Wrestling with words

I am running into a significant linguistic issue around sex and gender in the rewrite of my honours thesis (which is being turned into a book chapter). My supervisor/coauthor and I have different perspectives on where the focus of the paper should be, and we need to bridge them. This writing is my first attempt to grapple with the language, to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it, and to try to understand how to bridge between our perspectives to make the paper as strong as possible.

***

In writing about feminist queer pornography, it is necessary to bridge what can be an ideological divide between feminist politics (centring on an understanding and analysis sexed and gendered oppression) and queer politics (centring on a rejection of biological essentialism and the gender binary). These two focuses are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to recognize the binaristic lens of hegemonic culture, and the way that deviation from a norm of “male, cisgender, masculine, heterosexual, white, able-bodied” is othered and marginalized, while still rejecting the gender binary and the hegemonic norm.

It seems necessary, in a feminist analysis, to talk about “women” and about power differentials related to the Euroamerican binary understanding of gender and the way that this understanding impacts even non-binary individuals. For example, although Jiz Lee is not a “woman,” their genital morphology means that viewers tend to read them as “female” and “woman.” It is necessary to address this fact, to expose the lens that binaristic hegemony views pornography through, without erasing the reality of non-binary sex and gender.

It seems, to me, that Courtney Trouble bridges this (potential) gap in Nostalgia by casting the film with individuals who are all designated-female-at-birth, but who are not all women. Or rather, perhaps, that she opens a door for scholars to bridge this gap in their analysis of her film. Through her casting, she is able to create a film that explicitly and materially displaces the biological cock as the centre or focus or active member[i] of the pornographic scene. It is only through this displacement of the phallus that Trouble is able to go into a nuanced examination of the potential to displace climax and orgasm itself within the pornographic scene.

Removing the biological cock entirely from the pornographic scene leaves some clear and relevant gaps, such as the question of where trans women fit within feminist queer pornographies and whether there is space for cisgender men in queer feminist pornographies. (It is relevant that Trouble has answered these questions and filled these gaps in other films, such as “trans grrrls” and her work with Ned Mayhem and other cisgender men.)

Removing the biological cock also presents the viewer with a film that can be inaccurately read as being about “women’s sexual pleasure.” The fact that only one form of genital morphology is presented leaves the film vulnerable to readings that fall into the trap of the sex-gender-orientation continuum that Shiri Eisner articulates (whereby sex is assumed to determine gender, and gender is assumed to determine orientation – from Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution). However, the film rejects this essentialist reading by using technology in the form of strap-ons to complicate gender performance, and by including multiple genderqueer performers, most notably Jiz Lee.

Finding language with which to discuss the film presents a challenge. Discussing the film in terms of “women’s sexual pleasure” erases the genderqueer identities of those performers who are designated-female-at-birth but who are not women. Discussing the film as being about “trans* sexual pleasure” similarly erases the identities of the cisgender women performers. The term “gynocentric” is transmisogynist and enforces gendered language around genitalia that Jiz Lee has explicitly rejected (referring to their genitals as their “hole” and not a “vagina”). Gynocentric also has a historical connotation that excludes trans women, non-binary individuals, and cisgender men.

We are left, therefore, in a challenging linguistic space.

So my question is, how do we talk about sex and gender in a way that recognizes the structure within which hegemony forces bodies into rigid roles, while also recognizing the inaccuracy of this structure and the harm it causes to people who do not fit within these roles.

Whether we recognize the identity of the person on screen, their identity remains a real part of the performance. When Jiz Lee is read as a “woman,” they do not become a woman.

Similarly, when they are read as white, they do not become white. In a parallel linguistic minefield, my co-author and I are attempting to address racial issues in Nostalgia, where the film is open to a reading that is “white” if viewers are not aware of the racial identities of some of the performers.

The fact that we read bodies through these hegemonic lenses, assuming that we know gender based on secondary sex characteristics or genital morphology, assuming that we know race based on skin tone – this is not a problem that the individual whose identity is being overwritten needs to correct. It is not incumbent on Jiz Lee to visibly perform genderqueerness in order to be genderqueer. To demand this of people who deviate from the norm would be to further marginalize them. Rather, part of the feminist queer project undertaken in Nostalgia is to highlight the assumptions being made and then to subvert them.

Nostalgia may be read as a film about “women’s pleasure” but it is not.

It may be read as a “white” film but it is not.

