Essay questions from final Psyc Gender quiz

Question 1: Provide 3 reasons why we should study “female masculinity” in the psychology of gender.

1. Accuracy. A simplistic, ‘common-sense’ approach to gender and its qualities would presume that female masculinity is a self-contradictory concept, like an analog MP3 player or land-swimming. By reifying contingent, local categories of gender into immutable Natural Kinds, we blind ourselves to the fact that females/women can be masculine and males/men can be feminine. In his writing on logic, Aristotle is at pains to show that the same thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time and in the same way; but if your model is sophisticated enough for that thing to be A in one sense and not-A in another sense, that’s fine. Looking at female masculinity can contribute toward a more sophisticated model of gender in which the same person can hold two definitionally-opposite qualities or identities in different ways. The bottom line is that part of psyc gender’s purpose is to accurately describe human gender, and a model of human gender that can acknowledge females/women being/doing masculine(-ity) is more empirically accurate than the traditional, reductive binary.

2. Empowerment, or fighting oppression. The traditional view that gender is simplistically binary is both descriptive and prescriptive, which in practice means that effeminate men and masculine women et al are not only said to not really exist, but are also punished for their gender deviance. By exploring/exposing gender as mutable and open-ended (as described above), we can attack the powerfully false claim that gender deviance is unnatural and therefore wrong.

[I say “gender deviance” because the function of gender is, at bottom, normative categorization. I’m not endorsing, just acknowledging.]

3. Intersectionality –> uncover related fallacies. While it’s offensive reduce oppression of gender deviance to just a subset of patriarchy (in the same way that it’s offensive to reduce patriarchal oppression to just a subset of class oppression), there are illuminating connections between oppression of gender deviance and other forms of oppression. Traditional gender norms function to police a lot of different groups, so when e.g. a seemingly masculine man shows his emotional side, he’s implicitly undermining the basis of both patriarchy and transphobia. By thinking carefully about female masculinity, we can learn not just about female masculinity itself, but about how traditional gender norms police everyone.

Question 2: In what way might female masculinity do the work of empowerment? How might female masculinity be adherence to the rule of power over?

As mentioned above, female masculinity is a deviation from, and therefore a threat to, traditional gender norms. If normalized, female masculinity undermines the idea that men are men and women are women and the pursuant norms about behavior and status. By exposing the fallacies of traditional gender norms, upon which patriarchal and other oppressive power relations rely, female masculinity aids empowerment.

On the other hand, as illustrated in Female Chauvinist Pigs, female masculinity can also be part of the game of power-over. Levy’s unable to distinguish between empowering female masculinity and power-overing female masculinity; hence her equation of FCPs with trans men*. But the distinction doesn’t seem that complicated to me: female masculinity is empowering when it’s a standing rebuke to the larger patriarchal structure, and power-overing when it finds a way to assimilate into that structure. So FCPs are power-overing because rather than challenging existing power relations, they just try to seize existing forms of power by becoming honorary members of the boys’ club while simultaneously retaining the feminine power of being sexy.

*[I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘female masculinity’ being applied to trans men, but unpacking its problems and then repacking them into better language would take too long.]

Question 3: The “Bechdel Test” is a test for sexism in movies and other forms of media. The test asks if

  1. There are at least 2 women in the movie;
  2. The women talk to each other; and
  3. They talk about something other than a man.

If you can answer ‘yes’ to all 3 questions, the movie passes the Bechdel Test, meaning it is not sexist.

Do you think this is an effective way to assess movies for sexism? Why, why not, or why does it depend?

I think this is an effective way for assessing a movie for sexism relative to other movies. Since we live in a film culture that often does not live up to this standard, the test is a useful diagnostic tool. However, the idea that passing the Bechdel test is the same thing as not being sexist is analogous to the idea that a film without the N-word is necessarily not racist. In short, I think passing the Bechdel test is necessary but not sufficient for a movie to not be sexist. (Unless the movie somehow eschews conventionally male characters and/or language, which seems like a whole other can of worms.)

Question 4: What is one big theme you learned in Psychology of Gender? Explain how this theme was present across more than 1 topic/lesson.
Power vs. empowerment. The work we did in this class dovetailed nicely with some extracurricular learning I’ve been doing around Marx’s critique of capitalism. Both distinguish between systems and individuals, between games and players. As I said in class, part of American ideology is that we only see individuals: even though e.g. the rate of incarceration for black American men is more than six times that of white American men, we deny that racism is at work unless it can be proved that specific black men were consciously discriminated against. We are stubbornly oblivious to systems.
This connects to power/empowerment because empowerment only makes sense with reference to systems. One woman freeing herself from one abusive relationship obviously increases her personal power, but her liberation is only empowering in the larger context of patriarchal violence.
I found this theme present in the explicit discussion of kinds of power during the first two weeks of class. I also found it in Female Chauvinist Pigs (see question 2, above), in case examples like the South African sex workers (personal power over health and money vs. empowerment through community organizing), in the documentaries we watched (Miss Representation and Tough Guise 2 explicitly discussed the effects of systems of power on individuals, while the documentary on trans men concentrated on individuals and let the viewer draw their own conclusions about the connections between these mens’ experiences), and in my final poster presentation (neoliberal individualism vs. feminist empowerment).

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