Sunday, January 18, 2009

Summary/Strong Response Essay: Neither sex can be freed in the exploitation of the other

Who are you? You are a unique individual, who is constantly expressing original behavior in all of your interactions with the rest of the universe. Every self-organizing body acts on this principle. Human are subject to this freedom, constantly thinking and moving out of the same unrealized potential. Simply put, our social contract is this: mutual respect for universal self-expression. Unfortunately, many people assign and coercively enforce behavioral expectations on one another that severely limit our ingenuity. At times, these expectations seem as great in scope as the limitless paths they are blocking, but rest assured that division and subtraction cannot really destroy it. One current trend expectation is designed to micromanage everyone's behavior, on the basis of which of two roles your body is predisposed to play in biological reproduction. Since it is unnecessary and oppressive to the open-ended structure of our beings, we should examine this and all other pervasive cultural demands. When we have come to understand them, we will freely reject or accept them to our taste. Current thought blockages demand adherence to a rigid dramatization of our relationships, the parts of which are cast based on gonads and ovaries. Rest in the fact that these social demands are not humans, but ideas, and humans need feel no compassion in dismantling harmful thoughts. In “There Is No Unmarked Woman”, Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen observes and criticizes a particularly offensive demand that society places on female-sexed people.

Tannen reports how in the academic workplace, women are expected to unceasingly project a positive identity, using their physical appearance as a medium. The author objects to this expectation for a number of reasons, mainly because it is a social inequality set up between equals. Tannen makes a linguistic analogy to this expectation , comparing it to a “mark”. A mark is a language particle which tweaks the commonly assumed, basic meaning of a word but remains impotent when not assigned to a root expression. The effect of how women are marked is described through the story of an academic conference. “Each of the women… had to make decisions about hair, clothing, makeup, and accessories, and each decision carried meaning” (411). Tannen proceeds to describe how none of the men present chose to express anything unique about themselves through their dress. In fact, they seemed to be wearing an interchangeable uniform. Tannen makes another objection to the mark, describing how some observers punish women who choose to convey little or nothing through bodily presentation. Finally, Tannen entertains the idea that men are biologically more comparable to a linguistic mark, noting among other things that the default sex of non-reproducing worker ants is female. The author concludes regretfully how the essay’s content may qualify them as a male-bashing feminist, and that being an unmarked woman seems impossible. I agree with Tannen that treating women as marks, who only gain meaning by wearing beautiful accessories, is grotesque and unfair. I also appreciate how well the text flows. But Tannen is overlooking the mark society puts on non-conforming men, and misleads us by suggesting we might solve the marking problem by marking men instead of women. We start moving past the mark by appreciating how broad and mutable our identities are and can be.

Deborah Tannen has observed, recorded and criticized patterns of oppressive behavior. For this they are applauded. Furthermore, Tannen earns more credit for the outrage they muster against the less-than-wholesome role women are brainwashed to enact in the academic workplace. Though the right to dress provocatively remains ours, we must also be able to rely solely on other communication mediums and say nothing particularly with bodily adornment. The ideas we express in vocalized words and gazing could be further explored as alternatives. Reacting to societal expectation requires the use of a person’s energy, time and creativity, and to always be performing a spectacle is wearying. The right to remain silent is supposedly the law of the land, yet women who withhold biography from costume are ostracized. Tannen reports that “a woman whose hair has no particular style is perceived as not caring about how she looks, which can disqualify her from many positions, and will subtly diminish her as a person in the eyes of some” (412). If my English professor embarked on the quest for tenureship at Ohio University, dressing professionally without making her suit an expressionist art piece would unfairly hurt her prospects. If they were a man, they could dress in a uniform suit and tie and be considered perfectly acceptable by the selection committee, instead of inviting scorn for being uncreative or emasculated.

