In Transition/Under Construction Part 2

Gender in the 21st century is a pretty contentious thing, which is one of the few things that most people can agree on when the topic comes up. Of course it gets even more contentious where transgender issues are concerned. If I say that gender is largely a social construction, then in some quarters it must mean that being transgendered is somehow irrelevant or counterproductive. Why would I say that I want to look and act like a woman? Isn't that supporting the idea of women and men having specific codified roles in society?

Depends on your perspective. On the one hand, referring to a certain set of qualities or characteristics as being specifically masculine or feminine does appear to support the concept of a binary gender system. However, the implementation of those characteristics and qualities by the sex opposite to that usually associated with them suggests that while they may be a specific set of tropes, they are far more modular than generally assumed. That is to say that while the traits we generally refer to as being feminine or masculine based on social expectations of heteronormativity do typically manifest themselves more or less as cohesive wholes, they do not require the corresponding sex organs. Hence the butch/femme diagnostic employed by the LGBT community.

This point- while having always been hovering somewhere in my subconscious- never made it into my conscious thought patterns until I was reading a relationship advice column in the local LGBT free newspaper Xtra West. The article was written by someone you'd generally refer to as being a "butch lesbian;" a woman attracted to other women who espouses and exalts traditionally masculine traits over feminine ones. What was interesting about the article is that it was advice for those of the butch persuasion on how to get over a bad break up. Because of the lack of male/female or sexual orientation connotations, the article was easily accessible and equally relatable to men and women both gay and straight given that they have more of an interest in building things and being stoic than buying a new pair of shoes and eating a lot of ice cream.

That modularity is what makes the butch/femme diagnostic the most useful and accurate description of contemporary gender. While it would probably be preferable to use tags that are completely free of association with the sexes, the nomenclature must remain understandable and relatable to the general public if there is to be any widespread recognition or adoption of it. Butch women and femme men may face a bigger share of discrimination and ridicule for stepping outside of the expected gender norm, but accurately describing how they express themselves is the only way forward. You cannot collapse a false dichotomy without first proving that it is false.

Just as important as removing gender from the context of sex is removing it from sexual orientation. No matter how much we'd like to pretend otherwise, we do still live in a world where if you are homosexual, you are assumed to emulate the qualities of the opposite sex and visa versa. I can't say I'm aware of what the prevailing FTM stereotypes are in terms of orientation but it's rather safe to say that if you are transwoman, you are assumed to be homosexual or perhaps more accurately; androphilic. As if it is unthinkable that you could be born a man, feel more comfortable as a woman, and be sexually attracted to women all at the same time. There are, of course, a great many androphilic transwomen but gynophilic transwomen exist as well which is of course how I identify myself in that context. It's an excellent illustration of just how intrinsically linked sex, gender, and orientation are in everyday life, which is truly unfortunate given the truth of the situation.

One of the more laudable things that substituting traditional gender labels with the butch/femme diagnostic is that it breaks down barriers between the different elements of the queer community as well as those between the queer and straight communities. It provides common ground for traditionally segregated or oppositional groups. The clearest usage of the butch/femme diagnostic to break down barriers between fundamentally different groups is the propensity for straight women and (femme) gay men to socialize, something that by comparison rarely happens between straight men and (butch) lesbians.

The key here is that we are still a long ways away from being able to retire an essentially binary diagnostic tool for gender, but there is still a great deal of progress that can be made by detaching the language we use for defining gender from sex and orientation to become something completely modular. Real change occurs incrementally, after all.

In Transition/Under Construction Part 1

I’ve mostly tried to use this particular blog to talk about narratives; either my own developing ones or extant ones and how they interact with the basic fabric of our lives. An extended attempt at vindicating myself for “thinking too much” about what some of the cumulative effects on modern society the prevalent themes in the pop we digest have. Or at least that’s the self deprecating log line.

I’m going to try to steer the ship in a different direction for a while, or maybe just send out a dingy to explore an island for a bit while the ship weighs anchor off the coast. The island is the transgendered aspect of my personality. It’s something I generally avoid in most of my communication, only ever usually referring to it in passing to a select few confidants. I want to try to organize a few pieces to explore all the facets of the issue as they relate to me directly and other perspectives as well and hopefully come to terms with it as I do.

In my experience, I can only speak for myself on this, realizing that I was in fact transgendered was a slow process of questioning and awakening. One that I believe based on the testaments of my homosexual friends is not very far removed from discovering and coming to terms with your sexual orientation if it differs from societal norms. For the longest time I really knew that I did not fit in with most other guys, and of course that doesn’t mean that feeling alienated by your gender peers means that you’re trans. That’s one of the key things that anyone grappling with their gender identity has to deal with; going from the idea that they don’t want to be what they are to actively wanting to be the other thing.

It isn’t healthy or productive to define yourself as what you are not or do not want to be, despite the fact that most changes we make to our looks and how we present ourselves to the outside world are born from dissatisfaction with one thing or another. I’m too fat so I want to lose weight would be the simplest iteration to use as an example. The first thing to be thinking about is not how you can lose weight. The first thing to be thinking about is what gave you the idea that you are fat and why you feel driven to lose that weight. If you can’t fit into your favorite pants anymore and would like to fix that, you’re on the right track. It stops being about not being fat and starts being about wanting to fit into those pants again. Of course you then have to determine how much weight you should be losing and whose standards you’re working to conform to.

Gender identity works very similarly. Like I alluded to before, feeling uncomfortable in your body does not make you trans, and being trans does not necessarily mean that you should be investigating gender reassignment surgery. For me it started off with a “I’m too fat,” train of thought. General feelings of malaise and dissatisfaction with being male. But what really pushed me over the top was the positive experiences that I had either while in drag or in social contexts where I was completely free and encouraged to indulge what I would refer to as being my more feminine side. Being a guy isn’t all bad and I don’t entirely hate it. There will probably be a few things that I’ll miss about it if I do go through with transitioning- which I intend to- but at the same time my experiences that allowed me to tap into femininity in both a physical and metaphorical context were so liberating and rewarding that it seems downright masochistic not to pursue it further.

