Revisiting the AAR

As the semester draws to a close, I wanted to revisit the inaugural post of my blog, in which I discussed some of my thoughts and impressions of the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta last fall.

At the time, I was highly distressed by the amount of “masculinity” that I encountered during the conference: there were substantially more men than women in attendance, and the women for the most part seemed to be performing more muted femininity.

Though not surprising for academia (especially for the Religious Studies field), I now wonder if my initial comments were a bit harsh.

I wonder if I could have seen my surroundings in a more nuanced light, rather than taking a solely condemnatory stance. Could I, for example, instead take into account concepts like disidentification, as discussed by José Esteban Muñoz?

In his book Muñoz discusses the ways in which individuals and groups who fall outside of normativity (specifically with regard to race and sexuality) must often form their identities through a failure to interpellate within the dominant public sphere. For Muñoz, for many there is no complete assimilation into the dominant culture, just as there cannot always be complete rejection.

The fiction of identity is one that is accessed with relative ease by most majoritarian subjects. Minoritarian subjects need to interface with different subcultural fields to activate their own senses of self.*

I don’t think that (mostly white) women in the academy were quite what Muñoz had in mind when formulating this concept, but I think that it can still apply.

At the time when these women were entering into the academy (and even today, to a large extent) there were not models within the academy with whom they could identify- i.e. other women. In order to “fit in” and continue their work, they had (and still have) to find a way to negotiate the awkward space of the double bind: you can’t be too feminine if you want to be taken seriously, but you have to be feminine enough so you don’t come off as cold or b*tchy (Think about all the buzz about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits over the years).

Identifying in complete opposition to their male counterparts isn’t really an option, especially if they want to succeed within the academy. And of course they can’t completely identify with these male counterparts and be taken seriously.

I want to rethink my initial reactions to the gendered expressions as I interpreted them at the AAR. After all, who wants to wear lots of glittery make-up after a long flight? And who wants to wear six inch heels to walk around a conference for four days? 


* José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 5.
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Film Review: Naz & Maalik

 

Naz: “You think the world’s getting better?”

Maalik: “Yeah.”

Naz: “Mmm. I don’t think so. Change gets too much credit. They confuse it with progress. They don’t even realize the truth”

“Naz & Maalik” is a film that was released January 26th featuring two black, gay, Muslim teenage boys living in Brooklyn. The film, written and directed by Jay Dockendorf, is based upon interviews Dockendorf conducted with actual youth living at the intersections of these identities.

The film is groundbreaking in that it portrays a group of people that is never visible within popular media. Sure, there has been an increase in shows and movies featuring lesbian and gay characters. But the vast majority of these are white. Occasionally there will be a nod towards someone who happens to be gay and a person of color. Or gay and living a religious lifestyle (such as “Trembling Before G-d”). But gay, POC, and Muslim? Forget it.

Which is part of what makes this film so unique. “Naz & Maalik” explores and makes visible the experiences of a group who most Americans probably have little to no idea even existed. So to see them making a splash is refreshing.

The main issue that seems to arise, is in the subplot involving a government agent who suspects the boys of terrorist activities. The Huffington Post referred to this addition as “ridiculous” and “poorly-scripted”.

I agree that the writing of the scenes involving law enforcement left much to be desired. The involvement of the FBI agent and her NYCPD associate and their focus on the two boys did not make a lot of sense. Her interest in their love story seemed very out of place. But one aspect of their involvement very much hit home. The cop meets up with the agent after attempting to sell the boys a gun, claiming that they almost bought it from him. She says that it doesn’t sound like a lead- until she sees the boys, and decides to trail them for the vast majority of the film. The implication here is that she sees that they are black and decides that they are dangerous.

The writing and acting in the scenes is awkward, but the inclusion of the relationship between (white) law enforcement and black youth like Naz and Maalik is unfortunately all too real.

The same can be said for the rich white man who invites Naz into his expensive loft, obviously hoping to hook up. His interest in Naz is less than genuine; he is clearly painted as someone who fetishizes cultural difference. “New York City, it’s like a Mecca for meeting new people, hmm?”. A funny choice of words, given the Kufi on Naz’s head.

