Gender Matters offers feminist approaches to a diverse range of discussions on intersectional, transnational, and community issues. Contributors include UB students, faculty, and staff, as well as greater Buffalo community members, whose perspectives enrich our collective feminist engagement with education, research, and lived realities.
The Gender Institute welcomes new potential authors. Those interested should contact the blog manager, Anne Marie Butler, at email@example.com.
May 14, 2018: Gender Disparity in UB's Engineering Department, by Alyssa Biniewski
June 4, 2018
Recently, the UB Gender Institute invited members of the UB Community to reveal the books they’ll be reading this summer, for work or pleasure.
This summer I will begin by reading Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman's Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. Next, I will move on to Feminism FOR REAL: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism by Jessica Yee. Lastly, I plan to read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants written by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Laura Aguilera graduated in 2018 with a double major in International Studies and Global Gender Studies. This fall she will be enrolled in University of Vermont's Higher Education and Student Affairs graduate program. She was awarded a graduate assistantship and looks forward to serving as the Graduate Coordinator for Residential Education and Retention.
My summer reading, which was my spring reading, and will undoubtedly drift into winter reading, is pretty predictable. A Tour of the Calculus, by David Berlinkski, because I like to see how others make maths more accessible. I teach topics which are cold, dry, and impenetrable, so any inspiration for making them a little more palatable is welcome. The English: A portrait of a people, by Jeremy Paxman. I judged this book by the cover. I am also very interested in Paxman’'s thoughts about the English, in contrast to the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish. Not something people around here often see as a difference -No, I am not from Canada. Final book: The World According to Clarkson, by Jeremy Clarkson. Should I pretend I do not have this book? Should I pretend I did not laugh at the first couple of articles? Very trashy, very funny. Now I have written my three titles, it occurs I have picked 3 male authors, and and least 2 alpha males. (I am unfamiliar with Berlinski.) I will make sure to read more about suffragists and suffragettes for the centenary this summer for balance.
Dr. Glenna Bett is the Gender Institute Deputy Director and Vice Chair for Research in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
I always begin each summer with great expectations about all the reading I will accomplish. I have endless lists that I revise and tweak, various book purchases, and an increasingly dangerous tower of books looming on my nightstand. But this summer, I optimistically insist, will be different. I am determined to read at least the following two books: Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty (Farrar, Straus 2018), which explores why blaming mothers is so easy to do. She asks: why are mothers “the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings”?
The second book is Gayle Salamon’s The Life and Death of Latisha King: A Critical Phenomenology of Transphobia (NYU 2018), which focuses on a single incident, the shooting of a middle-school trans girl, Lakisha King, in Oxnard, California. Professor Salamon, who will be speaking on “Transmisogyny” at the UB Gender Institute on February 21, 2019, asks how the media and the legal system report on gender-nonconforming bodies that are dehumanized and surveilled. I am delighted that Prof. Salamon will be visiting us next academic year.
Carrie Tirado Bramen is Director of the UB Gender Institute and teaches in the English Department.
This will hopefully be the summer of going back. I want to finish up all the books that I’ve only ever half opened. I want to read the last few essays of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and put them in the context of his poetry. I also want to reopen Notes of A Native Son by James Baldwin and get back into Jeff Chang by starting We Gon’ be Alright. Lastly I want to read some comic books and graphic novels such Southern Bastards, Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, and Fun Home, because not everything in academia has to be hard core theory, sometimes it can be about ribs and aliens.
Matthew graduated from UB in 2018 with a B.A. in English. He specializes in telling you everything is going to be alright and quips. His interest include comic books, poetry, Puerto Rico, and Hugo from the hit series Lost.
Over the summer I generally feel that I can relax a little with more fiction in my backpack. This summer, I’ll be taking up two novels by authors from the upcoming season of Babel, Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee and Sing, Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. I’ll also continue to read in my favorite genre, speculative/science fiction/Afrofuturism, by tackling the only series by Octavia Butler that I’ve yet to read, the Patterner series (includes the books Wild Seed, Mind of my Mind, Clay’s Ark, Survivor, and Patternmaster). As far as non-fiction, I mostly read academic books related to my research interests. I’ll be finishing up the essays I didn’t yet get to in the volume Posthuman Bodies, edited by Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston. I’ll also read the collection Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, edited by Catriona Sandilands. Bruce Erickson, and Eric Gable.
