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Sociological Images Gender Reassignment

Originally Posted at Marx in Drag

I have been interested in and reading about the creators of the comic book super hero Wonder Woman for a few years now. My interest began in 2014.

I was half-heartedly listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and Gross was interviewing historian Jill LePore, the author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman. At the time, I hadn’t read LePore’s book or the Wonder Woman comics, and so I was mildly but not wildly interested in their conversation. When Gross asked LePore to talk about William Marston’s family life, LePore began to describe the relationship between Marston, Elizabeth Holloway, Marston’s wife, and Olive Byrne, the woman who lived with them and was, in Terry Gross’s words, Marston’s “mistress.”

Holy shit!, I said to myself. These people were polyamorous! Of course, I knew that they couldn’t have seen themselves as “polyamorous” in the contemporary sense of the word, for the word would not be invented for another fifty years or so after Marston and Holloway invited Byrne into their relationship. However, it sounded to me like they were doing something akin to a poly relationship—as in they had chosen to forge an intimate relationship that included more than two people, and they had built a life together.

In a word, I was hailed. I felt a sense of connection to Holloway, Byrne, and Marston—dare I say queer kinship. I am poly and so were these people from almost a century ago. These are my people! And here were Terri Gross and Jill Lepore talking about it on the usually rather conventional National Public Radio. This doesn’t happen often, so I stopped what I was doing and turned up my radio.

After LePore described the relationship between Holloway, Byrne, and Marston, Terri Gross said, “That’s just so bizarre.” And LePore agreed, “Yeah. It’s so bizarre…hilariously bizarre.”

My bubble burst. Instead of being hailed, I felt slapped in the face. I don’t know what Gross’s or LePore’s relationship history looks like, but they certainly sounded like monogamists looking in at us poly freaks from the outside, and they were calling us bizarre and laughing at us. A much too common experience.

That is why Angela Robinson’s film, Professor Marston and The Wonder Woman, is the real breath of Fresh Air.

I’ll be honest, I went to this film with some trepidation. I wanted to believe I wouldn’t be mocked or depicted as a bizarre spectacle given Angela Robinson’s resume, but polyamory? Between a man and two women? With kink? It would be very easy for Robinson to spill this very tall order.

I was worried that it wouldn’t do justice to just how unconventional the Marstons were. I was concerned it would perpetuate stereotypes about polygamy–dominant, selfish, and exploitive yet lucky (wink wink) men have multiple and suffering wives. I read LePore’s book, and as I write in my forthcoming book, The Poly Gaze, she often interprets the Marston family through this lens. I also didn’t want to see yet another film about a man with a wife and mistress and the bitter, catty, and destructive rivalry between the women.

Though understandable given the lack of feminist and/or queer representations of threesomes or poly triads in mainstream media, my fears and worries turned out to be completely unfounded. Rather than make a spectacle out of the perverts or freaks, Robinson adeptly turns the tables and asks the viewer to question their own assumptions about what is normal. It renders polyamory possible and highlights the dire social sanctions that often come with not living within the boundaries of monogamy. The film also offers a truly rare representation of sexual threesomes as a loving and sexy way to forge intimate bonds, and presents BDSM as a component of healthy relationships rather than a result of psycho-pathology or sexual trauma (think Fifty Shades of Gray).

All of this is rather groundbreaking, and I was, quite literally, in tears as I watched. Tears of joy and relief for being hailed as polyamorous, an enthusiastic participant in threesomes, and a dabbler in kink and not getting slapped in the face with mocking laughter or the pointing fingers of shame.

But these things were not, for me personally, the most unique and striking aspect of this film—though, to be perfectly clear, I do not want to diminish just how significant this film is in its bravery and beauty around polyamory, bisexuality, and kink. The most astonishingly wonderful thing about Angela Robinson’s film version of this story, as seen from my theatre seat, was being hailed as a feminist. Gazing at Elizabeth and Olive admire, fall in love with, and express desire for each other as lovers, not rivals. And even more significant was to witness them consciously and deliberatively (not deliberately, though that works too) choose to forge an unconventional and poly life together with Marston.

