Today marks the end of my time as a guest blogger for Bitch. Eight weeks and 24 posts later, I've learned a lot from the editors (thank you, Kelsey!) and readers about writing and politics. And the politics of writing. Rather than end off by talking specifically about a particular topic at the intersection of youth, sexuality, and education, I want to reflect on the nature of doing analytical writing at this political nexus.
Apparently, we have to get an education in some land of make-believe shot through a vaseline-covered lens in order to get a "real" job, and then endure the "real world" where we won't have it so easy, and then, at some undisclosed point in the future, "it gets better"? If we don't expect the level of community and political engagement that is growing all the time at all educational levels to translate into "real life," then how are things going to get better? Are people suddenly going to start taking seriously the labor laws that compel companies to give perfunctory seminars on how not to sexually harass your coworkers? Probably not. I think it's going to involve breaking down some of the boundaries between "school" and "work" that treat theorizing and activism and even a little naïve enthusiasm as immaterial to the way the rest of the world works.
We're elaborately taught how to relate to ourselves as gendered beings. It's been a long time that people have been building on the critical observation that there's no natural connection between pink/girl or boy/blue, yet kids continue to be the targets of aggressive marketing that creates profitable niche interests—a collection of stereotypes from which gender binarized consumers are "free" to choose—and of subtler gender conditioning (as my friend Ember is finding out, swaddled babies, though indistinguishable, are praised as pretty or strongdepending on how parents advertise their sex). I've mentioned how a lot of kids are skipping the closet and, consequently, finding themselves at the forefront of advocating respect toward sexual difference. What about trans youth? There's been increasing attention to "gender creative" or "gender independent" kids as social space opens up in which to discuss, rather than repress, their behavior. Could these terms reflect a reluctance to apply the concept of transgender to youth of a certain age because of its association with sexual identity (I am thinking specifically here of the historical, medical roots of trans-related descriptors in the West that have stemmed from the word "transsexualism" coined as "transsexualismus" in the early 1900s by Magnus Hirschfeld and later "trans-sexual" by Harry Benjamin in the 1960s)? Conversely, does the usage of the trans label problematically continue to lump the T in with the LGB? (Not that the B gets much visibility, either).
So I was watching Glee the other night, waiting desperately to see if Brittany and Santana would show some sign that they were still together. As I tried to peer into the minds of Glee's creators and discover their subversive intent in having the lesbian character Santana dance to a song with romantic lyrics about boy/girl love with the gay-in-real-life Ricky Martin, it hit me: TV is not activism. I mean, critiquing TV can be activism, but TV programming itself exists, by and large, in the service of profit, not activism. In recognition of TV's persuasive powers over "impressionable youth," there is a long history of the "after school special" and the "very special episode" of family sitcoms. But the structural inequalities and relations of rule responsible for the most urgent cultural problems of our time run way deeper than the politics of media representation.
Designer Tom Ford once told Details magazine: "There's one indulgence every man should try in his lifetime. If you're straight, sleep with a man at least once, and if you're gay, don't go through life without sleeping with a woman."
Gucci's sartorial savant could—pardon the following phrase—"get away with" that—pardon the following adjective—"edgy" quote since he's an out gay man. Having already wandered away from the heteronormative fold, of course it's fine for him to explore both male and female physical contact. A straight guy saying that? Whoa, buddy, you've gotta be gay. Because male bisexuality doesn't exist, right? Oh, wait.
We pay a curious amount of attention to blue jeans specifically, a staple wardrobe item in virtually any wardrobe, both young and old. Despite Lee Jeans proclaiming in 2010 that "real men" suffer from "shop-a-phobia" and couldn't give a hoot about finding the perfect pair, the type of jeans a man slips on nevertheless seems to say a lot about how he projects his masculinity and sexuality (which is probably the culprit of the bogus shop-a-phobia). And who are these "real men," anyway? Are they the ones outfitted in Garth Brooks-y cowboy bootcut Wranglers or skin-tight indie rock frontman fare? Or are they one who prefer the saggy and baggy, or distressed and bedazzled? So many choices, so many (unnecessary?) implications about what started as a practical, durable pant for California gold miners.
I doubt that many people will feel the need to shell out good money to find out if their son is gay using such suspect methods. But I imagine some desperate young men will buy it themselves and be taught they can change their sexuality by suppressing their gender identity. Some young gay men will be identified as straight because they enjoy stereotypically masculine activities and some young straight men will once again hear the message that every activity that isn't Shark Punching or Lady Ogling is, like, the gayest thing ever. Not that there's anything wrong with that! The choice is completely up to you! You can either pass the test or witness your sainted mother bawling her eyes out about never having grandchildren! As she clutches empty photo albums and screams "The App told me to accept it but I can't!"
The first panel of the third row is by far my favorite, contrasting the dominant culture's reaction to two forms of sexual attraction. From private conversations I've had with gay men in the past I know that some of them believe that this is evidence that same sex attraction is easier for women than men, but both reactions are harmful and disgusting. In the second, the sight or idea of two men being affectionate (or even sitting "unnaturally close to each other, effeminately rubbing elbows and exchanging doe-eyes") makes the viewer repulsed, angry, uncomfortable, or violent and leads to immediate policing by word or action. But in the first a personal act of affection is being extruded through another person's fetish and commodified for that person's pleasure and consumption. Having a narrative forced onto your love life isn't fun or easy for anyone. Additionally, the same man declaring two women kissing is hot can become violent very quickly if his advances are met with anything less than enthusiasm.
I started rounding up my weight, started posting pictures of myself displaying my less photogenic qualities—if I was going to get rejected, it was going to be right at the start. Every time I'd meet a man in real life that I found attractive I would reject him immediately. "Nice try, sexy dude asking too many questions about my shirt. If I wanted you you'd just reject me so I reject you first and also leave me alone, I'm busy." Two months later I met the same guy on Gay.com and we got halfway through our first date before he remembered seeing me and flirting with me, and I felt really, really embarrassed that I had been so willfully obtuse. This same scenario played itself out repeatedly, although sometimes the guy just walked away and I never saw him again.