Content Warning: The following post discusses the importance of acknowledging one’s own bias and avoiding judgment of cultural practices. It also explores the importance of concepts such as cultural relativism and critical cultural relativism when discussing taboo topics, like FGC, in Canadian Post-Secondary Classrooms. This post does not attempt to take a position on whether FGC or male circumcision is right or wrong or, to provide a comparison between the two practices. Its goal is to discuss how FGC is covered in Canadian and US mainstream media and why this discussion is an informative case study that I use to demonstrate and discuss foundational concepts in my first-year cultural anthropology course. Reader beware.
Did you spend too much over the holidays trying to spoil your dearest and nearest friends and family? Did you decide to travel to see loved ones? Eat out more than usual? Grab a drink with an old friend or new somebody?
Spending on travel, eating out and gifts during the holiday season is increasingly putting Canadians into debt; According to a national cross-generational survey of 1000 participants in early October (2018), Canadians planned to “spend an average of $1,563 (for the 2018 Christmas season), up 3.7 per cent from $1,507 in 2017” (CBC October 3, 2018).
In the latest publication of the Annual Review of Anthropology (2018, Vol 47), Anne Meneley defines consumerism as “a matter of concern or crisis in the contemporary neoliberal, globalized world (which can be) characterized as capitalism unbound” (emphasis my own). She describes 5 topics of contemporary consumerism: (a) excess, (b) waste, (c) connectivity, (d) fair-ish trade, and (e) the semiotics of self-fashioning, some of which have a particular resonance after this most recent holiday season. Her article provides some interesting insights into consumerism – especially over the holidays.
In relation to excessive spending (surely evident during Christmas), Meneley notes that consumerism is increasingly framed as a problem, and one that is often related to under/mis-education of the lower classes. Meneley also identifies how excessive consumerism has become medicalized as new obsessive-compulsive disorder (hoarding), where fetishized objects are thought to contain residues of the owner and can therefore, not be thrown away. In addition, she describes the new attention paid to the storage and organization of things, which, if disorganized, may now require professional intervention (e.g. professional organizers – check out Netflix’s Tidying Up with Mary Kondo) to realign the relationship between human being and thing.
Perhaps you’re feeling exhausted now that the holidays are over? This might be because you’ve spent more time than other members of your household preparing for it.
Using ethnographic research, Meneley describes the shopping experience as an(other) example of unpaid labour for many women. She identifies the “considerable amounts of time (spent on the shopping experience), especially when the shoppers are employed, care givers, or on restricted budgets that require bargain shopping” (2018). Examples include how women are required to spend time purchasing meaningful gifts to fulfill their kin-keeper obligations, or plan, purchase materials, and serve home-cooked meals throughout the holidays that follow recent cooking trends or health-guidelines. Meneley goes on to note that if the shopper can be thrifty (with time – for example through online shopping – or money spent), this may add further significance to their purchases but this also may take additional time.
Meneley concludes her article with a list of ways in which consumerism is encroaching into the academic world: paying for access to journals or subscription services, measuring citation indices and impact factors, and the continued trend toward under-paid and -supported adjunct faculty to staff universities. She calls for greater attention to the encroaching ‘problem of consumerism’ into academic practices, a call that already feels old and tired.
At the outset of the article, Meneley defines consumerism as “an unremarkable part of quotidian existence, as a patriotic duty at various moments, as an indicator of social class, and as a means of semiotic self-fashioning” (2018, 117); yet, in my reading, Meneley’s work also includes ‘thoughtful consumption’ as a practice, an act of which implicitly requires the passage or importance of time (spent). Although she does not address the topic of ‘time’ overtly, Meneley describes time as being precarious, fleeting, expensive (i.e. time spent finding the cheapest, most meaningful, most nutritious goods). Throughout the article then, time becomes remarkably interconnected with the act of consumerism and is likewise involved in everyday acts of consumption as both an indicator of social class and personal branding (what she calls ‘semiotic self-fashioning’).
Perhaps for this new year then, when we’re told to tightening our belts (to spend less), those of us who gave a lot (whether that be time or gifts, etc.) could pay more attention to our use of time and/or put effort into thoughtful consumption as a way of clawing back some of our own resources (such as time, space, and energy). This approach could provide further evidence of ‘connectivity’ in consumerism which Meneley describes as the efforts of consumers to connect to the producer of goods (and where certain products make this impossible) as seen in ‘follow-the-thing ethnographies’ (and her discussion on ‘fair-ish trade’ products and cultures of circulations) or, as they relate to the growing importance of ethical consumerism that focus less on the ‘life of things’ and instead explore participants’ experiences of a ‘life with things’.