Anne Marie Butler's dissertation reads queerness as oppositional strategy in contemporary Tunisian art by women and LGBTQ individuals. Her text “F*** Your Morals: Amina Sboui’s Body Activism” is included in Bad Girls of the Arab World (2017) and her entry on Tunisian genderqueer digital artist and performer Khookha McQueer is forthcoming in the Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History (2019).
I am currently finishing The Cooking Gene by James Beard award winner Michael Twitty, a Jewish, African American, gay man. This is an intriguing, thoughtful, beautifully written food history about southern cooking and its roots in slavery and African culture. As is my habit, I try to read about a region I will visit and this history is my preamble for a first trip to New Orleans.
This summer I will read the Just Buffalo Babel series books, a source of pleasure and intellectual expansion for the last ten years. I have already completed Mohsin Hamid's excellent novel Exit West and look forward to Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing; Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, and George Saunder's Lincoln in the Bardo. The Babel series has encouraged me to read authors I am unfamiliar with while involving me in community discussions/performance about/from the books, the authors and an array of genres. In response to growing social disparities the series has incorporated a focus on citizenship, democracy, and diverse international voices. What a gift Just Buffalo is to our community and I am grateful to be a part of the dialogue and of such literary enjoyment.
Sherri Darrow is the Director of Wellness Education Services and Clinical Associate Faculty in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health. She works with innumerable campus partners to create environments that support students’ academic, personal and community success. She believes health and well-being are human rights to be enjoyed by all individuals and communities.
Summer can’t come soon enough for me, as I fear that I might be crushed any day by the ever-growing pile of books awaiting attention on my bedside table. For me, summer is about fiction, always. I am excited to first get a dose of my homeland, via The Dry, an acclaimed first novel by Jane Harper. I am promised a gripping murder-mystery set in a small Australian farming community that is experiencing severe stress due to a long-lasting drought arising from climate change. Great writing about my homeland always makes me nostalgic, but also helps me to stay connected to the culture in which I grew up. Then, I am going to read the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend – later than almost everyone else it seems. I anticipate drowning myself in her intimately drawn characters.
Liesl Folks, PhD, MBA, Dean of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is an internationally recognized expert in nanotechnology and magnetism. She holds 12 U.S. patents and is the author of more than 50 peer-reviewed technical publications. She is also a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering.
Since first picking up one of his books in 2006, I have read or reread a Haruki Murakami novel every summer. This summer, I'm leaning toward rereading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or tackling IQ84 for the first time. I love the way Murakami mixes emotion with fantasy in a way that feels so very real. Also on my list is Ta-Nehisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power. I fell in love with his style when I read Between the World and Me and am looking forward to this collection of poignant essays and the author's prefatory comments. Finally, Religion and Hip-Hop by Monica R. Miller, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and the Rhetorics of Black Subjectivity by Aaron Ngozi Oforlea, and Chuck D's This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History. As much as I find my research "fun," I have to make sure I keep working while I play this summer!
Nicole Lowman is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at UB, the President of NeMLA's Graduate Student Caucus, and Vice President of the Kurt Vonnegut Society. She enjoys cooking, hip-hop music, and hosting a weekly pub quiz.
Although I read as much as I can during the academic year, summer is when I catch up. Top of my list is Philippe Ariès' The Hour of Our Death, a magisterial history of Western attitudes toward the final moment of our lives that tracks the symbiotic relationship between our sense of self and our feelings about the extinction of that self. I will then turn to Fuminori Nakamura's Cult X, the latest novel from the contemporary master of Japanese noir, who now turns his attention to the psychology of extremism as the protagonist joins a mysterious cult in an effort to find his missing girlfriend. I’ll finish with Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, a sly revision of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos that exemplifies the imaginative creativity of weird fiction. Dark books for dark times.
David Schmid is an Associate Professor of English at UB and is trying to maintain his faith in humanity.
Re-reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963) is a great way to reignite passion for social justice. How timely his interventions still are. To propagators of "post-truth," he points out: "An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought." And to those who fan the flames of hatred: "It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself."
