Monthly Archives: November 2008

Female masculinity and the blogosphere

After these photos were posted to some Russian website (and subsequently to Boing Boing), an undeservedly large brouhaha broke out amongst feminist bloggers. Here are some examples: 1, 2, 3.

A huge majority of this discussion can be organized into two categories: people who think the women are gross/unnatural/unattractive/the apotheosis of grotesquerie, etc., and people who defend the women by claiming that it doesn’t matter what the former group thinks, women should have the right to look however they want, they’re not doing it for you, “well, I find them attractive,” etc.

The interesting thing about this discussion is that neither of these categories really said anything of substance. Roy (#2) pointed out repeatedly that people who find body building grotesque and express that in a feminist thread are “miles away from the point,” without ever really getting to what the point actually is. This is regrettable, because the concept of female masculinity is a fascinating and fruitful avenue of research, and with this recent opportunity to have an interesting discussion the research was kind of thrown by the wayside in favor of a bunch of reactionary squabbling and PC censorship.

Let’s please acknowledge that people do find other people attractive and unattractive. Instead of pretending this isn’t the case, it would be much more productive to examine why we find certain people attractive and not others (and I don’t mean “why” as in “because she has a nice haircut,” but rather what kind of sociologically-grounded preconceptions are coming into play). In cases like this, one of the most interesting aspects is the arguably true generalization that masculine heterosexual women are rarely, if ever, revered for their physical beauty (by straight people), and if they are, its usually for their feminine traits. Masculine lesbian women, on the other hand, have a well-established community of people who find them attractive and revere them for their masculine traits. What’s the difference between straight men and lesbians that makes only the latter find masculinity attractive in women? Is attraction innate, like the evolutionary psychologists want us to believe? If so, to what degree? And also, as Lauren at Feministe (#1) brought up, what’s the significance of the hyperfeminine “accessories” like the hair and makeup? Has anyone ever done an ethnography of bodybuilding so we could better understand the tanning and the veininess? What was the role of the photographer in creating these personae? Etc., etc. These questions would make for a much more interesting discussion.


I had kind of assumed/hoped that Camille Paglia had disappeared from the face of the earth. I was justifiably disappointed to find, thanks to Mark Liberman, that she is alive and well and writing a column over at She does give me a good excuse to write another post, though, and I’m wont to take such an opportunity (whatever that means).

Whenever Paglia calls herself a feminist, it reminds me of what is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems facing the feminist movement today. That millions of young people have turned away from the movement because of the stereotypical view of feminists as man-hating lesbians is symptomatic of a larger problem with feminism’s general incommensurability. The extension of the term “feminist” covers such a wide and internally disparate set of people and views that it’s next to impossible to infer from someone calling themselves a feminist what it is that they mean by that. Paglia serves as a good example herself, but an even better example is her characterization of Sarah and Todd Palin as “powerful new symbols of a revived contemporary feminism.” This is the case, she argues, because of they way they both reconfigured their gender roles:

That the macho Todd, with his champion athleticism and working-class cred, can so amiably cradle babies and care for children is a huge step forward in American sexual symbolism.

Similarly, Palin’s “Amazon warrior” sensibilities reconfigured female leadership:

Palin has made the biggest step forward in reshaping the persona of female authority since Madonna danced her dominatrix way through the shattered puritan barricades of the feminist establishment.

While both those statements are true, I could make the same argument about a lot of dads and a lot of female leaders, both liberal and conservative, but I would not necessarily equate their behaviours with feminist leadership; rather, I think both of the phenomena that Paglia cites are more than anything symptomatic — outcomes, in other words — of the gains of second wave feminism that have been in the works for years.

Considering that Palin is expressly working against many of the core elements of the feminist movement, notably “women’s rights,” it seems kind of disingenuous to give her credit for doing feminist work when she’s more accurately in a position of benefitting from the work of others. Although Paglia’s arguments in the ’80s that Madonna was “the future of feminism” were well-founded, considering that the second wave had a reputation for “increasing moralism and desexualization of critical analysis,”* it’s unclear, at best, whether Madonna was the cause of the sexualization of feminism or if she was the result of a transformation that was already taking place in the feminist movement. I would tend toward the latter.

Note that I’m not trying to argue that Camille Paglia is not a feminist – that would be futile considering that I don’t have any solid ground against which I could make such an argument. But her example does lend credence to the idea I’m personally fond of that “feminist” has now become an identity category that is deployed strategically according to Chela Sandoval’s concept of differential consciousness. (“Differential consciousness” was a term Sandoval came up with to describe the movement of activists through and between different types of oppositional consciousness, “like the clutch of an automobile.”) And the strategic use of the term by conservatives would suggest that it is being appropriated, to some degree, as a form of counter-hegemony against what those people perceive as the doctrinaire threat of contemporary feminism against “feminine values” like heterosexuality, promiscuity, beauty, and femininity. Of course, this perception is a result of, again, feminism’s incommensurability, especially considering the prevalence of liberal feminists who have done a great deal of work on reconfiguring the discourses of feminism from within the movement, without repudiating women’s rights.