The Huffington Post reviewers have noted that the film would have made more of an impact if it had stuck to the love story between the two main boys and the issue that they face within their (homophobic) families, and scrapped the FBI subplot. Hollywoodreporter.com calls it a “shaky attempt at dramatic incident”. Variety.com claims that the film has potential, which it squanders on an “innocuously blase hangout narrative”.

Perhaps the director was attempting to show that kids like Naz and Maalik face accusations of terrorism from the federal government because of their religious affiliation, and potential discrimination from police based on their race. An honorable goal, but not one achieved gracefully in the film.
While I am in agreement with The Huffington Post that this FBI/NYCPD subplot was heavy-handed and could have been incorporated more smoothly into the film, it illustrated the fact that groups affected by multiple sites of oppression don’t often have the luxury of focusing solely on issues of coming out. As Sheri Linden with Hollywood Reporter notes, the references to government spying definitely convey the atmosphere of “intrusive monitoring”. People like Naz and Maalik do have to worry about what their families might think of their sexuality, it’s true, but they also have to constantly watch their backs for mistreatment at the hands of police. Issues of group cohesion are much more critical for tight-knit minority communities; being disowned from one’s family can mean being rejected from the entire community that one has grown up in. And if you are constantly suspected of criminal or terrorist activity from those outside the community, you might have nowhere to go.

Focusing solely on the struggles with homophobia within the boys’ families, as other reviewers have suggested, would be be problematic for another reason as well. This would run the risk of creating further tension between an imagined progressive (white) majority, and a regressive, homophobic (Muslim and/or black) minority. Only looking at this aspect of the boys’ lives would erase a large portion of their identities, and ignore the massive amount of discrimination that they face from outside of their community.

As Naz notes, change is not the same thing as progress.

The situation has changed for lesbians and gays in the US, but that does not mean that progress has been achieved for all. Especially if this notion of “progress for gays” is being used as a rallying point against people of color and religious minorities.

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Feminism and Alcoholism

I recently heard a paper at the SEWSA entitled that purported to focus on the intersectionality of feminism and alcoholism. I was intrigued, and had high hopes. The beginning of the presentation shed light on the true nature of alcoholism, emphasizing that it is a medical condition rather than merely a lack of will-power. The presenter then discussed similarities between rape culture and substance abuse, victim blaming, and the stigma attached to the labels “feminist” and “alcoholic”.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I felt as though the paper did not meet its full potential. The presenter stated that she had attended a few AA (alcoholics anonymous) meetings with her newly sober partner, and had had her “feminist alarms” go off. Essentially, she was struck by the use of the term “him” in the 12 steps and 12 traditions of AA to refer to God or a higher power.

For her, this meant that AA was patriarchal.

Additionally, she saw the emphasis on anonymity as encouraging a continuation of the stigma and preventing individuals from self identifying.

In the AA literature (such as in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,  the supplemental text to the basic AA book) there is a great deal of discussion surrounding this foundational principle. The original intention is to prevent power imbalances (based on identity or occupation outside of the AA rooms) and give individuals who attend the meetings an opportunity to de-center the self. It is my opinion that many AA’s would see this encouragement of anonymity not as increasing stigma that perpetuates the patriarchal and ableist status quo, but instead as an opportunity to attempt to disrupt and provide an alternative to the power imbalances that exist outside of the AA rooms.

The principle of anonymity refers not simply to keeping one’s status as a recovering alcoholic quiet in the “real world”, but additionally to the attempt to keep recovery the sole purpose of AA.

Sure, power imbalances from the outside world are going to sneak in. After all, if you are a white man who is used to speaking over others, that is not going to change just because you walk into an AA meeting. AA is a microcosm of the wider society, so problematic relations between individuals are guaranteed to occur. I am not trying to argue that AA is a perfect utopian society.

I was astounded by the lack of critical inquiry that seemed to go into this paper. The presenter advocated for self-disclosure and the telling of one’s own story (which is one of the critiques she had about anonymity), yet it appeared as though she had not actually talked to any members of AA outside of her husband. She claimed that it was an oppressive structure because the founders had been two men, and the text referred to God as a male. I think that if she had spent more time interviewing and talking with individuals (especially minorities) who had been members of AA for a wider range of time periods her research findings would have been drastically different.