I need language that recognizes these facts, but also acknowledges and addresses the fact (and I do believe it to be a fact) that hegemonic lenses are the norm, that viewers will read this film as both a “women’s” film and a “white” film. I need this language to challenge this norm, so that the chapter cannot be easily read with these lenses on. It seems like a nearly impossible task, and I am not sure that I’m up to it.


[i] I’m so punny.

“Don’t Be A Dick”: Applying Wheaton’s Law to Academics and Race

I am working on a major revision of a paper, with an eye to submitting it to the Porn Studies Journal and crossing my fingers that it passes peer review. This is exciting. One of my professors is supervising the revision and helping me figure out how to write a paper for a journal (a different creature than a paper written for a class).

The paper is about the performance of cisgender masculinity in heterosexual scenes in feminist pornography. My hypothesis is that this is a gender/sex performance that is (at least in my existing case study – Ned Mayhem’s performance of masculinity in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous) non-normative and one that challenges assumptions of what it means to perform cisgender masculinity. One case study, however, is not enough, and this is where I run into a thorny academic/activist issue.

Ned Mayhem is white. I am also white. Porn studies, along with many academic disciplines, have historically been pretty pale and I am concerned about contributing to an academic exploration of pornography that does not address the many people of colour working within and around pornography. I am also aware that what it means to “perform cisgender masculinity” is different depending on class, race and ability (among other factors). It seems shortsighted and lacking intersectionality to confine my paper to a discussion of only white cisgender masculinity in pornography.

However, what authority do I, as a white academic, have to speak about the performance of masculinity by a racialized porn performer? Not only to speak about, but also to examine through the lenses provided by academics and scholars of colour, and by activist and feminist pornographers of colour.

White academics have committed significant violence against our racialized colleagues, appropriating the intellectual contributions of people of colour without making space for people of colour in the academy. This is evident in the frequency with which Black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde are cited by white feminists who do not engage with race politics beyond appropriating a brilliant turn of phrase for a facebook status or to hang an academic argument on. (And credit must go to the Black women on Twitter, particularly in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, for bringing this issue up – I had never realized how problematic it could be to take Black women’s words and not engage any further.)

I struggled with this idea in my honours thesis, where bell hooks’ concept of the confrontational gaze formed a critical piece of my analysis. In my thesis, the idea of the confrontational gaze was necessary for understanding how Courtney Trouble re-appropriated the money shot from the patriarchal, misogynist pornography that it originated within. hooks’ insight was invaluable for me. And yet, I was not writing about race and race did not feature with any significance in my thesis. Choosing not to use hooks’ insight would have made my thesis weaker, and avoiding the work of academics of colour is clearly not the answer. This is a tangle I have yet to work myself out of, and one that becomes more and more relevant as I work on this revision.

It is clearly not okay to avoid the intellectual contributions of people of colour in my work as a white academic – doing so would perpetuate an oppressive academic system that consistently devalues the work of anyone outside the select, privileged group. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that it is also problematic to simply take up the lens provided by an intellectual from a marginalized community and use it with impunity.

And this is where I run into a wall.

Jane Doe, MD tweeted earlier in the summer:

 
I think this is sometimes the case with white academics as well. What is meant to be inclusive and intersectional may actually be (mis)appropriative. Where I (from my position of privilege) see the potential for solidarity, and want to say “yes, me too!” to the writing of academics of colour, there is the potential for me to be (mis)appropriative, to claim their words for my own when I actually have no right to them, to pull them out of their own context and into mine, leaving their work behind.

Reading Ariane Cruz’s essay “Pornography: A Black Feminist Woman Scholar’s Reconciliation” as research on this topic, I became aware of a visceral response in myself, a “yes, me too!” when Cruz articulates the complexities of the relationship between pornography and feminism. And yet, Cruz is not articulating the complexities of “the relationship between pornography and feminism.”

She is speaking specifically and directly about pornography and Black feminism. My “yes, me too!” echoes the problematic and on-going process of queer activism and queer theory using Black activism and Black theory as a stepping stone, using the backs of our Black colleagues as a bridge for our activism.[1] I am cognizant of the risk in my “me too!” – the potential for this response to step on and muffle the voice and meaning of Cruz’ work.

I want to find solidarity in the essay, because so much of what she writes speaks to me and to my experience as a feminist and as a scholar studying pornography. Cruz articulates the conflict and complexity of studying pornographies in a way that speaks directly to my own experience of pornography. As I become more and more immersed in both the viewing and analysis of pornography and the scholarship surrounding it, I relate more strongly to her statement that “[s]truggles with how to place pornography in the personal space of my home and in the professional space of my office speak to the broader, yet equally nebulous question of pornography’s place in modern society” (217).

