The problem with academic gender studies

I’ve just finished a course in Gender Studies (I say just – it finished it July but I’m still reeling from it in the same way one might reel from a particularly weird and also underwhelming episode of Dr Who, by which I mean EVERY EPISODE OF DR WHO THIS YEAR, GO AWAY MOFFAT, NO ONE LIKES YOU, YOU SMELL FUNNY) and, my God was it all a bit odd. What can I take away from it? Well, firstly, if you ask me to define the the difference between sex and gender, you’d better have a good book to hand or plans to settle down and raise a family, because my response will be long and convoluted and involve a lot of beard stroking, to extent that my beard gets annoyed and files a restraining order, and my conclusion will have no relevance to the original question but I’ll have probably told you my opinions on Foucault at great length and who knows, you might even be able to turn the whole process into an elaborate stage show which you can charge entry for and therefore pay for your hypothetical children from the family you settled down to start to get into University. Genuinely, I’m confused, in a good sort of way, like the way I got confused when I realised, after a particularly long session on Skyrim that I was feeling vague erotic chemistry between me and my Khajiit companion, at which point I had to have a long cold shower and a stiff drink. No, I’m not entirely sure what I’ve been saying for the last minute or so either, but this new free-form, more light-hearted style of writing is a nice contrast to the piles of misery I’m put in this blog thus far, so everyone’s a winner, and no, I don’t know what the difference is between sex and gender, sorry.

I say it was all a bit odd because it was an odd course. I never thought I’d sit in a class room being given a lecture on the finer points of French symbolist feminism and think, God, this whole thing is being run a bit patriarchally, isn’t it, with the whole hierarchy of lecturer’s favourite students, and the vague sense that the course leaders would rather spend a few hours balancing carefully placed bits of cat poo on their heads than actually listening to you. My Gender Studies course was, apparently, the best in the world, according to several University league tables, wasn’t particularly well run and had more faults than San Francisco’s plate tectonics, but I suppose if you had to pin me down to the one biggest fault, imagining for a moment I am not a jaded and highly caffeinated 23 year old depressive wondering if he’s ever going to amount to anything, but am in fact a small fly full of complaints who you’ve pinned to a bit of card or whatever it is young people do for fun these days, I’d say the biggest fault was that we never did any activism. There, four hundred words and lot of half baked similes in and I’ve gotten to my point.

Gender Studies, more so perhaps than any other subject that I can think of, with the exception of maybe Race Studies, is politically rooted in the here and now, the everyday existence of every living person on the planet. Like the baddie in an 80s slasher movie, albeit one who is immensely confusing and whose existence is used to fuck over a significant amount of the human race, we cannot escape Gender, and if we try we just end up making things worse. Questions of gender, gender identity, sex, sexuality, underpin everything we do, the way we act, how we dress, how we think of ourselves, how other people think of us, and the extent to which we can accomplish things in life, because unfortunately we happen to live in a world where if someone happens to look a bit female you can count on a smaller paycheck this month. And it’s not just me who thinks that the academic study of gender, be it under the title of Gender Studies, Women’s Studies, Men’s Studies, whatever you care to call it, is a politically motivated discipline. Women’s Studies (as it was initially called) emerged out of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when gender issues were very in the public mind – the second wave of feminism was suddenly pointing out that men thinking had the right to control women’s reproductive rights was not ok, and the Stonewall Riots suddenly caused a shift from LGBT people as a hidden subculture into a group demanding rights and recognition. The first Women’s Studies courses took place at San Diego State University, and arose out a period of intense political action by feminist groups and feminist academics, and really was an extension of the women’s consciousness raising initiatives that characterised second wave feminism. As Women’s Studies blossomed into Gender Studies and suddenly courses like it spread around the world to Universities, one unifying feature of these disciplines was a sudden, determined academic focus on key questions of social and sexual inequality. Why is it 50% of the human race is almost universally considered lesser? Why is it we have had a historic animosity towards homosexuality or transexuality? Why do men feel they have to conform to such ludicrous standards of behaviour and action? These questions are political questions, and for such questions to be the focus of something as part of the establishment as a University department marks a fundamental shift in how important they were perceived to be.