To read more about Consumerism in the Annual Review of Anthropology by Anne Meneley follow this link: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102116-041518
As everyone almost certainly knows by now, just over a week ago, the Brazilian Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro burned, with massive damage and the complete destruction of huge proportions of an extensive collection of irreplaceable artifacts, fossils, documents, and artwork. No one thinks this is anything less than a tragedy, though people have varying levels of anger about it – some seem to see it as an unfortunate accident, others (who know more about Brazil, including most Brazilians) are quick to focus rage on decades of neglect by a series of governments, who at best just didn’t care enough about maintaining this building and its contents.
I’m writing this to call attention to another level of anger, which is mainly being expressed by Indigenous people, and which I’ve briefly commented about on Twitter and elsewhere. This anger is about why we allow so much cultural knowledge and linguistic information, not to mention sacred and/or valuable artifacts, from Indigenous peoples around the world, to be housed in singular buildings run by colonial governments in the first place? Why do we accept the assumption that these organizations are inherently better at “preserving” this information than the communities themselves? Why do we uncritically act as though, despite the fact that anything in a museum is inherently removed from its context and active role in the community from which it was taken, this form of “preservation” is a priority?
At this point it’s worth stepping back to ask who the “we” is in those above questions. There is only a certain proportion of “us” who have accepted or advocated for these things, or made these assumptions. Because as I noted, many Indigenous people reacted to this with one common statement – repatriate. Return museum materials to their rightful owners. Reprioritize – instead of emphasizing access for outside, mainly European-descended, people and some kind of ideal of “global human knowledge”, consider the needs and values of living Indigenous cultures and languages. The “we” in these discourses generally refers to white academics. So much of what was lost, the stuff that can’t be recovered (like the entire linguistics section of the museum, containing the only documentation of several languages that have no remaining speakers), was Indigenous knowledge. It’s one thing to lament the loss to our (there’s that word again) knowledge of language in general, and it’s completely another to consider what this loss means to the community that spoke that language and how devastating it is to see the elimination of essentially any chance at reawakening it.
I’m angry about this. I’m angry at governments who build museums to preserve and publicize knowledge and then neglect them. I’m angry at centuries of colonial theft that has built these museums, trapped thousands of different types of hostages inside, just waiting for the spark to light them on fire. And I’m angry at my disciplines, in which we continue to treat language documentation and preservation in buildings far away from the people who can or would use the language as a substitution for supporting reclamation and revitalization. Digitization is a major step forward, and documentary work can be done in a way that is profoundly community-oriented. But it doesn’t have to be, and there is plenty of academic reward involved in perpetuating the old “salvage” model of linguistics, the one that puts this information into archives and museums. The fire is really the logical end point of anthropology as colonial enterprise, in which we take Indigenous worlds, reduce them to paper, lock them away where they can’t be actively used, allow them to burn, and then feel sorry for ourselves because we lost that source of academic insight.
My anger is superseding most everything else as I write this, but I should say that I do understand the value of museums. Public scholarship matters, and museums serve as an excellent corrective to navel gazing research and publication circles in which we carry on an abstract theoretical debate with two or three other researchers over the course of our entire careers. Not everything in a museum, including not everything in the Museu Nacional, has been stolen from Indigenous people. I feel little guilt for deeply appreciating, for example, a museum filled with dinosaurs, and wanting to know more about the scientific discovery of knowledge about them. But at the same time, I think this conversation needs to move beyond how to create better fire proofing for a colonial museum, or how to ensure that governments care about museums in general. For some, the fire was the last stage of a loss that began a long time ago, and until it happened, too few of us in academia were engaging seriously with that loss.
A few months ago, I was talking to a group of students after class. One of them commented that they appreciated my openness about different things as a prof, and how it made me more “human”. I responded by saying “Yeah, that’s intentional. Dr. Biittner and I are, like, aggressively human“.
It was a quick, off the cuff, semi-joking statement, but as we thought about it afterwards, we realized it was much more than that. It was, and is, our guiding principle in approaching teaching and doing anthropology. Anthropology as…aggressively human, if you will.
