Posts Tagged ‘heterosexuality’

Note to Teeth: Bite Me.

December 22, 2008


One of my best friends is a connesieur of horror films, a fact that’s been something of a twist in my life, given my seriously ingrained adversion to them.  (My brother once commented — some would say rightfully — that the scariest movie in my personal collection is Finding Nemo.  But come on, that first scene with the shark attack is hard-core, don’t you think?)  But anyway, in honor of said friend’s taste and to celebrate her graduation, last weekend we watched Teeth together.  I’ve been initiated, over the past year or so, to enough truly frightening films that I figured I could handle a self-proclaimed horror-comedy.  Indeed, Teeth — the story of a teenage girl embedded in the abstinence movement, who eventually discovers a pair of dentures embedded in her genitalia, — pushes its humor at least as far as its horror or its moments of grindhouse grotesque.  The comedy factor isn’t really what interests me, though.  For starters, I’m a bigger fan of the unintentionally hilarious “horror films” (see either version of The Wicker Man), which somehow give the impression of an honest attempt to terrify that simply miserably, miserably failed.  And on a more complicated note, there’s an assumption underlying Teeth’s premise (and therefore its comedy) which strikes me, frankly, as borderline tragic.

I’ll set the scene as best I can by explaining this film is by no means “understated.”  A baseball bat with the word “symbolism” scrawled across it could basically have been applied directly to my skull, and still created a subtler effect.  “Character development” is equally no-holds-barred.  If, three seconds into encountering our heroine’s stepbrother, you have not firmly gripped that he’s absolutely her foil, I expect there are some remaining social services you might benefit from receiving.  But in the midst of all this obviousness, there are a handful of questions that do go unanswered, most of which are more interesting to me than the film itself.  For instance:  How does Dawn, the protagonist we first glimpse as an apparently run-of-the-mill toddler (minus the second set of chompers, of course), end up so firmly rooted in the abstinence movement by her teenage years?  What motivates this particular young woman to become the poster-child for celibacy, giving speeches and even donning t-shirts in support of her cause?

The closest thing to an explanation offered in the film itself strikes me as pretty problematic:  Dawn’s vagina dentata are framed not simply as a mutation, but as a biological adaptation, a genetic fluke Mother Nature might do well to make note of and keep in mind for future generations.  A scene in a science classroom discusses mutations as an essential component of evolution, implying that Dawn’s condition is somehow beneficial to the survival of the species.  Perhaps it’s intended simply to suggest that the extra pair of teeth would be good insurance against a world where every available male — be he your first love, your stepbrother, or your gynecologist — presents a threat, but that conflation of female protection with male peril is a huge part of what bothers me.  If the vagina dentata myth really does originate, as even the film describes, in men’s fear of castration and their terror over women’s sexuality, how does that narrative transition into anything that can be deemed a “feminist” reclaiming?  I’ve done a handful of quick Google searches on the movie, and the film is definitely framed that way, if not necessarily by feminists themselves.  Rotton Tomatoes not only granted it a (beyond generous) score of 82%, but further claimed the film put “a fresh feminist spin on horror movie tropes.”  Critics and bloggers alike — (sidenote: is there much of a difference anymore?) — suggest that, far from being anti-woman, the film actually reclaims the original myth, landing firmly on women’s “side.”  The notion, then, is that women’s sexuality — or even our survival — is somehow in opposition to male desire.  Male sexuality is equated with male-perpetrated sexual violence, and female sexuality with purity we can only maintain by, quite literally, cutting men off at the pass.

Is anyone else facepalming at this point?  Or are we all so used to these representations that we no longer deem them worth the gesture?  It’s possible I just don’t exhaust easily enough, but this still frustrates me.  Why do we socially maintain this tendency to understand women’s strength — in relation to sexuality — as about either personal “restraint” (in maintaining virginity) or about conquering / controlling / castrating men?  Why do we set up male and female (hetero)sexuality as oppositional, especially considering they all but require the other?   

Is there seriously no healthy sexual encounter that can coexist with strength for women?  What would that look like, in terms of representation?  Who does the myth of the virgin/ whore or — in this case — a sort of virgin/ succubus serve so well that we must continually create and recreate it, until we’re eventually trying to sell it as empowering? 

Because honestly the claim is just that.  According to Urban Cinefile, Teeth is the story of a “a woman who turns her imperfection into empowerment.”  I’ll try not to get started on the notion of vaginal teeth as an “imperfection”  — a simple failure to achieve some feminine ideal — but if I pass on that soapbox, can I point out that the notion of Dawn as sexually empowered should not sit well with any of us?  As a woman, my sexual empowerment should not conflict with the sexual empowerment of any male.  It shouldn’t lead to violence against him any more than his empowered sexuality should lead to violence against me.  No offense to Teeth, but I think I’ll hold out for another story of female sexual empowerment, perhaps nicely situated outside the horror realm.  Maybe even one located in reality.  Now there’s a thought.

The Transgender/ Asexual Easter Bunny.

July 15, 2008

So, I have this friend.  (And I don’t mean one of those hypothetical friends people use when discussing themselves in the third person.  This is a non-hypothetical, flesh-and-blood friend of mine.  Or possibly a very believable hologram.  But I digress.)  And once, maybe over a year ago now, she told me that although she supports gay folks, she simply doesn’t “believe in transgender people” — meaning their very existence strikes her as suspect, as somehow not yet legitimized.  This kind of comment, in a new relationship, would probably establish a person firmly in the “acquaintance” category for me, but given that I’d grown used to valuing her friendship by the time she told me this, saying sayonara didn’t seem like my most compelling option.  Instead, I said my piece and hoped that eventually, she would meet some cool trans folks who, purely by existing as real people in her life, would help her understand the reality of transgendered experience, so she might move from a position of ignorance into one of alliance.  I also vented to a friend about the comment — which struck me as horribly misguided and hurtful — who sparked a hearty laugh when she replied, “What?!  Are trans people like the Easter Bunny now?” 

Seriously.  What is it about certain identities that makes people in positions of privilege feel threatened to the point that they deny the legitimacy of those identities entirely?  Why must the trans population and the asexual population — (which I suspect faces this response just as often) — constantly be given the same lack of status as the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or our old pal Santa Claus?  There is nothing about another person’s sexual orientation (or gender identity) for the rest of us to believe or disbelieve.  We aren’t talking about a debate issue or a religious doctrine; we’re talking about an individual’s personal identity, and I don’t believe anyone else has a right to step in there (with the potential exception of a skilled team of therapists with a real understanding of gender identity and orientation issues and a real acceptance of all people.)  In the one instance I can think of when I have found it incredibly difficult to believe that a person who came out to me was “actually” a lesbian, I still advocated for her right to identify that way, despite the fact that her decision to do so (when what she really meant seemed to be more like “manhater” and the identity seemed to allow her a place to hide out and not deal with her violent dislike of 1/2 the population) was rather painful to me personally.  I chose to support her right to identify as she chose because even if I did somehow, telepathically, understand why she was choosing to use this term (and even though the term was one I personally adopted in order to stop hiding out), what right did I have to question the legitimacy of her own self-assertion?  Even if there were a large population of lesbians whose relational/ sexual orientation had more to do with their distaste for men than their taste for women, what right would I — as a peer of theirs — have to judge that, to claim that their lesbianism was somehow less valid than my own?  I have no idea what caused my own (a)/sexual orientation.  For all I know, the reasons could be just as ignoble as this girl’s were, or they could seem that way to others (as hers seemed to me.)  More and more, I believe that the “why you are how you are” conversation only matters to people who take issue with how (read: who) a person is.  The members of the LGB community currently searching for a way to prove a biological basis for sexual orientation often fail to recognize that the problem, really, isn’t the contention that sexual orientation is a choice but that anything but heterosexual orientation is considered the wrong choice and pathologized, demonized, and punished as such.  (I’m not saying I believe I chose to be gay or that I could change my orientation if I was so compelled, but honestly, which is the more powerful statement: that I didn’t choose to be a lesbian or that I *wouldn’t* choose to be otherwise?  The first option suggests that a non-hetero sexual orientation isn’t choiceful, while the second suggests that it isn’t wrong.  I believe both of these statements, but if I’m picking one to shout from the rooftops, I’d choose the latter without question.)

Unfortunately, in my experience, a large portion of the world doesn’t seem to feel as I do.  They don’t seem to have the same respect for people’s right to live as they are.  The amount of evidence one must choose to ignore in order to believe that a transgender identity or an asexual orientation are not valid (but rather misguided responses to trauma, etc) astounds me, and at the same time, I think it pales in comparison to the fact that one has to ignore *actual people* and refuse their stories the weight that they deserve.  How do you tell someone that their experience doesn’t matter?  I don’t care if you’re the most repressed, mentally ill trauma surivor on the planet (well, I do, actually, but it doesn’t affect my opinion that), you still have the right to be who you are without anyone else saying, “I don’t believe you.”  If a year from now, I came out again as straight, (not bloody likely, mind you), I suspect I would still be angry with people who had not supported me as a lesbian… because I think the need to be supported overrules the need to be right.  What gives people the impression that their “duty” to correct someone’s mistaken view (of their own identity) wins out over their duty to support another human being?