The flaw in my Gender Studies course was that there was never any emphasis on trying to understand how gender “worked” in the real world, how it affect people and how it united and divided people. Instead, we ended up bogged down in jargon and academic language. Obviously, we’re an academic course, and so there’s going to be a certain amount of theoretical knowledge needed. My criticism is not with this, but with the fact that that theory and jargon seemed to exist in a happy little bubble, unconcerned with how it might be applied to the real world, rather like someone intending to vote UKIP, who hasn’t considered this will condemn the human race to Nigel Farage’s grinning psycho meerkat face on the TV FOREVER. I found myself sometimes trying to draw seminar discussions in direction of relating things to reality. In a seminar on gender and sociology, our lecturer mentioned the fact that fertility clinics often used very different gendered methods of advertising; those seeking gamete donation from women, tended to market themselves as an opportunity to give another woman the chance at a child; everything was about altruism, a shared belief in the importance of maternity. Conversely, campaigns for sperm donation were basically full of wank jokes. Our lecturer quoted one publicity campaign which genuine had picture of a man holding a porn mag, and the phrase “Rub one out to help someone out. Sounds good to me,” a phrase thought up by a marketing team who were presumably all sent to the gulags for fundamental awfulness. Because, obviously, all women want is to give other people babies, because, obviously if you’re female you’re a baby machine whose on a one woman mission to help fix other baby machines which have malfunctioned, and if you’re male, well, wanking. Lol. Isn’t that great?  I raised the point that this brought up a very interesting question of the gendering of humour, a question which, as a comedian, I’ve always found very interesting. I started to talk about my own experience as a comedian, and how at gigs I’d witnessed animosity towards female comedians solely on the grounds that all women supposedly joke about is men and periods, and yet the comedy scene appeared to welcome hordes of knitwear wearing hipsters who recycled the same three jokes about wanking because…well, wanking. Lol. I got about part way through my question, and my own personal experience relating to it, before trailing off due to a death glare from the course leader, whose facial expression seemed to suggest I’d just suggested it might be jolly good fun if we all teabagged our copies of the History of Sexuality, in the hope our gonads would absorb some of Foucault’s wisdom, like a horrible testes-based form of osmosis. The undertone of that glare was “what on earth are you doing bringing up your own personal experience of gender in this classroom? What do you think this is…a…gender studies course? P.S…wanking. Lol.”

Studying my MPhil I struck by the immense dissonance between the language and attitudes I encountered in the classroom with the one’s I had become familiar with in feminist spaces. I came to Gender Studies via gender activism, via being a feminist ally and via learning about patriarchy and privilege theory and intersectionality from women in those groups. The kinds of values, and also the kinds of theory that existed in those spaces was very much at odds with what took place in my department. An interesting example that sits in my mind is the attitude towards Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin is not an easy theorist to read, but she’s powerful and her ideas and arguments (especially with reference to pornography and male sexual violence) seemed to inspire and direct the feelings and political strategies of many of the feminist women I had come to respect and admire. Yet, when I tried to bring up Dworkin in one of our lectures, I got dismissed out of hand. Dworkin wasn’t important. Let’s talk about “phallocentrism” a bit more.

I’m not saying that the theory wasn’t useful, but what good is understanding the concept of subalternity when we talked about it in a vacuum, rather than thought about how it impacted on our lives? Surely the point of Gender Studies should be to empower students, not just teach them – the early Women’s Studies courses were meant to exist to provide not just the intellectual study of sex, but a space where it could be spoken about and engaged with. Why do we, as Gender Studies students, not find ourselves being challenged to think about gender issues which affect us in the here and now? Why are we not both learning about gender and being empowered to go out and challenge rape culture, lad culture, objectification, homophobia, hegemonic and harmful masculine ideals and the other things that actually affect us as living, gendered beings? Why must the academic environment not be the space for these discussions, for these actions? By compartmentalising itself away from the real, lived experience it tries to understand, academic gender studies risks become a bit of an irrelevance. It makes understanding gender seem dry, inaccessible, and appears to have an ambivalence to the people of all genders and sexualities who campaign for reproductive rights or against sexism on campus. Should I end up teaching at a Gender Studies department, which seems to be the fate I have set in store for myself, then I’d want to be able to both teach and empower, to bring together activism and education, so that my students would not simply understand to abstractions of gender, but be able to go and challenge the discrimination of gender in reality. And, no, I still can’t tell you the difference between sex and gender. Stop asking me.


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