I guess from here I’ll try to pick apart the different components of the transgendered experience and try to provide some insight into how becoming cognizant of it has changed my perspective on a lot of things.

Let's Make a Sandwich

The internet is abuzz, Lady Gaga has a new video out and it is nine minutes long. That's pretty stunning in and of itself. The whole thing takes a few viewings to properly digest because it's incredibly dense for something so seemingly shallow. I want to attack this thing from about a dozen angles, so apologies if it loses coherency for the sake of completeness.

The first and most remarkable thing about the Telephone video is how queer it is. Gaga's talked about being bisexual in the media before but until The Fame Monster, it hadn't even shown itself except subtly in her lyrics. If it wasn't for the Rolling Stone interview, a lot of people including myself wouldn't have figured out that Poker Face is about distracting a guy to get with his girlfriend. By contrast, the only time anything hetero appears in the Telephone video it's Tyrese's cameo and he's really just there to be sacrificed on the altar of Beyonce and Gaga's girl-love.

It's not particularly notable for having girl-on-girl sequences, but it is very notable for how they're portrayed as this run down of Music Videos With Content of a Lesbian Nature by the ladies at Autostraddle makes very clear. Probably the biggest thing to mention is that it's Gaga herself who is making out with the ladies in the prison yard and not a proxy of some kind as is usually the case. The amount of self-possession it takes to break that kind of ground in the mainstreamiest of the mainstream is truly laudable. But it doesn't stop there. The women in the jail sequences of Telephone are not tarted up hetero girls put there to please the boys in the audience, they're a wide range of butch and femme with the butch end of the spectrum getting the most play. One of the most socially marginalized demographics in North America is African-American lesbians. To wit, recent articles have alerted me to the fact that they face wildly disproportionate discharges under the DADT act and African-American women in general (in the US) have reported a median wealth of five dollars. Despite that, it's a black leatherdyke who is given the honour of flashing Lady Gaga's own headphones in the more obvious instances of product placement in the video.

After comments about the appearance of the infamous Pussy Wagon, "Let's Make a Sandwich," and "Told you she doesn't have a dick," the product placement is one of the most discussed things about the video. What a lot of people are missing is- again- the context of that product placement. Yes, someone is on a laptop accessing Plenty of Fish and the screen brightness is magnified so that you can't possibly miss it but who is that at the keyboard but the muscly, masculine in bearing dominatrix prison guard. That's a seriously ballsy way to promote your dating site because after all this is not a Teagan and Sarah video where you could conceivably tailor a spot to appeal to a niche market sight unseen by the mainstream. The Virgin Mobile plug happens right in the middle of what was shaping up to be a jail yard lesbian threesome during which Lady Gaga is wearing sunglasses that are decorated with lit cigarettes. The sheer amount of things that offend contemporary mores and prejudices is mind boggling and any one of them would usually be enough to send any advertiser running for the hills, but Gaga's appeal seems to be making the risks involved for the firms palatable which is why she's so goddamn important.

One of the more tragic reminders of the very narrow appreciation for film- and I suppose culture in general- that my generation has is how often and to what extent Quentin Tarantino is mentioned in reference to Telephone. The reason that an artifact typing itself explicitly to Tarantino was required in order for Ackerland and Gaga to express their love for his work is that his aesthetic is very difficult to invoke without attribution because of how referential it is. The irony of course is that a very large portion of his audience has no direct experience of his influences and thus conflate anything that uses the grindhouse aesthetic with him despite the fact that he is quite vigilant in crediting his influences through his dialogue. What all too frequently gets missed is that Paparazzi of which Telephone is the narrative sequel has the shadow of Frederico Fellini looming over it just as heavily as Tarantino (his contemporaries and influences inclusive) does Telephone. Beyond evoking Fellini's life long fascination with the Italian elite- be it aristocracy or movie stars- the very name has it's genesis in his most famous film (La Dolce Vita) which is a derivation of the Italian word for "sewer rat."

Now begins speculation of which iconic film director Gaga and Ackerland will pattern their next outing after. My money is on David Lynch based on his indelible imprint on pop culture, love of Woman in Trouble narratives, and reputation for being impenetrable and "weird." After Telephone, it's hard not to hunger for their take on Mulholland Drive or Wild At Heart. Another brilliant subversion would be to take on film's most notorious and unapologetic misogynist, Lars Von Trier.

Of course this whole thing ultimately traces it's way back to Michael Jackson who is largely responsible for the music video as an art form and most definitely the progenitor of the long form version of it. Witness the side to side clawing the air look at me I am homaging Thriller dance move that Gaga has been using since Beautiful Dirty Rich or the everything but a crotch grab little dance she does on her release from prison in Telephone. Until her first splashy foray into the long form video, it was a dying art form that had become little more than a plug for the single with rapidly declining time share on the cable channels that were birthed to showcase them. When was the last time people were talking this much about a music video? Probably Marilyn Manson's Coma White video that portrayed him as JFK being shot in the head, literally over ten years ago. Of course Paparazzi- if not so much Telephone- shares a lot of themes and statements about fame and media martyrdom with Coma White and the corresponding Manson album. No wonder Gaga and Manson are BFFs.

Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga is dominating the pop culture discourse and she understands precisely how to weaponize it. She's doing the counter culture's work from within the mainstream. Infiltrate, subvert, destroy.



Welcome to it.

These are my ramblings. Have a go if you think you're hard.