She writes, “I have become less assured of the intrinsic virtues of mainstream pornography – its expression of alternative sexualities, its possibilities of and for sexual pleasure outside of a white heteropatriarchal imagination or fantasy, and its capability for an admittedly utopian construction that I might call “sustainable arousal,” arousal that is not an ephemeral feeling but rather one that endures” (222).

Similarly, as I realize that even queer pornography can reinscribe and reinforce dominant ideals of beauty, dominant ideals of gender performance, dominant ideals of acceptable sexual behaviour, I become less and less dogmatic in my belief that pornography (even feminist pornography) is a universal good. We have some views in common, we have some experiences in common. But there are significant differences between my experience of pornography, and Cruz’s. She writes about the specific experience of Black women’s hypersexualization, something that I, socialized as a white woman (though not a woman), have never and will never experience. Is it okay for me to take the parts that fit with my experience out of Cruz’s essay, and leave the rest behind? Is it okay to use her insight, but to only use the bits of it that work for my argument, for my own ends?

In my effort to draw on Black scholarship, to learn from Black scholars and engage with Black thought, there is the potential for me to do harm, to contribute to the ongoing colonization and appropriation of Black culture and thought.

That there is multidirectional flow of knowledge (that Linda Williams is a key reference in Cruz’s essay, for example) does not justify the constant appropriation of Black thought by white academics. Black writers have been actively plagiarized by white writers (most recently Gawker lifted tweets by Black author @wayoftheid word-for-word without attribution). There is a difference between learning from each other and stepping on each other, and because white academics have greater privilege, it is much easier for us to step on rather than learn from.

My “yes, me too!” response is because there is significant value in Cruz’s work. Her essay evoked a wide range of feelings and thoughts – multiple times I had to stop and sit, digest what she had just said. And there are similarities in our struggles. (Not universality, not homogeneity, but similarity.) There are important insights in her work that can illuminate and further both my academic projects and my queer activism.

And yet, this must be done in a respectful and appropriate (rather than appropriative) way.

So here are the two rocks I find myself between, the two rocks I have been wedged between all summer as I struggle with this concept of lateral appropriation, racism, and appropriative intersectionality:

On the one hand, ignoring the presence of race, and the contributions of colored scholars, contributes to the whitewashing of academia that I am so vehemently against. It is not an option.

Yet, on the other hand, appropriating the scholarship and work of scholars of colour has the potential to also be harmful, to speak for or to claim understanding of their experiences and their work, or to simply erase their experiences and claim their voice as my own.

So I can’t write only from and about my own experience because my experience is as a white scholar and that would contribute to the whitewashing of academics.[2] But I also must be careful in how I use the work of scholars of colour in my own academics. This leaves me feeling anxious and uncertain as I move forward with my academic projects, but I think that feeling of anxiety is necessary. It should not be easy to navigate issues of privilege and oppression as the person with privilege. If it is easy, I think perhaps that means you’re missing some critical bits of information. Being in this particular “rock/hard place” is infinitely easier than being in the position of facing systemic racism on a daily basis. I can walk away from this, write whatever I want and continue to appropriate, or just ignore that race is an issue, and at worst I will be a lesser scholar. Academics of colour (people of colour) don’t have the option to walk away from it.

In Jacob Anderson-Minshall’s essay “The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy,” he writes that “The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” could have been written about transgender people rather than black women” (29), and goes on to use the language of the text to discuss the oppression of transgender people. It is this type of sentiment and statement that I am wary of expressing, because it decenters Black women as the subject of their own writing. Although I do think that parallels can be drawn, and that these parallels and efforts at coalition are important, claiming Black women’s writing for a different or broader audience risks further marginalizing and erasing the experiences that are unique to Black women, particularly when there is not an acknowledgement of the ongoing, unique issues faced by Black women and other racialized individuals.

Later, Anderson-Minshall writes that “[t]here are a lot of awful problems in the world today, and to solve them we need to make allies and build bridges to other movements seeking change. We need to accept the problems of others as our own” (32). I think there is a danger in claiming the problems of others as our own. Although I agree that we do need to “make allies and build bridges,” I disagree that the way to do this is to claim a universality of experience, a homogeneity of problems. Yes, the kyriarchy impacts all of us, and each point of oppression has ripple effects throughout the rest of society. Misogyny negatively impacts men by cutting masculinity off from any traits that could be considered feminine. Racism negatively impacts white individuals by creating adversarial interactions where collaboration would be not only possible but beneficial. But misogyny does not threaten men – it benefits men. Racism does not threaten white individuals – it benefits white individuals (like myself). These are problems that are unique to the identity category being oppressed, being threatened, and although they do negatively impact all of society, they are not equally available to claim.

