Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Embodiment Problem

I'm beginning to worry that I'm nothing more than a ferocious, obstreperous, intractable contrarian; that all of my philosophy, theology, and metaphysics are based on nothing more than denial and negativity; that I have an uncontrollable urge to qualify, mitigate, and negate any statement I see, simply because it is a positive or categorical statement.

Maybe I'm being a good deconstructionist, drawing attention to Derrida's insistence that every word or statement contains a trace of its negation, or maybe I'm just a buzz-killing, problematizing Negative Nigel (not that the two are mutually exclusive). What's clear is that I am intensely suspicious of any position, idea, belief, or argument, and I will find ways to criticize even the ones I agree with.

Of course, this makes it rather difficult to establish which ones I do agree with, because literally everything in the world seems fatally flawed to me. One area where I have absolutely no idea what I think or believe is to do with embodiment.

Queer theologians LOVE embodiment. In an understandable reaction to the sex-negativity of the matter-denigrating dualism that still pervades our culture (the religious form descending through Christian thinkers heavily influenced by popular Greco-Roman philosophy; the secular flavor popularized by Descartes), queer theologians take Merleau-Ponty's observation that the body is inseparable from the self and use that to unproblematically celebrate embodiment as an innate good. Susannah Cornwall writes that she's never met a queer theologian who didn't agree with the statement that embodiment is good (yes you have, Susannah, I just didn't mention it).

Well, if it's a consensus view in my field, I'm going to have to problematize it. I'm a contrarian like that.

Truth be told, though, my need to problematize the simplistic “embodiment = good” equation stems ultimately not from theory but from my personal, very complex and conflicted, relationship with being embodied.

Early childhood was probably the time I was most comfortable in my skin. I played sports, took my shirt off when I felt like it, got rough-and-tumble sometimes and curled up quietly with a book at other times. I've never been coordinated or graceful (ask my mother about my disastrous semester of ballet lessons), but I haven't always been as uncomfortable and awkward as I am today. Sadly, I hit every single branch on my way down the puberty tree, from bad posture to bad skin to a severe case of the Bella Swan lolclumsies, all of which still afflict me today (to the point where there is an evil plot on the part of my more Schadenfreude-prone friends to kidnap me and take me ice-skating, just for the lulz).

It's not that I hate my body precisely. I hate some of the things that it does (every month: this time it's not going to happen, this time I have willed it out of existence with the sheer force of my hatred for it), I hate its limitations (third arm and stalk eyes now, pls – or at the very least a sense of spatial awareness and a cure for motion sickness), and I hate most of all the meanings other people read onto it. Sometimes I think that all this fumbling toward a trans* identity is simply an attempt to wrest a modicum of control over how others read my body.

Like, I often think that I would like T and top surgery, but is that because I want those things themselves or because I want the meaning they would cause others to read onto my body? And it's not as though you can separate those things. (One reason why the “man trapped in a woman's body” narrative is unhelpful for me: completely detached from the body, what possible meaning can “man” or “woman” have? I've been trying to answer that question my entire life.)

And I know that T and top surgery wouldn't magically make me enjoy being embodied. This isn't a straightforward case of “here are the things wrong with my body, let's fix them.” It's more a case of ontological dissatisfaction with the very fact of my having a body at all. T and top surgery might alleviate the symptoms, but there's no cure.

The problem with YAY EMBODIMENT is that I don't feel that way about embodiment. If embodiment is a good thing and I should love my body, then my dysphoria and general antipathy toward physical reality have to be pathologized. And that puts me in the weird position of wanting to defend my dysphoria. Like, don't tell me how to feel about my own body! I can hate it if I want to!

Shit's complicated, yo. And, as abstract as it sounds to debate embodiment and the nature of the relationship between mind/soul/self and body/matter/physicality, it's not mere ivory-tower pontification. It's really important for how I live out the rest of my life.

Yes, I made this. Yes, it helped me figure stuff out.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Dear God, Please Make Me A Cis Boy

I don't want to be a trans boy.

I want to be a boy. I've always wanted to be a boy, as long as I can remember; and, as long as I can remember, I've been told I was a girl. From the K-I-S-S-I-N-G rhymes kids used to chant about me and my closest male friends, to my mother's repeated statements that “boys are great, but I'm so glad I have you for a daughter,” my femaleness was constantly reinforced. Not maliciously, not with any ill intent, but just as a taken-for-granted, self-evident fact of reality. Of course I was a girl.

I wish – I've always wished – that I'd been born a boy.

