Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Consolidation and Preservation of Power

This post is inspired by two very different posts over on other peoples' blogs. First, Anastasia, who's been to hell and back this week with dissertation adviser/committee drama, writes about how those in power are characterizing her as having "a problem working with men," thus subtly placing the blame for what's been going on with her committee squarely on her shoulders. Then, Profgrrrrl's Ex, who's been guest-blogging for her, writes an interesting post about boys wearing girls' jeans. How are these two things related? Well, I suppose both posts came together in my mind because in each, two things are at stake: 1) how we characterize relations between the sexes in terms of certain gender signifiers (whether those signifiers have to do with conforming to prescribed standards for behavior or dress); 2) how we figure the relative limitations of femininity vs. masculinity.

These two things are what I really want to talk about in this post. And ultimately I want to relate these two things (if I can) back to academia and to how it is structured. To me, it seems that certain ways in which we talk about masculinity and a "feminine" (or feminist) threat to it have a great deal in common with the ways in which we talk about academic institutions, and I don't think that is a coincindence. And so maybe (but I'm just thinking out loud here) we need to think about masculinity before we can begin to think about the profession.

So first, let's think about the ways that behavior in our culture is gendered. Anybody who's taken any sort of a women's studies class will be familiar with the binary oppositions through which masculinity and femininity are often defined in our culture. Masculinity is associated with being active, subjectivity, aggression, being in the public sphere, intellect, rationality, etc. Conversely, femininity is associated with passivity, "other"-ness, the private sphere, emotion, irrationality, etc. Now, you may be thinking that these oppositions are far to simplistic, particularly after second-wave feminism. To some extent, that is true. Women have, as the cigarette ad claims, "come a long way, baby." And yet, we have not done away with the norms that gender our behavior, not really. Both in personal relationships and in professional contexts, women are still expected, rightly or wrongly, to be accommodating, cooperative, and nurturing. Women are expected to be "team players," to play by the rules. This is one reason, perhaps, why the numbers of women who enter and graduate college have surpassed the number of men: one thing that formal education requires is the ability to sit still, to follow directions, and to play by the rules. But outside of the classroom, those very things that typify good-student-behavior do not necessarily work in terms of professional advancement or in terms of having subjective power in one's personal relationships. On the other hand, those attributes associated with men - ambition, innovative thinking, and assertiveness, are rewarded.

But, you say, obviously women possess those attributes commonly associated with masculinity, and to that I will say that you are right. I will add, however, that it seems to me that women need carefully to construct their presentation of those qualities so as not to conflict with prevailing norms about femininity for fear of being labeled hysterical, strident, or "a problem." It's not ok for a woman to just go balls out (as it were) with those qualities. Rather, they need to mediate their assertiveness, their ambition, their ideas with a veneer of feminine deference. Some women do this with appearance, some do it with manner, and some do it with a combination of the two, but it is important to most women not to be labeled a "bitch" or a "slut" or "on her period," and so they translate their subversion of feminine gender norms into "safe" performances that are not "dangerous," that don't make them appear to pose a real threat to the stability of the culture (the workplace, the family, etc.). Those that do appear to pose a threat are punished.

Similarly, you might argue that men possess those attributes associated with femininity, but I would also argue that what operates when men express those attributes must necessarily be a carefully constructed performance in order for society to sanction that expression. In neither case has gender ceased to inform individual behavior. Instead, men and women still move as subjects within patriarchal power structures and institutions - subjected by those structures and institutions - only the signifiers have shifted. What this means at the end of the day, it seems to me, is that it is a mistake to think that we are somehow moving "beyond" norms for masculinity and femininity into a space in which gender and sexuality have somehow become fluid.

Instead, it seems to me that as gender signifiers shift to appear more inclusive or more "free" that really what we witness is a consolidation of power and an anxious attempt to preserve power that reinvigorates the hierarchies of a patriarchal status quo.