She’s not wrong that the original founders were men, and the earliest forms of AA catered mostly to men. It is also true that the 12 steps refer to “God as we understand him”. But I don’t think that this makes Alcoholics Anonymous unequivocally sexist. I think that an approach that incorporates concepts like José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification, in which minority groups engage with dominant discourses (such as misogyny, racism, etc.) in complex and nuanced ways. I think it would be extremely interesting to see what the presenter could find in examining how marginalized people use some of the concepts in AA that could be seen as sexist in ways that to them feel positive.

That is a paper I want to see.

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reparative reading

Last week I read Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You”.

Her critique is that so often those involved in queer (as well as feminist) theoretical work approach subject matter in a paranoid fashion. As she refers to it, many of us carry around intellectual baggage “under a label such as ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’”.

What she means is that they approach these works- whether they be books, articles, films, tv shows, etc- expecting to find something “bad”.  

This piece really resonated with me. While I think that part of developing tools for critical analysis involves looking at these cultural texts and being able to pinpoint instances in which the theory we happen to be evaluating pops up, this can often go too far.

There is the danger of being unable to engage with much of popular culture for fear of finding some tiny tidbit that might be “problematic”. Eventually one approaches everything expecting to find nothing of value, ready to call out whatever might not fall into one’s perfect conception of Correctness.

I am certainly guilty of this. When I took my first class in women’s studies it was as if a whole new world was opened up to me- or at least, I was given a different lens through which to view the world- and I suddenly could see all of the sexism that permeated our culture.

Overall, I don’t think that this realization was a bad thing, for me at least.

However, I have recently been thinking about what kinds of harm this can do, specifically for me psychologically and emotionally.

If I approach everything with the intention of rooting out anything potentially negative, I can miss things that might be incredibly valuable. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m never going to find anything positive if I only have my sights set on the negative. I end up not taking notice of things that might be illuminating, or uplifting.

At the very least, I’m just mad all the time. Talk about exhausting.

I want to try, moving forward, to find what might be “reparative” within texts and experiences I encounter and engage with.

If I go in expecting to find something negative, I will. Instead, I want to endeavor to examine the texts themselves as holistic entities, each with a multitude of stories to tell. I want to see all of the parts, good and bad, and take from them concepts that might end up being of use to me, rather than solely things I can pick apart and critique.

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Talmudic Drag

In my experience, both liturgical and academic, the phrase “the Rabbis”* is often used rather loosely. Generally speaking, this is used to refer to those scholars who studied and debated oral Torah, and whose thoughts and teachings (when considered especially relevant or profound) were occasionally written down and codified within a massive tome known as the Talmud.

Many of these people are now considered famous Jewish sages. Akiva, Judah haNasi, Rav Nachman, Rashi, Maimonides (aka Rambam), etc., are all examples of scholars from a variety of different time periods that are widely taught and studied to this day.

What interests me most is the way that the Rabbis are taught and engaged with within liturgical spaces. Though they are known to be from radically different times and spaces (for example, Akiva was around in first century Judea, Maimonides lived 1138-1204 in North Africa), they are often taught side by side.

The way that the Talmud operates allows for this easily. A typical page of Talmud will have a section in the center of the page that is devoted to the actual text that is being discussed. Surrounding it are all the commentaries, each written or uttered by a different scholar, many of which arguing with or building upon another scholar’s commentary. Each of these might have been written with decades or centuries in between. The beautiful result is a sort of cross-generational debate, with scholars engaging with their predecessors long after the earlier scholars are gone.

This brings up questions about time. The Rabbis are discussed, especially liturgically, as if they all exist simultaneously, and as if specific arguments and counter-arguments are being examined at the same time. For example, if one Rabbi is responding to a previous Rabbi, it seems as though the previous Rabbi would be able to see the response- though he is long dead.

I think it is interesting to view this as a sort of “temporal drag”, something J. Jack Halberstam discusses in “In a Queer Time and Place”. Though it is known that these individuals existed and wrote at varying periods of history, they are also seen as speaking through history. Time is reorganized and granted a position of lesser importance than it holds in normative life.

