Posts Tagged ‘socialization’

by Julia

March 4 was The National Day of Action to Defend Education, and at Maryland we took action to create the kind of education we desire. We held a series of workshops in the Art-Sociology building’s atrium on feminism in academia, hip hop and society, sports and education, the prison-industrial complex, and whatever else is in our everyday lives but is little discussed in our classes. I am fortunate enough to be enrolled in several courses this semester which deal with issues of sexism, classism, ableism, racism, and other inequalities which are prevalent in our system today, and I wish to share just a sample of the progressive and intellectually stimulating topics from my 300-level Women’s Studies class on the Sociology of Gender.

Foucault and Purity Balls

On March 4, we discussed the intersection of Michel Foucault and sexuality in society, specifically concerning purity balls. For further information on purity balls, I highly recommend Jessica Valenti’s book, The Purity Myth, as well as these links. These often federally funded events represent the hegemony of several institutions on the bodies and brains of young women, a phenomenon which Foucault links to the definition of the Self solely by one’s sexuality.

“Since Christianity, Western civilization has not stopped saying, ‘To know who you are, know what your sexuality is about.’”

-Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction

“Sexuality as a term did not appear until the beginning of the 19th century. What had been some 300 years earlier just so many disparate urges, inclinations, and activities were delineated as a problematic set of traits and drives that supposedly define a central aspect of human nature…[and]…define us as sexual objects.”

– C.G. Prado, Starting with Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy

Because the Self is a social and cultural construct, the hegemony of certain institutions in society and their obsession with sexuality led to the definition and eventual policing of our bodies in terms of our sexuality. The Church, specifically, pursued its their goal of disconnecting sex from pleasure starting in the 19th century, and began to define sex as a sin punishable by eternal damnation – allowing religious morality to permeate all forms of privacy, so that people ended up policing their own choices for fear of retribution. Our sexual selves are also managed by the government and medical communities, under the guise of the “public good.”  In short, the advent of this new Self definition represented the institutionalization of sexuality.

Purity balls, then, represent a fairly recent evolution of this institutionalization. As I see it, underlying these ceremonies is a great fear that the expression of women’s sexualities will in some way topple the order of society which, for the past 200 years, has recognized the power of individual expression to the independence of many social groups. Most tragically, this trend of hypersexualization essentializes young women so that they are defined by a single issue – their sexuality. How sad that equal focus is not placed on their education, advancement in male-dominated academic fields, or protection from the patriarchy instead of from themselves.

Young women who express their heterosexual desires – not to mention those women who *gasp* align themselves somewhere else on the sexual spectrum – are forced to suppress their wants by social institutions. At the same time, however, young women are also hypersexualized from a very young age because of this very same trend of defining the Self not by one’s thoughts or actions, but solely by one’s sexual expression.

Foucault challenges us to not only recognize who we are sexually – gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, etc – but also to deconstruct why many of us identify so strongly with our sexual selves in the first place. 200 years ago, few defined themselves by sexual expression, and to claim otherwise is to lay a false metanarrative of sexual expression on history.

Foucault’s strongest attribute in terms of deconstructing sexuality is his ability to question exactly whose ends our identifications serve.

“The central issue…is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex…but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue [is] the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.*’”

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

*Foucault defines “discourse” as simply a discussion among people, but as a discussion that “society has with itself: a set of meaning-making practices.” The discursive power of the narrative of purity produces certain types of individuals with repressed sexualities.

The hypersexualized young woman who is forced into purity balls is certainly not serving her own desires or interests, but most likely those of her parents, and religious leaders. This definition of women by their sexuality and “purity” is detrimental to all involved. It hurts young women who learn to measure their worth based on a single issue. It hurts young men who struggle to see their sisters, cousins, friends, and partners for more than their sexual purity. It hurts society because this focus on the sexuality of young women impedes the recognition of so many other facets of a women’s mind. Ultimately, all parties lose out, but none so much as the women who fall prey to the policing of their minds and bodies by a society which strategically subordinates them to maintain dominance.


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by Julia

So, yesterday was Valentine’s Day. As I see it, there are a few options for how to spend this day, based on your romantic situation:

1. If you’re in a fairly committed relationship, you can embrace it. Yes, it’s a capitalistic holiday which embodies the system at its worst (I’ll get to that in a minute), but it is important to reaffirm your love of one another. Amanda points out that striking the prefect balance on Valentine’s Day is difficult, even for the couples for whom the holiday was created (or so they say):

Gestures that fit the stereotypical romantic gestures–flowers, chocolate, jewelry–feel generic and impersonal.  But highly personalized gestures fail in the task of showing off to others how loved you are.  At its core, Valentine’s Day is some dark shit.

