Gender and superheroes

My Open University mate Helen Owton and I just got together to write a piece about gender and superheroes in the run up to the new Batman v. Superman movie (with huge thanks to Joseph de Lappe for his expert input)…

Why is Wonder Woman only playing a secondary role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?  This article looks at the role of gender in superhero films. 

The new Batman v Superman film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is coming out on 25th March 2016 so we thought this would be a good chance to reflect on superhero movies: particularly the place of gender in them.

 

We’re particularly interested in the role of binaries and hierarchies in these kinds of films. Batman v Superman pitches two well-known superheroes against each other in a binary way, and – of course – the superhero genre as a whole is based on the linked binaries of hero v villain, good v bad, and right v wrong, with the former winning out in the end. More recent versions of superhero movies trouble these simple distinctions somewhat. For example, The Dark Knight version of Batman is less clear cut, and the two groups of X-men can be seen as more about assimilationism v radical approaches to activism. However, audiences may well not pick up on such nuances.

An additional binary and hierarchical consideration in Superhero movies is needed. Characters are male or female, with predominantly male characters, and masculinity is privileged over femininity in various ways.

Currently, we are living through a golden age of comics, with a vibrant independent comic and graphic novel scene which includes strong representations of womenExternal link  and LGBT+External link  characters, much of which has been taken up by mainstream superhero comicsExternal link  too. Nonetheless, there is a serious disparity between this shift in comics, and the continued limited representation in the movies which are based on these comics.

Read more…

Interview on Gender & Sexual Diversity

I recently did an interview on gender and sexual diversity with the excellent folk at Sheffield Central Counselling.

This seems even more timely now that it’s been published because of the current debates that are going on about whether guidance against gay conversion therapy should be extended to encompass bisexual, trans, and asexual people. I find it very frightening that some people in the therapy profession are arguing against this extension, as if there are circumstances in which it might be appropriate for a therapist to try to change a bi, trans, or asexual person’s sexuality or gender. There is clear evidence both that conversion therapy is far more common in these contexts, and that it is incredibly damaging. I hope that they will see sense and extend the guidance to encompass everyone, not just gay people.

Here’s my interview and a link to where you can read more…

You are a writer, academic, psychotherapist and campaigner for rights in the area of sexual minorities and, especially, gender diversity. Many people have heard of transgender, but can you explain a bit more about gender diversity?

Sure. I guess I like the term ‘Gender and Sexual Diversity’ (GSD) because it gets at the fact that there are a whole range of genders and sexualities beyond the ‘sexual and gender minorities’ that we tend to hear about: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT).

That range includes all the people who are attracted to the same gender who don’t necessarily identify as bisexual or gay (around 50% of young people according to a recent YouGov poll). It also includes all those who are into kink or BDSM, and asexual people who don’t experience sexual attraction. And, as well as trans people (whose gender is different to the one they were assigned at birth), GSD gets at all the people who experience themselves as something other than 100% male or 100% female. That’s around a third of us according to one recent study.

GSD also reminds us that everybody has a gender and a sexuality – not just those of us who are somehow outside of the cultural ‘norm’. In the books that I write about these topics I always make a point of including heterosexuality and cisgender (people who aren’t trans) because those things can also have a big impact on people’s experiences of life. For example, some heterosexual and cisgender people struggle because they feel such a pressure to conform to social expectations of what it means to be a straight guy, or a straight woman, in our culture.

Sometimes people fail to distinguish between gender and sexuality. How can this be problematic? 

Read more…

 

Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.

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Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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What have I been doing? All of the things

Many blog posts are brewing at the moment but none quite ready to bottle and serve. However I did spend this afternoon collating some of the things I’ve been working on recently into the resources space on my blog, so here’s some links to what’s going on at the moment by topic.

Bisexuality!

I spoke at the launch of the Purple Prose crowdfunder a few weeks back. This book is an awesome collection of British bisexual experiences, with excellent chapters on race, coming out, relationships, and many other topics. I co-curated the chapter on gender which includes a wonderfully diverse range of bi people’s voices. Please do considering supporting the project here.

Non-binary gender!

I was really privileged to be asked to join some other trans activists to go and talk to the Ministry of Justice about gender recognition policies recently. You can read CN Lester’s account of what happened here, and I’ve put up a page including the factsheet that we put together for the occasion: hopefully a really useful resource about non-binary experiences.

Non-monogamous relationships!