I’ve been thinking more and more about this idea as we’ve observed the discussion around the abusive practices that have characterized the work of the journal Hau. For a quick primer on the issues and concerns that have been raised, see this Twitter thread by Hilary Agro (and links within). There are also too many fantastic critical posts and threads to note, but I would highlight Zoe Todd’s powerful discussion of decolonial anthropology, as well as discussions and contributions organized by Allegra lab (disclosure: a short comment I made will be part of a discussion about the implications for teaching and education to appear there shortly), and of course, searching #hautalk will bring up a lot of great commentary and information.
As those links show, this story has quickly become one that is about how academic institutions, and anthropology in particular, can work to not only shield abusers, but also create contexts in which they able to perform their violence – for example, through the exploitative and insecure structures of employment and payment that make some members of our community very vulnerable to economic abuse, as well as preventing them from speaking up about other forms of abuse at the risk of losing their job (or, more commonly and frighteningly, losing the opportunity of a hypothetical job well in the future). As several BIPOC scholars have noted, the revelation of abusive practice of Hau’s editorial board was unsurprising to them, because the journal was premised on an exploitative, white-centric model of anthropology and ethnographic theory, visible immediately from its choice of name (see this illuminating discussion the Mahi Tahi collective of New Zealand scholars).
As I note in my contribution to the forthcoming Allegra post, this story reflects a pervasive pattern within academic, and specifically anthropological, teaching and training – the idea that learning occurs through suffering, and that suffering is therefore a necessary part of one’s experience as a student. This is especially true at the graduate levels, where we undergo our final set of rigorous tests to obtain credentials that admit us into the ranks of disciplinary experts, but certainly doesn’t start there. I have heard far too many colleagues justify teaching practices that leave their students in tears, dismiss traumas that they have experienced in the field, or suggest outright that emotions have no place in the academy. To be clear, academia is difficult. Knowledge can be upsetting. Fieldwork is inherently stressful. But it is possible to support students through those difficulties, rather than minimizing their suffering, or worse, actively creating it in the spirit of some kind of “trial by fire” – abuse disguised as pedagogy.
I link this back to our intention, here to be “aggressively human”, because to me, the model that I have seen reflected in the stories about the abuse at Hau, and the defenses of this abuse as some kind of “difficult but fair” authoritarian model of scholarly practice, is one that is profoundly inhuman and inhumane. This is especially ironic, to my mind, in a discipline that is about the human, and a subfield (ethnography) that develops knowledge through the human practice of connection and empathy.
So, then, an aggressively human anthropology, and specifically, an anthropological pedagogy, is one in which
- We place empathy at the core of our learning and teaching experiences, and the human at the centre of our approach to theory and method
- We engage directly, constantly, and actively in calls to decolonize the discipline, to move away from and explicitly renounce anthropological practice that is dehumanizing, dismissive, and exploitative of Indigenous and racialized people
- We use our positions of relative privilege and power to advocate for humane academic working conditions, to push against increasing precarity, and to protect students from exploitation and abuse within their learning environments
- We push against status hierarchies and the creation of academic ‘rock stars’ who can use their status to shield themselves from the consequences of their own abuse, and we advocate for a community of academics that is collaborative and mutually enforcing rather than competitive and egotistical.
- We exemplify kindness and care toward ourselves and others, and we aggressively insist on reminding people that we are humans first and scholars, teachers, and employees only in addition to that.
I write this post from my own position, but in consultation with my blogging partner Dr. Biittner, and these points are a shared commitment for us. Continuing this conversation, we need to define what kinds of attainable goals exist within each of these principles, and consider more fully what this looks like within our work as undergraduate instructors, or within our research practices in various communities. Suggestions from fellow aggressively human scholars and anthropologists more than welcome.
Shulist’s introduction: The following is a guest post by my student, Harry dal Bello, who was brave enough to work on constructing a language with me as an independent study project. The story behind this is that last year, after seeing the ConLanging documentary (which, as my review here noted, I loved), I was inspired to think about ways to use language creation in my teaching (and for fun, but I’ve had less time for fun lately).
Enter Harry. Harry has, from the first day of my introduction to linguistic anthropology class, had a passion for the topic, and in September, will be entering a graduate program at my own alma mater, the University of Western Ontario. Given that MacEwan has no courses in linguistics proper beyond the first year level, Harry lamented that he hadn’t had a chance to learn more about grammatical description and other key elements. And here was my guinea pig – an opportunity to use the ConLang creation process as a way to teach a lot about language in a relatively short period of time and a fun way.
