Friday, July 27, 2012

Finds Them and Kills Them: Mirrors of Masculinity and Violence

Earlier in the spring semester, I was doing a fairly standard discussion on cross-cultural gender diversity in order to illustrate the constructed character of gender. Like a greatest hits of anthropology, we came to the general institution of Two Spirit, sanctioned identity(ies) among many Native American societies that accommodates people that most Americans would classify as transgender (and many...most would stigmatize as well?). This is usually a relatively easy talk to engage students with as they’re much more titillated by sex and gender than subsistence and economics. A modification to this particular class session amplified that interest level. This time, I added a new individual to the discussion, Osh Tisch, a member of the Crow nation who lived in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Osh Tisch fits the general concept of Two Spirit, but my students were much more taken with her than the other peoples profiled. Osh Tisch acted like an exotic prism--talking about this very different cultural institutions broke down the students’ own views on gender making them much clearer.

Now, I’ve got to follow a quick side track to lay out the frame through which they viewed her. And which, I had spent the previous class session explicitly presenting and critiquing. In the US, gender is most often constructed as a mutually exclusive, hierarchical binary (with men enjoying unearned privilege). This means that gendered values and associations tend to be connected to one and only one gender and those that are connected to men are viewed as positive.

The persistent gender hierarchy always makes me think of high school “powder puff” football games. This ritual explicitly reverses typical gender roles, breaking down then rebuilding persistent social patterns. Young women dress as players and play the game with seriousness, while the young men dress as women and act like buffoons. To be masculine is empowering, to be feminine is humiliating.

While class discussion never explicitly gets to this point, I’m implicitly convinced that most transgender people in the US are viewed with derision. Most of the well-known, or at least visible, transgender individuals that are brought up are males who take on the gendered cues of women. My suburban student demographic still snicker when I use images of cross-dressers or drag queens. In class, it quickly became apparent that Osh Tisch was perceived as, to put it simply, cooler than most transgender folks because my students were viewing her through their own gendered lens.

(get to the point already). Osh Tisch was cool because the students saw her as more “like a man” than the other Two Spirit individuals discussed. Why was she more like a man and not RuPaul? According to several sources, her name, Osh Tisch, means “Finds Them and Kills Them.” If violence has a gender, it’s a man and we celebrate both men and violence. While we have a troubled relationship with actual violence, it’s clear that the stories we tell ourselves are primarily structured on violence as the catalyst of action and change.

I wrote much of this post a few months ago but decided to revisit it in thinking about the mass murder in Colorado last week. While not celebrated, the incident reminds us how men are almost always the perpetrators of dramatic, violent acts. As noted in a recent post over at Neuroanthropology, such persons seem to be acting out according to cultural scripts and among many things, those scripts intertwine men and violence.

The cultural links between masculinity and violence have hit even closer (but thankfully not horribly) to home for me. I have two small sons, the older of which just reached his fourth birthday. He’s recently became fascinated (i.e. obsessed) with comic book superheroes. In our many commutes together, our drive time is full of questions about which villains are in conflict with which heroes. As a parent (and anthropologist too), I’m troubled by the fact that all of these heroic narratives are centered on violence. However, I grew up with all of these stories too, so a big part of me is impatient for his understanding to progress so that we can consume such stories together. None of this is surprising. As his identity is developing, he’s taking on the cues and scripts from our context, which had previously built me.

Student reaction to a celebrated person from another time and cultural context provided a mirror that shows just how much we connect masculinity, hierarchy and violence. Osh Tisch may have dressed like a woman, but she kicked ass.

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