A longtime fan of Orphan Black, I was surprised to discover how its themes reverberate in Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 Never Let Me Go, a novel whose gentle narrator calmly recalls her coming-of-age with two best friends in an English boarding school where the pupils gradually learn that they are clones being raised to "donate" their body parts to "real" humans. Ishiguro raises haunting questions about what it means to be human and why we are willing to give up so much of ourselves to fit into a violently exploitative social order.
Kari Winter is a Professor in the Transnational Studies Department at UB. She served as the director of the Gender Institute from 2010-2017.
May 14, 2018
1,923 students are currently enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences here at the University at Buffalo. When this figure is broken down by gender, it is revealed that only twenty-one percent of these students are women. However, the gender disparity at this university is not unique. Consistently across the nation women are a minority in most science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments. Engineering is one of the highest paid STEM career paths, yet it contains the most striking gender imbalance in the United States (1). The lack of women in this field demands investigation. We can start by asking a few questions about women engineers here at UB: Why do women make up such a small percentage of the department? How are the women within the department treated? How is the job outlook for women engineers post-graduation?
Representation impacts people at a young age, and can stay with them for the rest of their lives. Considering the differences in the socialization of male and female children, it is not surprising that males often grow up with an inclination towards problem-solving and innovation. Trypically, boys are given tools, building blocks, and other toys that encourage them to create and explore, while girls are given dolls, kitchen sets, and other toys that mimic domestic labor. From an early age many girls are fed the idea that their potential lies in domestic work and caring for others.
However, there are plenty of parents that encourage their daughters to play with legos and their sons to play with dolls, and this seems to make a difference in child’s interests (2). Emma DePiro, a recent Mechanical Engineering graduate, claimed that as a child she was offered a lot of “boy” toys, often involving science or technology, which made pursuing a future career in engineering seem logical. There are also people who do not identify themselves in terms of the gender binary, and therefore do not subscribe to socialized gender roles. But for the most part, early socialization plays a major role in how women understand their social worlds. Girls aspire to become teachers, nurses, or perhaps stay at home mothers because these are the models with which they are familiar.
As Dean of Engineering Leisl Folks articulates, “It’s more socially acceptable for women to enter medicine because it’s a caring profession…We have managed to address engineering and computer science as not relating to the wellness and happiness of our community when they are completely vital.” Andrea Oaks, a Civil Engineering student, claims that her inspiration for pursuing engineering was Samantha Carter, a fictional astrophysicist and engineer from the television show Stargate SG-1. The show explained that Samantha’s father wanted a son, effectively naming her ‘Sam.’ Andrea finds Samantha inspiring because she defied her father’s expectations, as well as gender roles, and refused to be subservient to men. Even though girls might not be exposed to STEM women in real life, their representation on the television screen can create role models that shape future endeavors.
The small percentage of women that do end up pursuing engineering find themselves facing a new set of difficulties. Mansplaining, which is when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending or patronizing manner, becomes an everyday routine for these women (3). When asked if she believes she is treated differently within the department because of her gender, Amelia Veitch, an Environmental Engineering student, responded, “Particularly, my freshmen year of college. Male peers have googled things I suggested or said to check if I was right, or I’ve had very simple things explained to me. At an internship I got asked if I was going to “redecorate” while I was checking for safety hazards around a warehouse.” These instances demonstrate how the intelligence of women is often doubted, and how domestic labor such as redecorating is viewed as an inherent ‘womanly’ trait. When men frequently mansplain, interrupt, or fact-check statements made by a female peer, the socialized power dynamic between men and women is reinforced. Women who encounter this must acknowledge daily that they are battling stereotypes that label them as ignorant and/or less intelligent. Considering that at UB, women are trying to learn in a program comprised of seventy-nine percent men, this patronization can be debilitating and exhausting. DePiro recalls the everyday misogyny she faced as an engineering student, “The male professors felt uncomfortable to be too friendly with me, yet they were inviting male students to their homes for family parties. I tried very hard to grow relationships with teachers but they were very short and cold. Male peers would be either rude or beyond shocked if I did better than them on a test or project, but would high-five their male friends for doing better than them.” Likewise, Folks expressed that, “The male faculty often do not know how to have a conversation with a teenage girl.” Not only do women in engineering need to compete and prove themselves to their male peers, but they must do so while receiving less support from their male professors. Women professors make up a small minority of faculty in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, varying by department, which can create a “boys club” atmosphere. For DePiro, that included feeling awkward around male professors, while male peers developed personal relationships with them.