*Robyn Wiegman, “The Progress of Gender: Whither Women?”

1 rule to a flat stomach

As you can see I’ve changed the theme. I was kind of annoyed by the links and the block quotes in the old theme, and although I’m a little concerned with the italic block quotes in this theme, I still think the readability is improved overall. Besides, I’m kind of frivolous about these things. Hopefully this one will stick.


The walk sign is on iff the walk sign is on

I’m still not content with the walk sign issue. (Previously 1, 2.) Deciding what the walk signal means is apparently not as easy a task as I initially thought it was. In my last post I concluded that “the walk signal is there to tell pedestrians when they’re not going to be in contravention of the law by crossing the street.” On reflection, this seems horribly tautological – if there was no signal, people could cross whenever they wanted, assuming they were crossing at an intersection. Once there is a signal, then, according to my last conclusion, the only purpose of that signal is to inform people of when they’re in contravention of the law that supervenes on the very existence of the signal. The signal says when people are in contravention of the law; people are in contravention of the law when they disobey the signal.

P = “a pedestrian,” Y = “is obeying the law,” Z = “is obeying the signal”

(∃x)Px ,

(∀x)[(Yx⇒Zx)∧(Zx⇒Yx)] ,

Yx⇔Zx ;

Zx⇒Yx ,

Yx⇔Zx ,

Zx⇔Zx .

Choosing to cross on the walk sign, rather than on the wait sign, constitutes obeying the law. Thus, when the walk sign is on, the only thing the walk sign is signifying is that, if you were to cross, you would be obeying the signal. I could speculate that there are a bunch of cocky logicians working for city hall, but even if that was the case I would argue that having a signal installed only for the purpose of defining when people are and are not disobeying the signal is dumb, and there must be another reason why the signal is there. This follows from the whole concept of law ultimately being for the public good. I’m going to reiterate my earlier point that there must be some level of safety that’s implied by the walk sign being on, otherwise the walk sign wouldn’t exist. The walk sign must indicate, to some degree, that it is safe to walk, if only by a negation of the indication that it’s unsafe to walk when the walk sign is off.

(Feel free to correct me if my logic is off, it’s been a little while.)

The walk sign is still on

I posted a couple weeks ago about a traffic signal for the blind that informed blind pedestrians that “the walk sign is on,” which struck me as weird considering the visual nature of the walk sign. Rachel commented that the reason for the choice of wording was probably legal:

the visual reference of a little green man, in the case of North America at least, is a signifier that it is time to walk, should you choose to do so, but that it doesn´t necessarily guarantee safety when crossing.

I replied that

the idea of a blind person crossing at their own discretion is a little problematic for me. Whereas a sighted person can always revert to looking both ways before crossing the street, without any reference to the walk sign, a blind person doesn’t necessarily have that luxury, especially with the increasing prevalence of electric cars and bicycles on the roads.

Having done a little more research, I realize that I mischaracterized the purpose of the signal – it’s not to let people know when to walk, it’s more to let them know when they’re not allowed to walk. If anything, the walk signal is there to tell pedestrians when they’re not going to be in contravention of the law by crossing the street, not that there is any implication of safety in the walk sign being on. This concept is enshrined in the Burnaby Street and Traffic Bylaw 1961, section 5:

Every person shall obey the instructions, regulations or prohibitions contained in or upon any traffic control device erected or placed under the provisions of the Motor Vehicle Act or of this bylaw.

Fortunately this revelation doesn’t change my original assertion, that it’s weird for the auditory signal to refer to the visual signal in order to inform blind people that they’re permitted to walk. I still believe that alternative wording like “pedestrians are now permitted to walk” would be preferable, and would also indemnify the city from any legal repercussions.

It also doesn’t change my secondary assertion, that blind people are out of luck when it comes to electric vehicles and bikes. That’s why the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians recently recommended that the Chair of the Traffic Safety Committee in Burnaby ask Transport Canada to require some kind of non-intrusive noisemaker be attached to all hybrid and electric vehicles, presumably so blind people wouldn’t have to rely on walk signals to cross the road safely. As for how invested blind pedestrians are in the perceived safety of the walk signal, I would have to talk to some blind pedestrians directly.

Read and Listen

The Neuroskeptic has a great post tucked away in the archives about the Galileo Gambit, which is, in his words, “when people with unpopular ideas compare themselves to Galileo with the implication that, like him, they’re being persecuted for their unorthodox views but that they will eventually be proved right.”

Arguing for the unpopular view that “if most scientists believe something you probably should believe it, just because scientists say so,” he invokes some common instances of people thinking and acting like they know stuff when they clearly don’t, and in fact clearly couldn’t. Deniers of climate change are a great example of people who choose to scoff at the vast majority of climate scientists, apparently without acknowledging that climate scientists are the only people who are actually qualified to come to a conclusion about climate change. The psychological processes that would lead someone to deny climate change despite the fact that they have no basis for coming to a conclusion about it are complex and puzzling, especially since this tendency is so ubiquitous. (Cornell psychologists Kruger and Dunning have a theory – incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists call metacognition, the ability to evaluate one’s own performance.) “Unless you are a professional climate scientist (or whatever), or an amateur with an unhealthy amount of spare time,” Neuroskeptic points out, “the chances are that you just don’t know enough to come to an informed conclusion.”

