The Invention of Heterosexuality, Jonathan Ned Katz

9780226426013The Invention of Heterosexuality seeks to prove that “heterosexuality” as we conceive of it today is not a fixed, absolute state, and that the fundamental binary of homo vs. hetero, upon which our current culture so heavily relies, is similarly arbitrary. “Heterosexuality, we imagine,” asserts author Jonathan Ned Katz, “is essential, unchanging: ahistorical” (13). Katz ‘s goal is to “openly name heterosexuality, and to speak explicitly and at length about it.” He wants to remove the idea of heterosexuality from “the realm of the taken-for-granted, subjecting it to the dangers of analysis–and the possibility of critique” (67).

Like any good book, Heterosexuality forces the reader to think of the world in a profoundly different way, a world that is not carved into homo and hetero. As simple as this may seem, it is truly eye-opening. Katz goes back to the 19th century and demonstrates the myriad ways that sexuality is constructed throughout history, and how it is academically careless to impose our current-day conception of “sexuality” on the past.

Katz controversially questions the activism-inspired focus on creating histories of marginalized groups, suggesting that by writing a “homosexual history,” scholars and activists reinforce “the idea of gay men and lesbians as Aberrant Others, Marginal Mutants.” This leads Katz to assert that “However eye-opening the view from the sexual margin, we also need works that question the idea of a sex margin and sex center, a queer eros and a standard brand” (178). This conclusion was jarring to me, as Katz himself was a pioneer in crafting a homosexual history, publishing Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. in 1976. Katz’s critique even of his own work intimates a level of self awareness that is rare. He doesn’t necessarily have an agenda other than a continual examination and exploration of gender and sexuality.

Katz explores the works of various “Radicalesbians,” introducing me to some works I’d like to read. This passage in particular I found fascinating. Writing of the essay “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Katz explains:

“As long as we cling to the idea of ‘being a woman,'” say the writers, women will experience a conflict with their own personhood. Being “feminine” and “being a whole person are irreconcilable,” they say. Women must work with other women to “create a new sense of self.” That new identity will abandon “woman” as its basic organizing principle. (143)

Katz’s arguments are compelling; his survey of the works of Freud and 20th century Lesbian feminist writers is highly readable. When he contests toward the end of the book that “Heterosexuality, I now think, is invented in discourse as that which is outside discourse…Heterosexuality is an invented tradition,” (182) I cannot help but agree with him.

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Dilemmas of Desire, Deborah Tolman

ImageIn Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, developmental psychologist Deborah Tolman examines the cultural messages around female sexuality through one-on-one interviews with adolescent girls. Tolman is co-founder of SPARK, an intergenerational, girl-fueled movement-building organization dedicated to challenging the sexualization of girls in the media.

In this work, Tolman is concerned with the juxtaposition of media representations of girls as highly sexualized objects, yet wholly without sexual agency. “While sexualized images of adolescent girls are omnipresent, their sexual feelings are rarely if ever portrayed” (8). Her introductory question essentially boils down to: How can girls make informed decisions about sexual activity if they are encouraged not to recognize and connect with their emerging sexuality. Because our current cultural feeling on adolescent sexuality is, “Boys will be boys ergo sexuality is dangerous for girls,” writes Tolman, “our impulse to keep girls safe by keeping them under control seems so necessary that the cost of denying them the right to live fully in their own bodies appears unavoidable” (15).

Tolman uses material from 31 interviews with adolescent American girls about their experience of their own desire. In talking to these girls, Tolman found that most of them were in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory discussing their sexuality, emphasizing how their narratives expose “how confusing it is to develop a sexual identity that leaves their sexuality out” (45). The excerpted interviews Tolman includes in the book are fascinating, as are her analyses and interpretations of the desire narratives. Dilemmas is extremely well-written and Tolman’s arguments are articulate and insightful.

Tolman concludes with the imperative of talking to girls about sexuality, both the dangers and the pleasures. She uses the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 70s as a model for how discussion and storytelling can challenge socially constructed “reality.” Tolman refers to the way adults speak to adolescents about sexuality as “impoverished” (202) and skewers abstinence-only “education” (she puts education in quotation marks!), instead urging us as a society to educate girls about “the intricacies and complexities and nuances of their feelings, choices, and behaviors” (203).