Women must develop a tough skin if they want to thrive within this major. It seems that the women in UB’s program learn to live with the onslaught of misogyny, and use it as motivation to succeed. DePiro explained that, “The best feeling is self-satisfaction, knowing you are breaking boundaries, and proving anyone wrong who believes women are less capable.” DePiro also claims that feminine appearing women in particular are often regarded as intellectually inferior, but that they should not, “hide [their] femininity to try to blend in or be more accepted by the men.” Her advice is to, “wear whatever you want and just be yourself, your mind is what should matter.”
Representation of women in engineering and standing up for each other is necessary in order to deconstruct stereotypes that have been holding women back for centuries. Oaks and Veitch both agreed that in order to succeed in a male-dominated space, you have to be willing to call men out when they are belittling you. This action sets the tone for one-on-one relationships within the class space, and empowers you within an unequal power dynamic. When asked what other advice she had for women considering a path in engineering, Veitch stated that, “I would say advocate for fellow women. If you’re in a group and a woman is being steam rolled speak up and ask them to repeat what they said. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I think sometimes women feel like they have a lot to prove in a male dominated field, but you’re just as entitled to struggling.” Solidarity with other women can help to create a more comfortable space, and gives women the opportunity to express their frustrations with others that face similar situations.
On the bright side of this issue, many companies are seeking women engineers to mend the gender disparity that is found so frequently. A diverse workforce mirrors a diverse client base and creates a healthier, more modern workplace (4). DePiro was wary of taking positions where she will be the only woman in the department. She believes that her gender has been beneficial in seeking a job, because companies are looking to increase the diversity of their workforce, yet at the same time, entering an engineering department where you will be a very small minority and are forced to struggle against socialized stereotypes is no simple task. DePiro is currently a mechanical engineer for missile defense at a company called Raytheon, and says she noticed that the company makes a strong effort to maintain gender balance.
Each of the women that make up the twenty-one percent of the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are leading the way for other women to pursue these types of career paths. Every woman engineer that succeeds provides vital representation our nation is lacking, and will without a doubt inspire future generations of women to pursue their ambitions, regardless of what society has to say.
All interviews conducted between October 2017 and March 2018.
(1) Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering (University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, 2011).
(2) Erica S. Weisgram and Lisa M. Dinella, editors, Gender Typing of Children’s Toys: How Early Play Experiences Impact Development, (American Psychological Association, 2018).
(3) Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things To Me, (Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL: 2015).
(4) Vivian Hunt et al., Delivering through Diversity, (McKinsey & Company, 2018).
Alyssa Biniewski will graduate from UB in June with a Bachelor of Arts in Global Gender Studies and a minor in Political Science. She currently serves as the President of the UB Undergraduate Society of Feminists. In the future, she plans to pursue a Masters degree in Global Gender Studies.
May 7, 2018
Cheryl Emerson and Naila Sahar were the 2018 recipients of the Gender Institute's Duke Feminist Theory Workshop Travel Grant. The graduate students received travel sponsorship to attend the prestigious Duke workshop, which took place on March 23-24, 2018, at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Emerson and Sahar write about their experiences below.
Cheryl Emerson, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Comparative Literature
This year’s Feminist Theory Workshop closed with a blunt and troubling question: “Can this world be salvaged?” It is an old question and I found it surprising that this question should be asked in the context of the four keynote talks. After all, why were we here, engaged in conversation, if there is nothing left to salvage of this world? I imagined each of the speakers sifting through a salvage heap of histories, bodies, institutions, and knowledge, contemplating the temporality of waste and its disposition.
Anne Allison’s opening talk, “The Matter of Death in Solitary Times,” explored Japan’s booming market in modern end of life services, a rapidly growing industry where professional disposers of personal belongings facilitate “the process of becoming waste.” The commercialization of “unmaking the making” of a life leads Allison to ask, what “does the work” of sociality today, when automated graveyards and robotic priests can now provide remembrance by proxy? For a price, one can and should plan ahead for a clean and orderly death, as the ethical (and aesthetically) responsible choice. In the wake of an increasing “solitarization of the social” in Japan, with the phenomenon of “lonely death” on the rise, those who are relationless or socially abandoned can “make themselves matter” by hiring the service of Ending Centers, virtual graves, and other forms of what Allison names “transactional intimacy,” in an exchange of virtuality in place of the (formerly human) social.
In a richly complex argument, Denise Ferreira da Silva proposed a radical break from linear thought and its temporal/spatial logics of “then” and “now” / “over there” and “right here,” as inadequate for thinking the racial event. Drawing upon Benjamin’s temporality of the image and Spillers’ understanding of the moment as “always a singular assembly,” da Silva analyzed the compositional unity of the “now” in two historically separate sites of total violence: the 1770 slave revolt aboard the Liverpool ship “Unity,” and the March 14, 2018 assassination of Brazilian politician and social rights activist Marielle Franco. In da Silva’s account, linear logics, including philosophies of consciousness and the analytics of historical materialism, are unable to think the atemporal. The racial event is enclosed within an economic structure, but “happens outside of time,” allowing da Silva to argue that Marielle Franco “was already dead” even before she was born. Her death (like Stephon Clark’s) was not the death of a single person, because “all the other assassinations are in this one.” The promise of black feminist theory, for da Silva, lies in its potential to cut through both the “transparent I” of the anglo-patriarchal subject and global, neo-colonial capitalist oppression, in ways that philosophies of consciousness and historical materialism cannot. If this world is to be salvaged, by da Silva’s argument, it will be through new instruments of understanding, beyond the confines of categorical thought bound by time and space.
Silvia Federici, in contrast, addressed today’s world epidemic of violence against women solidly within a feminist, historical materialist framework, concerned with a form of “expressive violence” that sends the message that “no mercy is to be expected.” Rather than hiding its atrocities, expressive violence seeks to show itself, instituting a regime of permanent warfare in a process of re-colonization that fences off communal lands for capital gain. Federici’s argument locates the common bond between domestic and public violence in the way that “micro-individual economics mimics macro: ‘Money is fertile, not the land.’” Her presentation also announced an initiative to launch a world think tank to investigate what the 1989 massacre of women in Montreal’s École Polytechnique, for example, has to do with modern witch hunts, sex trafficking, and attacks on women by military and police in the Southern hemisphere (as a start). What little hope remains for securing women’s safety in the world does not rest in stiffer institutional penalties for perpetrators; instead, Federici’s project calls for a rebuilding of the social fabric that protects women’s access to communal lands and permits women to communicate on the local level.
Jennifer Nash’s precis of her forthcoming book, Black Feminism Reimagined (Duke UP, 2019), offered an engaging, anecdotal account of the plight of intersectionality in the U.S. academy, from the “genesis narrative” (“God spoke and Crenshaw wrote!”) to the story of “gentrification,” in which the original inhabitants of intersectionality (black feminist theorists) have been displaced from their lodgings by an ongoing “whitening” of the neighborhood. In an effort to escape the agon of “ownership” (a paranoid read), Nash framed her talk in reparative terms, as a “love letter to a critic.” In the following break out discussion, moderated by Robyn Wiegman, it was apparent that discussions of intersectionality retain a predominantly U.S. feminist perspective, with more conversation to be had concerning intersections of race and gender across the globe.
The question “Can this world be salvaged?” is unanswerable, of course, but the conditions of possibility of salvage are certainly under discussion. After my first time attending Duke’s Feminist Theory Workshop, I understand why scholars participate year after year, with many having attended since the first workshop twelve years ago. Beyond strengthening the technical vocabulary and theoretical armature for my own dissertation project, it was important to join in the greater conversation and to consider the fundamental question – a question that haunts – what can or should be salvaged of this world?
Naila Sahar, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of English
Attending the Feminist Theory Workshop at Duke was an amazing experience for me. The speakers included Anne Allison, Silvia Federici, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Jennifer C. Nash. Where Anne Allison talked about the intersection between political economy, everyday life, the imagination in the context of late capitalist post-industrial Japan, and the innovations in dealing with death and loneliness, Silvia Federici talked about bringing a historical perspective to violence against women and discussing the relation between domestic and public violence and the policies that are internationally adopted to discipline women. In Denise Ferreira da Silva’s talk ‘Toward a Black Feminist Poetics,’ she addressed the need for a decolonization that requires the setting up of juridico-economic architectures of redress through which global capital returns the total value that it continues to drive from expropriation of the total value yielded by productive capacity of the slave body and native lands.
