Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On Caitlyn Jenner, Gender, and Belonging

Bruce Jenner recently underwent surgery and treatment to transition to being a woman, now going by the name Caitlyn.

Numerous people have responded, some positive, some negative. I have mostly stayed out of these discussions, but a few recent posts making their way around Facebook have made it difficult for me to keep quiet about my views on this issue.

Two posts, in particular, sparked a strong negative reaction from me - so strong, in fact, that I had to close my laptop and walk away. I do not want to give these posts any more attention than they've already received, so instead of linking to them, I'll summarize.

One was written by a woman who had breast cancer. While I certainly empathize with how difficult that must have been, she used this story as a way to define womanhood - traits, she insists, she has and Caitlyn Jenner does not. She describes being a single mom - once again, something I can imagine wasn't easy. She also repeatedly and incorrectly used the term female.

We briefly interrupt this blog post for a public service announcement: female is an adjective, woman is a noun. We now return to your regularly scheduled blog post.

She signs her post, which was addressed directly to Caitlyn, "a real woman." I hope you're rolling your eyes as much as I was (and still am).

The second was even more infuriating. She goes so far as to call Caitlyn's statement that she "identifies as a woman" offensive. She proceeds to list out all of the factors that make a woman a woman, including many references to getting married and having multiple children - dealing with morning sickness and other unpleasant symptoms during pregnancy and in one case, giving birth to a 10 lb baby without drugs.

I have to admit, I laughed out loud when she said Caitlyn's statement was offensive. This woman is too busy distributing woman cards (to those she deems worthy) and giving herself a big pat on the back to even notice how her narrow definition of womanhood is biased by her own experience and values. Let alone how much her statement excludes others.

Let's dissect Caitlyn's statements that had Real Woman and World's Greatest Mom (and these two will now be referred to as RW and WGM, respectively) so offended. Caitlyn says, "I identify as a woman." There is nothing in that statement that excludes others. As with a recent post I read examining the "Black Lives Matter" movement, there is an implicit "too" in this statement. Caitlyn isn't calling into question who else gets to call herself a woman. She isn't outlining the basic prerequisites for someone to call herself a woman. The statement is, essentially, "I identify as a woman too."

Caitlyn asks that we address her as "her," not "him." Again, nothing in that statement excludes other women. Regardless of how you feel about gender reassignment, the least we can do is call people what they want to be called, right?

Caitlyn's statements are about acceptance and belonging. RW's and WGM's statements are about bashing and excluding.

Part of the venom behind these attacks on Caitlyn, who simply wants to be recognized as part of a group with which she identifies, is likely a misunderstanding of the difference between (biological) sex and gender.

Sex is at the chromosomal level, which results in the development of internal sex organs. While the so-called sex hormones are typically associated with men (testosterone) or women (progesterone and estrogen), both sexes possess these hormones, at differing levels.

Yes, there are physical aspects associated with womanhood, though many of those aspects vary a great deal from person to person. Breasts, for example: not all women have large or even noticeable breasts, and men can also grow breasts for a variety of reasons. In fact, although rare, men can also get breast cancer. Having, and losing, breasts does not a woman make.

Gender, on the other hand, is a social term, referring to the concepts of masculinity and femininity in society. By interacting with others, we learn behaviors and traits associated with being a man or woman. Not only is womanhood socially constructed, it is also culturally influenced. The idea of what is a "woman" in Western cultures differs markedly from the idea in Eastern cultures.

And the differences can become even more nuanced and further subdivided by looking at smaller and smaller populations and groups. In fact, the posts by RW and WGM - while there are references to biological notions of womanhood, such as pregnancy - are strongly biased toward social (behavioral) notions of womanhood.

And even the ability to become pregnant shouldn’t define womanhood.

Does being incapable of getting pregnant mean you aren't a woman? Does consciously choosing not to have children mean you aren't a woman? What happens then to women who go through menopause and are no longer able to get pregnant - do they stop being women? As a (thus far) childless woman (and a friend of many childless women), I find that far more offensive than RW and WGM should find Caitlyn's statements. While I would like children someday, I recognize that for many women, this isn't that important to them.

And it doesn't have to be. In fact, insisting that pregnancy be a component in the definition of woman is simply dialing back the clock to a time when the only contribution a woman could make to our society was reproducing. When her worth was determined by her ability to bear healthy (and in some cases, emphasis on male) children. A time countless women and men have worked hard to move away from.

If RW and WGM had simply written posts about being women and the traits and characteristics that make them feel like women, that would have been fine. It's fine to be proud that you've given birth to three beautiful children and that you aspire to be a great mom. It's fine to be proud that you didn't let breast cancer beat you. Or that you raised a child on your own. I think most women would happily gather around and listen to other women's stories of strength.

But why must these declarations of pride take a backseat to excluding someone you don't want at the woman table? Being a woman is hard. We should find our strength through each other. Not by knocking others down.

