American culture isn’t something I write much about here, at least not in the abstract, but a couple of things I heard today got me thinking. First, at a Center for American Progress panel on the African-American vote in 2012, there was a question from an audience member (an older, white, male career soldier) who suggested that those of us who do not vote cannot call ourselves Americans. Then, this evening, I was having a discussion about the London riots with a British friend who was telling me how Americans online have been baffled at the idea of people defending themselves with pepper spray and the like because “around here if you tried to bring violence like this to our homes you’d be staring down the barrel of shotguns, hunting rifles, and handguns.”
These two things coalesced in my mind because I think they’re excellent examples of the American mythos that often shows up as a giant obstacle in my radical, gender-bending work. This mythos is built around masculinity, but in particular a type of American masculinity that is exemplified by the Good Male Citizen. The Good Male Citizen, or GMC, participates in his society principally by going to the voting booth every four (maybe every two) years. He believes strongly in his democracy, which he can demonstrate by pointing to that all-important vote. He knows that law and order is basically on his side, but should a problem arise, he is prepared to defend himself and his family with his shotgun, hunting rifle, or handgun. The GMC doesn’t envision himself as scary, but as justified in violence where necessary. He cares about truth, rule of law, and the American way. See: voting.
The problem with this mythos, of course, is that it is a mirage to most Americans. Middle-class, middle-aged, white American businessmen might have been able to get by on this image of America for most of their lives. But for many Americans, the cops are not a benevolent force but a scary one. Guns are a real threat, and they’re not principally used for hunting and storing in a “just in case” spot to protect the family. Voting isn’t a real option, because there are no viable candidates. We use the vote as a smokescreen, a proof of this idea of democracy we were all taught in elementary school. It hides the real problems in society by serving a proxy for justice, safety, and American freedom.
Do not be fooled. Riots can happen here, too. Violence happens here. When families are threatened, protecting them is not always possible. The police are not always on the side of the one who’s right. The candidates don’t represent opposing views for many women, people of color, and queer Americans. If guns and democracy do make you feel safe, I would urge you to think critically about that assumption. Is it gospel truth, or is it a comfortable myth?
These myths exists to make us feel safe and to blind us to the change that is desperately needed. If we want to form coalitions and make radical change, we need to push past these myths and accept that a gradual solution is not going to do much for us. I don’t believe that riots are the answer, but I do believe that critical attention to our myths is desperately needed. Collectively, we need to tell new American stories.
A couple of months ago, I had a thought. I was brainstorming an idea for an urban fantasy novel, one that would feature a strong androgynous superhero whose jurisdiction was over things like stopping rapists, confronting misogynists, and making vulnerable populations feel safe. But as I was brainstorming this hero, who not only saves your life but has a penchant for cuddling and physical affection, I realized that one of the traits I was using was still “could kill you with hir little finger.”
That got me thinking about competency kinks and how they align with violence.
“Competency kink” basically just means that someone being really good at whatever zie does is a turn-on. Movies certainly capitalize on this. Sometimes it’s intellectual competence, or psychic ability, or something else unrelated to violence, but very often the protagonist is competent at killing, injuring, and/or self defense. Whether it’s competence with weaponry, martial arts, magic, or some other violence-related skill, filmmakers are very good at combining destructive prowess with sexiness. Think Christian Bale in Equilibrium. Think Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. Think of all the bad-ass chicks in films that are unexpectedly very skilled at physical combat. Kill Bill, anyone?
For day nineteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Anastasia Higginbotham’s essay, “Sex Worth Fighting For.” So far, this is the essay I disagree with most in the book, because it focuses on a self-defense program that focuses on actively fighting off men. Though I recognize that some women do feel empowered by physically fighting, I would argue that both men and women need to work towards non-violence, and that fighting violence with violence is not the right solution for everyone.
It’s day seventeen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and today I read the short but gorgeously powerful essay entitled “Shame is the First Betrayer,” by Toni Amato. It’s hard to know what to say about this essay, because it says so much in such a concise format. It does really resonate, though, and is an important reminder of how violence creeps up in queer communities, with queer people not only as victims but as perpetrators.
I read a quote that struck me yesterday, from lesbian activist Kathleen Sadaat: “There is a violence in not being able to live your life, and whether you are ever actually struck by someone is not the only issue. Anything that pushed you toward being less than human, anything that tells you you are not a part of the human family, is a violent act.”
What a powerful statement. This is why I crave lesbian discussion groups, conscious-raising, etc (unfortunately not available in my area). I just want to believe that I am part of the human family, and though I know intellectually that there are others like me, and even know other lesbians, the lack of lesbian representation in the media, in news, in literature, etc., is something that I think is very subconsciously powerful. These messages say “you are different. You are not wanted.” Whenever I write a paper arguing that LGBT people are just like everyone else, that we deserve rights, a voice in my head is saying, “no you don’t. You’re an animal. What makes you human? What says that those people aren’t right, that you’re not sinning, that you aren’t less than they are?” Where does this voice come? Nowhere conscious, that’s for sure. I was never taught these things, and never believed them, but somewhere I do.
The same is true when it comes to this latent fear of men and masculinity I’ve apparently been carrying around without knowing about it. I don’t know that it’s there, but when it surfaces, it’s violent, and it will take no prisoners. I read a post by a kinky lesbian blogger today and my reaction to some of her comments was abject fear. Why? I understand the sentiment behind her feelings (she’s a top, incidentally) and I see why others might want to be put in a submissive position for those reasons. But emotionally, I reacted strongly to it. If I trust someone with that part of me, will they break me? Can I trust anyone? And why am I afraid of all this? It doesn’t make sense, intellectually. I’ve never been raped, harassed, or sexually abused. There are no skeletons in my closet. Men have never given me reason to fear them, nor have aggressive women. The only answer I have is that it’s socialized. Maybe one day if I make enough money I’ll look for a therapist.