This passage in particular struck me:

The complexities for women in speaking to girls about their sexual desire should not be overlooked. By the time we are adults, most women have made compromises in relation to our own bodies and desires (Haag, 1999). Carol Gilligan writes that when listening to girls, “women may encounter their own reluctance to know what they know and come to realize that such knowledge is contained in their body” (1990, p. 531). (200)

The idea of women being “reluctant to know what they know” is arresting, especially if something so abstract and fluid can have such destructive social consequences. Although Tolman writes from the perspective of a developmental psychologist discussing her subjects, her writing is compassionate and readable. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in how adolescent sexuality is informed by social constructions of gender.

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No Excuses, Gloria Feldt

ImageIt was only a matter of time before I read Gloria Feldt’s No Excuses; Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Gloria Feldt is a Women’s Media Center board member, former president of Planned Parenthood, and current activist for women’s power and leadership. She’s a powerhouse.

In No Excuses, Feldt looks the gender gap in politics, leadership, and income in the United States and formulates her own thesis for why the gap exists and how we can go about demolishing it. The book is part women’s history, part self-help, and part cultural criticism.

Feldt’s thesis is two-fold: first, she believes that women conceptualize power as dominance and power-over rather than leadership and power-to, ultimately resulting in women avoiding leadership roles altogether. Secondly, she believes that the metaphorical doors are finally open to women (after decades of hard feminist work) but for some reason women are not stepping through them. “We’re at a unique place in history,” she asserts at the beginning of her book, “where we’ve blown open the glass ceiling but not yet swept away all the treacherous shards” (12).

Feldt’s book is inspiring in its content, message, and subject. She interweaves the stories and endeavors of other women into her narrative in order to provide concrete examples of how women can break free of imposed limitations and embrace power. And those limitations, she wisely emphasizes, may not always be external. Much of the resistance women seem to have to  power, she believes, comes from internalized notions of femininity and womanhood. Women discredit their own value and accomplishments; they find it difficult, even today, to see themselves as having the right to their own ambition.

Feldt’s history as an activist for reproductive rights informs No Excuses in more ways than one. Her knowledge of women’s history and reproductive issues pops up in nearly every chapter. One especially fascinating book she mentioned, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood by UC Berkeley sociologist Kristin Luker, she summarized as follows:

She found that pro-choice women see abortion and family planning as critical to their ability to fulfill their essential identity as human beings–to pursue careers and to participate fully in public and civic life. Anti-choice women see motherhood and child rearing as the central, irreducible fact of women’s lives, and perceive abortion as a threat to their distinctive identity as women. (200)

This was so intriguing to read, and made me want to read more about the history and theory behind abortion politics. I loved how Feldt constantly referenced and cited other feminists, writers, and economists; I discovered many writers and books that I absolutely must read this way.

No Excuses is a great and invigorating read, perfect for any woman experiencing self-doubt, uncertainty, or feelings of powerlessness. This passage in particular struck me: “If the key in your hand doesn’t open the door the first time, then try it again. Try another door. Get another key. Call the locksmith if necessary. Or go in through the window” (328).

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This Girl Is on Fire.

These pictures are gorgeous and uplifting.

Meryl Streep and Hilary Clinton snap photos with Meryl’s iPhone at the Kennedy Center State Dinner, Saturday December 1st in Washington D.C


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The Glamorous Lure of Hollywood Violence


The Expendables

Published by the Women’s Media Center

It is tempting to view the recent string of violent massacres in our country as senseless, isolated incidents perpetrated by troubled individuals. When we view the shootings through this lens, we absolve ourselves of blame. In her thoughtful piece, “Not Senseless, Not Random: The Deadly Mix of Race, Guns & Madness,” Colorlines publisher Rinku Sen points to the toxic pervasiveness of Post-9/11 racism and Islamophobia as the backdrop of the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting.

Going a step further, I’d argue that the entertainment industry’s glorification of individuals employing militaristic violence provides the template for the kinds of massacres we have recently witnessed. The recent College Station, Texas, gunman was certainly drawn to such violence and the weapons of war, although he’d never actually been a soldier. According to evidence on his Facebook page, the killer perhaps borrowed his modus operandi from two actual wartime snipers—hailed as heroes in the context of  the Vietnam and second world wars—whom he listed as “inspirational people.”

Ty Burr wrote a provocative article for the Boston Globe last month in the wake of the Aurora shooting, “Fantasy, masks, and James Holmes, the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ killer.” Shying away from explicitly calling out the entertainment industry for peddling a sexy version of mass violence, Burr focuses on the specific fan-boy frenzy surrounding the Dark Knight trilogy. He urges in his article, “Don’t blame the movie. Don’t blame director Christopher Nolan.” Yet he also admits, “Our entertainment culture’s dreams of power are a drug that keeps us rapt in a cloud of promises,” and “maybe it’s worth having a discussion about an entertainment culture that excels at selling violent power fantasies to people who feel powerless.” I think Burr has touched on something highly relevant here: that the U.S. gun culture (much like the U.S. rape culture) offers a way for individuals who may feel otherwise disempowered to assert control.

