Binomial sex is considered the norm and

 

 

The authority here lies with doctors and with parents to a much lesser extent.

 

 

Another example of an authority trying to regulate normalcy is 19th and 20th century England.  In the movie Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s claim against [fragment]

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Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

4/1/2005

Online Discussion Post 6

Categorization and Authority in The Well of Loneliness

 

Stephen’s tutor, Miss Puddleton (Puddle), is concerned about Stephen because “none knew better than this little grey woman, the agony of mind that must be endured when a sensitive, highly organized nature is first brought face to face with its own affliction” (155).  Puddle practices what she would say to Stephen.  She considers saying, “You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet–you’ve not got your niche in creation.  But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but just face yourself calmly and bravely…Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden.  For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind.  Let your life go to prove this–it would be a really great life-work, Stephen” (154).  She wants to say that Stephen is not “unnatural,” “abominable,” or “mad.”  Puddle’s conception of categorization holds that an “invert” or lesbian identity has not yet found its “niche in creation” because a person like that is “unexplained as yet.”  She believes that when that behavior is explained (categorized) by someone (authority) then inverts will hold a place all their own in the “natural” world.  Puddle wants to tell Stephen that this goal is accomplished if she will be herself and maintain her “honour.”  This path is akin to leading by example.  Stephen can show the world that she and others like her are no less human than anyone else.

 

Unfortunately, there are many forms of categorization and different authorities vying for the power of categorization.  Puddle’s formulation maintains that authority in the invert by leading a good life.  This is honorable, but not always practical because people often have prejudices and opinions that are not easily swayed.  Stephen’s parents, Sir Philip and Anna fight over Stephen’s nature.  Sir Philip is accepting of his daughter, but he dies before he can explain to Anna what Stephen’s nature is.  Others, like Puddle and Sir Philip, are accepting of Stephen because they see her as a person with skills and abilities that they respect despite the gendered overlay of those skills.  For example, Colonel Antrim “dearly loved a fine rider, and he cursed and he swore his appreciation” (109).  Colonel Antrim would defend Stephen to the other riders.  The others were made uncomfortable that a woman entered what was generally accepted as a male sport.  They would snicker and whisper when Stephen was not around that she was only a girl or that what she was doing was unnatural.  They would credit the horse more than the rider.  Colonel Antrim would hear none of that and exclaim, “Damn it, no, it’s the riding.  The girl rides, that’s the point; as for some of you others–” (109).

 

Colonel Antrim’s “oaths could not save Stephen now from her neighbours, nothing could do that since the going of Martin–for quite unknown to themselves they feared her; it was fear that aroused their antagonism.  In her they instinctively sensed as outlaw, and theirs was the task of policing nature” (110).  The community plays a great part in the categorization of “normality” versus “abnormality.”  Because Stephen participated in many male dominated sports and academic pursuits, it unnerved many in the community that believed that this was not the natural order of things.  As John Merrick says to two socialite guests in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, “People are often frightened by what they don’t understand.”  “Inverts” or lesbians were not understood in the binomial heterosexually dominated world of Radclyffe Hall.  Stephen is female but her “mannish” appearance is disconcerting to many people (both female and male) in the community.  Social mores and beliefs are constructed from the interaction of people within a community (which was larger at that time than say a thousand years before that due to such influences as new transportation technologies and publishing).  Within a small community such as that around Morton, the people gossip and react to the things that they observe.  Based on their own interaction and connections to the world outside their small community, “theirs was the task of policing nature.”  They feared Stephen because she was not like other women in their cultural moment.  Their “policing nature” did not mean that they were likely to lock her up, but that they reacted to Stephen and what she represented to them (i.e., a challenge to the status quo of binomial heterosexuality).

 

This policing action is made very clearly when Ralph, the husband of Stephen’s first lover, Angela, reacts to the green-fly, “He nagged about the large population of green-fly, deploring the existence of their sexual organs:  ‘Nature’s a fool!  Fancy procreation being extended to that sort of vermin!'” (151).  Ralph is calling Nature “a fool” because he does not believe that insects should procreate the same way as humans do.  Science has revealed that sex is not only binomial but of many different combinations of sex and procreation beyond “male” and “female.”  Ralph’s arrogance is directly connected to the arrogance of those that react negatively toward Stephen and her nature.  In the same paragraph as Ralph’s exclamation against the green-fly, he says to his wife, “How’s your freak getting on…She’s appalling…it’s enough to make any man see red; that sort of thing wants putting down at birth, I’d like to institute state lethal chambers!” (151).  He marks himself as a fascist and closed minded about a woman who does not act or dress according to the way he and others believe a woman should act and dress.  Ralph is an extreme example, but his belief that the culturally created definitions of what it means to be male or female (and how to act and dress according to that sex) is above one’s nature and the way that Nature makes people.

