You’re doing a PhD? Let me tell you how stupid that is!

In the past week, as I have wrapped up my nine-to-five job in Communications, I have had a lot of discussions about my next adventure. Namely, my embarcation on a PhD in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies at York University here in Toronto.

Now, as a feminist and queer woman who blogs about the troubles with the world and has generally engaged in queer activism, I am used to people saying stupid shit to me. However, I have been floored by the level of disrespect and pure ignorance I have met with this past week as I discuss this transition with former colleagues, neighbours and general acquaintances.

But why must you do this? But why musts you do this? Photo Credit: jmatthew3 via Compfight cc

Firstly, no one seems to know what a PhD is. “How long will that take, a year?” has been quite a common reaction. Most people have been insistent that having a PhD is just the same as having a Master’s degree (actually, no. It’s really, really not.), “and we all know Masters are worthless these days.” No one seems to understand this is vocational training, similar to training to be a lawyer or doctor, and certainly of a similar length to the latter.

People also seem to have selective amnesia about my decision. After a company-wide email congratulating me on my acceptance into a PhD program, plus several discussions in the kitchen, people at work still wanted to know more about my Masters program. In a culture that devalues being a student, women and especially – duh – feminism, I interpreted this as a semi-conscious attempt to undermine me and my achievements.

People also found the name of my program confusing. In fact, as soon as I started the phrase “Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies” I could see their eyes begin to glaze over. The word that seemed to stick out from that title was, obviously, “feminist” and, instead of respectfully asking me what I was going to work on, most people took this word as an opportunity to rant about feminism. Whether they were telling me feminism is unnecessary, asking me if I believed in gender equality (what do you think?), or saying something surprisingly sensible about our obsession with masculinity as a culture, nobody actually wanted to engage with me about the topic. People were using my statement as an opportunity to sound off about whatever random opinion they had about feminism. Nobody was listening to me or wanted to hear what I had to say.

This is a pretty disrespectful attitude. Although I do imagine that many professionals are subjected to people’s rambling associations when discussing their vocation with people outside the field, I do think that the fact I mentioned the words “feminism” and “studying” spoke to a double-whammy of disrespect that we have as a culture, both for women and women’s rights (e.g. feminism), and for students. Please, do take my vocation as an excuse to tell me why you think what I’m doing is worthless. Please do. I can’t wait to hear all about it.

All this has left me wondering how to react. Although pursuing a PhD is very different to an undergraduate degree, I am loathe to try and distance myself from undergraduates in order to get more respect. Students should be respected no matter their level of study, and I don’t want to get into an ‘I’m-not-one-of-them’ structure of proving my worth.

Right now, I don’t know how I am going to deal with the bullshit people will say to me over the next six years. Maybe I need to come up with a few stock witty repartees, or work on developing a thick skin. How about you, dear readers? How would you prove the worth of your life choices in one simple sentence, or would you not bother and leave these idiots to fester in their own stupidity?

Is men and masculinity studies really radical?

Men and masculinity studies is old hat, so why is The New York Times pretending it’s new?

My initial response to last week’s article in The New York Times about a new men and masculinities program being offered at Stonybrook University in New York State was outrage. I wasn’t outraged that such a program exists, but I was outraged that The New York Times was framing it as something new.

According to The New York Times, men and masculinity studies is a brand spanking new field of study and we should all be shocked. A Master’s Degree in…Masculinity? presents Stonybrook professor Michael Kimmel as a pioneer in masculinity studies and insists (against our supposed disbelief) that “yes, that’s a real [thing].” But most feminist academics will know that masculinity studies already exists. And it’s called gender studies.

Yes, gender does include masculinity, people.

Sheet music cover picture for the song
Sheet music cover picture for the song “We Men Must Grow A Mustache.” 1922 Inset photo of bandleader Abe Lyman.

The New York Times article seems predicated on the tired belief that feminists – in this case, feminist scholars – don’t give a shit about men. It assumes that feminist scholars don’t write, think and talk about men. Well, I’ve got news for you – we do.

Let’s be clear: studying men and masculinity has been a part of women’s studies since women’s studies inception in the late sixties. In fact, it’s impossible to interrogate what ‘woman’ means without interrogating what ‘man’ means. The two are irrevocably linked.

Any self-respecting student in the humanities or social sciences should and will be made to interrogate what masculinity means in the context of their discipline. Not only is any investigation into these disciplines an exercise in what men have been creating, thinking and writing about for the last 2,000 years, but students are also encouraged to think about what it means that men get to decide what history is, what art is, and who is sane and who is crazy. Humanities and the social sciences are always a critical investigation of men and masculinities.

My anger here is not that men and masculinity Studies exists (it should), but that it’s being framed as separate from women’ studies. All of the macho behaviours associated with the pressure to prove your masculinity – violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, speeding – are performed against and in response to the existence of femininity in the world. Without a cultural understanding of women as feminine and femininity as weak, we wouldn’t have macho masculinities. It’s disingenuous to separate men and masculinity studies from feminism in this way, especially by implying that masculinity studies is a new and independent field.

Michael Kimmel’s work recognizes that he is writing in a tradition of critical interrogation of what gender means. But The New York Times article makes it sound all new and crazy that people are studying masculinity. Erm, this has always been one of the premises of feminism. That masculinity is just as much of a construct as femininity, and both need to be interrogated.

Of course, it does Michael Kimmel’s career a whole lot of good to be complicit in this framing of men and masculinity studies as a new thing. It makes him look like a vanguard in this area. But, the truth is, he’s not.

Although I think that studying men and masculinities is a good thing, and will help advance our understanding of gender so that we can all embody our genders in ways that are less violent and harmful to everyone, I am also ambivalent about the formation of a Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Masculinity and men cannot be studied without studying femininity and women. The genders are completely reliant on each other for their existence as apparently real things in the world.

