Sunday, November 09, 2008

Performativity, Gender, and Woody Allen Movies


Huh, that definition of "high femme" you linked to is intriguing. It's a subjective definition of purpose and self-identification rather than an objective description of common traits or behaviors, which slightly bewilders me even as it excites me to think about "femininity in quotes." Huh. I'm not convinced of its utility, but I don't think that's the point, and nor do I think my conviction or recognition is necessary to give the definition any significance. I think the point of that definition is to defy social construction and recognition.

Hmm. Sometimes I think that as much as race, gender, and sexuality are social constructions, the flipside is that they can then become performance art. A self-aware exaggeration of Goffmanian performativity, as you note.

Anyway, Robb Willer, the sociologist whose work I want to discuss has his working paper out in draft form in several media outlets. Thus, fair game. Here's a brief blip in ScienceDaily, here's another in ScienceNow, and here's a PowerPoint from his personal page. Unfortunately those slides are incredibly basic and do not present the statistical correlations he found using rather nuanced dependent variables and interesting social psychology experiments. Masculinity can be threatened directly or peripherally. Calling someone a sissy seems clear, but for some reason some dudes feel generally threatened by the mere presence of gays. Cough Prop 8 cough. It's slightly more complicated than masculine chest-thumping, because the deployment of gender can be as personal identity (relatively internalized behavior) or to signal status to others (relatively exeternalized behavior). Both are interactional, of course, but I wonder if one type of deployment leads to potentially more invidious effects such as social closure, harassment, bullying, violence, discrimination, etc. My academic bias is clear, but see also Oncale v. Sundowner.

It is thus even more interesting that you linked to that high femme definition. I am not bothered at all by someone's highly individualistic, internalized definition of gender and gender performativity. More power to them! I am, however, slightly concerned with such a definition is projected onto others in a way that may lead to an encroachment of another person's self-definition. Yet, sociologists will tell me that everything is socially constructed and so I cannot tease apart an individual's self-originating identity from the social construction of that identity, and how that identity is actually operating as status. It is all very confusing. This is why I sometimes want to throw myself out the window during seminars. Except that for some reason this semester they're all on the first floor, and so there's not much of a dramatic impact. At some point, I want to tell people to stop fetishizing the idea of social "constraints" on individual action and consider what individuals actually want, which may be irrational (phooey on homo economicus) and may actually have a whiff of human agency even as wants are semi-directed by social forces. We may tend to want what we think we can have and can have to capacity to want (e.g., you can't want truffles if you have never heard of them), but we still want stuff.

And I think gender performativity is a part of that. This is why as much as I hate women's magazines and the "beauty industrial complex," I can't deny that I want to do much of the stuff that I do. I would hate to be told to do something in order to be a "real woman." But I also hate being told not to do this! I don't want to go over the well-worn discussion of makeup and men who hate makeup, but see e.g. that discussion. "Feminine" behaviors you and I exhibit: baking; wearing makeup; knitting; cooking; talking about fashion; wearing dresses, skirts, heels and jewelry; etc. etc. We want to do those things though, and we do them only to the extent that we want to. Then again, I could have false consciousness. Which to me is a theory of as much utility as the garbage can model of organizational behavior. No really, I totally do not identify as a post-feminist , nor am I a female chauvinist pig. At least I hope not. At least I do not think so. Go back to viciously circular, self-defeating argument about false consciousness. Economics may be under socialized and may fetishize the idea of rationality and agency, but often sociology ignores agency in its fetishization of structure and constraint. Each is a dismal science.

Moving on, re Nora Ephron. I liked When Harry Met Sally, and I liked Clueless, but I can't recall any other Ephron movie I did like. I just watched two movies tonight that highlight splendidly many recent themes of discussion: His Girl Friday and Manhattan. Both have smart, snappy, fast-talking women. The second one has Woody Allen, who is douchetastic and creepily prescient of his later relationship with Soon-Yi. The first one puts Rosalind Russell in the difficult choice of being a "woman," "real human being," "wife and mother," or the best reporter at the paper of her degenerate ex-husband Cary Grant. You watch Intolerable Cruelty and the Hudsucker Proxy, and you know what the Coen brothers were going for, and you sigh. Now Rosalind Russell held her own against Cary Grant, and they were as good as Spencer and Tracy for showing what a relationship between equals is really like. Anyway, good inter-gender combat in that movie, and you sort of marvel how far and yet not-far we've come. Unlike you, I want a kid one day, and I so do not look forward to having my good motherliness and feminity defined by SAHMs at my kid's school judging my baked goods and the non-organic cotton on my kid or how many hours a week I work that hurts my poor neglected child in the age of kindergarchy.

The second movie has plenty of gender play, with the awesome Diane Keaton as the manic pixie dream girl of her day, but if you haven't seen it I encourage you to do so. I like Woody Allen movies, and the women in his movies are always so smart and sexy--and completely unhinged. They are seriously emotionally unbalanced, mentally disturbed, vindictive bitches, doormats, juvenile and naive ingenues. Then again, what do you expect from a guy who in 1979 cast a 17 year old Mariel Hemingway as a credible love interest for his 42 year old self. Squick! And yet she is more self-possessed than he, and truly, a better person. Thus, my love for Woody Allen's cleverness is always tempered by a disappointment in the not-so-buried misogyny. See also, ambivalent like of Philip Roth.

Finally, I don't think of you as a woman-child. You can take care of yourself, you have a stable job and rely on no one, you have a retirement account with a positive balance. You are much more settled in life than I am, even if I theoretically want a child one day. Again, goddamned social constructions of gender and maturity. If I were to get married tomorrow and be miraculously pregnant I would be considered more "settled" than you, despite my staggering educational debt, the poor organization of my files and finances, and my status as the perpetual student? (keep in mind, people, when I admit huge deficiencies and insecurities, do not pile on and tell me to get a job when I am going on the market in a year) Pshaw! You Amber, are the woman! The problem is, while the man-child is well-represented in current media, there's no real equivalent for women. Men who can't take care of themselves: apparently hilarious! Women who can't take care of themselves: expected (by paternalists) or tragic (in the view of the welfare state)! Apparently, single women who don't want kids and can get shit done and take care of themselves are not really favorably represented in the media, and there's no good name for them. You should come up with one. Maybe it can be cat-genus based. You know, since we have cougars and pumas already. And I think protective mothers are called lionesses.
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