29 April 2010

Book review: Whipping Girl

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Julia Serano, 2007.

After I ranted about "girly" not being an insult, my friend Enne said I ought to read this book, and they brought it over for me to borrow, because they said I'd like it. They were so right.

Serano is a feminist, and she distinguishes between traditional sexism and oppositional sexism, which I think is pretty damn cool. (She has a glossary of terms on her website.)
traditional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to (and only exist for the sexual benefit of) maleness and masculinity. It targets those who are female as well as those who are feminine (regardless of their sex).

oppositional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. It targets those who do not conform to oppositional gender norms. A number of previously described categories of sexism (e.g., transphobia, homophobia and cissexism) fall under the umbrella of oppositional sexism.

This book is not an introductory feminist text, though there are aspects that make it a very good introduction to trans-spectrum issues. There are extensive discussions of gender theory and takedowns of academic gender theory. Serano goes into moderate detail about her transition, including the hormonal aspects of things, without being explicit (for those of you for whom that would be an issue.)

Her primary thesis is a rebuttal of the notion that gender is 100% societally constructed and 0% nature, though she spends a good amount of time on rebutting the idea that gender is 100% nature, because these two ideas aren't as opposite as they appear on the surface. That trans-spectrum people exist refutes both of these. People who feel dissonance between their physical sex and their gender aren't receiving the societal norming that would be required under the all-gender-is-learned model, and they aren't getting it from their biology, either. The reality must lie somewhere between, of course. There's inherent gender feelings, but there are also learned behaviors -- some of which are survival skills: conforming to societal standards for female behavior on the job, say.

The other main thesis is that "feminine" stuff isn't inherently less valuable than "masculine" stuff, and that these aren't inherently opposite categories. "Feminine" stuff includes everything from looking nice to wearing makeup to displaying emotions to being nurturing. Society has devalued these things so much that feminine and female and frivolous and irrational are all synonyms, while their opposites are masculine and male and logical. Because god forbid that a woman want to be an engineer or a man want to be a nurse.

This is something I've had to deal with for quite some time. Because society views, and those of us who live in society are taught to view, these as two distinct, discrete categories, the idea that you can take a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B is pretty damned radical. I'm an intelligent woman; I majored in chemistry and German in college, and I'm a doctor of pharmacy. I like reading non-fiction to learn more about things that interest me. At the same time, I like pretty jewelry (even if I hardly ever put it on) and frilly skirts, and have a serious shoe habit.

Reconciling these things with each other, let alone with being a feminist, is tough, if you've only heard of the 70s/80s feminism wherein more masculine and butch identities and expressions -- an outright rejection of femininity for reasons discussed two paragraphs above -- are privileged over femme expressions. I reject that dichotomy; I reject that hierarchy. Serano's book gives me (and others like me) the language and theory to explain why.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in feminism or gender theory, who became feminist in the second wave, or who rejected feminism in the second wave. I also recommend it to anyone who lives in society.

28 April 2010

Book review: The Persian Night

The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution, Amir Taheri, 2009.

Taheri is an expat Iranian living in London and Paris. He's a journalist, and he edited a major newspaper in Iran until he left. He's also significantly more conservative in mindset than I am.

He begins with several chapters of the history of Iran and of Islam, as well as political philosophy in the Muslim world. Once, Iran was a welcoming nation composed of many different groups of people who lived in (relative) harmony. The regime of the Islamic Republic wants Iranians to forget that, to wipe out their thousand-year history.

There were several things I found incredibly interesting in this text, which I'd never learned before. The regime (the Khomeinists) oppose the existence of the state and advocate permanent revolution, along with the elimination of the Great Satan and the Jews, of course. The state exists on a precarious wire, trying to go about the business of running a government while the regime goes about trying to stop them.

The system is unstable, and it keeps teetering toward chaos, until someone with greater force steps in.

The 1979 revolution was made possible through the combined support of the Khomeinists, the Marxists, and people who just hated the Shah. They worked together, then the Khomeinists set about their true goal, which is pretty much what we see today. Because of this, the opposition is fractionated, splintered, and instigating regime change would require a lot of effort in filling the power vacuum.

Taheri actually advocates for regime change. He says the time is right, because the people are more disillusioned than ever with the regime which has lost its legitimacy. He does not, from what I can gather, advocate regime change a la Iraq, but more the sort where people with big guns aid the locals.

Above all, the United States should be resolutely on the side of the Iranian people.... More important and ultimately perhaps more effective is for th United States to use its enormous bully pulpit to publicize the Iranian people's struggle for freedom.

Taheri has written several other books on modern Iranian history, though his work is not without controversy.

20 April 2010

Dear Iceland Volcano:

Please stop erupting.

Dear EU air control: Please open airports and allow transatlantic flights.

I'm supposed to be flying to Germany in 11 days. There are very few flights leaving for Europe right now, and I have no idea if or when this is going to change. I'm stalking my airline's flight status page, and their separate page for volcano-related travel disruptions (which still only lists affected dates until this Friday), but everything is so unpredictable.

I should email the Institut and ask what happens to the $2100 I paid them if, due to this flight ban and thus circumstances out of my control, I can't make it to Europe at all. Because their refund policy (which I can't find in my email at all, annoyingly) has something to the effect of no refund if you cancel less than a week ahead of time.

Which, I have to say, if there weren't a VOLCANO spewing ash into European airspace, I sure as shit wouldn't cancel this trip I've been looking forward to for, oh, 9 months now. And the way things are shaping up, I may not even know if I can GET to Europe until the day I'm supposed to leave.

I don't deal well with changes that are out of my control.