A Fellow Woman

Sunday, July 12, 2015

My 26 Book Reading Challenge or How to Put Way Too Much Thought into Your Reading List (Without Really Trying)

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I'm doing a 26-book reading challenge this year. Here's the information about the challenge; I don't usually enjoy cutesy, scavenger-hunt-esque challenges, but I love reading, and this one was actually kind of fun.

Though it's only a little more than halfway through the year, I have my 26 books (almost completely) figured out. The order presented below is the original challenge order; I decided I didn't have to follow that order and had one of my own. Here's the list with a little commentary:

Own but Haven't Read:
Deeply Odd by Dean Koontz
Status: Read

I've mentioned the Odd Thomas books before. I'm generally not a Dean Koontz fan, but stumbled upon Odd during a Netflix binge, when I watched a movie adaptation of what turned out to be the first book in this series. I liked the character Odd so much that I looked into whether more movies were made/being made, and found out it was a book series. The later books in the series weren't really as good as the first few, but still enjoyable. I think when I got to that point, I mostly wanted to see how it ended, and I was, for the most part, pleased with the ending.

Made Into a Movie: 
Needful Things by Stephen King
Status: Read

I read a lot of Stephen King as a child/teenager, in part because of my lifelong love of horror movies. It had been a while since I picked up one of his books, but started up again recently with The Dark Tower series, 'salem's Lot, and The Stand. The thing I love about King is that his stories are always very detailed with lots of interesting subplots. My complaint is, well, his stories are always very detailed with lots of interesting subplots. They can be exhausting to pick up, because you can already see the length (due to the book's size) and know that, though the basic story will be relatively simple, the path takes many interesting twists and turns. Once I start reading, I get pulled in right away. This was especially the case for the next book on the list.

Picked For its Cover: 
Finders Keepers by Stephen King
Status: Read

I actually had this one on my to-read list already, because it is the sequel to Mr. Mercedes. I had forgotten when it came out though, but was out shopping and noticed the cover, recognizing its similarity to the first book in the series (and knowing right away, without having to read the blurb, that I wanted to read it). So I'm kind of fudging the "picked for its cover"-ness, but hey, I think it counts.

Friend Loves: 
(tentatively) Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Status: To-Read

I'll be honest: I'm a little unsure of whether I want to tackle this one. If you think a Stephen King book looks dauntingly long, take a look at this book; you can do some damage with even a softcover edition. But I love the movies, and feel like a hypocrite for never having reading the book. I have it on my list because I have quite a few friends who love it, but probably an equal number who hate it. If any friend has another recommendation, I'd definitely entertain it.

Published This Year: 
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Status: To-Read

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and was thrilled to discover a "sequel" (actually written before, though) was being published. I've heard mixed things, through friends and by reading reviews, but this is a book I want to experience for myself regardless.

Author You've Never Read Before: 
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Status: Read

I was killing time in a book store (one of my favorite activities) while waiting to meet up with a friend, when I checked out the "our staff loves" section. The name of the book was fascinating, and after reading the blurb, I was excited to read it. In fact, funny coincidence - the friend I met up with had read (and enjoyed) the book, which led to another recommendation also included in my challenge.

Author You Love: 
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Status: Read

I know I have a lot of Stephen King on this list. As I said, I hadn't been reading as much of his stuff until a few years ago. This book is a sequel to King's The Shining, a story even most non-King fans would know. It takes place many years after the events in The Shining, focusing on Danny Torrance, the little boy who could shine.

Bottom of "To Read" Pile: 
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame Smith
Status: Read

I picked this book up when it was new based solely on the title, then kept pushing it back for one reason or another. This challenge was the perfect opportunity to make myself sit down and read it. It was very good. Obviously, don't go looking for much of a history lesson, but if you enjoy revisionist history as much as me, you'll like it.

Color in the Title: 
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Status: To-Read

I loved the movie. Once again, I feel like I should visit the source material. However, this is another one I'm on the fence about at the moment. I'm worried that some of the characters, who were already pretty intense in the movie, will be even more intense when we can get inside their minds. Anyone have a recommendation with a color in the title? (WARNING: I have absolutely no interest in reading  Fifty Shades of Grey. None.)

Set Somewhere You Want to Visit: 
The Ring by Koji Suzuki
Status: Read

This one could have also been "bottom of the 'to read' pile," since I owned it for a very long time (and in fact moved it twice) before reading it. This book is the basis for the well-known horror movies, Ringu (Japanese version) and The Ring (American version). However, the movies differ markedly from the book. I wondered if reading about the events would be as scary as watching, but the cool thing about the book is that it could share things that weren't easily shared through the movies - that watching the video was a full-body experience, including physical and emotional sensations that would be hard to depict on screen. This book is the first in a series of four books - I plan on reading the rest at some point.

Started but Never Finished: 
Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk
Status: To-Read

This book is similar to A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, in that the story, told by the main character, uses unfamiliar slang. The reader has to catch on as best as s/he can while reading. This is challenging at first, but very rewarding in the long run. However, I couldn't stick with Pygmy long enough to understand his speech. Time to revisit and (hopefully) finish!

