The Art of Gender in Everyday Life

Posted by Sarah Lawrance

I won’t repeat Paula Cameron’s wonderful summary of the engaging conference we attended, The Art of Gender in Everyday Life, but for my part I want to highlight a moment from the conference that really struck me.

Paula describes Gili Hammer’s presentation of congenitally blind women learning to perform gender without the visual clues that sighted women are immersed in. As a participant in the punk subculture, where norms of femininity are often challenged, I was particularly struck by the idea that blind women have very limited room to dissent from visible gender norms, or at least to be perceived as dissenting. I don’t recall whether Gili herself suggested this, or if I simply inferred it from something she said. Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean: let’s say that a woman decides not to remove her body hair, or decides to wear “masculine” clothing — either way it’s an intentional decision. If the woman were sighted she might be thought of as independent, as a feminist/rebel, etc. Either way, she is attributed agency. If the woman were blind, however, she would more likely be perceived as “not knowing any better”, as making an error in judgement, or as unaware of gender norms, rather than being perceived as actively dissenting from the norms. She is essentially stripped of agency.

I find this interesting on many levels. It suggests that a large part of dissent’s importance is that it is recognized as dissent in the first place. People who are perceived as dissenting are effectively taken more seriously than people who are perceived to not know any better.

I’m also interested in people’s assumptions about others and the stigmas we attribute to various people based on their difference. I find it particularly disturbing that someone’s agency can be taken away simply by another person’s assumptions about them. This strikes me because it reminds me of much of what I’ve read by sex workers writing about sex work. Since many people think that sex work is something you do only when/if you are desperate, people tend to assume that anyone who engages in it has “no other choice”. In fact, many sex workers throughout the industry actively choose their work for various reasons including but not limited to money, flexible scheduling, glory, and enjoyment. The stigma around this work serves to erase the fact that sex workers are drawn to their work for the very same reasons that anybody sells their time and labour, and it erases how some sex workers love or hate or are ambivalent about their work just like anyone else is about their own jobs. In a similar way, the stigma surrounding blindness erases blind women’s agency to actively dissent against visually-coded gender norms.

I have not been able to work out my thoughts beyond this point yet, but perhaps I will post some more about this in the future? And perhaps you, dear Reader, could share some thoughts?

Also, before I forget, here is the paper I wrote for the conference, Ask me about my tubal ligation. It consists of some selections from my recent zine by the same name. I have also posted here Hillary Locke’s discussant paper, The Body Writes a Story, about my and Paula’s contributions. Finally, you can find here my contribution to the panel discussion about our research team’s cross-Canada tour.

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~ by artpoped on July 7, 2010.

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