If you choose to participate, be sincere. And please, don’t rub it in the faces of single people.

2. You can hate it. As Brian over at Gawker writes, this is definitely worse than couples who embrace it. Why?

Yes, Valentine’s Day is a despicable propagation of the hetero-normative monogamy fallacy that plagues the world, telling everyone that they have a “soul mate” and one special person to complete them and anyone who isn’t in such a relationship is a worthless piece of shit who doesn’t deserve to be loved and probably dresses bad and needs more time in the gym.

However, the reaction to these sentiments is just as knee-jerk and trite. Hating Valentine’s Day is a sad fucking cliché. On the outside its says, “I hate the corporate structure that built this shitty holiday” and “I’m doing fine on my own, thank you,” but what it says on the inside is, “I am so sick of not having the validation of someone in my life that I need to rebel against this thing or I am going to wither away like a dried toe nail clipping in the garbage.” These people think that they are going to do something to change the couple-centric world that we live in, but all that they’re doing is giving credence to it. It’s like scowling at the concept but sneaking handfuls of chalky conversation hearts while all their fellow black-wearers go to change The Smiths record.

Sorry for the long quotation, but he says it so well. It’s like that age-old advice our parents gave us about bullies at school – acknowledging them only  gives them power. This mantra can be applied to pretty much any oppressive institution in society, and capitalism (and its holidays) churns on thanks to a consistent stream of consumers who buy into its existence. In being anti-Valentines, you’re simply acknowledging its presence. Also, you end up buying more crap.

3. You can ignore it. Treat it like any other day of the year. (More on this in a bit).

4. You can use it as an excuse to be kind to those close to you. For me, this involved a fun evening out with my best friend and a long phone call to the parents (in which my dad promised he’d always be my Valentine. Swoon.) Nothing wrong with baking cookies, drinking wine, and checking out a movie. As one of my friends says, “Cute is fun.” So be cute, have fun, done.

As I mentioned, I spent the day with my roommate. We went out to Silver Spring for dinner and a movie. That movie was Valentine’s Day. Reviews abound, so I’ll be quick in saying that the movie did a good job of affirming my categorization of possible ways to spend the day. There are characters in full-on Valentine’s fervor: proposals, packed prix-fixe restaurants,  massive amounts of money spent of floral arrangements, expensive lingerie, and the like. There are also a few characters filling the anti-Valentine’s role: Jessica Biel’s character throws a particularly depressing anti-Valentines party, complete with a heart pinata ready for pulverization. Jamie Foxx plays into scenario three, choosing to ignore the day. Taylor Swift lost several points in my book for being a horrible actress. Overall, the movie was unmemorable – not that I expected anything more given the reviews. Still, though, I was heartened by the final message of the movie: that the day should serve as a reminder of who and what is important in our lives (#4).

Director Gary Marshall (of Pretty Woman fame) was clearly attempting to make an American version of Love Actually, and in that pursuit he failed miserably. He also didn’t fare well in terms of perpetuating particularly progressive or feminist values (“Valentine’s Day stumps for teen abstinence and marrying your best friend, and warns that career women may end up alone.”) And yet, the movie has some highlights. Two prominent characters are in a homosexual relationship. Anne Hathaway’s character is an empowered, sexualized woman who calls out men on the double standard they are imposing on her for taking control of her sexual expression. And, as mentioned before, one leaves the theater with the distinct feeling that one does not need to be in a monogamous heterosexual relationship to be happy, on this day or any other.

Final reflection, as emphasized by the plethora of chocolate-pounding women on screen and in ads last week: Valentine’s Day is harder on women than men. Even with the message expressed in this movie, the majority of images and messages in popular culture distinctly demonize single women, professing that we must be unhappy and unfulfilled. (Because of this, you should either find a husband, or, for god’s sake, go buy some chocolate and anti-Valentine’s gear!!) Unfortunately, this inundation can take a toll on even the most enlightened feminist, making choice #3 (ignore the day) a bit harder. The best remedy for that sucky feeling? #4. Time with those close to you is the best possible reminder that no gaudy gift – rose, thong, bear, jewelry, or otherwise – can replace friendship, something that many forced monogamous relationships lack. If this is the real purpose of Valentine’s Day (and I remain unconvinced that the majority of society believes that), then each day should be Valentine’s Day. Be excellent to each other. The end.

