That Pig is a She! Normality of normative maleness

March 22, 2017

My daughter, Cozy, is now 2 years and 7 months old. (I will not say she’s “31 months old.” I won’t.) Seven months ago she had a few words, in English and Spanish. Now she’s having full conversations and saying things like, “Dad, I want the vanilla yogurt” and “Let’s go up Montjuïc!” (Montjuïc is a steep hill in Barcelona and my nickname for the ungodly steep hill on our street.) While I was writing this, she said, “Daddy, you have a booger on your pants. Oh, no. It’s Honey Bunches!” (her favorite cereal). Then she ate it. She is a linguistic sponge. “What’s this? What’s this?” She can’t learn words fast enough.

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The feminist sociologist in me is reminded how language shapes our perceptions of the world. When little boys are told, “Don’t cry like a girl,” there are a bunch of negative messages packed into one little phrase. When I announce the arrival of the “mailman,” it means a “mailwoman” is something odd. (About 40% of letter carriers are female. Ours is named Anthony.) A big issue in language is normative maleness, something I’ve already written about. Male as norm.

One of the most obvious ways this plays out is the language binary around jobs. Actor and actress. Waiter and waitress. Poet and poetress. The female as less. I’ve tried to banish these gendered terms from my vocabulary. Meryl Streep is an actor, Mr. Trump. She’s not an actress. Not in this house. Cozy will hear enough about the “female as less” outside our home. Here, let the message be clear. Now, Dad’s gotta do some laundry.

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This concept was pioneered by French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking 1949 book, The Second Sex. Our general discussion of “mankind” is gendered. When we discuss people, we mean “men” with women as the exception. “There is an absolute human type, the masculine… Thus humanity is male,” de Beauvoir wrote. In academics, when it’s time to talk about gender, that’s often code for female stuff, as if men don’t have gender. (There’s a gang of us that specialize on research on masculinity as gender performance.) This filters into our everyday language. If we don’t know for sure that someone (or something) is female, we just assume that they are male. If somebody reads this he’ll learn about normative maleness. (See what I did there?)

This goes all the way to animals. We assume dogs, birds, and squirrels are all male. “Look at that squirrel in the tree. He must be looking for his nuts.” I grew up around horses, so you kinda know the sex of that one, but don’t ask me to tell you whether that sewer rat is male or female. And we all do this. Even radical feminists like me. Normative maleness has been so wired into my brain, I blurt out “he’s” without even thinking about it. We had a mouse in our bedroom this winter. My wife said, “You gotta kill him!” I didn’t even think to say, “Maybe it’s a her!”

How is hearing all these “he’s” impacting my word-sponge daughter? Is she learning that male is the norm and female is “weird”? The thought stops me in my tracks. It’s not a little thing. IT IS NOT A LITTLE THING. There is a massive ripple effect of hearing this little thing over and over again. Think about how both boys and girls process this repeated message about devaluing the feminine. “He” is normal. “She” is not. Seriously, think about it.

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Cozy and I went to Oregon Zoo this week and I tried to be mindful of this messed-up norm. I made a point of using feminine pronouns more than male ones. “Look at that hippo and how big her teeth are.” “That penguin looks like she’s doing a dance.” “Don’t bother that cougar. I think she’s taking a nap.” (OK, the last one was a lady on a bench.) Her main goal of the day the day was to commune with the flamingos but my main goal of the day was to normalize the feminine. We were looking at a parrot and I asked her if she thought it (I almost said, “he”) was a boy or girl. And she said “boy.” When I asked why she said, “Because he’s silly.” So I don’t know if I achieved my goal or not. It was a pretty silly parrot.

I had a professor at Emory who would switch pronouns each term. Fall semester he would use male pronouns and Spring semester he would use female pronouns. Nobody said anything during the fall class (or noticed it), but they guys really got upset in the spring. It was a brilliant way to make an important point. What were those male students so angry about? That they are also co-eds?

There’s a 50/50 chance that animal your looking at or that person you don’t know is a female. If saying “he or she” seems like too much damn work, why not just say “she” to make up for all the years you’ve said, “he.”  I just hope that if someone reads this, she’ll think about the infinite power of language.