The talk that resonated with me the most was Jennifer C. Nash’s brilliant presentation about ‘Institutionalizing the Margins.’ In this talk, Nash discussed who owns intersectionality and who steals it, the gentrification of intersectionality, defensiveness as imagined agency, and the teaching of theory as aesthetic experimentation. Nash is the author of The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography, which was awarded the Alan Bray Prize by the GL/Q Caucus of the MLA. In her talk, Nash argued that intersectionality is imagined as a problematic “mantra of liberal multiculturalism” in an era where academic institutions rhetorically extol diversity. Yet, intersectionality is also treated as something that has already arrived, and feminism is imagined to have already institutionalized intersectionality. According to Nash, it is the variety of ways that intersectionality is now performed, which is often imagined as different than how it was originally conceptualized, that has led scholars to advocate moving beyond intersectionality toward new analytics that capture the complexity of personhood and structures of domination in new ways. Nash argues:
When intersectionality is imagined as feminism’s future, intersectionality sheds black women in a post-racial feminism that either presumes that black women need not be the center of intersectional work because intersectionality’s virtue is complexity not identity politics or that intersectionality is an endlessly expansive analytic that can—and should—describe all subjects’ experiences. When intersectionality is relegated to feminism’s past, its identitarian commitments are questioned, particularly in a moment in which identitarianism is “vilified by feminists of many different persuasions.” In both cases, it is intersectionality’s intimate engagement with black female that is treated as suspect.
Nash thus argues that we are always failing to do what intersectionality promises, and intersectionality is always failing to perform what we hope it might. She thus challenges the notion and presumption that intersectionality will perfect the field of woman’s studies in significant ways, as she treats intersectionality as a temporal project that cannot redress the aspirations of women’s studies. For her, intersectionality’s temporal labor is determined by the treatment of black women’s bodies as not the subjects of the present moment, but as constructions out of time as relic and as hope, as artifact and as aspiration and thus presuming that black women’s bodies are always already anachronisms. Nash’s talk resonated with me since I feel the same framework that is applied to black women’s studies, dealing with them as a temporal project beyond time, is applied to Muslim women as well by treating them as frozen in a certain Eurocentric discourse.
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole workshop, as it not only gave me an opportunity to listen to the excellent presenters, but to connect with scholars with similar interests, who had come from all around the world. I have come back from Duke acquainted with many wonderful people in academia. Thanks to the UB Gender Institute for this great opportunity!
Content warning: This entry contains descriptions of sexual assault and harassment.
April 9, 2018
The first few times I was catcalled around the age of fourteen, I simply blushed, muttered ‘thank you’ with my head down, and kept walking while hoping I wasn’t being followed. This experience would repeat itself over the course of my life as well as the lives of nearly every woman I know. It has also escalated increasingly to harmful situations. People experience harassment differently based on their intersectional identities. Many of my students of color report experiencing harassment as early as age 10. Poor women don’t have the luxury of quitting a job with a creepy boss. Some women still experience catcalling as a compliment, rather than a way to make women feel unsafe in public spaces as well as private ones. While conversations about harassment certainly predate #MeToo, this movement brought the conversation out of the shadows, out of the furtive whispers in the workplace, drunken nights out attempting to laugh it off, and out of women’s studies courses where we link our personal experiences to the power structures in which they take place. The conversation has reached a boiling point; now women are shouting that Time’s Up on this behavior. We need to listen.
During my first two years of undergraduate study at a community college, I attended a conference in San Diego for college journalism, as I was an editor of our newspaper. "Brian," another editor I worked with, came also. I told the women in our group not to leave me alone with Brian, not even for a second. On the public transit toward our hotel, Brian settled in behind where I was standing and used the close quarters to rub his penis against my backside. Later that night after some casual drinking, I went to the restroom. Everyone else went out on the roof to smoke except Brian. I heard him attempt to open the door but finding it locked, he knocked instead and asked if I needed help—I was in the bathroom less than a minute. I politely told him I was fine and would be out shortly. I waited in the bathroom, scared, until I could hear the rest of the group come back in the room. I was 17. He was roughly 24.