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by Julia

Today, I saw Avatar and Up in the Air. Avatar reviews abound, so I’ll focus this post on Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman and starring George Clooney, Jason Bateman, and Vera Farmiga. The film tells the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a 40-something who travels all over the  country to fire people from their jobs. He loves traveling; in fact, all the bits we hate most – security, taking off our shoes, crappy food, recycled air – make Clooney’s character feel most at home. He prides himself on his “freedom,” as defined by not being tied down by such petty things as family, friends, or material belongings.

Enter two women: Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a recent Cornell grad with a business degree and the requisite veneer of capitalistic greed, and Alex (Farmiga), apparently Clooney’s female clone. (At one point, she characterizes herself as Clooney, “only with a vagina.”) These characters bring out different aspects of Bingham’s personality and slowly shear away his philosophy of isolation, leaving the audience “up in the air” for much of the 109 minutes as to the film’s objective.

I don’t want to disclose the entire plot, but I can say with certainty that this film exposes a lot about the modern American: our wants vs. our needs, the image we are “supposed” to give off vs. what really matters to us, and finally, our idolization of money and status over personal relationships. My favorite scene from the movie comes towards the beginning, where the recently-dumped Natalie grills her older peers on happiness, marriage, and companionship. Clooney’s character plays the role of the typical bachelor: I’m happily single, marriage is pointless, I don’t want to be accountable to anyone, (I’m immature), etc. When Alex tells Natalie that marriage isn’t everything – that companionship/a life partner is just as valuable – Natalie drops the F-bomb:

“Not to sound anti-feminist, because I really appreciate all that your generation has done for my generation, and I’m really grateful for my career, but I still feel like I can’t really be a success as a woman until I’m married.”


And how many times have women our age grappled with a similar question? We are socialized to believe that marriage is the way to define ourselves as women. Even with fantastic examples of women who “have it all” (thanks, mom!), we still find ourselves believing that until we marry, everything else we accomplish is insignificant. Similarly, I would argue, men are socialized to live it up as bachelors for as long as possible, because once you’re saddled down with a woman, well gosh, your life is over, man. Clooney’s character embodies this stereotype, just as Natalie is the typical young woman…or so we think.

Though the film got off to a slow start, and I found some inconsistencies in assigning these labels to several personalities, overall Up in the Air excels in its revelation of the ironies of human behavior. As someone tasked with firing people – arguably, one of the most heartless interactions out there – Bingham has a gift with words and conveying genuine sentiment. And for a man who vehemently opposes any sort of commitment to places or people, these connections with the unemployed are refreshing (and revealing).  Natalie’s cold, corporate demeanor is quickly shed under the unexpected guidance of Bingham, and in the end she follows her mind (and heart) to a brighter future. Alex’s character both exhibits typical “female” and “male” characterizations – perhaps the quintessential modern woman? I think not, nor do I think this is the best theme of the movie.

In addition to the potential feminist overtones of Up in the Air, what needs to be noted are the reflections on business in America after the financial crisis of 2008. Recall the film centers on characters detached from everyone, flying around the country laying people off from their jobs. Jason Bateman’s character gleefully announces that the recent financial crisis would mean over 30,000 new layoffs in the next few weeks – more business for him!! This greed at the expense of others is underlined most poignantly through interviews with the recently unemployed – played not by actors, but by actual recently unemployed Americans. Their message is clear: temporarily removed from the obligations of work, their personal connections are illuminated as by far the most important aspects of their lives. Enter my first deliberate mention of Marx:

“The realm of freedom begins only where labor determined by necessity[…] ends; the reduction of the working day  is the basic prerequisite.”

This is, after all, the silver lining to the financial crisis. Brutally awakened to the consequences of capitalism – namely, the devaluation of the personal and emotional – Americans may finally be coming to their senses. Perhaps spending more time at home and truly interacting with their wives and children will refute the myth that marriage is miserable for men. Perhaps, with both spouses working moderate hours, it would be possible for a woman to reap the benefits of individual success and spousal companionship. We’ve got a long way to go, and in no way am I refuting the importance of hard work. Nor am I suggesting that people quit their jobs immediately in order to achieve maximum happiness. I am, however, proposing that this forced shift in time (job loss) may ultimately lead to a positive shift in values – away from individualist greed and towards a more collective sense of companionship.

Verdict: movie isn’t all that great, but the message is worth some serious reflection.

On another note, go Ravens tomorrow! Serious inter-division rivalry with the Steelers as both of us fight for the AFC wild card spot. I’ll be at the beach bar with Papa Burke rocking a Flacco jerz and cheering hard.

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