The truth is, I don't want to be trans. It's hard and scary, and it's a life sentence. Right now I have the immense good fortune to be living in a hugely supportive and understanding community, where most people's only question with respect to a name change is “What pronouns?” – but at some point I will have to face the rest of the world: uninformed relatives, future employers, TSA agents and bank tellers and bartenders. And it's a lifetime of being misgendered, of disclosure and fear, of trying to explain, of dealing with legal names and legal genders, of fighting constantly with bank accounts and passports and driving licenses and filling out forms, of doing Trans 101, of CONSTANT BULLSHIT from a society built for cis people. I don't want to do it.

I feel as though I start each day with a certain allocation of spoons, dependent on my mood and dysphoria level, and then the rest of the day is a zero-sum game of gender-related spoon accumulation and loss.

Getting called “her”: -1 spoon for each pronoun.
Getting called “sir”: +5 spoons.
Getting called “missy”: -9000 spoons.

Etc. etc., and if I get below a certain number of HP spoons, it throws me off for the rest of the day and completely wrecks my ability to get anything done apart from brood and listen to “My Body Is A Cage” four million times.

For certain tasks, I know I have to prepare myself psychologically. Anything where I have to show ID is tough: a trip to the bank, a beer run. There have been days when I wanted booze, but didn't buy any because I couldn't face showing somebody my driver's license with its MISS [FEMALENAME]. (And anyone who knows anything about my relationship with booze will know that that really means something.) I dread going to the bank; because of course when she calls me “she” the teller is only acting on the information available to her. She doesn't know that it feels like a blast of “Harrison Bergeron”-esque white noise to my brain, throwing me for a loop like an air-raid siren going WRONG WRONG WRONG. She can't know that unless I tell her; and who has the spoons to explain their preferred name and pronouns to every bank teller? It's hard enough explaining that stuff to your friends and your parents, the people who know you and care about you and will want to get it right.

People say stupid things. Even here, even where I'm surrounded by trans people and supportive friends and students of queer theory, people say really stupid things. Gold medal thus far goes to the person who earnestly told me they could “kind of understand” what it's like to be transgender because they “changed religious identities.” (Silver goes to the dearly beloved friend who reacted to the very mention of top surgery with a frantic, “You know people pay thousands of dollars to have breasts like yours??”)

I have so much left to figure out. I have to get therapy. I have to get on hormones. I have to try to get my name and legal gender changed, while living as a non-resident alien on a student visa. I have to decide how to fill out my PhD application forms. God help me, I have to tell my parents.

I just want to wake up tomorrow morning and have always been a boy.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Field Guide to Returning Fall TV Shows

[Cross-posted at Bitch Flicks.]

The roster of new television shows premiering each year in the fall ought to be an exciting time for any TV fan. Unfortunately, I am a jaded, cynical curmudgeon, burned by my previous experiences in the field of new fall shows, and I read the previews with dread roiling in the pit of my stomach. In our age of podcasts, webseries, and countless other competing forms of entertainment, the networks seem to be getting more and more desperate, scraping the barnacles off the bottom of the barrel.

Broad stereotypes? Check.

Dominated by straight white men? Check.

God help us all, a new Ryan Murphy show? Check.

It's predictably depressing and depressingly predictable. Once upon a time, as a starry-eyed viewer full of hope and gillyflowers, I had a “three-episode rule” for judging any show whose premise piqued my interest even a tiny bit. This year, I don't expect to watch any of the new shows unless critical opinion snowballs in the course of the season.

However, fall still brings its sweet gifts even unto the cantankerous television fan, in the form of returning shows. Some of these shows have spiraled so far down the U-bend that I can't even hate-watch them anymore, but there are still enough watchable returning shows to compensate for all the awful new ones (and to wreak havoc on my degree). In the absence of new shows that don't make me want to claw my eyes out, here is a list of returning shows worth watching.

The Thick Of It (9/9)

I already covered this. It's on Hulu. Watch it. (N.B. Because it is full of swears, Hulu will make you log in to watch it, and for some reason this entails declaring yourself male or female. If this disgusts you as much as it does me, and you wish to, ahem, seek out alternate methods of watching, I will turn a blind eye.)

Boardwalk Empire (9/16)

A questionable creative decision last season nearly made me rage-quit this show, but it drew me back in with a jaw-dropping finale. Slow, dense, and luscious, this isn't a show to everyone's taste, but I remain compelled by the epic-scale world-building of 1920s New Jersey, and especially by the way the show explores the lives of not only the rich white men who run things but also marginalized minorities: people of color, women, queer people. This is not a perfect show by any means, but it fascinates me.