And those individuals need look no further than their TV screens for inspiration. When people see the type of gun used by the Aurora, Colorado, shooter—a military magazine capable of firing 50 to 60 rounds per minute—it is likely in the hands of an aggrieved individual “heroically” defending his idea of honor, justice, or revenge. Sound familiar?

In an op-ed calling for stricter gun regulation, Huffington Post writer Sanjay Sanghoee challenges contemporary interpretations of the Second Amendment that gun rights advocates continue to defend. He points out that when our founding fathers crafted the constitution, military-grade assault rifles were probably not on their mind.

Sanghoee is wise to question how the founding fathers would have felt about every citizen’s right to own high-capacity assault rifles, but his analysis of Dark Knight Rises is lacking. He concludes his piece with a summary of The Dark Knight Rises: “Batman is a heroic figure that battles the forces of anarchy and mindless violence to protect the people of Gotham.” The movie’s plot is far more complex than he gives it credit for. The movie features a wealthy elite who enjoy the toils of the bottom classes, the bottom classes that rise up and militaristically take control of the city, and the corrupt police forces that lack the resources to adequately control the situation. None of these three entities comes across as blameless in the film, which ultimately makes the movie more interesting (and allows for Batman to save the day). However, it also creates an artistic space in which high-capacity assault weapons are in the hands of individuals fighting to protect “their city,” thus conflating use of militaristic violence with individual freedom.

The Aurora, Colorado, shooting wasn’t random. (That the shooter dyed his hair red and asserted he “was the Joker,” the cold-blooded Dark Knight villain played by Heath Ledger, who overdosed while the film was still in editing stages, presents an entirely different but not unrelated level of art/life blurring.) Blockbuster action films routinely revolve around “heroic” individuals and small groups taking justice into their own hands through mass violence, intentionally blurring the lines between military and individual violence, state-sponsored versus vendetta-inspired massacres. (The Expendables 2, which just opened, can only be described as an orgy of weaponry.)

I am not claiming that it is the entertainment industry’s responsibility to curb gun violence in the United States. But I do believe that when violence is portrayed as a glamorous means of exerting power over others in a country that encourages the sale and possession of high-impact weapons, there are certain questions we must ask ourselves. For example: who has the right to impose their belief system on others? When we are presented with tales of heroic vengeance over and over again, when we live in a country where high-power assault weapons are readily available, and when we have grown accustomed to narratives that reward “heroes” for imposing their will on others through mass violence, should we really be surprised when citizens follow suit?

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Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots is the memoir of 24-year-old Deborah Feldman, who was raised in the Hasidic community of Satmar in Williamsburg, NYC. A New York Times bestseller, the book is in every way a page-turner.  The story moves quickly and effortlessly, starting with Feldman’s earliest childhood memories, then through her formative years, and finally to her marriage (at age 17).

Her story is so fascinating that reading it often verges on a sort of sinister rubbernecking; as the reader, I was alternately intrigued and horrified. Feldman’s descriptions of the mikvah ritual (the monthly cleansing surrounding menstruation) are painful to read, as are her introductions into sexuality (molestation, assault, and finally pathological anxiety). But as the reader, you get the sense that Feldman doesn’t quite mind the rubbernecking. She has given us this analytical glimpse into her experience of Hasidism for a reason. “I consider myself lucky to have the freedom to write this book,” she explains in the acknowledgements, “and I hope it makes a difference in the lives of others” (254). Her work seems directly linked to her personal experience and stems from the desire to give hope to others in similarly repressive environments.

Despite Feldman’s occasional commentary and exploration of such themes as spirituality, sexual repression, and gender difference, much of the book is a straight-forward presentation of facts. It’s almost as though Feldman were saying This is how things really are. What are you going to take away from this? which makes for a very compelling acceptable.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Unorthodox is the explanation of the countless rules, regulations, and rituals required of Hasidic Jews and Hasidic women in particular. Feldman describes these limitations in all their hypocrisy. Any discussion of sexuality is forbidden, yet at age 17 she is expected to be completely prepared for her (arranged) wedding night. Scholarship is highly esteemed, yet girls are forbidden to read books in English. Women’s hair must be hidden at all costs, but styled, shiny wigs are completely fine.