Lion, Witch, or Wardrobe: 
The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman
Status: Read

The point of this part of the challenge is not to read The Chronicles of Narnia, but to read any book that involves a lion, a witch, or a wardrobe. I selected the third book in a series that is kind of an adult version of The Chronicles... or Harry Potter... series.

Female Heroine: 
Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk
Status: Read

This book is also a sequel to Damned, which is a little like The Breakfast Club if it were set in Hell.  No, really. Funny, provocative, and just a little crazy - this is why Chuck is one of my favorite authors.

Set in the Summer: 
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Status: Read

I adore Ray Bradbury, and have been told by many: "This book changed my life." I'll admit, I had some trouble getting into it. It's similar to The Martian Chronicles, in that it's more of a series of short stories with common themes, characters, and situations. I wasn't pulled in as much as I was for The Martian Chronicles, however; but I did enjoy it as I got farther along.

Everytime a Knot is Undone, a God is Released by Barbara Chase-Riboud
Status: To-Read

I'm not a big poetry reader, and beyond some of the classics, could not name very many poets. I picked this book based on the title.

Learned about Because of This Challenge: 
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Status: Read

I was spending a lot more time on Goodreads because of this challenge, and this book popped up as one I would like. I probably would have discovered it otherwise, because a lot of my friends read/plan to read it. I'm also a big fan of mysteries, and this is a good one. It's been compared to Gone Girl, but I think this book is better.

Will Make You Smarter: 
Police Interrogation and American Justice by Richard A. Leo
Status: To-Read

I cited the work of Leo many times when teaching Psychology and Law. His work deals with ways in which police follow the letter of the law but not the "spirit" of the law, for things like Miranda rights. He makes some fascinating points, both psychologically (in terms of how small things can make a suspect waive rights for an attorney, to remain silent, etc.) and ethically (that these practices violate the purpose of these policies). I'm looking forward to reading more of his thought of this topic, even though I don't really work in this subfield anymore.

Blue Cover: 
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Status: To-Read

I'm familiar with many of Patricia Highsmith's books because of various movie adaptations (and if you look her up, you'll realize you are too) but have never actually read one of them. I definitely wanted to include one of hers on this list and I decided to start with one of her most well known.

Supposed to Read in School But Didn't: 
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Status: Read

Disclaimer: I read this book in school. In fact, I couldn't think of a book I had been assigned that I didn't actually read, so I decided to revisit this one.

"Everyone" Has Read But You: 
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Status: To-Read

I have owned this book for years. I have never been able to make it past chapter two. So not engaging. But enough people have told me how much they love this book that I think, maybe I'm missing something, so I'm going to try to push on through this time. I do, however, keep pushing it down in my to-read order...

Great First Line: 
Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler
Status: To-Read

A friend of mine gave me a mug of great first lines as a thank you gift. I use that mug just about every day at work. While I've certainly read and enjoyed books without a great first line, when I'm on the hunt for a new book, I sometimes randomly pick up books and read the first page. If I really want to find out what it says on page 2, I buy it. Otherwise, I move on. So I'm giving authors a little more time to get me hooked but still, this method depends on having a good first line. I always keep the importance of a first line in mind when writing, and try to at the very least, avoid some cliches.

With Pictures: 
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer
Status: To-Read

This book was recommended by a friend, and I also think my mom has mentioned it before. I enjoy reading children's books every once in while, though I have no desire to write for children (and no delusions that I would make a good children's writer). Apparently, this book has some great puns.

From the Library: 
American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett
Status: Reading Now

This book also would have fit under "chosen for the cover." The moment I saw it, I was fascinated and curious. When you break it down, it's actually a really simple image, but it sets the stage that many things are not quite right. The book was catalogued as science fiction/fantasy, and is about a young woman named Mona Bright whose mother left her a house in Wink, New Mexico (a house she didn't even know existed). I just started reading it today, but the first couple of chapters did not disappoint.

Loved - Read it Again!: 
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Status: Read

I blogged about this read, so I won't revisit it here.

More than 10 Years Old: 
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Status: Read

This book was recommended by the same friend who read and enjoyed The Windup Girl

Based on a True Story: 
Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter by Randy Schmidt
Status: To-Read

I picked this book up at the library when I got American Elsewhere, so this one is next on my reading list. I actually went to the biography section looking for something completely different, and happened to notice this book on the shelf. My mom was always a big fan of the Carpenters, and I heard a lot of their music as a kid; I knew it was Christmas when their Christmas album was on the record player. Sadly, Karen died young due to complications from anorexia. I'd heard about Karen's life through various sources, and wanted to learn more, but the only biography I could find about Karen (when I looked several years ago) is out of print.

Those are my selections! Any thoughts or additional recommendations? Let me know in the comments!

Literately yours,