Recently I went to a great conference on non-monogamies and contemporary intimacies. It was wonderful to see what had changed a decade on from the first such conference back in 2005. You can see the keynote talk that I did there here, plus some other amazing talks on intersectionality, privilege and oppression, islamophobia, the refugee crisis and more.

Also I’m really proud of the guidelines for academic/activist spaces that I helped to develop for the conference, given how tricky past events have been when trying to be properly inclusive, so I’ve put up a page about them here.

Kink and consent!

I’ve been working with some colleagues to put together some guidelines for kink/BDSM party and event organisers and community members around consent. You can see what we came up with here.

LGBT+ mental health!

Last year I was part of a group writing good practice guidelines for health practitioners and services around LGBT+ people and mental health. These have recently been published, along with some guidelines for LGBT+ people seeking support – links here.

Also Pink Therapy’s Dominic Davies and I published a couple of articles aimed at improving therapist knowledge and skills around Gender and Sexual Diversity, included here. And we’re working with awesome people at Gendered Intelligence to bring young trans people together with clued up therapists. Please do consider supporting Dominic’s sponsored silence to raise money for GI here. One of the blogs I’m hoping to write is about gendered bullying and silence – in support of this campaign.

Books!

The book based on the Enduring Love project is with the publishers and due to be published in early February. My queer theory introduction is with the fabulous illustrator, Julia Scheele, being turned into comic form (do buy Julia’s collection of comics on identities in the meantime). And Justin Hancock and I are writing about sex together once a week for our sex advice book. Along with an edited collection on non-binary genders, both of these are due out in late 2016. Meanwhile check out Justin’s piece in the Guardian, and the amazing new sex and relationship eduction resources which he’s produced with Durex (which I had a small hand in).

Coming out day: Non-binary gender Q&A

Today is international coming out day. I wasn’t planning to write anything for the occasion because I’m in the extremely fortunate position of already being out about everything about myself that matters. It’s a real privilege that I don’t face any threats to my employment, relationships, or physical or mental well-being for being out about my sexuality, gender, relationships, and emotional struggles.

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That hasn’t always been the case for me, and it’s also vital to remember that it very much isn’t the case for everyone. Part of the reason that it’s important that people are out about their experiences in these areas (and others) is that it helps to create the circumstances in which it is safer for other people to be open about all that they are too. Nobody should ever be pressured to be out when it doesn’t feel safe enough for them.

However, I have noticed recently that – despite me being open about it – some people seem to struggle to remember, and to understand, my non-binary gender. So here’s a Q&A to make it clearer.

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Sex and gender beyond the binary

This week Ladybeard magazine published a piece that a wrote for them on thinking in non-binary ways about sex, sexuality and gender.

This seems particularly relevant this week given that the papers have been full of the YouGov survey findings that nearly half of 18-24 years-olds consider themselves as something other than straight or gay.

Here’s the Ladybeard article

Why are trans and bi generally so invisible in mainstream media, and so problematic when they are represented? One major reason is that they trouble the binary ways in which we are encouraged to see the world: people are male or female, straight or gay. They are born that way, and they stay that way. So we are told.

Of course bi and trans experiences differ greatly. However, research in these areas has highlighted the common ways in which these groups suffer in light of a mainstream binary perspective. There is the consistent media erasure of each experience, and the suspicion (‘you must really be X’, ‘you can’t really be Y’), and double discrimination from either side of the binary toward such groups that can mean they have no real sense of community. Read more…

The future of gender

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here are my thoughts when asked about the future of gender.

I think we’re at a really complex time in relation to that question. The future I would like to see – and there is some evidence of movement towards it – is one where:

  • Gender isn’t such a defining feature (i.e. we’re only interested in it when it’s actually relevant rather than being the first thing we ask or notice about someone);
  • There is a lot more flexibility in what we regard as being male/masculine or female/feminine – as well as realising that many people don’t fit well into either box;
  • There is an understanding that gender is fluid and can be – and is – expressed differently throughout life (e.g. think about how femininity is expressed by a toddler, a teenager, a middle aged woman and and old woman);
  • We get that gender is complexly biopsychosocial – it has all those elements running through it and woven together – so we stop asking about nature vs. nurture and start respecting people’s experience of their own gender as well as acknowledging just what a major part our social rules about gender roles have on people’s bodies and brains.

However, there seem to be constant pushbacks to more rigid and limited ideas of gender, where women and men are seen as being from different planets, and where masculinity and femninity are narrowly defined in specific ways and there is no room for anything between or beyond these two.