Trump Lessons 1: Is this sexist?

December 22, 2016

In this holiday season, I’m looking for silver bells and silver linings. Barring a half dozen dead hookers being found in a closet in Trump Tower, this practical joke on America is going to be sworn in as president on January 20th. The educator in me wants to figure out how this is a “teachable moment.” How can we glean some value from watching the United States jump the shark?

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As a feminist scholar, there’s a game I play in the classroom when trying to reveal the nature of cultural power imbalances. It’s called, “Put the Stiletto on the Other Foot.” If you want to find out of something might be sexist, flip the sexes and see how plausible it might be. Would there be much a debate about abortion if men got pregnant? What if men were evaluated primarily on their looks instead of their acts? Hey, how about if sorority houses were known for sexually assaulting male students? What if all the men in congress dyed their grey hair and the women in congress didn’t? We could go on and on.

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One of the best examples of this was during the Trump-Clinton contest. A meme went around that asked what the media chat would be Hillary Clinton had five children with three different men? What if Hillary Clinton bragged about grabbing men’s penises and moving on them without restraint? What if Hillary Clinton walked into the dressing rooms to catch boys naked because she owned the contest they were in? Can you imagine?

The point is that there’s an ancient Affirmative Action program called patriarchy that gives men a lot more latitude for bad behavior. Just like our black president had to be the perfect scandal-free executive and it still wasn’t enough, women have to meet a standard far above their male colleagues. On the surface, there should have been no choice between an overly-qualified states-person and a ham-fisted, morally challenged (at best) buffoon. But one was female and held to a completely different and unrealistic standard. Welcome to the world of women.

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So, for the next four years, every time Trump gets a pass at something that Hillary Clinton (or any other woman, for that matter) would have been raked over the coals for, let’s all shout, “There’s the gender card!”

Much was written during the campaign about the sexist double standard in evaluating the candidates. This includes Trump’s countless and daily (hourly?) lies while castigating everyone else as a liar. “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary.” How did he pull it off? If she called him on his shit, she was instantly labeled a “bitch.” It was a no-win situation, invented long before Mr. Trump came along. Smile, honey, but not too much.

The campaign is over. The Russians, I mean, Trump won. But the shit show is just starting. The bar for both Donald and Melania has been dropped to the sub-basement by the droogs that voted for him and continued to support him even after he told them to their faces that 90% of what he said at his rallies was complete bullshit. “Yeah! Huh? Yeah! Drain the swamp!”

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The Stiletto on the Other Foot game has lots of other applications, race being the most obvious one. This time imagine if Obama had five kids with three different women and bragged about sexually assaulting women and then tried to write it off as “locker talk.” These mental games often allow folks to get creative. There’s a clever 1995 film called White Man’s Burden, starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta. It imagines an alternative America where black and white positions in society are switched. The movie bombed. Just too much to process I guess.

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I’ve been thinking lately what would being said right now if Trump was Jewish. With all his “conflicts of interests,” pay-for-play tactics, insider trading positioning, and cabinet filled with Goldman Sachs loyalists, he would be viewed as the worst stereotype of the Jew. As it is, his neo-Nazi (alt-right) followers haven’t even noticed. It’s good to be the king!

I imagine we’ll have a chance to play this game every day for the next four years (unless he quits because people stop believing his “just trust me” mantra). The silver lining here is that it should awake a whole new generation of feminists who start telling the men in their lives, “Don’t think you can get away with it just because Trump can.” Then the next question should be, “And why can he get away with it if you can’t?” Donald Trump is the poster boy for white male privilege and he’s going to exalt that to his dying day. He’s clueless. His presidency will do more to discredit unchecked male power than all the Women’s Studies classes in the world.

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The Dream Police Are Inside My Head

October 6, 2016

How do you go back in time and fix a mistake to change the course of your life? How do you channel all the things you are passionate about into one story of redemption or escape?