A few months back, when I was talking about asexuality to basically everyone I knew, (while of course, leaving out the rather pertinent fact that I recognized something of myself in this identification), I lent a copy of Bitch to a (somewhat skeptical) professor of mine so that he could read KL Pereira’s article “Do Not Want.”  To his credit, he was significantly more open to the idea of asexuality after he finished it — (kudos to Pereira for that; this is a man who still thinks a bisexual’s “true” orientation is revealed when they settle into a long-term relationship, thus ending their ambiguous experimentation phase) — but his resounding question afterward was actually, “When does it stop?  If a group as tiny as one percent of the population” (allegedly; raise your hand if you don’t believe it’s more) “starts to form a community, when is it ever going to be too few?”  Basically, he was trying to suggest, by way of a slippery-slope argument, that at any moment we would be seeing two- and three-person communities of people with a valid sexual orientation not yet recognized by the larger population.  “Why can’t we just be individuals?” he asked me.  I simultaneously saw and did not see his point.

The not-seeing was the more intense response so I’ll start there.  My own question, in response to his, was why does it matter?  If there are actually two or three people out there so committed, so well-organized, and so intently focused on getting the word out about their experience (which I think anyone in any “movement” would agree is basically required) that they can do so successfully despite their small numbers, what about that is potentially negative?  I don’t understand what we (meaning those outside the population in question) stand to lose by others speaking up about their experience.  I desperately need someone to explain the threat to me. 

I think people have dissected this, in terms of transgender identities, pretty thoroughly and the resounding response is that “we” (if not the we I’m personally a part of) feel a tremendous need to protect the strict gender binary, the one that looks like check-boxes outlined in bold lines (rather than a spectrum of varying hues.)  We will sacrifice people for the sake of preserving this (false) sense of gender, (excuse the strong social constructionist bias, if you please), rather than recognizing that gender has no purpose without people to serve.  …But what of asexuality?  What leaves some sexuals feeling so threatened that they must insist asexuality is a fantasy, a pathology, or some other invalid way of relating?  I haven’t heard anyone really begin to sort this out yet (no real surprise, given the lack of research being done on the more basic questions), but as I consider it, I’m reminded of something my mom said to me today, during an extensive and unexpected discussion about LGBT rights following an encounter with some HRC volunteers on a sidewalk corner.  (They were trying to raise money to help in the fight to pass anti-employment-discrimination lesgislation.  I listened to the guy’s spiel and told him, sincerely, that when his superiors decide to support a trans-inclusive ENDA, I’ll give what I can.  He told me, I hope also sincerely, that they’re working hard on it, that they “got a lot of flack” for supporting the non-inclusive version.  Well, duh.  I almost told him that while I was glad to hear they were working on it, I would prefer they work on it because they finally recognized the importance of doing so and the supreme ethical misstep of their former position and not because they were being harassed by trans folks and their allies.  I wanted to say “that ‘flack’ was justified, Sir; if it weren’t, I’d be on this corner with you.  Why do you think I’m not?”  But I digress again.

Sufficeth to say that my mom, (who is a tremendously progressive person and a huge supporter of gay rights/ my rights/ etc but nevertheless — or perhaps as a result — always attempts to see the other side of things, if only to better build bridges between the polarized edges of a debate), suggested that one of the reasons certain people might argue for same-sex couples having all the same rights as straight couples, minus the actual word “marriage,” was that they value the uniquely heterosexual experience and fear losing it in a sea of other experiences.  Obviously, I don’t believe that heterosexual couples have any more right to marriage than the rest of us, but I do believe that heterosexual relationships — like any other kind of connection– have unique aspects that are exciting, powerful, inspiring, et cetera, and have just as much right (but no more) to be validated by society.  This concept (finally) brings me to the second point I wanted to make to my professor, which was basically that if he really sees the continual surfacing of new populations and movements as a negative occurence, perhaps the most viable “strategy” to help reduce the need for such communities is to validate the experiences people have as individuals.  If the addition of statistics — (“but there are x many asexuals in this room!  but x in y of the people you know are transgender in some way!”) — weren’t required to convince people to listen to an experience and take that story seriously, we might be less inclined to gather them.  If our stories were being heard (truly), we might be less inclined to tell them in unison, as a united front.  Basically, if I mattered to you enough as a person (singular) that you could honestly tell me “I believe in, respect, and support who you are” than I might have less reason to show you there are others like me.  Why spend the effort to legitimize an already legitimate experience?

Of course, in the meantime, why be so anti-community?  Or anti-movement, for that matter?  Personally, I think it’s past time that all of us — me, my friend, the HRC volunteers, and everyone in between — have the sense to believe in, respect, and support each other.  Personally, I believe it’s past time that everyone stand up to acknowledge the existence of the Easter Bunny.