Thursday, October 25, 2012

Trick or Treat

So it's that time of year again...

Um... yes, that is entirely accurate. It is election time and boy do I know it. It's times like these I am immensely grateful my TV can't get any station other than PBS so I don't have to be attacked by campaign ads every five seconds. I have BBC news set as my homepage on my internet browser and I am continually flabbergasted how many of their news stories about our election; it feels as if the entire world is watching the States right now (and maybe they are). It's not that I don't care about the election; I care very much about it. It's just that it feels like the campaigns has gone on for a century and I'm fatigued by the "he lies and kicks puppies so don't vote for him" rhetoric.

So yes, it is election time. But it's also very close to something that comes slightly before Election Day...
Bingo. It's nearly Halloween. Which means stores are full of candy and costumes, festive places are donned with black and orange crepe ribbons, and there are far too many pictures of zombies everywhere. Just everywhere. This also means it's time for something else: ridiculous binaries between male/female costumes.

I was going to use some examples from a Tumblr called "Fuck No Sexist Halloween Costumes" which clearly shows the differences between male costumes and female costumes and how they are made in stereotypes of both genders. But then I came across a video on Tumblr that I thought would take us in a slightly different direction, be a little less obvious, and give me a platform to discuss something that I care very deeply about. This is from an ABC show called "What Would You Do?" where actors are hired to perform some sort of conflict in a public place and hidden cameras watch observers' reactions. It's part reality show, part social psychology experiment, and... well, I'll let the video speak for itself:

I sort of love ABC for doing this. As shown by my previous post, I really didn't care much about what was considered "boy stuff" and "girl stuff" when I came to toys. For Halloween, though, I mostly dressed in what would be considered "girl" costumes. I never really thought about it, I just went as what I wanted. I think one year I went as a surgeon because my mom and I used to watch ER. One year I was a cross between Hermione and Harry Potter because I have a scar on my forehead (however faint it might be) and have/had glasses like Harry, but have bushy brown hair like Hermione. And perhaps my most versatile costume, my senior year of high school, I went as Agent Smith from The Matrix, which I then also wore so I could be dressed for a debate in my econ class that day. Apparently, as I was not dressed "like a girl" in these instances, it would be gender-bending costumes or cross-dressing. But I never really thought if it this way and it really didn't matter, except in high school. I was concerned about looking boyish because... well, it was high school. I cared about a lot of things that aren't even on my radar of worries today.

But if you'll remember my divergence in the previous post, I have not avoided the influence of gender norms and costumes. My grandmother did make me a Batgirl cape, not a Batman cape, after all. She also made me a wedding dress, which I wore, put on ridiculous amounts of my mother's make-up and ran around the house making a general mess and doing God knows what (not being a bride, I'm pretty sure. There was no veil-wearing, cake cutting, or vow saying with stuffed animals involved. It seems I didn't get the idea of make-believe bride. I just wanted to wear a dress and make-up and dart around like the little terror that I was). Today, I continue to look at costumes and generally end up disappointed with the options for women even though I tend to make my own costumes from clothes at Goodwill and resale stores rather than buying a kit. Generally, when it comes to the kits though, I'd want to go as Iron Man/Woman, not sexy Iron Lady Cheerleader or whatever, thank you very much - though if you want to go as Sexy Iron Lady with a Cheerleader-like skirt, I'm not stopping you. I question why the company made what they made, not why someone wants to wear it. On that note, the female version of male costumes get incredibly absurd pretty damn fast. (Why not buy the male version and just wear them, you might ask? Recall that I am short; no male size will fit me unless I'm wearing hobbit clothes.)

This video from ABC, however, takes this issue of girl costumes/boy costumes to a whole new level than just who wears what and how the costumes look; it's about questioning why one gender wears a certain sort of costume over others. Here it isn't just a personal choice made by a kid, it's an issue with what a parent feels comfortable seeing their kid in and what people in the public sphere think is acceptable. While I'm watching this video cooing over how cute the boy looks in the Belle costume, kids on the video are saying, "Those are girl clothes!" and parents are saying, "But sweetie, you'd look so much better in a Spiderman outfit. You can't wear a dress!" and I just want to cry.
Here is a fun historical fact that will make this whole gendered costume thing even more convoluted: in the Victorian era, children were dressed the same regardless of their gender until they reached a certain age. Babies wore white so even that was gender neutral (info from: But at some point in time for the English-speaking world things changed and dresses became read as explicitly feminine regardless of age. Trousers, however, became acceptable for women, while pink and blue became used to distinguished babies from their birth. Color is important, who is wearing what is important, and how they're wearing it is vital. A girl can wear trousers, but if she has fake muscles like the scenario in "What Would You Do?" it suddenly becomes a completely different issue.