Deborah Feldman’s strength of character and ultimate ability to leave the only life she’s ever known make for a harrowing, inspiring read. Her most impressive feat in this novel, however, is that despite all of the pain and suffering she experienced growing up as a “good Satmar girl,” she still manages to make the characters of her life sympathetic and human. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in stories of self-actualization or life in the Hasidic community. Also, the literary references and photos that introduce each chapter add much to the book as a whole.

Here is a clip of Feldman on The View with Barbara Walters. She is incredibly poised and well-spoken. Unsurprisingly, Feldman’s tell-all exposé upset a lot of people. There is even a blog dedicate solely to attacking her work.

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A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word, Julie Zeilinger

In this entertaining book, 18-year-old Julie Zeilinger sets out to demystify feminism for her teen and young adult readers. Considering how ambitious a goal this inevitably must be, A Little F’d Up is surprisingly upbeat, fun, and funny. Zeilinger seeks to engage with and contribute to youth culture by writing in a non-threatening, conversational style. She uses words like “bullshit” and makes references to Justin Bieber and Michael Cera. The book urges readers to see feminism as an ideology and way of life they can both understand and benefit from.

Beyond what it says, however, A Little F’d Up serves as a revolutionary force, simply by being (as the jacket reads) “the first book about feminism for young women in their teens and twenties to actually be written by one of their peers.” Zeilinger wants her readers to understand feminism as a lens and lifestyle, not as a theory or a cult. She creates a playful rapport with her reader, presenting feminism almost as a form of self-help. The book is divided into sections with titles like “Feminism Helped Me, And it Can Help You Too” and “Teenage Problem #1: Girls With Fangs.”

I can’t stress enough how Zeilinger’s humor counteracts her often weighty subject matter. As an example of how this humor makes historical and dry topics seem less…well, dry, here is an excerpt about the New York’s Married Women’s Property Act:

Here’s the deal. Up until 1848, a woman did not legally exist once she was married. (I might add that an unmarried woman didn’t really exist back then either, in the sense that she was pretty much a social leper who was forced into hermithood and encouraged to get hundreds–nay, thousands–of cats.) (34)

Zeilinger is wise to provide a brief history of feminism (beginning in 10,000 BC!) before going on to connect it to the lived experience of young adults. She also helpfully provides short bios on significant historical and contemporary figures in separated boxed text. Perhaps the most important thing Zeilinger does in this text is provide a working definition of the word “feminism.” She writes,

Feminism is as much an individual pursuit as it is a national and global effort. It’s the ability to live your life to the fullest, no matter who you are. Whether that means that a young woman from Greenwich, Connecticut should earn as much as a male counterpart who went to the same boarding school and top-tier college and who has a nearly identical resume, or that a young bride in Africa does not have to suffer from genital mutilation, the feminism of our generation is about the pursuit of the life you want to live, and the creation of a reality in which that goal is possible for everybody. (101)

Once she provides a foundation, both historical and contemporary, she eventually gets to the meat of gender roles in high school, dating, and hooking up. Zeilinger focuses on dehumanization as a way to understand how strict, polarized gender roles restrict personal development. “When you become your gender stereotype, you never have to question who you actually are as an individual human being” (85). Zeilinger also writes about bullying in a way that is particularly relevant to this moment in time, when school and cyberbullying have become ubiquitous. “I believe that bullying is a feminist issue and should be treated as such,” writes Zeilinger. “A movement that seeks to achieve equality should, by its nature, combat any actions that promote inequality” (152). Here, here.

One of my favorite parts of this book comes in Part 2, entitled “Please Stop Calling me a Feminazi,” when Zeilinger openly admits that “finding” feminism can be alienating. This is something I rarely see discussed in feminist texts or in the feminist blogosphere. It’s the other side of waking up to a new way of viewing the universe: “It can feel like you’ve seen the real state of the world, and realized that it’s downright repulsive” (114). I think it’s extremely important to include potential feelings of isolation and depression into any discussion of finding feminism. That Zeilinger does so in an honest and clear way is refreshing and hopefully indicative of a trend. When we exclude discourse about the negatives (even of feminism), we are missing a great opportunity for growth.

I would absolutely recommend this book, particularly to young people, for whom it should be required high school reading. Zeilinger articulates a form of feminism that is current, relevant, and rooted in self-expression. Who can argue with that?

Julie Zeilinger is the creator of The FBomb, a feminist blog and community for teens and young adults who care about their rights and want to be heard.

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