 

Science also grapples for authority to categorize things and people.  The work done by science is often an extension of cultural preconceptions.  For example, the American Psychological Association labeled homosexuality an illness until a little over twenty years ago.  In Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “Discourses of Sexuality and Subjectivity:  The New Woman 1870-1936,” she describes the work done by Krafft-Ebing in categorizing women he labeled as lesbian.  He used “social behavior and physical appearance” instead of the “sexual behavior of the women” when he categorized them (269).  An interesting side note is that Havelock Ellis wrote the introductory commentary for The Well of Loneliness.  He is described by Smith Rosenberg as “a complex figure” who was “an enemy of Victorian repression and hypocrisy” but he “insisted that a woman’s love for other women was both sexual and degenerate” (270).  He did argue however that “Inversion…was biological, hereditary, and irreversible” (270).  So there was discussion going on before and during the time that The Well of Loneliness was published about what it means to be a lesbian.  The majority view however was that homosexuality was a mental disease that can be treated and possibly reversed.  Some today, still hold this view (e.g., the debate in the Technique in 1996 over the publication of a religious group’s full page ad showing an attractive young woman who was able to turn from gay to straight thanks to the help of the church–not exactly science but a case illustrating the continuing debate over reversibility of homosexuality).

 

The Well of Loneliness is a source of many examples of different authorities working to promote their own understanding of nature.  Categorization and labels serve both to help others understand who a person is, but they can also be used to undermine a person’s agency and self by assigning them a position “less than normal.”  Normality should be viewed as a spectrum rather than an absolute list of criteria with any deviation being identified as abnormal.  Understanding and acceptance (Sir Philip, Puddle, and Colonel Antrim) are more useful and powerful because they are inclusive whereas choosing not to understand and early medical categorization as other (Mr. Antrim, Ralph, and nineteenth century science) are both overlaying community prejudices in order to exclude persons who have something to contribute to the community.

———————–

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

4/15/2005

Online Discussion Post 7

Transformations and Authority in Hausman and Two Postmodern Fictions

 

Authority is one of the primary issues that we have been discussing during the course of this semester.  This issue is apparent in Bernice L. Hausman’s Changing Sex:  Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender and it also appears in two books that I have read outside of class in Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.

 

Hausman writes, “trannssexual’s demands for surgical and hormonal interventions were perceived, at least partially, as an effect of a still developing medical technology that had yet to realize its full potential.  This differentiates the medical practitioners from their transsexual subjects, for whom surgery was the final answer to their misery, a technological repair of ‘nature’s mistake'” (43).  She also writes that transsexuality is an invention of the twentieth century because it wasn’t until after Dreger’s “Age of Gonads” that medical technologies were developed to assist in the physical transformation of a person of one biological/physical sex into the opposite sex.  With the birth of endocrinology and advanced surgical techniques, one could potentially metamorphose into the gender (also a recent development) that they believed that they were.

 

The authority to define, control, and reinforce physical transformation such as the bodily metamorphosis of the transsexual lies in many different hands.  As we increase the magnification of the microscope, the endocrinologist becomes the new definer of what it means to be male or female.  Before the rise of the chemicalization of the body, the “Age of Gonads” depended on observation of the gonadal tissues of the individual to determine sex.  Endocrinology discovered the hormonal messages that are sent and received by different organs within the body.  It was also determined that the female body should be the focus of endocrine research because of the more complex female endocrine system because of its regulation of the reproductive cycle.  Hausman writes, “One result of the emphasis on women as the ideal subjects of endocrinology may have been the differing ratios of men to women seeking sex change:  statistically, more men have, in the past, requested and achieved sex change” (37).  Because women were the subjects of endocrine research, Hausman goes on to say, “Thus, I would suggest that the historically higher numbers of men seeking sex change must somehow be correlated to the discourses within which both men and women who feel themselves to be ‘in the wrong body’ construct themselves as entitled subjects of medical treatment” (37).  The medicalization of the hormonal systems of women led to the establishment of people seeking medical treatment and surgery when they felt they were actually the other gender.  Therefore, transsexuality as a phenomenon is a technological invention.