On the whole, it turns out it worked fairly well. We definitely had fun. We formed an informal “ConLang club”, and a few interested students joined us, and met weekly so that I could give a very quick lesson about different linguistic concepts – how do nouns work, what is agreement, what is case, whoa holy crap verbs, etc. Harry’s reflections on his first experience with ConLanging and learning about language in general are below.
Language is hard. This is something I don’t think that people think about enough, just how complex this thing we call language is. We take it for granted every day that we are able to communicate with each other. There is an uncountable number of different systems at play when we use language. I just finished spending the last 4 months trying to make one from scratch and have acquired a whole new appreciation of just how complex language can really be. So when Shulist (the linguistic one) gave me the opportunity to look back on this project and write a post about it I jumped at the chance. I thought I’d take the time to give you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way so hopefully you can avoid some of the pitfalls that caught me if you ever give it a try. So without further ado I present: Tips for making a language from someone who’d never done it before.
- Know a language other than English (at least know someone who does)
Let’s take a quick detour to talk about the most commonly used word in the English language: “the”. How do you define “the”? Well the Miriam Webster dictionary does it in 507 words and only uses “the” 24 times to do it. Why so long? Because “the” does a lot in English: It’s a determiner we use for almost everything and yet it still finds time to be an adverb. “Harry”, I can see you asking, “what does this have to do with learning another language, let alone making one?” Well there are a lot of things a language has to do, and English make things like “the” and word order do a lot of it. This is great for us, but makes using English to make examples difficult. Learning a new language is hard, if it wasn’t we would all be polyglots, but I’m not saying you need to go out and become fluent in Portuguese. Even my tenuous grasp of Spanish grammar was invaluable when it came to understanding things like conjugating verbs and nouns.
- Get yourself some IPA (the alphabet not the beer)
Do you have a favourite sound? Mine is probably either / n / or / ʃ / . Now if you just sounded those out in your head as you read them then you can probably skip this section but for the rest of us: let’s chat about IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet was an invaluable invention to linguists everywhere, a universal set of glyphs that corresponded to every possible human mouth sound. A way to bypass cumbersome Latin alphabet transcription. There is only one problem: It’s not very user friendly.
This is something I can’t stress enough: if you have no experience with IPA you are going to have a hard time making a language that sounds like anything other than English, a problem you are going to have anyways. While you are at it start to play with sounds, see if you can make some of the strange ones (read: any missing from English) by arranging your mouth in the right shape. This aspect of language making is probably the one that will get you the most weird looks, I know I got some when I spent a 3 hour flight trying to untangle the difference between / ɳ / and / ɲ /. Don’t worry about it though, because a good grasp of what symbol sounds like what and why will save you a ton of time down the line.
- How does your cat sit? (use example sentences)
When I started my language I had no idea what I wanted it to sound like, let alone what it’s structure would be, but I quickly started to fill out long list of parts you need to make a functional languge. How big is this list? I’m still not sure, but It certainly isn’t all written somewhere for you to read. This is where Example Sentences come in to play. Starting with short, simple ones, come up with a list of phrases that you would like to be able to say in your language. From there take a crack at translating them. Uh oh, you can’t translate this sentence because you forgot about pluralization? Well guess what, now you can add pluralization to that list of things to do. Using this method of trial and error I was able to find what I had finished and what I was missing in a way that is easy to visualize.
|Cat sits||/sɨh ɵoɳ wol/|
|Cat eats rat||/loh ɵoɳ wol ɲɨlɵoɳ/|
|The cat eats the rat because it is tasty||/loh ɵoɳ wol ɲɨlɵoɳ ɵolɨlan/|
Above are a few of my example sentences with English on the left and / ʃɨðʎom / (read something like sh-ith-yom) on the right. Note how I keep as many words the same between sentences as I can. This is so I can avoid having to make to many words up while I am still playing with the grammar. It would suck to come up with a whole collection of plural nouns just to later decide that you don’t need them. This way I can focus on just filling out what I need to make a fully functioning grammar. This is actually the biggest perk of example sentences. They let you slowly put together your language in a modular way, so that even if you don’t have verb conjugation sorted out (like I don’t) you can still see how it works in a practical situation.
