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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Weird Beard: My Goatee, Gender, and Science Fiction

Let’s talk about my beard.

For a while now I’ve wanted to write about my goatee, which I’m sure is riveting subject matter for all of you. I want to work with one particular idea about my goatee, which is that it is a gender signifier… but it isn’t necessarily gendered. Depending on the way you address it, it both is and is not an indicator of maleness, and that has some interesting implications for science fiction.

Really, that’s where this one is going.

I actually got this idea from a post that I saw on Tumblr recently that complaining about folks describing as “not gendered” things that society does consider gender signifiers. Its argument was, in essence, that claiming that a skirt or a goatee is nongendered is all fine and good, but that doesn’t make it a social reality.

Fair enough... but I also think it’s important to me personally to be able to assert a different gender identity for my appearance than would traditionally be the case. More broadly, beyond my personal feelings, I think there’s something to be said for treating things like this as though they are solved problems, already accomplished political goals. We might, from a societal standpoint, still have rigid gender norms, but nevertheless there’s an advantage to asserting the nongenderdness of things. These assertions act as a kind of speculation about the future that can possibly effect change by introducing alternate discourses and behaviors.

For this reason, I’m going to make the argument that this is actually a form of speculative fiction, a kind of sci fi or fantasy. Because this is my gimmick--I make weird assertions about things, then you donate to my Patreon. Gimmick aside, though, I think positioning gender performance in this way challenges both assumptions about the way we carry out speculative fiction and that genre’s value, and our assumptions about the way we carry out strategies of resistance to harmful societal norms.

When I say that my goatee both is and isn’t a gendered thing, what I mean is that things shouldn’t be gendered, but they are… but they’re also gendered in ways that are complicated and not necessarily static. I’m talking here about identity as a construct. Basically, identity structures aren’t static things--ideas we have about particular identities aren’t determined by external law but emerge from social conditions. This doesn’t mean you can necessarily take off and put on identities at will because we exist within social structures whether we want to or not. That’s where a statement like “a goatee is not gendered” gets complicated because it is, technically, correct: it’s not inherently gendered. It’s also incorrect, however, in that it doesn’t erase the genderedness of a thing in a particular historical moment. It is conditionally gendered.

The issue then is that you can look at this state of affairs and say there’s no escaping gender no matter what we do--we’re sort of stuck with it, in the same way that pronouncing it “FrankenSTEEN” doesn’t allow you to escape your family’s past. The urge to create cisgender monsters is in the blood, and even if we’ve escaped biology as destiny, we haven’t escaped ideology as destiny.

I think maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.

In our particular culture and historical moment facial hair is gendered male.

That’s not always true throughout history, though.

There’s a number of examples we could point to culturally of variations on this, but one particularly notable example of a variance on this is Frida Kahlo, who painted self portraits showing her variety of features not typically considered hallmarks of feminine beauty in a western european colonized culture--Kahlo consistently depicted her unibrow and facial hair in self portraits, alongside symbols of her complex cultural background and her physical disability.

I note this both because Kahlo is great, and because her works act as a visual record of alternate ways of navigating gender norms. My understanding is that Kahlo was actively engaging with these norms as a form of challenge to Western colonial practices--that she was painting as a way of engaging with these ideas and resuscitating a valid form of gender presentation stamped out by colonization. She was both recording her own physical reality and also reintroducing something that had been lost.

This parallels recent feminist challenges to the demand for women to have hairless bodies, which I think has gained more traction than the facial hair question, at least to the point where it’s openly discussed publically. What this history exposes is the way that assumptions about bodies are historically and culturally predicated, rather than a kind of universal truth.

I’m not really sure whether a full beard has ever been accepted as feminine, and for the reasons described above I’m leery of ruling it out as a past possibility. More importantly, I think we can rule it in as a future possibility.

There’s two things that I think we can say are simultaneously true here. A goatee is gendered. But this gendering is not necessarily a universal fixed reality that we have no way of manipulating or engaging. This is interesting because I think that speculative fiction to a large extent is engaged with the possibility of exploring alternate modes of existence--ways in which what is true now might become far different in the future. If one of the key aspects of speculative fiction is speculating about other modes of existence then it seems possible to me that the name of speculative fiction might be applied to actions now which explore alternate possibilities in an embodied way and performative way.

But what’s the point in this, why behave as though something in the future is here now?

For me, I think that presenting myself as an entity that is not passing as male or female, and entity that is sort of troubling those boundaries, opens up the potential for other people to push these boundaries further. It’s a way of chipping away at and challenging the things that we take as given. To an extent, being so flagrantly not cisgender and treating gendered entities as nongendered is itself a way of protesting and possibly effecting change by introducing a disjunction between assumption and presentation.

If you’ve been following along for a while you’re probably aware that I’m into affect theory, the exploration of the embodied, visceral experience of emotion, and what affect can do politically. I think the affective experience of bewilderment, disgust, confusion, alarm, or even positive affects like joy, might be triggered by this kind of disjunction, aroused by the confrontation with the unfamiliar. That response demands an accounting that can’t be easily ignored, I think, and even negative affective experiences might launch a kind of cognitive reappraisal that starts to come to terms with the disjunction, resolving it by accepting the presentation as a new reality.