 

Transsexuality serves to reinforce the binomial sex paradigm as well as the authority of the medical professional.  Hausman writes in the Introduction, “physicians and other clinicians demonstrate the homophobic prejudice that grounds the practices of sex change in a desire to see bodies that are sexed in accordance with social categories of appropriate gender performance” (7).   What other groups connect to this discourse of “sex[ing] in accordance with social categories of appropriate gender performance?”  The biochemical and drug manufacturing industries certainly play a part in developing synthesized hormones that were administered for menopausal women.  These chemical companies coupled with the rise of the advertising agency drove the chemical companies’ products into new hands where a need might not have existed before.  Along with this was the move from injected hormones to pill form hormones that could be administered at home without the need of a doctor’s visit.  This also led to self-medication and the use of these medicines by persons without a prescription.  This leads to the appropriation of authority by the individual.  There are those, such as Agnes in Hausman’s introduction, who self-medicate in order to achieve their goal of gender transformation.  Additionally, Agnes coupled her hormonal treatments with performing herself as female in order to convince the doctors that she was a hermaphrodite instead of a male who had been taking hormonal treatments for a very long time.  Today, the process for gender reassignment in the US is complicated by psychologists labeling transsexuality and transgenderism as an illness that is mitigated through a protocol with a goal of transformation.  The individual is the ultimate authority as far as choice is concerned because he or she decides that he/she is not of the gender that he/she feels.  But there is a feedback loop where all of these authorities play off and within each other in order to build male and female gender distinctions.  Therefore, endocrinologists better define and label the human subject within their science, biochemists manufacture new synthetic hormones to be administered to the human subjects, advertising agencies work with the biochemical companies to sell their product and infiltrate new markets (with existing medicines–less R&D spending), and the male or female individual chooses to use these medicines and technologies for bodily transformation or for mediating menopause.  These authorities feedback into one another so that one cannot be said to be an ultimate authority, but that each in turn plays a part in how gender and transgenderism is presented and “treated.”

 

Greg Bear’s Blood Music is about a lone male scientist (an authority) working in a big lab who reengineers a set of his own white blood cells to be thinking machines called noocytes.  When his superiors (another authority) sack him on the suspicion of his work, he injects these intelligent machine cells back into his body in order to smuggle them out of the building in the hopes he can retrieve them later.  These cells (a new authority) then go about reengineering his body so that he becomes one with these cells.  The cells then venture away from his body (i.e., labeled a plague by medical authorities) and convert all living matter in North America into one huge organism where the identities of the people are embedded within this new life form, but few of the millions of inhabitants of North America are given a choice in joining with the new life form.  This summary of the novel reveals the layers of authority that exist.  This example doesn’t directly discuss gender other than the whole mess is instigated by a Frankenstein like character who decides to do very dangerous science (working on human biologicals much less reinjecting those biologicals into himself).  But it does reveal the authority that is assumed by certain individuals or groups and ultimately the greatest authority is represented by the new life form in its assimilation of North America.  The medical professionals and scientists that we have been reading about assume this kind of authority.  First the physical appearance was assimilated and cataloged, then the gonads/sex glands were identified and labeled, and now the endocrinological/chemical systems of our bodies were dissected and put into “male” or “female” categories.  Our bodies were assimilated from without by medicine and science.  Additionally, when North America is turned into a “germ” civilization, what does it mean to be male or female?  Memories and consciousnesses are there within the fabric of these microscopic creatures, but the physical manifestation of a person is no longer relevant (except when the noocytes need to communicate with one of the few unaltered humans in North America).  Therefore, this colonization made us strangers in ourselves because it narrowed the focus of sex/gender identities as either male or female while turning the spectrum of reality into abnormality.