- Verbs do things. LOTS of things. (and this makes them hard)
In the over 4 months I worked on this project I found again and again that verbs only made things harder. Verbs were about as complex as nouns but three fold. Think back to your last English grammar lesson: what were the parts of a sentence? Well you had verbs and nouns, nouns were things and verbs were what those things did. Simple right? Well not so much unfortunately. English teachers have been lying to us for YEARS now telling us that “verbs are action words” when they are so much more than that. If a noun is a thing then a verb is what you know about that thing, what it does, what it’s like, how it feels, all kinds of stuff. These are just the beginning as well. Verbs can (and often do) encode all kinds of other information such as tense, gender, number, aspect, mood (don’t get me started on modality), voice, and any number of other grammatical categories. Add adverbs to the mix and things get even worse. In fact a lot of things we call adverbs are just stuff that didn’t fit in another category. So enough doom and gloom about verbs then, whats my advice about them? Well unfortunately I don’t have much except: worry about it later. I haven’t even made a verb system for my language yet. Don’t get bogged down trying to perfect your verbs until after you sort your nouns out. If you are working with example sentences like I recommended then just make some placeholder and don’t worry about conjugating. This is exactly what I did, and you can see it in my above examples If you look close enough. You can always leave verbs to another day.
Editor: This is a guest post by Ash, a student from Dr. Shulist’s Language, Gender, and Sexuality class, on the many ways that the idea of binary gender affects the world of sports. Ash is a science major who was taking this course mainly for fun, and we love this example of how to use anthropological tools to think through topics that surround us literally constantly.
The gender binary has been, throughout history, rigorously upheld in the field of athletics. Presently, we still have strict divisions between men’s and women’s leagues, and more often there are now recurring issues with transgender athletes being put into either category regardless of their gender under the guise of a fear of unfair advantage (Gleaves & Lehrbach 2016) . In ancient times, women were excluded from participating in large events and athletic activity altogether, but more modern times are where the league division by gender has emerged. The only “co-ed” teams appear in non-serious, recreation-type leagues. Even non-contact sports such as curling have leagues divided by binary gender within the upper ranks. In the latest winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the long standing statistic of more male athletes to female athletes persisted, despite female athletes in teams such as the USA obtaining more medals than their male counterparts. Even when discussing gender in athletics and critiquing its use of binary here, it is nearly impossible to avoid separating men’s from women’s athletics.
This brings us to the obvious question of: Why? Why are sports inherently viewed and treated as more male dominated and suited? Likely it is the common association of physical strength with masculinity, whereas we have seen in class what “feminine power” is portrayed as on Google images. This fractal recursivity whereby masculinity is strong and femininity is inherently weak, among other negative traits, contributes to this. There is also related and specific language difference used when describing each group’s athletics and athletes in disappointing trends over the years, and this language surrounding athletics continues to uphold the gender differential within the community. Examples of this include women’s sports as being marked, whereas men’s categories are left unmarked (ex: “hockey” implies men’s hockey but “women’s hockey” must be denoted as such), and occasionally the female leagues are not called “women’s” leagues but rather, unfortunately, “ladies” (ex: Wimbledon Ladies Singles). Men’s leagues and teams, in my experience, are not called “gentlemen’s”. Even the athletes themselves are often marked as female, including at times when it’s not entirely relevant or necessary (ex: woman golfer).
This relates to our class lecture on men and masculinities where we discussed athletics and associated spaces (such as locker rooms and “man caves”) as creating sites of toxic, male-only culture. These hyper-masculine spaces simultaneously prohibit women’s presence yet demand that they exist in the periphery simultaneously for sexual experiences and heterosexual indexing (Kiesling 2005). In the male-only spheres, misogyny is able to flourish as masculinity can reach an un-compromised and un-rivalled peak. An example of this is Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room banter” comment whereby he insinuates that conversations about sexual harassment and misogyny are appropriate in male-only spaces such as gendered locker rooms. This “old boys club” mentality contributes to the underlying parts of rape culture that are pervasive in society but often less detectable and thus more likely to be ignored or dismissed, as, for example, just “locker room banter”. Even when changing clothes in preparation for the sport at hand, the binary precedent is already being set.
