gender-segregated spaces, essentialism, and smashing the gender binary

I don’t really know much about art or art history, other than the messing around with materials that I do at home. But as part of my new “find-joy-and-be-less-of-a-hermit” recovery goal, I went to a lecture on “Gender and Its Relevance to the Arts” this past week.

The conversation was focused around the overt misogyny and gender inequity that exists in the representation of women’s art in exhibits. It’s not a surprise that women have been excluded from exhibits by oppressive gendering discourses and representations of art throughout history. As a result, women artists have had to face and reclaim this ideology that considers an overtly feminine art as secondary.

Doesn’t quite sound unique to the arts, eh?

No.

And that’s because it’s not.

A solution to such misogyny in art and other spheres is often to create women-only spaces. In this case, the lecture explored the controversy over women-only art exhibits by acknowledging both the strengths and risks associated with gender-segregated spaces.

Are women only exhibitions a compelling way to write histories’ wrongs, to bring justice to injustice by writing new and inclusive histories?

Or do women only exhibits reinforce false notions of gender which continue to negatively impact who women think they are and who they think they can be?

Initially, I was staunchly in favor of women-only spaces. I believe in the importance of a safe space for women’s art to be explored, represented and seen, and I feel strongly about the need for voices to be heard. To me, art is a means through which that can occur.

Art, in various forms, is a brave act of resistance and often women’s art portrays experiences of oppression and emotional experiences, and therefore, recognizing the inherent differences in the art of different genders seems significant in that regard.

BUT…

As I do… I started (probably over-) thinking.

Perhaps female-only exhibits are not the answer for a powerful argument for justice. Yes, they promote visibility, but what does it mean to be obligated to create a gender-segregated space in order to create that visibility?

If art spaces become places of necessary gender segregation, even with the intention to promote visibility, then how will society move beyond the gender binary and closer to unconditional acceptance that regardless of gender, art is an example of humanity’s brilliance?

The lecture emphasized that one of the solutions to gender inequity, is to increase the visibility of art created by women. While the following wasn’t explicitly stated, the fight for equal representation focused on only those who identify as women who exist on the gender binary. The argument for equal representation of genders, when it only includes male and female is incredibly reductive, shaming, and oppressive for those of us who identify outside of the gender binary.

I was already sitting in the corner of the room, but I felt myself becoming smaller, which is kind of the opposite feeling I was hoping to gain from this experience. I was uncomfortable in my body and aware of my body in the surrounding space. Thoughts of restriction crept in, despite being two weeks behavior free. I don’t know if this is ironic, but I noticed that as my identity was being denied legitimacy, I wanted to become physically smaller. On the other hand, I felt a sense of urgency to have my voice be heard (hence, this post), which is in essence, a desire to be seen.

As someone who has interacted in life with a mainly female-read body, despite it not feeling quite right, I have witnessed how gender, when viewed as such a stark binary, becomes a strong system of power that shapes the social existence of men and women.

The gender binary is not just problematic because it excludes those who don’t fit into two separate categories of male and female, but it also presupposes that women’s experiences are universal. Not to make this sound entirely like a theoretical rant, but as far as my understanding goes (and my understanding consists of only a few women and gender studies courses in my undergraduate education), this is gender essentialism. So to me, arguing for gender equity, by creating gendered segregated exhibitions that rely heavily on the gender binary, is actually just leading us further down the essentialist direction. 

Gender-segregated art spaces, including the room where the lecture took place, are not, as mentioned above, inclusive of or representative of all women. Thus, an act that intends to promote inclusion and visibility does so, but only under very specific parameters, for a very limited group of women. There is an implied message that your work can only be included in women’s-only exhibits if you fit the stereotypical characteristics of what it means to be a woman.

Nonetheless, this is problematic.

When an artist’s gender is used as the primary way to interpret a piece’s meaning, we homogenize a large group of people that actually have many different identities. This eliminates and obscures the significance of other aspects of women’s identities and of people who identify as non-binary. Women are not defined by gender alone, but when women are grouped into a single category based on stereotypical feminine characteristics (e.g. white, heterosexual, and cis-gendered), it prevents women from acting in a way that contradicts this culturally and biologically constructed idea of a female gender.

Ah, yes, a culturally and biologically constructed idea of gender. The entire lecture I was waiting for someone to call out the fact that no one had distinguished sex and gender and as a result, the two were being dangerously conflated.

Women’s identities differ on the basis of ethnicity, culture, class, sexuality, and ability, just to name a few. To argue for inclusion and equal representation of women in the art world, not only misrepresents who women are, but it further excludes and shames already marginalized groups of women such as queer women, women of color, and trans women. We cannot settle for inclusiveness that doesn’t respect diversity beyond the gender binary. And as you might imagine, I’m not just talking about artistic representation here.

Gender cannot be defined by biology, as in anatomical differences which are characteristic of men and women, nor can we rely on this biology to determine society’s narrow definition(s) of masculinity and femininity. Biology cannot and does not lead to a fixed identity. Gender is in no way a stable identity, rather it’s an outcome of an accumulation of experiences that have been inscribed through repetition over time.

How can we create spaces that allow and encourage the simultaneous destruction of stereotypes and the ownership of our own personal intersectional identities, bodies, historical representations, without silencing others?

First, in terms of de-homogenizing women as a singular category, there needs to be a purposeful exploration of all women’s experiences by women themselves. This should include an intersectional acceptance of gender because we cannot allow cultural definitions and stereotypes of gender to continue dictating the parameters under which we express our gender identities.

Second, in terms of rejecting the gender binary, we need to engage in meaningful and passionate objection to the status quo, which involves having conversations about the need for unconditional respect for the presence and representation of people of all genders (or chosen agender or fluidity), without any kind of subordination. We need to embrace and make visible expressions of queer identities in an effort to break down the possibility of gender essentialism at all, by thwarting the gender binary, gender roles, and expectations of superficially constructed gender norms.

in strength and healing,

OJ

 

gender-segregated spaces, essentialism, and smashing the gender binary
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4 thoughts on “gender-segregated spaces, essentialism, and smashing the gender binary

  • May 8, 2017 at 5:59 pm
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    I am continually in awe of your message, your willingness to be vulnerable, and your writing. Thank you for sharing and giving me some new things to consider.

    I see you for all of your “YOU-ness” and YOU are amazing.

    Reply
    • May 8, 2017 at 6:17 pm
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      Thank you jen 😀 It’s scary but I think a huge and necesary part of my healing process. We shall see! 😬But seriously thank you for your words.

      Reply
  • May 14, 2017 at 12:06 pm
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    I really appreciate this. It’s a tension that exists any time society has decided to segregate: enforcing the lines. We can’t move forward without acknowledging it, and separate is never equal so it takes affirmative holding up of those excluded AND held down, but then of course we become part of enforcing the line.

    I don’t know if this is analogous, but I have a friend who is, and identifies as, African American. When she told me that she doesn’t fill out the census, out of protest at the categories and, in truth, some fear of being tracked. I argued that if the minority doesn’t show up in the numbers then they aren’t represented in the population, invisible and marginalized. And with reflection I think we were both right, and victims of a decision we shouldn’t have had to make, a system put in place and enforced to hold one group down.

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    • May 14, 2017 at 3:15 pm
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      this is so well said, and illustrates how complex the issues of visibility and representation are in relation to the marginalization of groups of people. i wish i had more to add right now, but i’m stuck in thought with this actually. still trying to think my opinions through even I don’t think there’s one “right” answer. thank you for your thoughtful words though. well said.

      Reply

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