Content considerations aside, this essay effectively unsettled me with its thesis and made for an easy, pleasant read. Tannen’s use of repetition was effective at illustrating her problematic thesis. Each category of a female’s personal accessories was shown as a response to society’s mandatory female expressionism. The essay also utilizes imagery to evoke strong feelings, coherent pathos, early on in the narrative. The description of the conference women, on pages 409 and 410, does a good job weaving the objectively described details about the women's appearances with subjectively experienced qualities about their personas. “the hair robbed her of bifocal vision and created a barrier between her and the listeners”, Tannen astutely observes, noting how the particular woman was “full of dignity and composure.” That description also sets up a strong contrast with the next woman’s appearance, who is portrayed more as an image-sensitive bimbo. These two women are symbolic of the competing needs Tannen describes having, the needs for privacy and self-expression. "Some days you just want to get dressed and go about your business. But if you're a woman, you can't, because there is no unmarked woman." (415) We infer and agree that on any given day, making the choice of broadcasting your personal vibe semiotically, non-verbally, is desirable. Why then did all of the men at the 3 days of conference dress in exactly the same manner?

Tannen shows how all eight of the men were remarkable in their unified plainess. "There could have been a cowboy shirt with string tie or a three-piece suit or a necklaced hippie in jeans. But there wasn't. All eight men wore brown or blue slacks and nondescript shirts of light colors. No man wore sandals or boots; their shoes were dark, closed, comfortable, and flat. In short, unmarked." Would a man be judged unequally if they got more creative in dressing? Is there an expectation of men to be less visually self-expressive than women? The men may have been unremarkable, but were they unmarked as Tannen says? Tannen demonstrates that a large, burdensome amount of personal expressiveness being forced onto women yields an inequality- women are marks without their costume. "The men in our group had made decisions, too, but the range from which they chose was incomparably narrower. Men can choose styles that are marked, but they don't have to, and in this group none did." (411) If only one of these men had chosen to express themselves with more semiotics, they would have been an exceptional case. None could report that this hypothetical, exceptionally dressed human male was completely normal.

Depending on the nature of their deviation, a man's sexual orientation, values and mental balance are intrusively up for question in ways that won't be applied to women. A good example of this is wearing bright, colorful clothes together with a smile. On a woman, bright colors and a smile are perfectly acceptable. However when a male walks into your lecture hall class encased in a pink polo shirt with an indulgent smile on their face, it is stunning, and some people will assume they are homosexual. The guy could be smiling because he thinks the tendency to make major characterizations based on clothing is immature, and is having a private laugh at the expense of his classmates. If people are pigeon-holing such guys as homosexual for utilizing a range of color and facial expressions that are acceptable for females, than they are being judged less fairly than women. Expressive men are judged to be absurd when they stray from their prescribed range of stylistic choices, and yet their range is "far narrower" than that available to women. Men’s prescribed range of expression is more outrageously restricted than women.

For men, dressing uniquely is frequently and incorrectly assumed to exclusively be a targeted attack on common identity. When I wear a kilt to Alden library, some regularly-dressed men glare at me, or cut the sweep of their gaze short when they see the pleats of cloth swishing around my legs. It's true that I do mean to insult the plainness to which they hold themselves. I object to their plainess for two reasons. For one, it demonstrates a stunted version of what masculinity can look like, an immaturity to sees oneself and others as insufficient on their own. Men need women, women need men, and we need to express this as a stylistic codependence to mimic our symbiotic roles in biological reproduction. That is what I see when a guy looks like he's trying to blend in with a bunch of other guys who are trying to blend in. Another part of what I'm objecting to with my kilt is their tense hold on what is acceptable for men to wear. By agreeing to all wear pants or shorts, wearing a kilt makes me look like a wingnut. I am also expressing a positive message with my kilt. The range of possible expressions that we can accept as normal becomes infinite as we accept the infinite expanse of the universe as normal. My kilt expresses that I as a "white" person have ethic roots that I treasure and can use to relate to oppressed minority groups. The native cultural wisdom of my Celtic ancestors was destroyed by the invasion of the Roman empire, and continues to be degraded by the British occupation of Wales, the Isle of Man, etc. We can see what Tannen disregards the mark of socially reinforced, unfairly restricted self-expression on males. Unfortunately they also go beyond this and enter into tired, feminist male-bashing. This detracts from the coherency of the message.