For example: take the case of self-professed metrosexual Ryan Seacrest. Unlike his more "manly man" peers, Seacrest is an eye-brow-waxer, a facial and manicure-getter, etc. But these signifiers are sanctioned as "ok" - as not gay - precisely because Seacrest flaunts his heterosexuality. Those of you who watch American Idol should be familiar with the set-up. The manly-man Simon Cowell - who is rude and who can't help but reveal his chest-hair - consistently mocks Seacrest, insinuating that he is at the least feminized and at the most gay. And yet, because Seacrest gives it back to Cowell - all the while asserting his heterosexuality - his attention to appearance and "pretty-boy" looks are deemed "ok." Seacrest's image is not some fluid, gender-neutral free-for all. Rather, norms for traditional masculinity come into conversation with alternate models for equally heternormative, equally homophobic, and equally sexist "non-traditional" masculinity.

What I think this reveals is that trends like "metrosexuality" or emo boys wearing girls' jeans or the "Mr. Sensitive Ponytail" man of the movie Singles do not bespeak a loosening of gender roes/stereotypes, or "progress," but rather an attempt to consolidate power within patriarchy by widening the umbrella over what constitutes "acceptable" masculinity. I think this relates to an anxiety about keeping masculinity privileged that goes back at least as far as first-wave feminism. With the rise of the middle class, and with the emergence of bourgeois, white-collar jobs for men, men's labor becomes increasingly aligned with attributes conventionally associated with "the feminine." In order to keep "the feminine" in check, therefore, it becomes necessarily to create a "new womanly man," in the words of Joyce, or, in other words, a new formula for masculinity.

Ultimately, this does not signify "progress" for women, either in the workplace (see Paula Abdul's role on the Idol) or in personal relationships (see Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, et. al.). Rather, it is a move that keeps women more firmly entrenched in a "new womanly womanhood," in which compliance with "feminine" behavior and appearance is compulsory even as women are expected to relate as "equals" with their male counterparts.

And so Anastasia gets accused of not being able to work with men, and so women who can work well with men must also, many times, appear to work in deference to them.

All of these issues are in play when we talk about the power structures of academia, particularly when we talk about disciplines that aren't easily identifiable as "masculine" (i.e., highly compensated, such as business or law). When we talk about the "feminized" disciplines - those disciplines with the greatest number of female professors, those disciplines that pay most attention to issues surrounding gender and sexuality - what is evident is that often "the feminine" is coopted in such a way that conventional power hierarchies are preserved and patriarchal power is reified and consolidated.

When the Emo boy wears jeans designed for a woman, he is playing with gender signifiers. Like the dandy of the late-19th and early 20th-century, he is paying a particular kind of attention to self-presentation that distinguishes him from his "conventional" counterparts. But the aim of this attention to self-presentation is not, ultimately, to disrupt in any real way the hierarchies that are in place surrounding gender and sexuality.

Similarly, when two girls on spring break take a dare to french kiss in front of a crowd full of straight men, this is a presentation that does not in any way disrupt the hierarchies in place surrounding gender and sexuality norms. Women can engage in these performances precisely because they do not disrupt masculine privilege and precisely because these performances please a male audience. This does not mean that women are more "liberated" than men in the 21st century, just as the fact that women can wear pants while men cannot wear skirts doesn't signify greater liberation for women.

So how does this relate to academia? Well, as academics we may pay a lot of attention to how we present ourselves in terms of "diversity," but - and this is even in disciplines traditionally associated with bleeding-heart-liberal-feminism - those presentations do not get us outside the reach of those power structures in which we are inscribed. Identities continue to be articulated through hegemonic, normative structures, and though we find ways to describe our identities in terms of greater freedom, each of us still has to negotiate those hierarchies that we inherit from our predecessors.

In my department, the majority of chairs of committees are men. All of the administrators are men. I attended a meeting last week with some VIPs related to my quasi-admin. position, and I was the only woman present. There is not one female full professor in my department. It is 2006. I am in English.