At a family friend’s wedding when I was 19 years old, my dad’s best friend stared noticeably at my large breasts and asked my dad, “You let her out of the house like that?” I replied, “I leave the house however I’d like.” When I was 22, we spent one of my last days before my move to Buffalo out on the dock of this man’s lake house. On seeing me in my shorts and t-shirt, he asked demandingly, “Why didn’t you bring your bikini?” I replied that my swimsuit had already been packed and that I didn’t wear bikinis anyways.
Shortly before my 21st birthday, I was sexually assaulted while studying abroad in France. I naïvely thought the man who touched my thigh just wanted to make out. Instead, he digitally penetrated my vagina and anus, forced me to perform oral sex on him, and forcibly performed oral sex on me, often biting me harshly.
This experience, which initially silenced me and filled me with shame, has now helped me find my voice and my power to stand up against the spectrum of sexual harassment and abuse that many women and LGBTQIA people, and some men, face. Currently, I research sexual violence, provide all my students with reminders of the on-campus resources for survivors, have spoken with The Spectrum about my experience, and lobbied my representatives to pass the New York State Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights.
I highlight these experiences of harassment and violence because they were formative in the development of my feminist consciousness and they continue to impact both my response to recent harassers as well as how I communicate my consent and sexual preferences to my current partner. I work part-time at a drug store to make ends meet (#livingwagenow). A few months ago, an older man came in wanting to know where a product was located. He started stroking my bare arm. I told him firmly, “that’s inappropriate and if you touch me again, you’ll have to leave.” As I showed him to the back of the store to find the product he wanted, he grabbed my breast. I yanked myself away from him and yelled, “I told you not to touch me! You need to leave right now.” He looked genuinely shocked that I had yelled at him, as though his age and frailty entitled him to be creepy. Another time near closing, a customer leaned over the counter, put his lips on my ears and said, “I just love beautiful, full-figured women like you.” A few days after that, he was waiting near my car when I got out of work because he “just wanted to say goodnight.”
To some, these stories will seem minor. To others, they’ll be just isolated incidents but not indicative of a widespread problem. To others still, I must have invited these experiences in some way. This is why we need a #MeToo movement.
But who is #MeToo for, anyway? Why was Tarana Burke, who founded #MeToo as a movement for Black girls and women to talk about their experiences, left off the TIME Magazine cover dedicated to #MeToo? Why have the dominant voices in the movement been white, wealthy, celebrity women? Why were Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek Pinault, both women of color, the only women Harvey Weinstein openly attacked in the press? Why are trans* people and sex workers left out of the conversation? Why was the Aziz Ansari story so divisive in the movement?
I want to linger on this last question.
People whom I respect greatly came down on both sides of the story. Some insisted it was not assault at all and some insisted that sexual violence is so normalized that we can’t spot it unless it’s extreme and pervasive. Some also highlighted Ansari’s feminist persona as well as the importance of the representation his work brings to men of color, particularly South Asian and Muslim men. I want to posit that these things are not necessarily in opposition to each other. It is possible that Grace, the accuser, experienced their interaction as a violation and assault while Ansari experienced a consensual encounter. What was traumatic for her, was dismissed as “bad sex” for him. We have such poor language around consent, violence, and assault that it makes sense that we do not speak of such things. If we had more nuanced language available beyond just “Consensual” and “Rape,” would Grace have a different understanding of her experience? Would Ansari? Would their perceptions meet in the middle to acknowledge a violation took place? The language we use to talk about sexual violence obscures power differentials. These power differentials show up in ways that make sexual violence a mundane and everyday thing, not just something a few extreme monsters do.
So how do we broaden our conversations around sexuality and violence? It will take a huge culture shift that hopefully #MeToo can deliver. We need a culture shift not just toward believing victims and offering support systems to hold abusers accountable, but we need to shift toward a culture that discusses sex openly. We need to listen to women; not just when they say no or come forward, we need to listen to women when they communicate their desires as well. Sex education needs to be mandatory and evidence-based in schools. We need to practice ongoing consent with our partners. Men need to learn to accept rejection without questioning or threatening the person they desire. As the saying goes, men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.
Hilary Vandenbark is a Ph.D candidate in Global Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her research examines how the judicial system discursively excludes particular people from justice through the management of victimhood narratives. Hilary is interested in the relationship between theory, method, and praxis and its implications for feminism, and does community advocacy for those who experience sexual assault.