Unlike narratives about polygamy where women are passive objects of men’s brutality or desire, this film shows Elizabeth and Olive actively creating a life together and with a man who is an equal partner. Refusing to reproduce tropes about women’s competition with each other for the attention of a man, Angela Robinson situates the women’s admiration and desire for each other at the center of the story. Both women are brilliant feminists. And both women are, as Olive says about Elizabeth, ‘magnificent” and desirous of an unconventional life.

In other words, Angela Robinson has succeeded in transforming a story about a man with a wife and a mistress (as told by Gross and LePore) into two women and a man who bravely forge an unconventional, poly and feminist life.

Whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of the lived experience of Holloway, Byrne, and Marston is impossible to know, and to be perfectly frank, completely uninteresting to me. I am interested in the stories we tell—as historians and as filmmakers and what those stories say about people who live unconventional lives.

I cherish the story told in this film by Angela Robinson because of what it says about those of us who live unconventional, poly lives. Yes, we are freaks, but only in the eyes of those who live conventional lives and want everyone else to follow the rules. Yes, we are sometimes ridiculed and shunned, and yet, because of it, we are brave, strong, and resilient. And some of us, like Elizabeth Holloway, Olive Byrne, and William Marston, and the character Wonder Woman, for that matter, are capable of changing the world. Thank you, Angela Robinson, for telling this part of the story.

Mimi Schippers is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She is the author of Beyond Monogamy: Polamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities (New York University Press, 2016) and Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock (Rutgers University Press, 2002).  

As I was scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago, I noticed a new trend: Several friends posted pictures (via an app) of what they would look like as “the opposite sex.” Some of them were quite funny—my female-identified friends sported mustaches, while my male-identified friends revealed long flowing locks. But my sociologist-brain was curious: What makes this app so appealing? How does it decide what the “opposite sex” looks like? Assuming it grabs the users’ gender from their profiles, what would it do with users who listed their genders as non-binary, trans, or genderqueer? Would it assign them male or female? Would it crash? And, on a basic level, why are my friends partaking in this “game?”

Gender is deeply meaningful for our social world and for our identities—knowing someone’s gender gives us “cues” about how to categorize and connect with that person. Further, gender is an important way our social world is organized—for better or worse. Those who use the app engage with a part of their own identities and the world around them that is extremely significant and meaningful.

Gender is also performative. We “do” gender through the way we dress, talk, and take up space. In the same way, we read gender on people’s bodies and in how they interact with us. The app “changes people’s gender” by changing their gender performance; it alters their hair, face shape, eyes, and eyebrows. The app is thus a outlet to “play” with gender performance. In other words, it’s a way of doing digital drag. Drag is a term that is often used to refer to male-bodied people dressing in a feminine way (“drag queens”) or female-bodied people dressing in a masculine way (“drag kings”), but all people who do drag do not necessarily fit in this definition. Drag is ultimately about assuming and performing a gender. Drag is increasingly coming into the mainstream, as the popular reality TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race has been running for almost a decade now. As more people are exposed to the idea of playing with gender, we might see more of them trying it out in semi-public spaces like Facebook.

While playing with gender may be more common, it’s not all fun and games. The Facebook app in particular assumes a gender binary with clear distinctions between men and women, and this leaves many people out. While data on individuals outside of the gender binary is limited, a 2016 report from The Williams Institute estimated that 0.6% of the U.S. adult population — 1.4 million people — identify as transgender. Further, a Minnesota study of high schoolers found about 3% of the student population identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, and researchers in California estimate that 6% of adolescents are highly gender nonconforming and 20% are androgynous (equally masculine and feminine) in their gender performances.

The problem is that the stakes for challenging the gender binary are still quite high. Research shows people who do not fit neatly into the gender binary can face serious negative consequences, like discrimination and violence (including at least 28 killings of transgender individuals in 2017 and 4 already in 2018).  And transgender individuals who are perceived as gender nonconforming by others tend to face more discrimination and negative health outcomes.

So, let’s all play with gender. Gender is messy and weird and mucking it up can be super fun. Let’s make a digital drag app that lets us play with gender in whatever way we please. But if we stick within the binary of male/female or man/woman, there are real consequences for those who live outside of the gender binary.

Recommended Readings:

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

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