The existence of these Rabbis is only in the textual space of the Talmud. The development of what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism is thought to have originated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., causing many Judean people to move into exile and diasporic lands. A centralized worship site no longer existed in physical reality, so space was created through text. It could be said that (for this particular strain of Judaism) text is their home, or has been cultivated into a home in a non-normative fashion.  

* Distinct from the modern title “Rabbi”, which refers to an individual who has attended rabbinical school and earned the degree.

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i hate my body

A few weeks ago in my class on Theorizations of Sexuality we watched the music video for the song “My Body” by bottoms, a self described “gender-problematizing goth dance band”. This music video.

To briefly summarize, the song is electro, layering the phrases “I hate my body” and “I’m serious”.

The video itself features a conventionally attractive feminine presenting person, alone in a high-end apartment. She is cutting and juicing oranges and playing with a knife while staring seductively into the camera. At varying points the video cuts to her staring off into space for an extended time, touching herself in a bathtub and in front of a fireplace, cutting her leg with a straight razor, and finally cutting off one of her breasts, squeezing it into the home-made orange juice, and drinking it.  

I was struck mostly by the varying reactions from my classmates and have been thinking a lot about the video and its implications since.

The first person to speak up after we had finished watching stated that she was saddened by the video. What she had noticed, based upon her experience as a straight cis woman who often provided pastoral counseling to LGBTQ youth was that so many of them engaged in self-harm behavior. A valid observation, but not what I thought was most important about the video.

Another person in the class saw oppressive femininity. He, a gay cis man, experienced the lethargy and self-inflicted violence as markers of how women are coerced to behave in our society. Also valid, but something was still missing for me.

The juxtaposition of the lyrics “I hate my body” and the obvious (sexual) pleasure of the person in the video stood out to me. It was a reclamation of pleasure and of pain. It seemed to be moving away and criticizing the form of liberal feminism that is prevalent today in which women are encouraged to love their bodies regardless of size or shape. This is not the experience for many women, especially women who are trans or disabled, and the distancing from physical and psychological pain can be alienating. It tells these women that they are “doing womanhood wrong” if they experience dysphoria or discomfort with their bodies.

I imagine that part of my reaction was different because I immediately saw that the individual featured in the video was wearing prosthetic breasts. This probably made the scene with the cutting/juicing of the breast less shocking to me.

It also conjured up questions of realness. I was less shocked because I realized that the breasts weren’t “real”. But what if they were? How did the “realness” of the body in question change how I reacted? How does what we perceive as “real” in terms of body parts or identity change how we react to gender non-conforming individuals in the “real” world?

Perhaps this is related to the construction of a “third space” outside of the agency/oppressed dichotomy that is discussed by Alexander Weheliye in Habeas Viscus. Those in minority positions, especially women and especially black trans women, are criticized as complicit within racist and sexist socialization (see critiques of Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, etc).

The criticism here is that these women are playing into or catering to the male gaze. However, given the intersectional nature of the oppressions that they face, it might not be feasible for these women to be in spaces in which they do not face objectification of some kind. Cis white women might be able to enter spaces in which they are taken seriously as individuals, as academics, as subjects, but is this really and truly possible for women of color or trans women? Perhaps it is not possible for these groups to have unambiguous relationships to their own bodies. White (cis) liberal feminism advocates loving one’s body, but maybe this is not a feasible goal for everyone. Maybe it is not even a goal at all. By queering this binary understanding of pleasure and pain “the bottoms” are sending a message to liberal feminism. The woman in the music video made eye contact for a large part of the video, silently telling us that she knew we were watching. She was performing for us, demonstrating sexual pleasure from the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Even when she wasn’t looking at the camera she was performing, acknowledging that individuals such as herself were never really free from outside gaze.

The message was that she did not care. There was a freedom in her relationship to the audience and to her own body. Her pleasure (and pain) was both her own and performed for our benefit, but we could read it however we wanted. It wasn’t for us, but it wasn’t only for her either.
It was in between, in this third space of not quite object, not quite subject.

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