I sit here crocheting: the (genderqueer) female academic

By | January 23, 2012

I’m taking a class this semester called “advanced pedagogy: gender and sexualities.” The class is offered by my university’s Communications and Culture program, and so far it’s less focused on pedagogy than it is on gender and sexualities, which makes it different but not bad.

In fact, the assumptions held by the instructor and students, nearly all of whom have some background in gender studies and/or queer theory, have enabled me to let my hackles settle down a little. A guy gets tired after a while of explaining once again that language both contains and reproduces gender- and sexuality-normative attitudes. A guy gets tired after a while of ignoring the eye rolling and the scoffing–more from the ladies in the room, would you believe it?! than from the gentledudes.

Now I’m reading various opinions about the body of the female academic in the university classroom. It is okay, Joanna Frueh assures me, to inhabit an erotic body. It is okay to wear perfume, fuchsia lipstick, to acknowledge attraction to students. It is even sometimes okay, she assures me, to act on that attraction.

Martin Jay agrees with Frueh that the female academic body is a performance site. Jay tells us that the female academic as performance artist exists in direct opposition to the philosophy that in scholarship, “perfect neutrality” must exist so that objectively “better” ideas can prevail:

The women academic performance artists have contributed to the subversion of this model in several different ways. At times, they have adopted a confessional mode, which seems to say let’s cut through all the crap and speak sincerely from the heart. No more closets, no more subterfuges, they defiantly assert; we’re big girls now with tenure, and we won’t knuckle under to your outmoded rules of civility. Even when you enter the public realm, they remind their audience, you don’t lose your gendered, desiring, ethnically marked bodies and become a disinterested mind.

Of course, this subversion is okay by Martin Jay only insofar as the academic in question is not Camille Paglia, who apparently represents all that is reprehensible in the female academic, since

she betrays an almost clinical need for exhibitionism, which drives her to extremes of freakishness that seem too bad to be true. Combined with a take-no-prisoners willingness to belittle anyone or anything that stands in her way, her tawdry self-exposure has garnered her lots of easy publicity, but virtually no respect. Her pronouncements on such issues as feminism, French theory, or political correctness, for all their glittering packaging, often prove to be about as original and scintillating as those of Phyllis Schlafly. At least Madonna, who is Paglia’s explicit role model, knows how to sing and dance. Hurricane Camille, as she likes to call herself, turns out to be like the many destructive tropical storms: lots of sound and fury surrounding an empty center.

For Jay, then, the female-academic performance must be paired with a mind that is pretty close to the neutral/objective (masculine) ideal. And the mind, housed as it is inside of a female body, is still open for judgments and grand proclamations by men of its “quality” and “substance.” And for Frueh, performance is erotics, and erotics is defined by embrace of gender norms: The female professor has nipples, has breasts, wears perfume. The female professor who lifts weights may, in her embrace of certain traditionally masculine traits, threaten the self-satisfied place that male academics occupy–but only by claiming a female identity (she is sexy! and beautiful if you can learn to re-see!) with a masculine garnish.

What’s a genderqueer biologically female academic to do?

I sit here crocheting. I’m using up my leftover yarn balls to make a pile of winter hats for my friends. My friends are mostly queer. Some are genderqueer. Some are transgendered. Some are gender normative. All get cold in the winter. (This is one of many traits that all bodies share.)

I don’t want my students to stare at my breasts. That turns me into an object for their perusal and besides, I prefer my torso to occupy a genderqueer domain–not quite bound, certainly not shoved up and out in offering to others. “Genderqueer” means you need to rethink what you “know” about gender, about sexuality, about attraction. At the beginning of this academic year, I announced that I was thinking about asking people to start referring to me as “Jake” instead of “Jenna”–but I was utterly unprepared for the smirk around the eyes of some of my classmates. I was utterly unprepared for the way my chosen name sounded dropping off some of my classmates’ tongues. I quickly “changed my mind” and took up “Jenna” again.

Not in my class about pedagogy, gender, and sexuality, though: In that class only, I have asked to be referred to as “Jake.” The only smirk I hear in that class is the echo I bring with me from elsewhere. Yet I wonder how the discussion of the assigned reading “the female academic as performance artist” will go: Am I a “female academic” as defined by Martin Jay, by Joanna Frueh, by others? Do biology and hormone dictate where a person falls in this respect?

Some of my friends have enormous melons–not melons as in breasts but as in heads. I’m trying to make my hats in a range of sizes so everyone can have a hat that fits. Last week for class we read a horribly self-satisfied and embarrassing “ethnography” by Loic Wacquant called Body and Soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. And we watched the boxing film Million Dollar Baby, in which Hillary Swank’s character is forbidden access to formal boxing instruction because she is a girl. Am I a girl? If I express physically my body–in the classroom, at a paper presentation, here on my blog–will I be judged as incomplete, as not enough of a “female”? If I express my body in a way that feels authentic to me (no perfume, no lipstick, no pushup bra–a tie! a collared shirt buttoned all the way up!), will I be judged by Frueh and others as one of “that kind” of female academic–the kind who’s oblivious and happy to de-gender herself in order to align with the masculine norms?

The female academic gets it from both sides–from other female academics and from male academics as well. The female-bodied genderqueer academic gets it…from four sides? Because suddenly not only is sexuality front and center, but so is gender itself–a category that so far in my readings feels taken for granted, overassumed and underexplored. When bell hooks writes about her cluelessness about what to do the first time her teacher’s body had to use the restroom during class, well…at least she knew which restroom she was supposed to use.

Crocheting is about using one’s hands, but typically the hands are used to craft something for the body to wear. I like making hats because they work up fast and take little concentration. And I want there to be some connection I can draw between my crocheting and my struggle to understand and articulate: One is largely intellectual, the other is largely craft. But nothing in my life seems to tie itself up neatly these days. The loose ends just hang there, waiting for someone to weave them in.

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