March 14, 2018
With gender identity and expression seemingly becoming an ever-expanding, decadent splash pad of personal freedom in today’s tightening political backdrop, it would make logical business sense that fashion – the long advocate of wearable art and self-articulation – would join in. H&M, Diesel, Zara, Mother Denim, and other “trendy brands,” as the Wall Street Journal put it not too long ago, have aggressively entered into the space in order to vie for consumer dollars.
However, many recent attempts by fashion companies, most notably, H&M, with its latest line of gender neutral clothing, Denim United, have fallen flat. They seem to miss the point of a concept as vast as gender expression completely, and as a result, fall prey to old and outdated ideas.
The Swedish fast fashion giant’s collection, which features cuts, lines, and styles of denim we immediately understand as “masculine,” sadly and strangely conforms with what gender theorists, such as myself, would argue defaults to a culturally male articulation of style, even if that male style is still a trendy aesthetic. In other words, most of the time when clothes are marketed as “gender neutral,” they are still predominantly designed with our overwhelming understanding of masculine, since it is socially acceptable for women to wear men’s clothes in our society, but not the reverse.
H&M is not selling denim skirts for men and labelling them as gender neutral. Similarly, it is not attempting to advocate for any expansion of our current definitions of gender expression through innovative cuts or recast ideas about perceived notions of wardrobe choice. This is something for which the now bankrupt American Apparel was well known, despite its challenging reputation.
Instead, H&M is simply selling oversize men’s denim and hoping to capitalize on existing social movements and the political consciousness of their consumer in a move that stands to insult the very transgender and gender non-conforming individuals it seeks to reach.
Flaws are further evident in the color choices of many “gender neutral” collections. H&M, for instance, chose to use a predominantly beige, grey, and denim color scheme to highlight its seemingly smart ideas about what it thought gender neutrality was, giving many of the garments the illusion of being sack-like on female models and unflattering on their bodies. H&M executives are quoted as saying they wanted the garments to be large as to fit both body types, but I cannot help but think about the feminist implications of a female-bodied person who is physically lost in the masses of fast fashion fabric in an outfit that has not been made for their body. This project made to cover bodies, not celebrate them. Gender diversity is about embodying gender in all of its intricacies. Denim United aimed at a flat line.
When Zara created its Ungendered line in 2016, the Spanish giant took a similar approach, using denim as the key point of entry for the customer, as well as unassuming color choices for hoodies and tee shirts. Female models drown in huge tee shirts, jeans, and hoodies, while male models fill them out nicely, creating an unequal power dynamic in advertising due to the fact it appears the female models simply have borrowed the male models’ clothes. Yet, where are their own clothes? Why do women never get to own things, only borrow, even in design?
Gender diversity in fashion does not need be a complete erasure of all gendered markers or an automatic deflection to the seduction of masculinity. It should be a call to arms for vibrancy, for excitement, and for fashion to see the beauty of all genders and gender expressions in the hands of ALL consumers. So, when the world’s second largest global clothing retailer tells us the future is mute and masculine, we have to see this as a battle cry to reclaim the feminine within this specific conversation. We also need to hold fashion brands accountable for their role in the contemporary curation of gender.
Change in fashion – whether it be in a gender sense or otherwise – is at its most subversive, dynamic, and influential when it is not in the form of an exploitative campaign. It is rather the authentic moments – red nails on a masculine person, structure on a feminine person, for instance – that stand to have the most impact. These moments do not ask for anything; they are powerful because they stand to support a larger conversation.
By attempting to sell “gender neutral” clothing in accordance with H&M or Zara’s narrow model, fashion fails to promote gender diversity in a way that invites productive conversation about gender or its vast expressions. Whereas it is generally accepted that couture – and even designer ready-to-wear– is unattainable for the vast majority of consumers, mainstream fashion has become the norm for more consumers.
With this in mind, those at its helm of these brands have the responsibility to set the goals higher and with more social consciousness, which would not only be good for business, but would demonstrate a commitment to designing for our new real and widening gendered world.
Seth Arico is a doctoral candidate, writer, and teacher of Gender Studies at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, New York. Their work examines the processes of reading and other forms of cultural consumption as a means of dealing with gendered trauma.
Please visit our blog archives to read older entries.