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These were the questions I faced when I sat down to write The Dream Police early last year. The follow up to The Mission of the Sacred Heart was published this week and the Kindle version is available today. Like Mission, it is rooted in the true events of my life. Like Mission, it is a “rock novel,” a work of musical fiction, inspired by a classic rock album from my youth. And like Mission, it is a complex piece of literature that can’t easy be described in a quick elevator speech. But I think it is an important work that emerged from the plasma in my veins and the neurons in my synapses. So let me try to share with you why you might be interested in this story.

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First and foremost, anyone who reads this will probably be able to understand why I had to leave my tenured position at Portland State University last year. There is a sexual paranoia that has invaded college campuses. Disguised as the important and real work that is earnestly meant to stop sexual harassment and aggression in an institution that often turns a blind eye, it is a form of fake feminism that undermines actual feminism. It sees all women as victims and all men as aggressors and ignores the agency of women and the complexity of the sexual dance between consulting adults.

As a male feminist, I’ve wanted to write about this sticky swamp for years. Then it happened to me. I was the subject of a witch hunt that stopped cold the important work I was doing at the university, including raising awareness of the importance of dismantling patriarchal power. The question was what to do with my anger at the real villains in this true-life tale. I didn’t want to go on a workplace shooting spree (Who would the local media ask to comment on it?), so I chose to write this story.

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Second, as a Portland sociologist, there are a host of sociological issues I confront on a regular basis. Portland has been named the most gentrified city in America. My neighborhood tienda is being turned into an artisan salt shop as I write this. My first academic  publication in 1991 dealt with issue (although I called it “yupification”). Gentrification is changing the face of urban America and I feel like I’m in a good position to write about it. It becomes a metaphor for how are lives change around us in ways we both love and hate.

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My research on white supremacist groups began moving into prisons about ten years ago. White prison gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood and European Kindred, have become a growing problem outside prisons, including a recent murder just outside of Portland. A former racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison instigated my nightmare at PSU, so it was a perfect opportunity to bring a bit of light to the issue.

There are plenty of other issues floating around, including how your favorite rock song becomes your least favorite commercial, the backlash against unionization, the grieving process following the death of loved ones, and the dangers of spending too much time online scrolling through your social media. All this gets folded into The Dream Police.

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Then there is the unifying theme of lucid dreaming. If you could be conscious in your dreams, what would you do? My first thought is that I’d go see The Beatles play. Maybe I’d revisit the woods I played in as a child. How about a beer with Karl Marx and Halle Berry? It’s wide open. Some people lucid dream every night. Andrea and I practiced it while I was writing the book and had some cool experiences. Zak and Lenny, the central characters of The Dream Police, use lucid dreaming to visit some musical landmarks, but also revisit moments in their own lives to explore alternative paths. Zak’s pregnant wife was killed in a car crash, so he’s fixated on going back in time to change just one small thing.

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Finally, this book is about music and how music moves us forward in life. When I was teenager, I spent a lot of time in my room listening to albums. This included Cheap Trick’s 1979 Dream Police LP. The record was a whole world to me and I constructed this book around that themes in that album and dozens of Cheap Trick songs. The book also deals with the growing voice of women in rock and the shrinking opportunities for musicians to capitalize on their own music.

I think it’s important to tackle the minefield of gender politics. I was honored to do it in the classroom for over twenty years. Social research and punditry are also forums for it and fiction is another. I was thrilled to be listed as one of the representatives of the new genre of musical fiction in Wikipedia. It’s a great opportunity to be like my teenage heroes, The Clash, and use a good backbeat to get people to think about big issues.

In the end, I just want to tell a good story and maybe take readers to some unexpected places. Author Brian Paone, in his review, wrote, “Blazak pushes the reader through an endless web of a chess game that every time you think you have checkmate, a pawn appears out of nowhere, sending everything you thought was real into a tailspin.” In the last few years I’ve been through a lot. I’ve also thought a lot and grown a lot. It all goes into a story that reflects the complexity and dream-like state of my own journey. It feels good to have created a piece of literary fiction that my daughter could read some day. I hope you will read it now.

NOTE: Because, as a parent I feel I have to do something about the children of Aleppo, 10% of all book sales are going to UNICEF’s Syrian relief fund.

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