Binaries, Gender, and Pegagogy

Posted: September 27, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Today’s post is brought to you by “Breaking out of Binaries: Reconceptualizing Gender and its Relationship to Language in Computer-Mediated Communication” by Michelle Rodino and “Dis/Integrating the Gay/Queer Binary: ‘Reconstructed Identity Politics’ for a Performative Pedagogy” by Karen Kopelson.

In Rodino’s article, we look at actual gender identity. Kopelson will take us into sexuality. But let’s start with gender.Rodino is primarily focusing on Internet Relay Chat (IRC). She says that “Gender constructions on IRC, like those in real life (RL), do not necessarily fit into opposing categories such as male/female, gendered/gender-neutral, or into male/female/gender neutral groupings” (2). This can be a tough thing to understand, since we’ve all been told that there are two genders. Someone is either male or female. This sets the genders up in opposition, and creates a binary that Rodino says is not there. There are some outside this binary, though “Those who do not fall neatly into male or female categories face ostracism, discrimination, and repression” (2), which makes total sense; if we are only acknowledging a binary understanding of gender, then anyone who falls outside that binary is automatically the ‘other,’ the outsider, the marginalized group. This is not to say that such an action is RIGHT (it’s not), but rather that it’s understandable.

Rodino’s solution is to see gender as a performance, as a ‘doing’ rather than a ‘being.’ It’s difficult to consider such a thing IRL, where the constructions of biology scream so loudly in favor of the binary. But it’s still worth doing. Rodino tells us that “Thinking about gender as continually constructed allows one to look at the various, sometimes inconsistent ways in which a person presents gender” (3), suggesting that by having gender be performative, it never stops being formed. It is constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed constantly. The value of this, Rodino says, is that “conceiving of gender as under constant construction helps demystify and thus disrupt the binary gender system which naturalizes patriarchy” (3).

I’m not going to disagree about patriarchy being naturalized. It is not natural, but it is so pervasive that it seems to be the natural order of things. If we could disrupt the gender binary, Rodino is saying, we might be able to show that it is not natural to have a patriarchical system, and instead allow that very awkward construction to fall apart. The question, then, is how to do it? How do we construct identity?

It’s not as simple as just identifying how ‘men’ speak and how ‘women’ speak. Rodino writes that “representing male and female languages as a binary and using other dichotomous categories to describe language overlook complexities in actual speech” (4). So while there may be some research that suggests that women tend to use more emotional language, or that men want to solve problems, or whatever, trying to establish gender based on these cues leaves out every non-stereotypical example. Is there really a difference between how men and women communicate? Rodino doesn’t think so. She says that “Focusing on such distinctions recreates the myth that males and females are discrete, opposing groups; this myth is then mobilized in the service of gender-based oppression” (5). Trying to identify gender by language, then, is just reinforcing the binary.

If Rodino is right, and it is a myth, then logically males and females, by not being discrete opposing groups, must have some sort of overlap. The construction of gender moves betwen these spaces, shifting the overlap of the gender venn-diagram (if you will). This movement is, again, a presentation. A performance. Which is good: “looking at gender as performative makes the break with biology that the notion of gender has been able to forge but has not yet done” (5-6).

But how do we do it? How do we perform gender? Well, apparently, it’s often done through social cues. Which is what brings us back to computer mediated communication (CMC): “because CMC reduces social cues, it democratizes communication” (7). Without the glaring cues of the physical body, it’s easier to perform as one gender or another. Rodino presents a few of the online cues that present gender online (men post twice as many messages, women are stereotypically cooperative, etc (8)). More importantly, though, online we see the extent to which the performance of gender is demanded. Rodino tells ust hat “gender construction is never done, never finalized” and that even if we start out presenting as a woman, “to continue to appear as a woman, one must continue displaying cues that signify women” (10). This is the legitimization question that seems to keep appearing in these works. Even still, by looking at gender as a performative act, we are automatically more likely to continue performing, and thus to present more and more legitimization as time goes by.

Moving away from Rodino, let’s talk about sex. Or, rather, sexuality. Kopelson is still talking about being performative, but is focusing on sexuality and pedagogy. She talks about the problems with pedagogy as it is applied to non-heteronormative groups. She writes that “in direct contradistinction to performative conceptions of subjectivity, which much composition scholarship – again, especially that which is expressly pedagogical in focus – takes as its starting point the assumption of a real and stable gay/lesbian identity and then devotes itself to examining and optimizing educative conditions for subjects who occupy that identity” (18, italics in original). So instead of treating people as different people, they (educators) are shoving them into a cookie cutter version of the group and trying to teach to that. I can certainly identify with the ineffectiveness of that; while steretypes do exist for a reason, the number of people in any group that actually fit those steretypes is almost never large enough to justify this pedagogical move.

This problem is a lot more difficult to handle than most would imagine. If we try to eliminate homophobia through education, it seems like we might be causing more damage than we’re fixing. As Kopelson says, “discourses that centralize homophobia also tend to enact a sneaky and dangerous contradictory movement: while pathologiziing negative feelings towards homosexuals as ill-conceived fear, they nevertheless work always and only from the point of view oof the one who fears, thus ultimately validating the fear itself, and recuperating (a doubting and squeamish) heterosexuality as norm” (20, italics in original). Again, I can see this problem. I never really felt like I was homophobic, but whenever I was stuck in a situation where they were trying to teach that homophobia was wrong, it always felt like they were implying that it was also normal.

So what do we do as far as identity-based pedagogy and queer identity are concerned? Kopelson tells us that attempts to bring them together often end up pushing them apart, and that even “Queer theorists and performative pedagogues themselves, it seems, are also (and quite ironically) fettered to the dichotomous thinking their work would eschew” (29). In other words, attempts to fix the problem tend to just keep the problem there, possibly even making it worse.

Is there anything to be done? Kopelson seems to be suggesting that we just need to be aware of what we are doing, and pay attention to where we are pushing focus. Not all attempts to solve this problem have failed, and it’s not all bad; but we need to understand that when we teach that something is bad (but normal), we are not helping. And when we think of things in a binary sense, when we put things in direct conflict with each other, we tend to have the opposite of our intended effect.

In other words, identity pedagogy researchers need to understand the Law of the Excluded Middle. Which reminds me of a joke I will leave you with, one that illustrates this problem pretty well, I think:

“There are 3 kinds of people in this world: Those who understand the Law of the Excluded Middle and those who don’t.”

  1. […] through different linguistic strategies” (256). Well, as we’ve seen, looking at gender as a performative act seems like a good idea, and now it looks like we’re going to get a how […]

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