Parks and Recreation (9/20)

 This, on the other hand, might well be a perfect show. Leslie Knope, April Ludgate, Ron F---ing Swanson... Just typing the names gives me a big goofy grin. Every episode is a half-hour ray of blissful sunshine, brightening my spirits with a healthy dose of feminism, Amy Poehler, and laughter. Roll on Thursday (by then I might even have stopped crying about the breakup of the century).

How I Met Your Mother (9/24)

I still watch this show, I guess. I can't really remember why.

Bob's Burgers (9/30)

The charming adventures of the most delightful animated family since The Simpsons deserve a full-length treatment at some point. For now I simply say: Watch it. If the hijinks of close-knit siblings Tina, Gene, and Louise don't fill you with joy, you have a shriveled husk in place of a soul. Also, Kristen Schaal! Eugene Mirman! H. Jon Benjamin, for crying out loud! (HEY, FX, WHEN IS ARCHER COMING BACK ALREADY?)

Tina's my favorite. No, Gene is. No, it's Louise. Oh, don't make me choose!
 The Good Wife (9/30)

For a sitcom-loving sci-fi nerd like myself, a legal drama is well outside the comfort zone, but this is about as good as they come. The juxtaposition of title and premise alone should grab any feminist's attention: When her husband is embroiled in an Eliot Spitzer-style scandal, Alicia Florrick returns to the bar in order to make ends meet. The rich ironies and tensions suggested by the show's title play out on Julianna Margulies' understated yet beautifully expressive face as she navigates personal and professional life when she has so long been defined as Peter Florrick's wife. And sometimes Michael J. Fox guest stars, and it's awesome.

30 Rock (10/4)

For several seasons now, 30 Rock has been but a pale shadow of its best self, but laughs are still guaranteed, and my love for Liz Lemon is fierce and undying. I will almost certainly complain vociferously about every episode, but I wouldn't dream of missing out on bidding farewell to the TGS crew.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (10/11)

In some ways, this is the anti-Parks and Rec: A crass and often vicious show about crass, wholly unlikeable people. You won't see anyone hailing the Sunny gang as feminist icons anytime soon (though, for what it's worth, the jokes are usually on the holders of prejudice rather than the victims thereof). I'd like to revisit the episodes featuring Carmen, a trans woman, to see how they stack up against the generally appalling mainstream pop-culture depiction of trans women, but I'm honestly a little afraid to do so. When Sunny misses, it misses hard, but it's also capable of making me laugh until I cry; and, unlike a certain other 2005-premiering show mentioned above, I'm actually optimistic about the chance for creativity and entertainment in Sunny's eighth season.

Community (10/19)

The date is on my calendar and on my heart. Friday, October 19th, 8:30pm: The stars will align. The cosmos will come into harmony. Wars will end. Justice will prevail. God will be in his heaven and all will be right with the world.


Monday, September 10, 2012

"Gravity Falls": Manliness, Silliness, and a Whole Lot of Awesome

[Cross-posted at Bitch Flicks.]
I am too old for the Disney Channel. The bright candy colors, the rapid-fire pacing, the saccharine music and headache-y flash-cuts and forced zaniness – it all adds up to one massively hyperstimulating, sugar-coated migraine. Half an hour of all that on a Saturday morning and I am ready to bounce off the ceiling before crashing to earth semi-comatose for the rest of the day.
If you can overcome (or, better, avoid entirely) the excruciating commercials and the overstimulation of the Disney Channel milieu, however, you can experience maybe the most exciting television debut of 2012. (Not, I'll admit, that the upcoming fall season looks to offer stiff competition.)
Welcome to Gravity Falls.
In the nine episodes aired so far, Gravity Falls has already established a pretty dense mythology for itself, jam-packed with occult imagery, cryptograms, conspiracies, clever callbacks, and hidden Easter eggs (and there are already plenty of websites devoted to deciphering this stuff). It's an enormously fun show, chronicling the supernatural adventures of twelve-year-old twins Dipper and Mabel in the creepy, not-quite-right town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. The level of care and detail lavished on the world-building is matched by the depth and – if I can say this of an animated Disney Channel show – realism of the characters.
Dipper and Mabel, voice by Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal, are wonderfully characterized as not just siblings but true friends: despite their personality differences, they enjoy spending time together, and although they needle and mock each other they always have each other's back. As somebody whose siblings are my best friends, I find it rings very true to life, and the only other show I can think of with a comparably close sibling dynamic is Bob's Burgers – where, coincidentally, one of the siblings is also voiced by Schaal.
The twins' age is a savvy writing choice that allows for some spot-on exploration of themes of growing up, pitching the show niftily at the crossover-hit sweet spot for both younger and older viewers. A grown-up trying to convince other grown-ups to watch a Disney Channel animated show can certainly relate to the twins' swithering between the childish excitement of their supernatural adventures and their desire to prove themselves cool enough for the local teenagers (including Dipper's hopeless and completely understandable crush, Linda Cardellini-voiced Wendy). Two specific episodes of Gravity Falls work well as companion pieces exploring Dipper and Mabel's respective struggles to establish their identities.
Episode 6, “Dipper Vs. Manliness”
A cutie patootie.

