I have spent an intense week marking the 33 essays produced by the students enrolled in my BA elective on Gender Studies. Together they amount to a complete volume of about 80000 words, perhaps worth publishing online (though I hesitate to embark again on the arduous task of editing undergrad work). The list of paper titles is, simply, exciting, with plenty of TV series and the first paper on video-games I have ever marked! I feel I have been reading cutting-edge research even though the researchers themselves are not quite ready yet to produce it. Some paradox.
The students’ papers cover a wide range of approaches to gender: femininity and feminism, alternative masculinities, queer and gay, lesbianism and the mainstream, transgender and intersexuality and a miscellaneous group of ‘gender-speculative’ work. This is why it has been such a … queer experience to combine marking them with reading Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms (2009). This is a highly accomplished piece of scholarship on gender studies which has passed quite unnoticed, as usually happens with anything connected with SF. Yet it is also an acknowledgement that feminism and even gender are concepts in urgent need of revision within cultural criticism.
I have read Merrick’s volume because I am currently preparing a talk on women and SF, from Mary Shelley onwards, invited by CSIC (11 March, 19:00, Biblioteca Sagrada Familia). This is quite contradictory, for, though I am often connected with SF feminism, I have actually been writing against its unwise gender-based separatism (see “Cracks in the Feminist Nirvana: Reading David Brin’s Anti-Patriarchal SF Novel Glory Days as a ‘Feminist’ Woman,” in Yesterday’s Tomorrows: On Utopia and Dystopia. Pere Gallardo & Elizabeth Russell, eds.). I am a totally convinced feminist in demand of equal rights and opportunities for women and men; yet as a scholar and reader I have always criticised feminism for considering women’s work apart from men’s, and for ignoring how (and why) men are since the 1980s contributing positive representations of women, particularly in SF.
Merrick’s final chapter deals with the James Tiptree jr. award for SF fiction which contributes to offering alternative gender representation. She wonders, though, whether an award should highlight gender, even puzzling over whether an interest in gender is always feminist. Noting that explorations of masculinity are gaining ground in Tiptree submissions, she observes next that there is much pressure from “women of color”, post-colonialism, critical race theory, queer theory and even feminist science studies to “de-prioritize gender (…) as the primary tool of feminist theory” (281). Gwyneth Jones, a British SF writer, is quoted bemoaning how feminist SF has become just a ‘niche market, a minority interest’ while most women prefer thrilling ‘fem-SF’ and its strong female characters. My reaction?: “well, serves you right for insisting on the separatist line”. Then I’m sorry I’m so nasty.
Let me recap my views:
a) gender MUST be used as a crucial analytical tool as long as patriarchy exists; the main mission of Gender Studies is raising everyone’s consciousness, men and women, about patriarchy–this elephant in the room of feminism so few women and men call by its name.
b) once more: I prefer calling myself ‘anti-patriarchal’ if by calling myself ‘feminist’ I confuse men and women into thinking that I am interested in limiting myself to women (their rights, history, cultural production… as Merrick and her ‘cabal’ do)
c) SF is a gigantic lab for imagining post-gender, post-race, post-class… utopia, which is why I read it. Most young girls, most men and I myself are not very much interested in feminist stories by women (set in patriarchy) but in post-gender stories by women and by men (set in post-patriarchy).
d) I don’t understand why gender should be abandoned, since it is not only perfectly compatible with other identity markers (race, class, age, ability, nationality…) but also intertwined with them. White feminists and black feminists are separated by race, but why should this mean that gender is irrelevant to read their work or life?
Let me mention two more texts. Yesterday I saw The Expendables 3, part of the series bringing back to the screen the ageing actors who played the main roles in action films from the 1980s onwards. It is very peculiar to see these men (actually two generations, born between the 1940s and the 1960s) parade with pride faces that look terribly aged (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Gibson). Harrison Ford (b. 1942!) looks positively ancient… In the case of Dolph Lundgren (b. 1957) what is most striking is the clash between his devastated face and his still very muscular arms.
The film, from a story by Stallone himself, deals with his character Barney’s misguided attempt to recruit a younger band of mercenaries to safeguard his habitual team from danger. His strategy backfires when his new young team makes a silly mistake, which results in their being held captive and in need of rescue by Stallone’s fogies. I entertained myself, between noisy shoot-outs and fights, with pondering how impossible the same story would be with ageing women actresses in similar roles (Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver and who else?).
Yet among the post-racial rainbow assembly of testosterone-fuelled men (5 US white, 2 US black, 2 UK white, 1 Latino, 1 Spaniard, 1 Swede, 1 Asian, multiple ‘azmanistanies’…), a woman could be found. Luna, very credibly played by a mixed martial arts specialist, the handsome Ronda Rousey, is first presented as a bouncer in high heels, yet, arguably!, not really sexualised. She is just part of the team, full stop, and efficient at doing her job. When at the end she makes eyes at Stallone and tells him ‘if you were 30 years younger…’ he quips, ‘if I were 30 years younger I would be afraid of you’. Is this feminism? Of course not! It is mere tokenism (just one white woman and she’s secondary). Yet, I find it refreshing, for Stallone’s macho audience is the one needing to be taught respect for women. (I was going to comment on AfricanAmerican Zoe Saldana, kicking ass hard in Guardians of the Galaxy but I’m still processing her green skin, after her blue skin in Avatar).
The other text: N. Katherine Hayles’ ultra-dense How We Became Posthuman (1999). This is a fascinating account (if you’re up to coping with her unfriendly prose) of the current technoscientific craze by which Hans Moravec and company expect us to become disembodied and reach immortality as pure consciousness on the net or some digital device. Helen Merrick reads Hayles’ protest against this wacky discourse, which seemingly forgets that minds belong in bodies, as a feminist challenge against aberrant patriarchal dreams. I see this myself: the persons who have caused computers to shape our world are (privileged white) men who see themselves as primarily minds encased in messy, incidental bodily matter. Hayles’ horror of their ignorance of actual bodies is in essence feminist. Yet, funnily, she carefully avoids using a gendered discourse. My guess is that, ironically, speaking as a female person whose body conditions her daily life would diminish her authority against those who, believing themselves entitled to manipulating the whole human species, do not realise that their privileged position comes, precisely, from their possessing white, male, middle-class Western bodies.
Gender, as you can see, is not only not at all obsolete as a tool for understanding life but in dire need of being better understood. Of course, other factors matter but my view is that they’re all part of this evil patriarchal system that needs to be destroyed as soon as possible. Ignore it at your own risk.
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