In a recent episode of CSI, Grissom explains to his gullible disciples why a string of cases were linked together, apparently coincidentally:

String theory is the theory of everything. Quantum mechanics tells us about the very small. The theory of relativity explains the immense. String theory ties it all together. It proposes that atomic particles are made up of infinitesimal vibrating loops of energy, or strings. Each string vibrates at its own frequency, like on a violin, producing notes, and these notes make up everything in the universe. These strings have been combining and recombining ever since the Big Bang. So the connections between our victims, or any of us, are not that extraordinary.

The problem with this passage isn’t necessarily his characterization of string theory, which could probably be, on some vastly simplified level, defensible as a pop characterization of the theory. The problem is his use of the theory to explain the coincidence of his cases, where as a matter of fact the coincidence of his cases has nothing whatsoever to do with string theory. Theoretical physics isn’t philosophy. Gerard ‘t Hooft, a physicist at the University of Ultrecht, put together a list of subjects you need to master in order to know what you’re talking about when you talk about string theory:

# Languages
# Primary Mathematics
# Classical Mechanics
# Optics
# Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics
# Electronics
# Electromagnetism
# Quantum Mechanics
# Atoms and Molecules
# Solid State Physics
# Nuclear Physics
# Plasma Physics
# Advanced Mathematics
# Special Relativity
# Advanced Quantum Mechanics
# Phenomenology
# General Relativity
# Quantum Field Theory
# Superstring Theory

The point being, if you don’t have a PhD in theoretical physics, you can’t really talk about string theory with any remote degree of accuracy. The same holds true for a lot of other disciplines that laypeople talk about all the time, notably psychology, economics, and statistics.

The increasing breadth and complexity of modern science has made it largely inaccessible to amateurs and laypeople. For that reason, we rely on other people’s word every day, when we read the newspaper or watch the news or, at another level, when we read journal articles and attend lectures. Its unavoidable. What we can do, though, to a reasonable degree, is evaluate the word that we’re taking from these people based on how qualified they are to come to the conclusions they come to. (Journalists, for instance, rarely have any expertise about anything they write about.) As NS says, if we’re going to take someone’s word, we might as well take the word of an expert, or better, a huge group of experts who agree with one another.

I bring this up now because my recent post about Mindful Education raised this issue in my mind. Both Ken Kavenagh and Ryan, who responded at length to my post agreeing with Kavenagh, have taken an unpopular view that goes against the empirical, verifiable knowledge of hundreds of psychologists and educators. It’s not clear why Kavenagh and Ryan consider themselves to be more knowledgeable about the subject of mindful meditation than these hundreds of experts are, considering that the experts are the ones who have actually researched mindful meditation and are qualified to come to a conclusion about it. What I was trying to get at in the last paragraph of my reply to Ryan is that, as NS says, “if thousands of intelligent people freely discuss something and reach a certain conclusion, that in itself is evidence (although not proof) that what they conclude is true.” While obviously skepticism is a desirable intellectual trait, assuming your own expertise on the basis of a few articles you’ve read here and there is a weird and counterproductive tendency that people enact all the time. (Including me! I can’t pretend to be innocent of this phenomenon.)

Reaching across the floor?

In the US election, and recently with Obama getting ready to take office in January, there has been a lot of talk of “reaching across the aisle” and “working with people from both sides of the aisle.” In Canada we talk about “crossing the floor,” which is generally considered to be a bad thing (in fact, Wikipedia has a whole article about it). The aisle and the floor both refer to the boundary between the majority party and the opposition.

Here is the layout for the Canadian House of Commons, showing where all the party members sit. The lone Liberal out to the left is the Speaker.


Here is a plan of the US Senate, which has the same basic layout as the Chamber of the House of Representatives, only smaller.


Here’s a photo of the actual Chamber of the House of Representatives for comparison. The Speaker sits on the rostrum there in front of the flag.


It seems to be a commonly repeated factoid that in the House of Commons, the opposition is separated from the majority by a sword’s length, in order to prevent violence in the case of heated debate. Unlike the House of Commons, which is based on the architecture of British parliament, the Chamber of the House of Representatives doesn’t even have a symbolic sword’s length between the two parties. In fact, as of 1913 seating in the Chamber has been more or less first come first served, with no rules about where in the Chamber congresspeople are supposed to sit. (Still, Democrats tend to gather to the right of the Speaker and Republicans to the left. )

Strangely counterintuitive! It seems as though the Chamber layout is much more suited to a multi-party system like Canada’s, whereas the House of Commons seems as though it was designed more with a two-party system in mind. Maybe if we switched, reaching across the floor would be symbolically more powerful for Americans, considering that as it is, a Republican could reach out and shake hands with a Democrat without even getting up.