Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thinking About Thinking (about Gender)

"If you cannot excercise this kind of choice [to choose what you think about, and how you assign meaning to your experiences] in adult life, you will be totally hosed."
--David Foster Wallce

Margaret mentioned the Star Trek episode "Spectre of the Gun," and then Krista posted a Dean Martin/Ricky Nelson duet, and this all put me in mind of one my favorite mashups:

Note: This is funny & campy, not scary & sexual.
(For the latter, Rick reminds me to recommend Closer. It's about sex, not gender.)

The song "Cowboys Are Secretly Frequently Fond of Each Other" was written by Ned Sublette, covered here by Pansy Division,
but I love it that country-western superstar Willie Nelson recorded it too, saying,
"I thought it was the funniest goddamn song I'd ever heard. I had it on the bus for 20 years, and people would come in and I'd play it. When Brokeback Mountain come out, it just seemed like a good time to kick it out of the closet."
Gender, like the other toys that come along with our Being Human kit,
can be really fun to play around with.
But I was recently reminded how hard it is to rewrite our gender-language programming, even if we want to.

I've been becoming friends with a transgendered person who uses the gender-neutral pronoun "zie" (like s/he), but likes zir friends to refer to zir as "he" in speech.
I find that incredibly hard to do, not because I don't want to
--I do, because I like zir and I believe in the right to self-determination, and besides, it makes no never-mind to me what biological sex this person is--
but because my language settings insist on assigning the pronoun "she" to him.

This reminds me of the sci-fi novel I read recently, Venus Plus X (1960), in which Theodore Sturgeon tries to imagine a post-gender world.
It's not great as a novel, but like a lot of sci-fi, its value is in calling attention to our default settings.

Funnily enough, however, Sturgeon chose to use the pronoun "he" for all the gender neutral characters, which blocks a reader's full entry into his imaginative world.

I notice I've been using the term "default settings" to describe our unconscious, automatic reactions and interpretations of what we experience.

Trying to catch myself in unthinking thinking is an old favorite of mine--but the phrase "default setting" comes from an little book I read the other day:
This Is Water, the text of a commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave in 2005.
(It's really short--if you can't afford it, you can read the whole thing standing up in a bookstore, like I did.)

It's all about how thinking about thinking can save your life.
Alas, thinking alone isn't enough in the face of raging depression, and Wallace took his own life, three years after delivering this speech.

Here's a brief audio clip of Wallace addressing the graduating class:


Rick said...

If you haven't seen it, you might enjoy this somewhat edgier Star Trek mashup:

Also, you might want to check out Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (thematically very similar to Sturgeon's novel, a bit more "modern", and LeGuin is an incredible writer--it won the Hugo Award, etc.).

Sturgeon had one of the funniest titles ever for a story: "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"

Fresca said...

Thanks, RICK, I added that link to the post.
It's about sex more than gender, but, yeah, it definitely has the power to shake up one's automatic settings.

"Closer" was actually the very first Star Trek fanvid I ever saw, a couple years ago when I first started looking into Internet fandom.

I'd loved ST in the 1970s, but I hadn't watched it or kept up with its fandom since then---so imagine my surprise.
And total delight.

I will check out Le Guin--I read her in high school too, but don't remember a thing...

That's a great Sturgeon title--talk about messing with language settings.

Marz said...

How have I not seen that video before?! It's brilliant!!

Perhaps Kirk thinks in gender neutrals, and that's why he goes after men and women, (not officially, but c'mon....there would be no slash without Kirk. He could be reasonably paired with anyone. Kirk/Chekov, Kirk/Sulu, Kirk/Scotty, Kirk/Khan....would love to see that one done, Kirk/Uhura, Kirk/Chapel, etc. It all works!) Everyone is a "zie" to him, and therefore a possible mate.

Fresca said...

MARGARET: Kirk. He gives new meaning to the phrase "plays well with others."

He isn't just post-gender, he's post-species!
Kirk/Gorn, is my favorite---here:

bink said...

I couldn't help laughing when I noticed that the "Teaching You How to Think" vid misspelled special in their "Speacial Thanks" credits. I guess zhey should be teaching zhem a bit more...

Zie-- "du bis; sie sind; er/sie/es est". Ja?

Fresca said...

BINK: I choked on my coffee when I read your comment.
A big "speacial" thanks to you!

momo said...

I love that song!
I've had similar experiences with gender pronouns and people, but also with someone who changes his/her name. It takes time to adjust.

Moment of pedantry (sorry, professional defect!)
Another way of thinking about "default settings" is through linguistics. Ursula K. Leguin tried to create a world in which biology and gender were not binary and fixed, and it was very hard, but it really challenged our thinking, the ways transgender people do.

In Spanish, subject and object pronouns display gender (masculine feminine) in both the singular and the plural: él/ella become ellos/ellas, but when referring to a mixed group, the masculine plural pronoun is used (ellos). AND every thing has a gender, not just animals or creatures. In English gender is only displayed or marked in the singular subject pronoun he/she vs. while the plural does not they/them. And inanimate objects are "it" or "they."
In English we say his and hers for possessive, and gender is marked, but in Spanish, they use "su". Hence, even very good English speakers will sometimes say "her" when they mean "his" or vice versa.

All of this to say that our pronoun systems are shaped by our language, but as with learning another language, we can learn a different system of pronouns with practice and repetition.

momo said...

Comment the second: thank you for sharing the DWF speech, first for him.
and also, I am wrestling with his topic as a teacher and mother of a future college student (I hope!) and someone who is witnessing the agony of change in higher education. I don't know where we'll end up, but I'm not confident about where we seem to be going now.

rr said...

One of my friends was, in a former job, the foremost speech therapist in the UK dealing with transgender clients. Possibly about the only speech therapist etc etc. A fascinating topic because it's not just a matter of vocal pitch (deep voice / high voice) but also vocabulary and body language. Communication is gendered in the bone. As it were.

Fresca said...

MOMO: Thanks--yeah, some of it is just changing habits & pathways, but

as RR points out, those are deeply rooted.

Thanks, all, my head is spinning. In a good way.