More specific examples of language upholding toxic gender binaries can be seen abundantly in the hockey community. Only the men’s leagues (as with most professional sports) are considered popular and profitable. The highest league in the sport, the NHL, is not specifically men-only yet a single female athlete has only ever played one game. Furthermore, within the broader hockey community, it is a culture of high masculinity with that same pushing of all femininity, women included, into the periphery. Specifically, female players and fans alike are required to understand the vast lingo and jargon associated within the hockey community and culture, yet they are not permitted to use or access it themselves. Furthermore, there is a very limited and particular pool from which male players may choose to form romantic relationships, and that group does not overlap with their female hockey playing counterparts. It is also assumed and reinforced that male hockey players are not homosexual, despite movements such as the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. There are explicitly drawn lines between the two binary genders within hockey culture, and each has very obvious and laid out roles and rules. When sports are so heavily divided by gender, these rigid systems within are able to emerge, and language further enables it to do so.
Language upholding this rigidity also extends to the differences among interviews between male and female athletes. Many female athletes have taken issue with being asked questions that they felt were extremely inappropriate given the contexts. For example, being asked about their “ultimate date”, why they aren’t smiling, which male athletes they “like”, and general comments and questions about their attire. Generally it is reported that male athletes are not asked questions of these unrelated natures. The hashtag #CoverTheAthlete made a point of imploring journalists to ask consistent types of questions regardless of the gender of athlete they were interviewing⁹. A video in support of the #CoverTheAthlete movement highlighted the baffling inappropriateness in the difference in the line of questioning between athletes genders by having multiple journalists ask some of the most outlandish but actual questions that have been asked of professional female athletes to their male counterparts.
Sexism in sports is nothing new, but I used this opportunity to explore the ways in which language and league divisions within athletics perpetuates it. It is commonly assumed that athletics require division by gender at all due to perceived differences in strength and skill whereby women are understood as the lesser, despite several sports, leagues, and statistics debunking this¹¹. From the initial gender division, we see right away that this causes negative implications for transgender athletes. From there we see how highly segregated leagues can create hyper-masculine spaces resulting in unbalanced sports cultures including justifiable “locker room banter” and exclusionary attitudes and expectations. Lastly, and even more language focused, we examined the differences in interview questions between male and female athletes wherein the women were asked remarkably inappropriate and unrelated questions compared to the men: When the lines of questioning were reversed as seen in the #CoverTheAthlete video, the male athletes were less than impressed. Unfortunately, athletics and surrounding culture embodies many more categories and examples of sexism and gender differences than what was mentioned here, such as outstanding differences in pay. It remains a highly divided area and progress within it is slow. It is hard to say what the next 100 years of professional sports will look like: Will gender divisions between leagues be demolished? Will transgender athletes not be a controversial issue of feigned unfairness? Will the #CoverTheAthlete campaign and similar movements lessen the amount of absurd questions that female athletes receive from journalists? Will sports stop being a site of hyper-masculinity due to gender division causing rampantly created and perpetuated sexism?
The ball is in our court.
- Gleaves, John, & Lehrbach, Tim. “Beyond Fairness: the Ethics of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 43:2, 311-326. 2016.
- Kiesling, Scott Fabius. “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-Creating cultural discourses of masculinity.” Language in Society, vol. 34, no. 05, Dec. 2005.
Editor’s note: This guest post comes from our student Becky, who has revised it from a piece of work for Dr. Shulist’s ANTH308 class on Language, Gender, and Sexuality. As your usual bloggers are currently digging their way out of the end-of-term grading pile/why-won’t-it-stop-snowing grumpy funk, it’s great to be able to highlight some of the insights our students are bringing. Also, this editor is putting Queer Eye on the Netflix queue for a post-term binge-watch (thanks, students!).
To preface this, I would like to admit that I’m an avid viewer of all things transformative in nature in reality TV set-ups. There’s something so appealing in seeing someone’s life get turned around in 40 minutes or less- especially if you consider yourself a before rather than an after effort.
(Side note: HGTV producers, if you’re out there, call me.)
Netflix’s Queer Eye certainly offers all this and more. The show’s premise is that a group of five gay self-identified men come to renovate a straight self-identified male individual’s life through multiple focuses like food, culture, style, and home renovation; Hence to what the title refers to, in giving a queer eye for the straight guy.
It makes for an entertaining concept, but it became all the more compelling to start this series right we started to discuss the concept of masculinity in one of my anthropology classes.
At it’s most basic, masculinity is the association to what is culturally assumed in being a ‘man’. Masculine ontology would therefore be one’s pursuit to be a man (in establishing particular associations linked within masculinity). But, being a man means different things, which diversifies masculinity in how it relates to the relevant cultural discourses at play that are created through the social practices of those that enact them. There’s a dominant discourse but there are always competing discourses that create these conflicting ways people may express their masculinity.