Dipper is the more introspective, bookish twin – as Mabel puts it, he's “not exactly Manly Mannington.” When an old “manliness tester” machine at the local diner declares him “a cutie patootie,” Dipper's insecurity about being a man goes into overdrive, and he seeks training in the ways of manliness from a group of Manotaurs (“half man, half... taur!” “I have 3 Y-chromosomes, 6 Adam's apples, pecs on my abs, and fists for nipples!”).
Anyone who's been a feminist longer than five minutes knows that the enforcement of gender roles harms men as well as women, and this episode features a lot of great jokes lampooning the sheer absurdity of what's considered manly in our society: the pack of REAL MAN JERKY emblazoned with the slogan YOU'RE INADEQUATE!, the Manotaur council that involves beating the crap out of each other, Dipper convincing the reluctant Manotaurs to help him (“using some sort of brain magic!”) by suggesting they're not manly enough to do it.
In the end, it's Dipper's love for a thinly-veiled “Dancing Queen” pastiche that causes him to defy the Manotaurs' stereotypical definition of manliness. His enjoyment of something considered “girly” opens his eyes to the nonsensical restrictiveness of traditional gender roles. As he says in his climactic speech to the Manotaurs: “You keep telling me that being a man means doing all these tasks and being aggro all the time, but I'm starting to think that stuff's malarkey. You heard me: malarkey!”
Rejecting the Manotaur's version of manliness does not, however, answer Dipper's agonized question about the nature of masculinity: “Is it mental? Is it physical? What's the secret?” (And how many times have I myself asked that question?) Although the episode puts a neat bow on Dipper's arc by offering a pat moral – “You did what was right even though no one agreed with you. Sounds pretty manly to me” – it's made fairly clear that masculinity and femininity do not have to be discrete, oppositional spheres rooted in stereotypes, and the question of what makes a man is left open – as, perhaps, it should be.
Episode 8, “Irrational Treasure”
Mabel is the best. She's my favorite character, and with every episode I love her even more. Her quest for self in “Irrational Treasure” is not a direct counterpart to Dipper's search for manliness – Mabel is pretty comfortable with both the ways in which she is conventionally feminine and the ways in which she is not (reflecting the sad reality that girls' freedom to express masculinity is not mirrored by an equivalent freedom for boys to express femininity). In the show's fourth episode, “The Hand That Rocks the Mabel,” she confronts the societal pressures around dating while female, as she struggles with how to extricate herself from a coercive romantic relationship with the creepy Lil Gideon – an object lesson in how messed up are our society's ideas of the romantic pursuit of uninterested women by persistent men – but in this episode she faces a less explicitly gendered problem: how to convince everyone that she's not silly.
The delightfully goofy hijinks of this episode – involving a conspiracy to cover up the existence of Quentin Trembley, the peanut-brittle-preserved eighth-and-a-half president of the United States – are propelled by Mabel's quest to prove her seriousness to rival Pacifica Northwest. Pacifica is a pretty stereotypical stuck-up-rich-mean-girl archetype thus far, but it seems distinctly possible that an interesting character arc could await her in future. “You look and act ridiculous,” she tells Mabel with scorn, and Mabel takes her peer's cruelty to heart the way only a pre-teen can. “I thought I was being charming,” she says dejectedly, “but I guess people see me as a big joke.”
Don't worry Mabel, you really are so so charming.