 

The other book that I mentioned above is Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.  Reed’s novel is a postmodern retelling of history through a narrative that takes place in the early part of the twentieth century (which coincidentally is when advances took place to move medical science from the “Age of Gonads” into endocrinology).  “Jes Grew” is a identified as a plague by the Atonist authorities (essentially western, white, Christian leadership) because it is an invasion of the spirit that empowers groups under the Atonist powers that be.  It is difficult to give a short description of Jes Grew, but I think that the quotes of James Weldon Johnson at the beginning of the novel point the reader in the right direction.  Johnson wrote in The Book of American Negro Poetry, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew.'” and “we appropriated about the last one of the ‘jes’ grew’ songs.  It was a song that had been sung for years all through the South.  The words were unprintable, but the tune was irresistible, and belonged to nobody.”  Jes Grew is both an invasion from without but it is also an appropriation by a group’s past (African American) into the present.  The dancing and song that was part of Jes Grew empowered individuals that were part of an oppressed group in American society.  It relates to gender because both African American men and women were part of Jes Grew.  It went against prohibition and anti-dancing movements that were part of early twentieth century America.  Another part of the narrative shows a separation between Voo Doo practitioners as being predominantly male.  Some of the history of The Work involves both men and women, but in the story it is men who drive the story.  But in the end, one of the main characters, Earline, who was possessed earlier but relieved of the bad spirit, apologizes for her “breakdown” but PaPa LaBas says, “I don’t think it was a nervous breakdown, I have my theory.  Nervous breakdown sounds so Protestant, we think that you were possessed.  Our cures worked, didn’t they?  All you have to know is how to do The Work” (206).  Earline goes on to say that she wants to travel and learn more about The Work so it may not be so male dominated because it is a female that is identified as the one going off to seek more learning, but it the division within the novel is something to take note of.

 

Hausman writes about a real world struggle of authorities within the discourses of gender and transgenderism.  Bear presents an inventive story where choice is irrelevant to the overwhelming force of intelligent germs.  Reed’s Jes Grew is a spiritual invasion that he describes as having a rich history that is at odds with the Atonist/western hegemony.  Each of these works talk about how authority and hegemony figures into discourses of identity, gender, and transgenderism.  The fictional works are primarily concerned with gender and identity whereas Hausman’s work delves into all three issues.  Thus, issues of identity are bound to the interplay of the authorities that construct the framework within which one can know who he/she is.

——————

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Carol Senf

LCC 3304

5/3/2005

Online Discussion Posting 8

Issues of Shame in Deirdre N. McCloskey’s Crossing:  A Memoir

 

Michael Warner’s theory of sexual ethics and shame appear in Deirdre N. McCloskey’s Crossing:  A Memoir.  McCloskey is writing about her transformation from man to woman.  She is an outside other who is using medical technology and techniques to physically alter her male body to match her female self.

 

In Chapter 14, McCloskey writes about how rumors began to circulate about her plans for transformation that prompts her to confront the issue head on by sending letters to her colleagues and speaking with the press.  She writes in bold, “I am not ashamed of this and am not going to let people treat it as shameful.  For myself and for the politics I am not going to be put back into a closet, ever” (90).  McCloskey invokes the language of shame that Warner discusses in his book The Trouble With Normal.  McCloskey is “not ashamed” and she will not “let people treat it as shameful.”  She feels female inside but she has a physically male body.  The medical intervention that she chose to have performed will allow her to cross from a male sexed body to a female sexed body.  She sees no shame in this because she had no choice in the way that she feels.  In the same way that a person with clinical depression should not feel ashamed of the way that they feel, Deidre does not feel ashamed of the way that she feels (which forms part of her identity).  Warner writes, “Sooner or later, happily or unhappily, almost everyone fails to control his or her sex life.  Perhaps as compensation, almost everyone sooner or later also succumbs to the temptation to control someone else’s sex life” (1).  Warner is primarily writing about gays and lesbians and sexual orientation, but his theory of shame works with anyone with a different sex identity than what is presented or believed to be “normal.”  McCloskey is the outside other who does not fit into what most people would believe to be normal.  Despite her not being like most men because she choose to transform her body into a that of a woman, she should not feel ashamed of her identity or her medically altered body.