In Kielsing’s (2005) article, men’s talk is described to respond and recreate four main cultural discourses that surround the dominant discourse of masculinity. While these cultural discourses – gender differences, heterosexism, dominance, male solidarity – are examined through the language community of an American fraternity, let us now turn to Tom, from the first episode of Queer Eye.
In episode one, the ‘Fab 5’ introduce a middle-aged man from Georgia named Tom. What follows is how Tom reacts to the group’s questioning of Tom’s choices, and a push towards a competing discourse that works to challenge what Tom uses, while also making continuous acknowledgment of the dominant discourses. In this respect, this parallels to what Kiesling also describes, that when one engages with a competing discourse, one can still find themselves evaluated in reference to the dominant discourses withstanding. So no matter what you choose sooner or later you’re going to have to acknowledge the bulking frat-boy in the room.
Towards the beginning we get a sense of the schema of what Tom identifies as part of his self through repeated use of words like redneck, ugly, country, old, and fat. Based on what Tom uses to describe himself, there’s a lack of self-confidence is readily apparent. This is where I question Tom’s use of gender difference as Tom often uses his ex-wives as those behind many of his stylistic choices, in that there is some innate separation between caring for one’s appearance (and home) to being separate from masculine. Tom’s lack of confidence and physical masculinity is oddly balanced towards gender difference as having that relation to his masculine identity both negatively and positively impacting his confidence.
Further in the episode, when Bobby mentions to Tom that he’s been married to his partner of 13 years, Tom questions if Bobby is the ‘wife’ or the ‘husband’ of the relationship. In seeing Bobby as masculine, Tom still assumes a degree of heterosexuality despite the fact that Bobby is very direct about the whole husband-husband thing. To rectify Bobby’s masculinity then, Tom assumes a positionality relatable to a hetero-relationship. From previous experience with a similar line of questioning (y’know, the ‘who wears the pants’ debacle) this brings up the subordination of the woman role as being natural by placing an association to the dominating role as masculine.
This also comes to naturalize the heterosexual relationship as the representative of all relationship types. The straight couple is the original, and everything outside of that is just a spin-off series.
Moving back here, Tom also briefly demonstrates the cultural discourse of male solidarity. This is particularly emphasized by his group, the ROMEOS, or the “Retired Old Men Eating Out” … and I’m trying not to think too hard on that one.
This group represents Tom and other retired old men who meet up once a week to eat out at a restaurant, who then go and admire each other’s classic cars. Judging from these activities, there isn’t any necessarily that would suggest a gender divide to being necessary, but the important of male solidarity is emphasized by the men as being important. I mean, it’s in the title!
Besides forming the basis of Tom’s social life (in exclusion to his grandson, and his ex-wife) they’re also a heavy influencer on what social practices therefore become acceptable to establish the types of social practices to engage in. When he is recorded with a group of men, he often uses swears to accentuate his speech patterns and play into his physical masculinity.
These social practices are part of the journey the Fab 5 take on with Tom. By accepting some of the discourse that the ‘Fab 5’ utilizes for themselves, and encourages in Tom, we see a difference between Tom and the fellow ROMEOs at the end of the episode. When he is presented to the men, he is complimented with a degree of emotional restraint to the achievement of his transformation by the men merely pointing out changes (“Look at that beard”) or veiled compliments in the form of insults (“You look vaguely familiar”). Tom instead is openly boisterous and presents himself with a right bit of flair. Tom reflects on these changes when he says goodbye to the ‘Fab 5’, in stating his experiences of being open with them and himself, hoping to continue this into the future.
So, while there isn’t necessarily all four of the dominant cultural discourses present that Kiesling has outlined—there’s certainly some recognizable parallels to be drawn. Tom is definitely one of the more relaxed straight individuals that are introduced on the show, and there certainly isn’t too much push in getting him to accept the group’s mentalities. What I am suggesting still is the balance between how masculinity is practiced and conceived within the narrative of the show, as it dissects how these various men actively construct and promote their identities.
Maybe there’s a little more anthropological footwork at play than the show recognizes, but then again, that’s what nerdy bloggers are for.
Kiesling, Scott Fabius. (2005) “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-creating cultural discourses of masculinity”. Language in Society 34 (5): 695-726. doi:10.1017/s0047404505050268.