At the Fancy Research University where I got my PhD, there was only one full professor who was a woman in the English department. There were only two or three associate professors who were women. The administrators and two of the three named chairs (the third being the one full professor who was a woman) were all men. And in the past 10 years, two women were denied tenure, while no men were denied tenure.

At my undergraduate institution, female professors were successful in a lawsuit against the university related to gender-related inequities in pay and promotion/tenure, a suit which directly related to female faculty in the English department.

These hierarchies exist not only in the profession but in my discipline. If we're going to talk about how norms or models for gender and sexuality are changing, I think it's important that we don't talk about that change as by definition liberating or good, for women or for men.

(I feel like my thoughts in this post are more scattered than I want them to be, but this was very much a "thinking things through" post, and so I welcome any comments you all might have.)

6 comments:

Kate said...

Yes! Thank you for articulating what I'm always trying (and failing) to articulate.

I especially appreciated these things: 1)the ways in which confident ("masculine") women have had to use other signs of femininity in order to keep from disrupting hierarchy, 2) the way school tends to reward female behavior (obedience, attention) up through some time in undergrad, but the "really" smart folks are the ambitious, masculine ones, 3) the way in which greater expression of sexuality/femininity in men is actually a consolidation of power, and 4) the way you tied it back into your own experiences of English and the lack of female representation.

Now I need to think about this more and write something myself... Thanks Dr. C :).

Laura said...

This is great. It articulates much of what I've been thinking about academia lately. I may write a tangent post myself about the way faculty=masculine and staff=feminine. Most of the staff is female, except in my department (computing), where there are way more men than women. Three of the women in my department, including myself, are quite outspoken. Guess who gets shut down all the time. I've literally watched as I've suggested something and it's been dismissed, only to see that suggestion presented by my CIO as his idea.

I think I get treated like an indentured servant by some of the faculty precisely because of the masculine/feminine power dynamic that's at play between faculty and staff. It's worse when the faculty person is male, but I've seen the dynamic at play (and very recently) with women (whom I would think would know better). In that dynamic, I will never be seen as equally human, just as some female faculty in certain departments will never be seen as equal to men.

I think this is especially true in the sciences. Science as a field has always been seen as masculine. The mere presence of women (without any other masculine attributes being displayed) is enough for people to put their guard up. It's sad, though, that this happens in fields that are often examining such power structures. I hope you write more about this.

Anastasia said...

i have lots of thoughts about this and will get around to another post of my own about it. one thing that really rang a bell was my chair (a woman) telling me in the context of this conversation that she also prefers to work with women (intended to be a kind of "it's okay, it's normal" thing, which is her response to my advisor's critique, my advisor being the author of "she's got a problem with men" comment) and THEN she told me this is odd b/c she has such a masculine style.

it got me thinking, what's masculine about it? Why would she say that? I think it's because she's powerful and demanding. So I wonder is saying she has a masculine style a way of apologizing for being who and what she is and reinscribing trad structures of power?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Great post! I completely agree. Funnily enough, I actually talk about something a little like this in my research, sort of. Though it's different, too. ;-)

(Sorry this isn't a very inspired comment, but I wanted you to know I appreciated the post.)

May said...

I know so well what you mean and, although I have been thinking for three days how I can talk of my experience in the academic world, my head is still like a blank page.

My impression on the subject is that it will take centuries for things to change.

Tree of Knowledge said...

Though reading this a few days late, I too appreciate reading the post (and not because it gives me a break from grading essays, though that too is a blessing--allow me to silently scream--thank you). I'm a little too brain-numb in student-comment mode to write anything particularly thoughtful at the moment, but you've articulated something very important that gets glossed over in lieu of "progress" which, as you point out, may not be "real" progress in terms of substanctive changes (liberating or not). And I'm really at a loss as to what to type next, as I must get back to grading. I'm going to think about this and do as Kate and write something for myself (later...).