Thursday, October 15, 2009

Working through gender

“It was disappointing to learn that my ‘gender aptitude’, or what I think of as gender conformity, was precisely in the middle of the spectrum, under the category ‘gender novice’. Ouch.”

In spite of a car accident that foiled our Canadian Thanksgiving plans, my husband and I made it to Toronto in time to catch the public preview of the Textile Museum of Canada’s BMO Shadowbox Fundraiser, which includes a piece by me. Once we boarded the overnight bus on Tuesday, I asked for my passport back. My husband held both of them out and quipped, “Which one of us do you want to be?” To appreciate the joke, you need to know that in my post-grunge oversized knit sweater phase, and when he had long hair, we were mistaken for each other from behind on more than one occasion. The joke was also in response to my reading material, Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook (1998, Routledge).

I found the book accidentally at Bluestockings while looking for theory to contextualize a bibliographic analysis of feminist erotica that I am planning with a colleague. For once, I had a commercial transaction related to my art that didn’t embarrass me. Maybe it’s because the prospect of being confused with the brave sort of person the book is geared towards is flattering. Written by a transgendered author, My Gender Workbook is intended for individuals who currently transgress gender or are flirting with the idea of it. Bornstein points out that even asking questions about gender is transgressive, so it could be argued that as an artist, I am marginally part of the target audience. However, while I regularly ask questions about gender in my work, it’s on a societal level, not an individual level. Even so, based on my latest blog post, I thought it might be prudent to see where more self-reflection could take my practice.

It was a treat not being the one asking questions about gender for once. From the many open-ended questions, I felt my most noteworthy answer was to the question, “What does simply being the gender you were assigned at birth give you?” (p. 68). My answer? “Consistency.” From the many multiple choice questionnaires, the answer that most resonated with me was the question about defining gender: “Gender is what happens to me when I get dressed in the morning” (p. 15). In my art, I argue that clothing is a means to construct gender from infancy onwards. Interestingly, when the author tries to liberate the reader, her advice is to engage in genderless behaviour that makes you feel “like a little kid” (p. 77) but I would argue that adopting that mindset does not entail escaping gendered constraints. I remember being a little girl who refused to wear pants, who thought it was impossible for women to have jobs like firefighter, police officer, doctor and principal. Maybe the two are related, maybe not, but the adult version of me cringes at the memory. It’s odd that clothing plays such a strong role in gender construction since Bornstein points out that gender and sexuality get confused, making genitals the qualifier of gender in society. Clothing just covers them up.

I don’t feel personally conflicted by the hierarchical dynamic the author exposes in which two socially privileged monogendered identities are the only options. Where my personal struggle exists is in fitting the bill for the feminine ideal (based on the author’s criteria, not my own arrogance) but also being a feminist. I was surprised that the author encouraged readers to look at visual art as a way of working through gender issues. She takes it to the next level, asking “Can your gender become a work of art? Can you become your own work of art?” I was bewildered because I can’t seem to reconcile the relationship between my personal and artistic leanings, between my inclination to strive for the feminine ideal while simultaneously critiquing it.

Overall, this book was a delight to read even though I have no aspirations to bend my gender. It was disappointing to learn that my ‘gender aptitude’, or what I think of as gender conformity, was precisely in the middle of the spectrum, under the category ‘gender novice’. Ouch. As someone who has been reading gender studies theory more lately, I had hoped I would do better. But maybe that’s right where I, the fickle feminist, belong. After all, I take liberties with my artistic presentation of gender but not my personal expression of it. I have no desire to live outside the system, but I do wish for a world where there is increased consciousness about gender assignment and reinforcement.


Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The candour of Canucks

“…when does the liberal, exhibitionist element of my art become alter ego, become fantasy, become reality?”

When my Canadian mail was hand-delivered to me this week in the US, I caught up on an issue of Macleans a month late. Lianne George’s article “You’re Teaching Our Kids WHAT?” about pleasure-centered sex education caught my eye because the introduction mentions the Toronto store, Good for Her.

I had a flashback to my visit to the store in the dead of winter to pick up a rush order for sequin pasties to use in my cupcake bra (something I need to arrange again for my exhibition, Titillate, this spring at Gallery 1313). The store offers a sex-positive environment that by all accounts should make anyone comfortable. In principle, I am an ardent supporter of the sex-positivity movement. But, as I have let on in past blog posts, I find that I can walk the walk academically, but not talk the talk personally. Blushing with embarrassment, I am sure that I was as red as the pasties when I went to pick them up, wanting to cry out to the non-judgmental staff, “They aren’t for me—they are for art! ” It didn’t help that I was feeling unlike myself already. Wearing extremely heavy makeup for the photo shoot, I felt the impulse to add, “I don’t normally wear this much makeup. I’m a feminist!” as if one precludes the other. Interestingly, this discomfort is notably absent when I am performing for the camera. Although I have always thought of this process as strictly documentary, it begs the question, when does the liberal, exhibitionist element of my art become alter ego, become fantasy, become reality? When does ambivalence become acceptance? Perhaps the existence of this blog post indicates that the moment has arrived.

Being linguistically oriented, I can pinpoint with conviction the first time I encountered the word ‘ambivalence’ (as I can with many other words). It was in high school while researching Pablo Picasso, who was as much a womanizer as an artistic genius. The interplay between his personal and artistic aspirations struck me, but I was especially affected by the ambivalence towards women prevalent in his work. The very concept of ambivalence, this irreconcilable tension, has become central to my artwork over time; an excerpt from my artist statement reads “Hopeful and hopeless, the cocooned forms appear to simultaneously break free and become further bound.”

Artwork, particularly of the conceptual vein, is a safe haven for avoidance, non-fiction writing less so. In contemporary art, ambiguity is a virtue, a sign of sophistication. The interplay between my personal and artistic aspirations has always been nebulous to me, but it was a comfortable situation because no artist wants to give away all of the answers. However, as I read George’s article about the information gap facing teens who want details about healthy sexual relationships, I realized that I have been struggling with my own information gap as an artist. Beyond the obvious feminist agenda, what drives my practice? Moreover, what is with the pervasive sexual ambivalence? The best I could do a year ago was to say that there was sexual ambivalence, let alone deconstruct it.

The Macleans article, which describes the progressive direction of sex education in Canadian high schools—Alberta notwithstanding, where students can be excused from class when sexuality and sexual orientation are being discussed—was clarifying because it made me reflect on my own experience as a student. The very year that my male elementary school teacher was arrested and charged with sexual abuse, the replacement teacher introduced the book, Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle (1973, Lyle Stuart Books) and our gym teacher introduced the all-powerful anonymous question box. No counseling took place after the teacher’s arrest, but it should have. I don’t doubt that we were all affected on some level, as victimization takes many forms and not all of them dovetail with the law. No wonder sexual ambivalence reared its ugly head in my artwork and I became wary of men. The disparity between sex-negativity and sex-positivity in a single year was too great to wrap my prepubescent mind around.

Through the process of immersing myself in sex-positive feminist writings, exhibitions and events as content for this blog, maybe I have subconsciously been trying to bridge the gap between sex-negativity and sex-positivity, between ambivalence and acceptance. Instead of finding clarity in these logical sources, I found it in the unlikeliest of places. It seems that the cocoon metaphor that I have been using in my sculptures is not just a safe haven for avoidance, but an apt metaphor for my life, a reminder of the importance of gestation. Patience is a virtue after all, not ambiguity.