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Open Relationships Revisited

Applying the concept of openness to all relationships in various ways.

Content warning: relationship conflict and abusive relationships are touched on briefly in this post.

A decade ago I started studying three topics that have pretty much defined my career: open non-monogamy, BDSM, and bisexuality. I just checked my CV and found that my first academic publication in these areas came out in 2004: an interview with the ever-fabulous Jen Yockney of Bi Community News for the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review (now appropriately renamed the Psychology of Sexualities Review). That was quickly followed by an interview, in the same publication, with the equally wonderful Dossie Easton, about her writing on kink and polyamory.

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Me and Jen Yockney more recently

It’d taken me six years since finishing my PhD to start researching these topics. My first paper based on my PhD (on a different topic) had been rejected with cruel comments from one reviewer. So I decided that academic research wasn’t for me and to focus on teaching, which I really enjoyed. I still have major issues with that side of academia. But then I started to read about gender and sexuality for my teaching, and to attend more interdisciplinary conferences. I realised that it was possible – perhaps even beneficial – to research topics that were personally relevant.

Although I can’t say that this guiding principle has made for a completely easy ride (to say the least!), I have learnt a huge amount from researching polyamorous, BDSM, and bi communities. My work has always been led by the question of what we (i.e. everybody) can learn from such communities, rather than the more traditional psychological question of how they can be explained. The answers I’ve explored have focused on the benefits of more open approaches to relationships rules around monogamy, the consensual arrangements that kinky folk use in their sexual activities, and non-binary understandings of sexual attraction (i.e. not just attraction to either ‘the same’ or ‘the opposite’ gender).

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the directions that my thinking about relationships has taken in the last few years. I realised that these themes of openness, consent, and non-binary are still very present, but in different forms. Previously I’d just thought of openness in the context of non-monogamy, consent in the context of (kinky) sex, and non-binary in the context of sexuality.

I thought I’d write a couple of blog posts to explain the ways in which my thinking has expanded out lately, considering the benefits of applying openness and consent to our relationships in a much broader way. Regarding non-binary I have a much longer piece of writing bubbling away about what happens when we apply this concept beyond sexuality and gender to our ways of relating, feeling, and thinking.

I’ll spend the rest of this post on openness.

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57 genders (and none for me)? Reflections on the new facebook gender categories

February is a pretty busy time for somebody who writes about sex, gender and relationships what with the coinciding of LGBT history month and Valentine’s Day. This year, however, I thought I could rest up a bit on February 14th given that I said everything I wanted to say about the celebration of romantic love last Valentine.

I was wrong. Facebook chose February 14th 2014 to do one of the most exciting things that has happened in the area of gender and social media for a long time. It changed its gender option so that, instead of choosing from ‘male’ and ‘female’, users could pick from a range of over 50 gender terms (listed at the end of this post), as well as choosing to be referred to as ‘they’ if they didn’t want a gendered pronoun (‘he’ or ‘she’).

FacebookOptions

As usual, rather than getting into whether this is a good move or a bad move by Facebook, I am going to ask a different couple of questions which I think are more helpful: What does this change open up, and what does it close down? As with most shifts, what Facebook has done achieves something which is important and useful, but in other ways it is problematic and limited. Reframing the question to what is opened up and closed down gets away from polarised ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. Instead it acknowledges the complexity of the situation and the fact that something can simultaneously expand understanding in some ways and constrain it in others.

If you want to know how to go about changing your own Facebook gender I’ve included a brief guide at the end of this post.

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Pink List – Thank-you

Yesterday I found out that I was included on this year’s Independent on Sunday Pink List. This is a list of the 101 LGBT people who judges considered to ‘make a difference’. I was listed at number 36 for my work with BiUK and The Bisexuality Report in particular.

It was wonderful to be listed alongside other mental health professionals, like Dominic Davies, who have been working in this field so much longer than I have. I’m hoping that my new book – written with Christina Richards – will have a positive impact in this area. It gives therapists, psychologists, counsellors and health professionals good practice guidance about all the diverse genders and sexualities which they are likely to come across in their work, in order to make them more informed and aware.

It was also amazing to be included on a year when so many more trans* and gender non-binary people were included in the list than ever before, including Paris Lees at number 1.

Thanks so much to the people who nominated me and who judged the Pink List this year, and to all the others – who weren’t listed but who deserve it every bit as much as I do – who have worked on all these projects with me.

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