I, being a fan of the "dress in a way that makes you happy/feel good about yourself," have no problem with a boy wanting to wear a Belle costume or a girl wanting to wear a Spiderman costume, but I readily admit that if you had asked me about this when I was in middle school or early in high school, I probably wouldn't have had the same response. Yet now while watching these videos, I find it hard to understand why people have a problem with this costume swapping. I'm beginning to forget what it was like to not support the kids in this situation or to never have even thought about it beyond the "this is what we do and this is what we don't do" level. I mean, I refused to wear jeans until late in middle school or so because I was so used to Catholic school uniforms of khaki and polo shirts that when I moved and started going to public school, I felt really uncomfortable in "street clothes" (even though I loathed the uniforms with a furious passion). Needless to say, my opinions have changed and people would say that I'm more "open-minded" now. But the fact that I was once in a different mindset is something I'd like to be able to recall.

Here's why: it seems a lot of the problems with LGBT issues, feminism, maybe even civil rights in general come from responses like, "People who are homophobic are just stupid," or, "People who support LGBT rights are immoral." Comments like this simplify both the issues and the dialogue far too much and leads to name-calling and insults rather than talking about what is going on. We forget the context of the topic and that, in general, change - especially change that's trying to rework society's unspoken assumptions - feels weird. It's this weirdness that generally causes reactions, as strange or uncalled for as they might seem. The thing about humans is that we always have a reason for what we do, even if it doesn't sound reasonable to anyone but ourselves. It doesn't make what people say or do okay or justify their actions, but it doesn't always make them inherently awful people either.
This is incredibly hard to reckon with. For example, I was working for the Minnesota United "Vote No" campaign earlier this week. For those of you not in Minnesota and unfamiliar with this issue, there is a vote this November in regards to whether marriage should be defined in the Minnesota constitution as union only between a man and a woman. The "Vote No" campaign wants people to... well, vote no... in order to keep this ban from occurring, even though gay marriage is already illegal in Minnesota. This vote, I admit in retrospect, is really quite absurd; it's already illegal, so what's the vote doing - making it more illegal? Pretty much. If this vote passes, it will make it ridiculously hard to try and change in later legal work, so between staying the way we are and making this situation more difficult, I support the "Vote No" campaign. I finally gave into volunteering for them because there are "Vote No" people everywhere on campus raising awareness to the issue and trying to get more volunteers. It is the experience I had in volunteering that tested my "people have reasons" theory. (By the way, on a side note, the rhetoric of that "Vote No" image is super interesting. Would love to discuss it but... urgh, I'm already on a massive tangent.)
I was standing on the Washington Avenue Bridge, asking people if they were aware of the amendment and, if they supported same sex marriage, if they were interested in volunteering. Now, I admit that I hate it when people pester me on my way to class on campus, so I felt a bit guilty doing this (I initially volunteered thinking I would get to go around campus and talk about the issue, not recruit more members). But I assured myself that the ends justified the means and that annoying a few people on their trek across the Mississippi River to the West Bank was positive work. I ended up having some curious interactions with people I stopped. Not as negative as another girl who volunteered and, when asking someone if they supported same-sex marriage, was told to "go to hell." However, it wasn't exactly easy for me either. When I asked one girl if she was aware of the marriage amendment, she gave me a rude sneer and turned saying, "Yeah, check out the pin on my backpack!" She had a "Vote Yes" pin on the bag and, before I could even react, she gave me a piercing smirk and strode off. When I asked a guy if he knew about the amendment, he said, "I'm an anarchist. I don't vote," and walked off with nearly the exact same sneer as the "Vote Yes" girl. And finally, and perhaps hardest for me to accept, another guy told me he had no opinion on the issue either way and left me fumbling for what to say. No opinion? I raged in my head as he walked away. How could he have no opinion? "Gina you utter doofus," I would think later. "You had no opinion at one point in time. And then half of your friends came out of the closet and suddenly having an opinion really mattered."

These people's opinions are not so far removed from mine; I was raised Roman Catholic and didn't truly know what "being gay" meant until I was fifteen or sixteen, when one of my friend was the first to come out, very simply with a question of, "What if I were gay?" It was sort of a surprise at first because I didn't see it coming, I didn't know what being gay meant, I didn't even really know what being straight meant, and I certainly had no idea how I felt about any form of marriage. And now here I am eight years later blogging about gay rights for the love of Pete and wondering how others could be so "narrow-minded" (I'd apologize for the ludicrous amount of scare quotes in this post but I'm not sorry. I dropped in on Cultural Studies 1001 today because I a) miss that class a ridiculous amount and b) my professor Robin said he was going to discuss Tumblr. But amidst all that the class discussed Stuart Hall and primary definers and who gives words and news meanings and definitions. And now I'm hyper-aware of word choice in this post. Oh yes, CSCL 1001 - you've still got it).