Tannen uses a faulty interpretation of biological phenomena to weakly justify socially marking men, instead of women. They were “intrigued to see Ralph Fasold bring biological phenomena to bear on the question of linguistic marking”. (413) Fasold “stresses that language and culture are particularly unfair in treating women as the marked case because biologically it is the male that is marked.” (413) Tannen is extremely misleading with this argument. Implied is that marking men can be more fair than marking women. I believe that the injustice of marking humans stems from how these coercive, limiting social expectations stand violently in the way of self-expression. Differences in our anatomy, such as whether we have either gonads or ovaries, do not cause our social marking of either sex because people are marked in the mind. From our mind, and not necessarily the particular layout of the sex organs, do we muster the will to express sexist grudges. The injustice of marking females and males is unqualifiedly unfair, and is not essentially why violence against us is wrong.

Tannen questions whether their own activity can objectively be labeled “male-bashing” (414), and concurrently argues for linguistically casting males as superfluous to females. In male-bashing men for an identity that is legitimately beyond their control, Tannen is only insulting one person. A better question that Tannen does not ask is: where do we go from here? As I see it, our task now is growing a society that is more respectful of our own and each others’ freedom, which will lead to more self-expression. That way, people may choose to live out their existence in community that is more beautiful and tricky than a pre-scripted diatribe across some sex binary.

Being socially cast as half of a co-dependent, biological relationship places unnecessary restrictions on one’s range of self-expression. Getting out of this bind can take two routes. The immediate need is to de-attach ourselves and develop a sense of self- worth and that is not sex-dependent. We create the reality of our persona from our self-worth through our words, thoughts and deeds. When we choose how to act and sensibly define who you are, other people must live alongside you in that self-defined reality, and you are free from their social pressure. If they reject you and you do not violate them by accepting their behavior as legitimate, or mark them as less than human because of their unkindness, than you are free during and after you part ways too. The other route that we are using to escape the shackles of our physiological limitations is wrestling them to the ground.

If you were capable of reproducing without anybody else’s assistance, it would put you outside the consideration of the two-sexed reproductive cycle and therefore the precise marks that are reserved for men and women. This is a path that is already being explored by humans today. Women choosing artificial insemination over a man ejaculating inside their uterus are already in this territory. Despite marking being a mental activity, there’s no sense ignoring the current requirement for intersex cooperation to make new babies. Tannen sites that asexual lizards of the Cnemidophorus genus create fertile eggs in their ovaries, without insemination. They make a poor analogy between the lizards and human females: “Thanks to parthenogenesis, they have no trouble having as many daughters as they like. There are no species, however, that produce only males. This is no surprise, because any such species would become extinct in its first generation.” (413) Though the lizards have ovaries and can technically be considered “female”, these lizards are not subject to the duality of the sexes that humans are because there are no males in some of these species. The sexual abilities necessary for reproduction of Whiptail lizards are not divided between two genotypes. All the necessary parts and abilities are united in one being, which can reproduce without help from another being. We have a ways to yet to go on this path, yet. The word “hermaphrodite”, which describes the lizard as analogous to a self-pollinating flower, comes from a mythological concept we have yet to achieve. The male trickster god Hermes, merged with a female sex goddess Aphrodite, into one composite, self generating organism. The gods did it for fun, and medieval European alchemists strove to this ideal in their search for immortality. Will we become de-attached hermaphrodites and realize our destiny as truly sovereign individuals?

Works Cited
Tannen, Deborah. “There Is No Unmarked Woman.” Blackboard. 20 Jan. 2009. Path: WRITING AND RHETORIC I ENG_151_A20_winter_2008-09; Course Documents

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good evening

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