Even if not, it at least demands attention, and sometimes that in itself can be quite powerful.

Stating something like “my goatee is not gendered” might not be telling the truth, in a certain sense, but even if it’s not true, I think there’s great power that can come from supporting that fiction, because that fiction might slowly become actualized.

It’s an exercise in living out a kind of lie for a specific sort of political and social purpose. This is why I’m referring to it as a fiction, why I think that half of the term speculative fiction can be applied here. It is a productive fiction based in performance: not just performance in the sense of putting on a show (though I’m doing that too), but also in the sense of performing an action, doing a thing. This is sort of where performative gender comes from, it’s an active process, something you do through the constant reproduction of behaviors and visual signifiers and so on.

This makes for an interesting connection to performance art. Yep, we’re going there too. Trust me, this is gonna make sense in a moment. Probably.

Now as I’ve mentioned before, Performance art is not just about theater and putting on a show but is about doing things in particular spaces and contexts in order to achieve particular sort of theoretical results. There’s a few performance art projects that I think could, potentially, line up with what we’re discussing here. After all, isn’t Marina Abramovic’s performance piece where she stood naked in a doorway opposite her partner Ulay, forcing museum goers to walk between the two, an affective confrontation with sexed bodies and the viewer’s response to the discomfort of navigating those bodies?

I think we could go a little more specific than that, though, to Genesis P’orridge for example, who carried out a whole experiment in merging their identities through plastic surgery and fashion and so on. Genesis P’orridge, in living as a gestalt entity that started out as a man and a woman, challenge not only possible conceptions of gender but possible conceptions of the self. That’s a pretty radical extension of this idea, I’d say.

We could maybe point to Orlan as well, another artist interested in plastic surgery as a form of art, although her totally spurious claim that Lady Gaga infringed on her intellectual property discredits her in my eyes both as a speculative fiction creator (if the point is to propose a possible future and you sue anyone who attempts to explore that future you’re shooting yourself in the foot) and as a creator in general (I mean come the fuck on).

If we want to veer away from high art we could point to folks like Katzen and The Enigma, people with extreme tattoos and body mods, as similarly living out a kind of alternate mode of reality. Many might balk at joining together trans body modification with adding horns to your head and tattooing blue puzzle pieces all over your body, as the Enigma has done, and probably for good reason, but I think it might be interesting to at least consider the possible connection and affinity there.

This is a form of embodied speculative fiction, to my mind--mobilizing not just technologies but new ideas about how we exist within the world in order to propose new possibilities. And I think extending the comparison to extreme body modders in other subcultures makes it more apparent how close the association is: after all, subcultures like goth and steampunk which often have body mod and DIY costume elements have a longstanding close association with speculative fiction fandom.

I’m simply proposing that we see these actions for what they are: explorations that are, in fact, far riskier and more daring than sitting down and penning the first volume of a proposed four book series about elves searching for mystic crystals. It is speculative fiction, albeit speculative fiction divorced from narrative. And before anyone says “aHA you can’t have fiction without a narrative! Checkmate, broseph!” might I point to the fact that we routinely use the phrase “science fiction art,” even applied to works that are not illustrative of a particular narrative? And for that matter to the genre as a whole might arguably be considered inherently non-narrative due to the nature of static images and the long discussion in art history about the impossibility of using single images to fully convey narrative? And then might I invite you to suck my girlcock, haters?

It’s probably worth exploring the use of “speculative” here a little bit further. Speculative, to me, means you’re delving into alternate modes of being. There’s a long history of speculative gender fiction, so it’s not like this is new. Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, famously takes place on a world where beings are, by default, agender, developing a physical sex at the time of reproduction. All You Zombies, by the sainted Heinlein, explored an entity that was both their own mother and their own father due to time loop shenanigans and an (as far as I know biologically impossible and actually fairly offensively incorrect) intersex condition due to being the product of a weird genetic time loop. Fucking time loops.

So, as subject matter this has a long history, despite the fact that some would position gendery speculative fiction as a recent invention of Social Justice Warriors. (More on those folks momentarily.) The tradition is well established now of using speculative fiction to actually speculate on the truly, radically different, not merely technologically but socially.

So I’d advocate pulling into the fold of the speculative these other performative strategies of speculation, including my very mild goatee-based version of that, where the performance of identity becomes an alternate way of pushing back against social assumptions. We can consider these art and life practices as part of a class of speculative fiction practices that are unified by what they’re trying to accomplish and the particular way that they engage the world.

The point of all this is to annoy people. Well, I mean, there’s broader points as well, but for the moment I want to focus on this delightful result of these sorts of gender games. Because mine is a politics and art practice based on spite.

One group I am particularly frustrated with is the group of trans folks who see gender games as delegitimizing their particular gender identities or activism. Broadly speaking I find this kind of a silly attitude to take--I don’t see how you need to stick to a single strategy with this kind of activism, and the adherence that this crowd has to the authority of doctors and scientists and their ability to externally verify the “truth” of trans identities is deeply troubling to me.