I would like to reiterate that I am NOT defending people who choose to vote yes on the amendment or who think being gay is immoral. Nor am I supporting people who say that being homophobic just comes from stupidity and those us who are supportive of gay rights are "more educated." I think both groups happen to be educated, just in different ways. I of course have a bias towards a certain sort of education and that leads me to support gay rights and support the "Vote No" campaign and support my friends who identify in the LGBT community. But I also am fighting to remember when thinking about gay rights was as foreign as the concept of dark matter and knowing about the true spectrum of LGBT issues was as unknown to me as the theories of Stuart Hall. I was not always the person I am now and I hope that this helps me keep from reacting angrily towards people who do not share my opinion. They do have a right to their opinion and, even though I disagree with them, they have the freedom to express it. It's just very frustrating when they do so rudely and you have no time to react and no ability to respond because there they go on their jolly way across the Mississippi with their position reaffirmed by themselves and you've gotten no chance to discuss with them what you really are standing out there in the cold for.

I guess what I'm saying is I'm kind of disappointed in the Vote No campaign. They told us in the brief training I got that if someone tells us that they don't support same-sex marriage, we can't talk to them because it's not worth our time or there's nothing we can do or something to that effect. But that's the entire reason I got out there in the first place - I want to change people's minds. I want to know how to respectfully debate with someone on this topic. I want to know how I should have responded to the anarchist and the opinion-less man without getting angry or rude and without impugning their position. The question really comes down to whether or not we can really change people's minds (boy Robin, I picked a great day to sit in on the CSCL class) and whether or not this is even possible.

Ever the romantic optimist, I want to believe that it is. In this political climate, it's really hard to have a conversation that doesn't end with someone getting upset unless you happen to agree on the issues discussed. People don't like contradictory information so when cognitive dissonance starts to appear in their mind, they either have to change or reaffirm what they already believe, even if it doesn't make sense. In the case of this video, people are stuck between what society has taught them (girls wear dresses, boys don't; girl are princesses and boys are superheroes) and what the innocent little kids want (to wear costumes from the "other gender"). Almost all of the people in the video did this. Except for the woman at the end. She provides support for the little girl who wants the Spiderman costume and explains why the girl's mother is reacting the way she is. She voices the opposition respectfully and without fear and I think it's that moment that really captures what I wish I could do.

I've written this really long gigantic post because I had an opportunity like that and I blew it. Last summer, I was waiting for a friend of mine in Hollister who had gone to a changing room to try on a pair of jeans when a little boy started looking at the perfumes on a display table not far from me. He went to spray it on when his mother came over and told him to stop it, that that was for girls and that he didn't "want to smell like a girl, [did he]?" I was filled with sudden fury and I wanted to tell the mother that the boy should be allowed to wear whatever sort of scent he wanted, but I didn't. She had two older girls with her and the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass a woman in front of her children and tell her how to be a parent. But I still kick myself that I didn't say something. It wasn't that I didn't know what to say, it was that I didn't know how to say it. Being the change is really freaking hard.

So, I leave you with the hopes that I and others will figure out how to say it. Because this stuff matters, very very much. As I begin writing the paper for my senior project, words become incredibly important and vital in order to express what I am dealing with - how members of LGBT identified groups such as asexuals and transexuals push back against "the norm" of society on Tumblr, using their fandoms and their posts to do so. This in itself is a phenomenon which is nebulous and changing and not widely discussed in what is called "low culture." Am I incredibly excited about working on this? Hell yes. Do I have a completely clear idea of what I'm doing? Hell no. But it's going to be fun. 

This has been a very, very long post once again (which is great for me, I'm getting my old groove back :D). If you've stuck it out this long, congratulations: in gratitude, here's a hedgehog pretending to be Gene Simmons of the band Kiss.


  1. WTF is a "fansquee"?! You have definitely gone out of the Shire and I have no idea where you are <3

    1. I talk about fansquees a bit here:

      Because there's no good gender neutral term for a person who is more than just a fan and not necessarily a girl, I've settled on using "fansquee" as the gender-neutral form of fangirl. It's bizarre but I've got nothing else :P I have indeed left the Shire and am adventuring...wherever I am :D <3