Ned Mayhem, later in the same anthology, writes that “[i]t’s easy to talk about how the hierarchy of privilege is bullshit when you’re perched at the top of it, and it’s easy to talk about destigmatizing marginalized groups while belonging to none of them” (81). This insight seems critical, especially when paired with Shiri Eisner’s statement that “[c]onnecting between different struggles is one of the cornerstones to radical political thinking. To acknowledge that all forms of oppression are interrelated is so acknowledge that we all have a stake in each other’s liberation, that none of us is free until everyone is free” (36).

There is a difference, I think, between acknowledging the interrelatedness of problems, and claiming them as our own. It is a small difference, but seems, to me, to be critical.

Ned Mayhem writes about the challenges that he faces in the porn industry, particularly around expectations of masculinity. However, these challenges are not the same challenges that someone with a different body would face. He writes, “[b]eing Caucasian in porn means that I don’t have to look for work exclusively on sites that fetishize my ethnic background. Being cisgendered and having a normative body type means that I am offered more work, and I am not publicly mocked or insulted by the same companies that hire me” (81). It is this acknowledgement of privilege, coupled with an awareness of other groups’ problems and their interrelatedness to his own struggles, that makes his essay feel more inclusive to me.

In the case of my paper, I still think that it’s important to include a case study that looks at a racialized cisgender male performer in a heterosexual scene, in addition to the case study of Ned Mayhem in Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous. I haven’t picked the scene yet, but I have started reading everything I can get my hands on about racialized masculinities. I’m also reading about race in pornography, and trying to get a handle on not only how race is represented in pornography, but also on how academics and activists of colour are responding to those representations.

This process has been daunting, but incredibly valuable. In reading about Black scholar’s responses to Black bodies in pornography, my own thoughts about genderqueer bodies in pornography have been deepened and become more nuanced. There are interconnected elements in the various relationships between pornography and marginalized and oppressed identities. I think that learning from each other is important – beyond important! I think it is critical.

But our learning cannot come at each other’s expense. And too often, it is too easy for white academics like myself to wiggle off that hook and thoughtlessly trample on the work and writing of our colleagues. We must apply Wheaton’s Law to our academic life as much as to the rest of our lives.

 


[2] Longest footnote ever: It occurs to me that it is not actually true that writing about white experience necessarily contributes to whitewashing. Writing about white experience as though it were universal is whitewashing. If I wrote about white experience as white experience, that could be valuable and legitimate.

Hmm.

And yet, I don’t want to write about whiteness. Whiteness is not the identity category that I struggle with (a factor of my privilege as a white person). I want to study and write about my genderqueer identity, my bisexual identity, my polyamory, my kink, my neurodivergence, my invisible disability.

I read somewhere that ‘straight white men are the only group that actively seeks marginalization.’ I think perhaps I am experiencing/performing a little bit of this problematic “seeking marginalization” – I don’t want to write about my whiteness because I don’t want to write about my experience as a person with privilege. It is more interesting and more rewarding to write about my experiences of marginalization and oppression. Because my whiteness is invisible to me, because I feel my oppression but I do not feel my privilege, those points of oppression are infinitely more “real” and more “writeable.”

This is a difficult realization.

I wonder if it is possible to critically engage with my whiteness, to write about my privilege from within my privilege, while still maintaining my focus on the areas that interest me more – my orienatation, my neurodivergence, my kink, my poly, my gender identity. To incorporate an engagement with (or at least an active and aware acknowledgement of) my whiteness and how it impacts my scholarship and life into my practice of academic writing. To not let it be invisible.

Works Cited:

Anderson-Minshall, Jacob. “The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy.” Men Speak Out. Ed. Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2013. 28-33.

Cruz, Ariane. “Pornography: A Black Feminist Woman Scholar’s Reconciliation.” The Feminist Porn Book. Ed. Tristan Taormino et al. New York: The Feminist Press, 2013. 215-227.

Doe, Jane. Tweet from @DrJaneChi. Twitter.com. 28 July 2013.

Eisner, Shiri. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2013.

Mayhem, Ned. “Male and Queer in the Porn Industry.” Men Speak Out. Ed. Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2013. 80-86.