The other group, the group I find far more loathesome, is the aforementioned clown car of people who are so bent out of shape over the idea of spec fic and fantasy being something other than two dudes shooting laser cannons at each other… IIiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaace. We can see this particular view most clearly with the hullabaloo at the Hugos this year due to the reactionary fascist Sad Puppies. I’ll defer to Phil Sandifer when it comes to this particular clown car, as his overview of their ideology is quite comprehensive. The overview, from my perspective, is that an obsession with objective critique of how well the designated white cishet dude writer of the moment has described the hard sci fi functionality of laser hologram sexbots is just a way of making the act of speculation into irrelevant and deathly dull narcissistic mirror masturbation.

I think there’s something really important in the challenging of these two groups to account for the way that they limit the space for genderqueer discourses. I see these two groups as complicit, whether by design or not, in causing problems for people interested in pushing the boundaries of gender expression and performance, because they both cut off the means of experimenting with alternate identities.

One group makes it so that it’s impossible to experiment with these things in daily existence by demanding, of those who seek to identify as transgender, adherence to a convincingly medicalized experience. Here is where I can’t hold back my frustrations with the discourse the post that tipped all this off represents. The problem is not that I am unaware of the fact that my goatee is gendered. Far from it, on a daily basis I am reminded quite viscerally that people perceive me as a man in a dress, that I do not pass as genderqueer and that I certainly do not pass as female! Believe me. I get it. I know. It’s very fucking frustrating. I’ve just chosen to continue to present in a genuine way regardless of that frustration and dysphoria, because I think there’s genuine value in challenging gender norms.

There’s a demand among trans medicalists for a medical certainty of identity, despite the fact that medicine is no less constructed than anything else, as decades of critical writing on medical practitioners demonstrates, and as the long history of antagonism between queers and doctors attests to. As far as I can tell the aim here is to be convincingly pathologized in a way that carefully brackets the transgender experience off as alien to cisgender experience, rather than something that one might gradually slide into without quite realizing it. Maybe this is to counter the reactionary narratives about queerness and its seductive “lifestyle.”

But the seductiveness of it is actually what I love so much about it! It’s dangerous because it threatens the rigid boundaries of gender and sexuality, and I don’t think you can achieve a social revolution that can accommodate trans identities without embracing that danger. You can’t overthrow gender part way, flip it half way over and say well done everyone, excellent job, we can all go home to the suburbs to our spouse OF EITHER GENDER and 2.5 children OF ANY GENDER THEY PLEASE. What this seems to ask ideologically, though, is that we halt once we’ve reached a certain point because we daren’t go too far, or at least we daren’t prematurely.

So if we don’t speculate here, where do we speculate? We can’t in science fiction because, well, that’s shoving our leftist politics in where they don’t belong, and letting ideology get in the way of objectively good storytelling! Reactionary geeks have cut off that line of flight as well, or at least they would very much like to.

The net result of all of this is that these groups make it so that it’s kind of impossible to actually successfully explore any of these speculative identity structures. It becomes quite difficult to actually make any kind of foray into gender experimentation, because we can’t embody that experimentation or theorize about it.

So my response is to say, well, let’s just steal both things for ourselves. If we can’t have either, I’m inclined to try for both.

Because there’s one thing that my goatee does correctly identify: it correctly identifies me as a supervillain of boundless appetites!

I want to carve out a niche here, a niche occupied by more interesting gender politics, and more interesting science fiction, carve it out just as I shall carve great furrows in the earth with my orbital laser array! To me, the answer to opposition is to double down and bring together these two things that many people would rather never touched at all. I think there’s something legitimately useful and productive here that could give us worthwhile material to play with in the future, but more than that I think it’s exciting, in a mad science kind of way. Mad humanities, if you will. I’ve talked before about pushing against the boundaries of what we think of as science fiction and acceptable gender practice, and that boundary pushing leads to better materials in both realms, in my estimation.

This is the land that I will stake out for myself, with my glorious, devilish goatee as my symbol of challenge to the world. I’m going to continue referring to this goatee as a symbol of femininity, partly because I think the space it opens up is intriguing, but also because, at the end of the day, you can’t stop me!



Storming the Ivory Tower will update again on Monday, September 21st! Our topic: Steven Universe may be a kid's show, but it has a lot to say about consent and its importance. Let's talk about that. If you're a Patreon backer, you can view the whole list of upcoming articles here.

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1 comment:

  1. Social constructs have interesting properties that physical constructs do not -- they are sensitive to belief, and thus to PR. By pushing the boundaries, you are not merely engaging in speculative fiction but in magic: the more people say (and believe) that things are not gendered, the less gendered they become.

    That said, in the very particular case of the gendered nature of beards, we have a large long cultural history that makes de-gendering beards difficult. "Bearded women" have, since Shakespeare's time at least, been symbolic of of what we now call genderqueer. (This is not a new idea or a new gender identity; instead, what is new is its lack of cultural context in the west.)


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