In all, the framing of Michael Kimmel’s exploration of masculinity as a new frontier in academia is utterly bogus. My suggestion to the The New York Times is, go and do your research. And stop relying on tropes of feminist scholarship as man-hating in order to boost your web traffic. The end.

When two become one…NOT

I have long written about the hierarchies of relationship status within Western society and how fucked up they are. When single, I fought against the idea that I needed a partner (preferably a man, if not then a woman would do) to ‘complete’ me. As a fiercely intelligent, grumpy and ambitious woman I didn’t think I needed anyone by my side to prove to others how awesome I am. At the same time that I actually did want to be in a relationship, I also didn’t think I needed a partner to validate my awesomeness. I knew I was enough by myself, and I wanted to be in a relationship for other reasons.

Now that I am in a relationship, I am still frustrated by this dynamic. I benefit A LOT from having a partner. I now have someone to bring to the work dinner, someone to go on vacation with and someone to ward off unwanted male attention. I have someone to talk about when new acquaintance is trying to get to know me better by asking the socially prescribed questions, and I no longer have to deal with awkward silences or pitying expressions when I say I am single. Even better, my partner goes by male pronouns, hiding my queerness and making me sound like I fit right in with straight society. (And, yes, in case you didn’t realize, most of this preceding paragraph should be read in a sarcastic tone.

two become one
When a couple literally melds into one person…

So, given the above, it really pisses me off that I am treated differently now I have a partner. Even by my feminist friends. People have stopped inviting me out as much, assuming I want to spend every second of my spare time staring into my beau’s eyes. They’ve even stopped inviting me out directly, and starting asking my partner to do things, assuming that I will just accompany him like a passive dog at his heels. And this behaviour, from self-professed queer feminists, I find unacceptable.

I have tried to avoid making these assumptions in my own life. I try not to ask one half of a couple, assuming the other half will trot along beside them, but ask each person separately as if they are, shock horror, individual people with distinct social lives. Given that, I know I’m not perfect and, despite my righteous indignation, I know I’ve committed the old ask-one-expect-two invitation style.

However, enough is enough and I think we should all, as self-respecting feminist men, women and queers, get over our linguistic laziness and send an invitation to each person we want to come to our events. After all, isn’t this just an extension of the formal Mr. & Mrs. L. Brightwell. Who needs a name, right, when you’ve got a husband?

Should trans men be allowed into women’s colleges?

It would be an understatement to say I was pretty bothered by some of the views expressed in The New York Times Magazine’s article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley”. Despite the sensationalist title, the article was a well-rounded read, discussing diverse attitudes towards the inclusion of trans men at women-only college Wellesley in the US. I’m not going to descontruct some of the opinions expressed by the trans men in the article, because that has been done so brilliantly elsewhere. However, I do want to examine why we, as women and/or queers, welcome trans men into women-only spaces. And why don’t we welcome trans women?

My knee jerk reaction to the article’s implied question ‘Should trans men be allowed to attend women’s only colleges’ is ‘no.’ I don’t think a women-only space should be coopted by men, no matter whether trans or cis. I have always found the common inclusion of trans men in women-only spaces highly problematic. In the left-wing dyke queer scene, this inclusion usually simultaneously excludes trans women, whether explicitly or by sheer numbers. I feel this dynamic is offensive to both trans men and trans women.

When we say trans men are welcome in women-only/dyke-only spaces, aren’t we effectively saying that we don’t see them as men? That their female-assigned-at-birth status trumps their identification as men? When trans men participate in this inclusion, I also wonder why. Maybe they don’t want to give up a space they were formerly a member of. Maybe they simply haven’t examined the problematic dynamic of men taking up women’s space.

I just didn't want the first pic to be Cathy Puke Brennan
I just didn’t want the first pic to be Cathy Brennan

Although it may be bittersweet, transitioning means you do have to give up some things. For a trans man, he may have to give up the openness of women around those they perceive as other women. He may have to give up access to a dyke club, to a sisterhood. But, this is part of being a man. Sad as it is, the sexism inherent in our world means that women are mistrustful of men. Whether or not it is sad, women-only spaces are necessary and demanding to inhabit that space, as a man, is ignorant at best and misogynist at worse. It is clear that having been female assigned at birth does not give trans men ‘special insight woman powers,’ otherwise trans men might realize how women are routinely pushed out of physical, financial, institutional space. They then might realize how they are participating in that exclusion and cede the space to women.

It is also tragic that the inclusion of trans men in many women-only spaces often goes hand-in-hand with the exclusion of trans women. It’s weird to me that trans men would want to participate in this dynamic because it so obviously stems from seeing trans men and women as the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than the gender they actually are. Trans men are allowed in women’s spaces because they are perceived to not really be men, and trans women aren’t allowed in because they are perceived to be men. That feminist spaces perpetuate this transphobic dynamic saddens me.

Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women's spaces?
Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women’s spaces?

However, the exclusion of trans men from women’s colleges isn’t as clear cut as we might like to think. Although trans men shouldn’t attend a women’s college, what about students who as FAB (female-assigned-at-birth) and gender queer? If gender is a spectrum, where should the cut off line be drawn? Although a butch woman should undeniably be allowed to attend a women’s college, what about a FAB trans gender queer person who takes testosterone but doesn’t identify as a trans man? As the New York Times article posits, you could say that, by challenging gender norms, gender queer folk and masculine women are being true to the spirit of women-only colleges.

I don’t have the answer to this last question, so I would appreciate any of your insights. What do you think about this debate? Should any lines be drawn?

Here’s some food for thought by the great thinker, Julia Serano: