by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
I am currently obsessed with Jordan Peterson and his videos instructing men on ways in which to be men. He goes on to inform us that in his experience, so many are men petrified by women and specifically by the specter of being dismissed by them, and how men need to fix themselves because they are probably being rejected for "real" reasons. Peterson is currently a popular figure on the internet, and in many ways, defies glib categorization. See, for example, Slavoz Zizek's as ever quick take on why Peterson captures something in popular imagination.
But my obsession with him has to do with my own interests in the ways in which gender is produced in the world, as an either or—either, it is a binary — or as fluid one that can be placed along many combinations of body, desire and soul on a world-wide, gender-wide spectrum. At a recent conference organized by QueerAbad in Ahmedabad, India, author of Sexualness, social anthropologist and activist Akshay Khanna spoke about rites of passage in academia in terms of being able to speak about gender and gender fluidity. Rightly invoking Judith Butler, and questioning the seeming need to always begin all such conversations, even in Indian academia, with her seminal work, he emphasized the need to find local language, affect, and feeling, to be able to describe forms of gendered imagination.
In teaching Butler to undergraduates—many of them often being exposed for the first time to feminist theory—I sometimes conduct an exercise bringing props such as wigs, face paint, and make-up to class, encouraging participants to experiment and play with their appearances. Many do so. As they pose and prance, I also gently suggest that they take a walk around the building and premises of one of the premier technology and science institutions in India, going as far as they dare, before returning to the safe space that is class. I sometimes daydream about appearing in class, teaching in zoot suit, suspenders, and gelled hair, but am never quite able to find similar enough courage to play. We also speak about Aravanis or Thirunangais, the community of transgender women specific to Tamil Nadu, where I teach, and the ways in which their appearance, both as an act and a phenomenon may invoke a whole set of feelings and affects in their heteronormative audiences. We agree collectively, that yes, we perform gender; we nod agreeably that gender has solidified in us over years of performative rendition; and we silently hope that our experiments in class may lead us to be more fluid in our daily lives.
And yet, over five years of teaching Butler, identity theory, and gender performativity, I am interested more than ever in the resurgence, and arguably, the never-ever-gone-ness of the unspoken norm of the gender binary, and the investment that discourses have in making them real. Here, I use real not in the sense of a "constructed" real, but in the sense of belief, inhabitation and feeling. I am, hence, obsessed with Jordan Peterson.
In one of his talks, he declares, "Men use the image of female perfection to motivate themselves", and that what "modern women" do not understand is that "to the extent that men are not corrupted by rejection", they are doing all that they can. He goes on to expand upon his argument to say, "I don't know if women understand how paralyzing they are, especially to young men." In a parallel video, self-identified, former feminist documentary filmmaker Cassie Jaye, speaks of her experience in creating a documentary called "The Red Pill", chronicling the voices of Men's Rights Activists and the ways in which they feel disenfranchised in the world. In this talk, she posits that perhaps the question we are not allowed to ask in gender debates is as to "Who is standing up for the good-hearted, honorable man?", and further suggests that we need to invite "all voices to the table", and then we can "heal inside out". She also shares her experience of being vilified for highlighting men's rights as even rights in the world. The video is interesting in multiple ways for both the increasing prominence of the questions it raises, but also, I would argue, for the many and conflicting ways in which it produces an equivalence that is not yet existent, and for setting aside questions of context, intersectionality and power.
Now, how does one not find these discourses seductive? In the world of heteronormative, romantic, monogamy, men-women relations seem to be under constant jeopardy. In everyday conversations around dating, love, romance, relationships, breakdowns, hook-ups, marriage, child-rearing, and sexuality, structures, rules, and direction seem to be paramount, while discussions around the margins produce radical intellect and everyday struggle. Perhaps, what I have just written is merely a truism around which the possibility of revolution is always organized. And yet, in my own thinking about gender, I struggle with how to hold them together, in tension, rather than in opposition. My own research is interested in biomedicine, genetics, and its location of gender in bodies identified as possessing Disorders of Sex Development. I investigate the ways in which new and nascent genetic diagnostic technologies in urban Indian engage with, produce, and assign sex. And I'm interested in how to imagine a body that is neither wholly biological nor entirely social, but one which slips back and forth between different kinds of praxis. Even celebrity therapist Esther Perel, seeking an androgynous approach to love and "mating", still cautions us that the body needs to be restored to its rightful place in discussions about couples and eroticism.
Perhaps, this is what I suspect in the hullaballoo around Peterson and the righteousness of rights; the seeming given-ness of bodies. And perhaps this is what perturbs me in teaching Butler; the seeming limitlessness of the body. So then, what does one do with gender and indeed, with gender politics? As Elizabeth Wilson rightly asks in Gut Feminism, and here she speaks about feminist politics and biology, and I would ask the same about gender politics, body, and daily life — what if they are unbearably destructive? How do we teach gender as also a capacity for destruction as much as resurrection?
These are not only acts of imagination, but acts of courage. And courage is no ordinary goal. It requires both presence and openness, and these are goals for self, as much as for the world. Working with compassion and kindness for what is, as well as what might be, also requires a firm and unflinching attention to power and privilege of all kinds. These are acts of un-gendering and re-gendering, that I would argue, are what will unmake the ways in which we have rendered the world a constant, relentless object of fixability.