Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Ablow and Bono

In recent days, the latest entry into minor celebrity/cable news feuds has bubbled to the surface. Psychiatrist and Fox News contributor, Keith Ablow, caused a small stir by advising parents not to let their children watch the new season of Dancing with the Stars. Specifically, he argues that the presence and supposed celebration of Chaz Bono could impair the normal development of children’s gender identity during formative periods. Of course, Chaz Bono’s controversial personhood stems from his undergoing transsexual surgeries and hormone therapies, changing his body from looking like that of a woman into a man.

In reading Ablow’s statement at Fox News, I am horrified that I might agree with part of his assessment. Though, I think my agreement comes from taking certain aspects of his argument out of context. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t claim children should be shielded from Chaz Bono , though, I might argue that the background perpetuation of sexist ideas of women as scantily clad sex objects on the show would be one reason to prevent my sons from watching. I also don’t think I agree with some underlying assumptions that I feel inform his analysis, discussed in subsequent paragraphs. However, Ablow states:

It is a toxic and unnecessary byproduct of the tragic celebration of transgender surgery that millions of young people who do watch "Dancing with the Stars" will have to ponder this question: Maybe my problems really stem from the fact that I’m a girl inside a boy’s body (or a boy inside a girls body). Maybe I’m not a tomboy; I’m just a boy! Maybe I’m not just being bullied because I’m a sensitive, reflective young man interested in flowers, not football. Maybe I’m not just uncertain about my sexuality. Maybe I’m a girl! Maybe all this angst and suffering I’m feeling as I emerge into puberty and pass through it isn’t just because I’m changing, but because I should change completely—and have my breasts removed or my penis amputated!

How about it’s just okay for a tomboy to be a tomboy? How about a young man that doesn’t fit typical masculine stereotypes be okay just as that? Folks should be able to embrace and perform whatever mix of gender they like without needing to resort to expensive and potentially dangerous surgeries (after all, all surgeries have risk). While I haven’t researched all of Ablow’s views, I hope he holds similar ones on plastic surgery in general.

While transsexual procedures, like Bono’s, often elicit voyeuristic interest as it titillates the public through violations of standard cultural constructions, at a basic level, such procedures simply reproduce those same standard cultural constructions. I’m not going to psychoanalyze Chaz Bono, but his pursuit of the physical trappings of masculinity reinforce the idea that biology determines gender. While Bono recently stated that “Gender is something between your ears, not between your legs,” the fact that he has been actively seeking to change his body suggests that he doesn’t fully embrace this sentiment.

Before you start thinking I’m itching to hang with Dr. Keith and his buddy Glenn Beck, I think there are some big problems with his assumptions.

But Chaz Bono should not be applauded for asserting she is a man (and goes about trying to look like one) any more than a woman who believes she will be happier without arms, has them removed and then continues to assert that she was right all along—her self-concept was that of a double amputee. Now, all is well.

It would be wrong to think that gender dysphoria—discomfort with one’s gender—must always end either in misery or sexual reassignment surgery. It can end with coming to terms with deep psychological conflicts that are fueling the gender dysphoria.

While not said explicitly, this quote suggests that Ablow believes that people are born as fundamentally a man or a woman and happiness comes from realizing that and remaining that way. Underneath Ablow’s statement seems to be the idea that gender represents the natural unfolding of latent behavioral dispositions based on some innate biological foundation. From my position as an anthropologist, I seriously challenge that idea as ethnographic research has shown a good deal of variability in exactly what gender is and what it means to an individual and a society. Using exaggerated comparisons (comparing transsexuals to folks intentionally seeking amputations or tails sounds a bit like the dubious arguments against same-sex marriage that warn of the impending onslaught of man-dog and woman-tree marital unions), he warns, don’t change what you essentially are. I would argue, however, that any psychological conflicts that stem from such beliefs ultimately originate in a culture that conceives of gender as binary, mutually exclusive and tied to some essential biology.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that folks who undergo transsexual procedures or experience gender dysphoria are not suffering real pain and anguish. I’m arguing that that pain and anguish stem from a culture that only allows legitimate space for two and only two very specific gender categories and if an individual doesn’t fall nicely into one of those two, they’re marginalized into a “no man’s land” (unfortunate term) of social stigmatization. The individual experiencing the confusion is is not at fault here, it’s the culture.

From very different ends of the spectrum, Ablow and Bono reify this very construction. Ablow says don’t mess with what you’re born with; Bono says mess with it if you’re born into the wrong one of two categories. While Bono and other transsexuals do challenge the idea that gender is a “natural” thing that emerges from genitalia and chromosomes, he still re-inscribes the idea that there are two, distinct genders.

I tend to sympathize with the agenda of radical feminism which sees gender largely as a system of stratification that denies rights and symbolic and material resources to some (women) for the benefit of others (men). Directly contra Ablow’s argument, I believe the more we see folks who do not conform to standard gender orthodoxy, the more unsteady that orthodoxy becomes. For people interested in fairness and equality, that’s a good thing.

Note--the more I look at the title for this post, the more I'm enamored by the aesthetics of its phonetics. Wow, I really like that last phrase too. It would be a great name for a television show--On Ablow and Bono: the Aesthetics of Phonetics.

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