As it was Dipper's non-manliness that ultimately proved him a real man, so it's Mabel's silliness that saves the day here, allowing her to crack all the clues for the conspiracy and help President Trembley escape the local police (who, despite being called serious by Mabel, are in fact extremely silly). By the episode's end, Mabel is impervious to Pacifica's jibes: “I've got nothing to prove. I've learned that being silly is awesome.”
Figuring out who you are in the face of societal pressures that buffet you every which way is the trial of growing up, and helping people to do that is one of feminism's goals. It's also at the heart of Gravity Falls, which helps cement this for me as the most exciting new show of 2012. (Plus, it's apparently indoctrinating kids into occult symbolism. Cool.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bibliotherapy: "Parrotfish" and "I Am J"

The other day I read about this thing they're calling bibliotherapy. Apparently “[the] program matches individuals struggling in any aspect of their lives with a list of books hand-selected to help them through tough times. You get your reading list after an initial consultation with a bibliotherapist in which you discuss your life, your reading history, and your problems.”

I am very much in favor of using books in this way – I've done it all my life – but I think it's absurd to pay £80 for a service Google can perform for free. Hey, people who are paying for book recommendations: Google. GOOOOOOOGLE. Remember, it like owns our lives now? That thing.

I am a book-lover, so when life is tough I seek out books to help. Novels about the subject I am struggling with are perfect for me, because they combine the escape of fiction with real-world-applicable insights about the topic in question: therapy in a paperback.

“Art is the lie that tells the truth.” – Picasso, quoted repeatedly in I Am J

My most recent self-prescribed bibliotherapy was a double dose of trans boy YA. When I visited the Amazon pages for Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish and Cris Beam's I Am J, I was informed that these two books are frequently bought together. It's my opinion that they should always be bought together. They make great companion pieces that between them present a decent variety of trans experience.

A couple of caveats (because I can never be nice about anything without criticizing it):

Both books are written by cis women, which is a fact I do not love. Both protagonists bind using Ace bandages, which, like, your very first Google search on binding will tell you is not a great idea. Parrotfish exoticizes and fetishizes the love interest character in that discomfiting white-guilt overcompensation OMG people of color are so much more ~beautiful~ way, and fat-shames the little brother character.

Having said all that, I did very much enjoy both books, and I really would recommend reading both as a reminder that there is no trans metanarrative, that trans narratives are as many and varied as trans people themselves.. My favorite thing about the books was really the differences between them.

Grady, the protagonist and viewpoint character of Parrotfish, is the more relatable character for me personally. Like me, he's white and middle-class, and can rely on parental support. He doesn't pathologize his own body overmuch; he's nerdy and uninterested in bulking up; he locates himself “in the middle of the football field,” which is the image he uses for the gender spectrum.
This one has been going around Facebook lately. I improved on it:

A 9-dimensional hypercube almost begins to express a tiny fraction of the complexity of gender identity as I experience it.
There's some emphasis placed on the idea that Grady is uniquely positioned to understand both girls and boys, and to facilitate communication between them. This was borderline irritating, and I probably would have found it full-on obnoxious had it not been for the juxtaposition of J, who complains about not understanding girls even more than I did when I was a preteen.

One of the blurbs on my copy of I Am J hails J as a “tranny Holden Caulfield,” which nearly put me off right from the start; but actually I liked the fact that J is kind of an asshole. It's a refreshing counterpoint to the idea – somewhat present in Parrotfish, and absolutely all over the small amounts of Christian trans-acceptance stuff I've come across – that trans people's experiences make them uniquely and preciously empathetic. J is a self-absorbed seventeen-year-old trying to find his place in the world; being trans makes it harder, but it doesn't grant him superpowers.

“Being trans wasn't special, and yet it was. It was just good and bad and interesting and fucked-up and very human, like anything else.” – I Am J

J is a Jewto Rican whose parents are poorer than Grady's (and much less supportive of him). The struggles he faces in coming out are tougher than Grady's, but in some ways his gender identity seems a little more straightforward. He's just a guy. He's always know he was a guy. He's desperate for T, which I'm not sure Grady even mentions by name. Grady's journey is more cerebral, more like my own: lesbian identity as “a pit stop on the queer and confused highway,” then reading a lot of books and websites that bring him to the realization of his transness.

“I guess I'd just been thinking about it for so long that I forgot changing your gender was not even a question for most people. They just took for granted being a boy or a girl. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be so sure of yourself.” – Parrotfish

The power of bibliotherapy is that it can make you feel less alone. Reading multiple books about something you're struggling with is a crucial reminder that you are not doing this wrong. These two books in succession (even if they are both written by cis people) seemed to give me concrete evidence that it's okay to be trans* in whatever way you are trans*. (And also concrete evidence that I really need to get on with writing my great trans SF novel.)