 

Warner writes about the different meanings that we have for stigma.  He writes, “Ordinary shame…passes.  One might do a perverse thing and bring scorn or loathing on oneself…This kind of shame affect’s one biographical identity” (28).  This transitory shame is not the same as the shame that someone that falls outside of what is assumed to be sexually normal.  Warner goes on to write, “The shame of a true pervert–stigma–is less delible; it is a social identity that befalls one like fate.  Like the related stigmas of racial identity or disabilities, it may have nothing to do with acts one has committed.  It attaches not to doing, but to being; not to conduct, but to status” (28).  McCloskey performs herself as and appears to be a biological woman.  However, her body is literally marked.  She has stigmata (physical markings–scars) that, if seen, mark her as a “true pervert” who has made a crossing that to many people is unnatural.  McCloskey writes that she will not be “ashamed” and she will not let others “treat it as shameful.”  McCloskey understands that to those who know of her transformation, she is marked.  Many are accepting, but others cannot deal with her choice.  Warner writes, “The ones who pay are the ones who stand out in some way.  They become a lightning rod not only for the hatred of difference, of the abnormal, but also for the more general loathing for sex” (23).  Transgendered people are “lightning rods” because during their crossing, they may appear to be of both sexes.  This stage of metamorphosis (and some may never gain the accepted physical appearance of the sex that they choose) brings their transformation to the forefront to those who consider it unnatural.  Warner goes on to write, “It is their sex, especially, that seems dehumanizing” (24).  This identification of “sex” with “dehumanizing” may be what precipitates violence and outrage by some against those with different sexual orientation or gender identity.  The “normal” person dehumanizes the outside other because of their difference.  Because the other is “abnormal” they are identified as being less than a “normal” person.  The “normal” person disregards the identity of the self or the fact that the other is a human being due respect and equal rights.

 

Is McCloskey ambivalent about her identity as a post-operative MTF transsexual?  Warner writes about “identity ambivalence” in the lesbian and gay movement, but this can also apply to transgendered persons because they are also made to feel sexual shame.  He writes, “The distinction between stigma and shame makes it seem as though an easy way to resolve the ambivalence of belonging to a stigmatized group is to embrace the identity but disavow the act” (33).  Ambivalence is the disregarding of some aspect of your identity yet still holding on to the group identity.  Warner is writing about gays who disregard the fact of gay sex yet want to have a gay identity (he cites the example of the author who cuts out his article in a gay magazine to send to his mom because on the same page is a gay phone sex ad).  At first, McCloskey was going to keep her transformation under wraps until after she began the trip that would culminate with her surgery in Australia.  After rumors began to circulate, she communicated her intentions to her colleagues as well as the curious press.  But she writes of herself as the feminine Deirdre and she refers to her past self, Donald, in the third person.  She performs herself as female and she writes of behaviors and thoughts that might be described as feminine or of the female mind.  Granted, we only read part of her memoir, but it seems like she is shifting from a transsexual identity to that of a real woman.  Deirdre writes about an encounter with a nurse who told her “I’m like you, I had the operation…I mean, I’ve had a hysterectomy” (201).  Deirdre writes in response to this, “So just like me, thought Deirdre, she has a vagina but no ovaries.  Deirdre was like her, like a woman on hormone replacement therapy after a hysterectomy or menopause.  Goodness, she thought, I am a woman on hormone replacement therapy” (201).  The ultimate goal of a transsexual transformation is to become the physical reality of the felt gender identity.  Perhaps it is best that someone who crosses should then assume the identity of the sex and gender that he/she has become and disregard the transsexual identity of transformation.  Additionally, if the person assumes the sex and gender identity of that which they have become, this sets the person within the generally accepted framework of binomial normalcy.  However, I think Warner would identify McCloskey as being ambivalent about her sex identity because she is like the new middle-class gays who don’t want to get involved in politics.  She has attained what she wants (to become a woman) and she has established herself within her field as an expert.  She no longer has to struggle to attain what she wants.  The same is true for the gays that Warner discusses in his book.  The old fights and struggles are a distant memory to the comfortable middle-class gays who have jobs and relationships without (much) fear of reprisal.  They have ambivalence about their gay identity that allows them the luxury to disregard part of that identity in order to make themselves more acceptable to the general public (who have opinions on what is “normal” and who have their opinions shaped by popular culture).

 

McCloskey’s memoirs bring up the issues of sexual shame and identity ambivalence that Warner describes in his book.  Deidre works against sexual shame during her transformation but she seems to give into identity ambivalence once she has attained her goal of becoming a woman.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Georgia Tech, Recovered Writing
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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