Should a Goal of Higher Education Be Enforcing Gender Expectations?

(UPDATE: Inside HigherEd now has an in-depth story on this issue as well.)

I was generally displeased with the news I saw this weekend out of Morehouse College.

Administrators at Morehouse, an all-male historically black college in Atlanta, have instituted a dress code for their students. While I would prefer to not attend a school with a dress code, I’m actually not anti-dress code, and if Morehouse wants to raise expectations for its students, a lot of what is in this dresscode is fair. For example:

The policy also bans wearing hats in buildings, pajamas in public, do-rags, sagging pants, sunglasses in class and walking barefoot on campus.

If the campus wants to have a professional atmosphere, that all makes sense. Again, I personally would never want to go to school with that kind of culture, but I can understand and respect that decision.

What really troubles me is that the dress code prohibits all cross-dressing, including the wearing of women’s clothes, makeup, high heels, and purses, calling them all “inappropriate attire.”

I think this raises a lot of important questions about Morehouse College: Is it an “all-male” college or an “all-man” college? Would Morehouse admit a trans man? Would it matter if he were pre- or post- op? If a Morehouse student decided to transition, would she be disqualified from attending? Would it matter if she were pre- or post- op? Who determines whether men dressing like women is “inappropriate” and on what grounds?

This aspect of the policy seems to be extremely regressive and blatantly discriminatory on the grounds of gender identity. One could argue that all single-sex institutions are discriminatory and help maintain gender stereotypes (though I’d counter-argue that women’s college generally have the opposite effect in a very positive way). I think the question here is needing to distinguish between sex, gender, gender presentation, and gender identity.

By initiating this policy, Morehouse has more or less dictated that all of its students must identify as the same sex, gender, gender presentation, and gender identity. I suppose it’s the college’s right to do so, but I do not think it’s right.

What’s more troubling is the reason this aspect of the policy was instituted:

“The dress-wearing ban is aimed at a small part of the private college’s 2,700-member student body, said Dr. William Bynum, vice president for Student Services. ‘We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men,’ he said.

Morehouse seems to be quite open about sexual orientation. Towleroad reminds us that Morehouse was recently in the news for firing an employee who sent out an email with very anti-gay comments. But at the same time, they seem intent on limiting their students’ expression of their sexual orientation when it begins to affect their gender presentation.

This is a line I think Morehouse has stepped too far across. Apparently, being a Morehouse man is more important than being yourself.

Republicans Prefer Partisanship Over Gang Rape Victims?

I have always generally despised partisanship and the two-party system (Sorry Green, Independent, and whatever parties, you haven’t made the cut yet). I’m not sure that either the Democrats or the Republicans adequately represent most people in our nation. For many, it’s about choosing the party that is the lesser of two evils. Some people (i.e. teabaggers) believe whatever their party tells them to believe. Party loyalty is premium in politics.

This partisanship seems to get in the way so many times. I really wonder how many of our Congressional Representatives and Senators actually vote 100% based on what’s best for their constituents as opposed to what is best for their party.

Well, last night, The Daily Show reported on a story that shows just how far party loyalty goes. It seems for 30 Republicans, it’s more important to oppose Democrats than to protect women from sexual assault. Take a watch:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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I had to watch it again just to believe what I was hearing. I still think Jon Stewart (along with The Daily Show writers) is one of the best contributors to political dialogue we have.

I don’t know what concerns me more: the 30 senators who voted against the anti-rape provision or the fact that the people who got them elected probably don’t care.

Change isn’t coming fast enough in this country, folks. I just don’t think things are working the way they ought to.

Swedish Middle Schoolers Challenge Toys “R” Us’s Patriarchy

I’ve found that teaching patriarchy and introducing people to the idea of male privilege and gender roles is not always easy. Responses like “it’s not that bad,” or “those messages don’t have a significant effect” are common.

Well, some sixth graders in Sweden get it and have worked hard to call it out when they see it:toys-r-us-logo

Last winter, a sixth grade class at Gustavslund school in Växjö in south central Sweden reported Toys”R”Us to the Reklamombudsmannen (Ro), a self-regulatory agency which polices marketing and advertising communications in Sweden to ensure they are in line with guidelines set out by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

According to the youngsters, the Toys”R”Us Christmas catalogue featured “outdated gender roles because boys and girls were shown playing with different types of toys, whereby the boys were portrayed as active and the girls as passive”, according to a statement from Ro.

The group’s teacher explained to the local Smålandsposten newspaper that filing the complaint was the culmination of more than two years of “long-term work” by the students on gender roles.

I love it! And the result of their work?

Upon reviewing the case, the Reklamombudsmannen agreed with the sixth-graders complaint, and on Tuesday issued a public reprimand of the toy retailer.

Now, if this were happening in the United States, conservatives would go mad. They’d accuse the teacher of indoctrinating. They’d accuse the school of promoting values that do not align with Biblical tradition. Right wingers know that maintaining gender roles helps them maintain power as well. But the best part of this story is that the students themselves are able to speak about the issues and respond to them:

Thumbing through the catalogue, 13-year-old Hannes Psajd explained that he and his twin sister had always shared the same toys and that he was concerned about the message sent by the Toys”R”Us publication.

Small girls in princess stuff…and here are boys dressed as super heroes. It’s obvious that you get affected by this,” he told the newspaper.

“When I see that only girls play with certain things then, as a guy, I don’t want it.”

Classmate Moa Averin emphasized the importance of children being able to be who they want even if “guys want to be princesses sometimes”.

They’re totally right, and what a positive message to be passing on to young people. Why would people want to refuse the message you can be who you want to be?

I really hope that American conscientiousness can be as vigilant at holding our companies and corporations to such standards:

According to the Ro’s advisory committee (Opinionsnämnden), the Toys”R”Us catalogue “discriminates based on gender and counteracts positive social behaviour, lifestyles, and attitudes”.

Specifically, the committee found that the catalogue feature boys “playing in action filled environments” while girls “are shown sitting or standing in passive poses”.

Taken together, the catalogue portrays children’s games and choice of toys in a narrow-minded way, and this exclusion of boys and girls from different types of toys is, in itself, degrading to both genders,” Ro said in a statement.

Maybe if Toys “R” Us considers changing their practices, they can also do more to promote spelling.

Toys”R”Us scolded for gender discriminationLast winter, a sixth grade class at Gustavslund school in Växjö in south central Sweden reported Toys”R”Us to the Reklamombudsmannen (Ro), a self-regulatory agency which polices marketing and advertising communications in Sweden to ensure they are in line with guidelines set out by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

According to the youngsters, the Toys”R”Us Christmas catalogue featured “outdated gender roles because boys and girls were shown playing with different types of toys, whereby the boys were portrayed as active and the girls as passive”, according to a statement from Ro.

The group’s teacher explained to the local Smålandsposten newspaper that filing the complaint was the culmination of more than two years of “long-term work” by the students on gender roles.

Ugh, Women Are NOT Being Portrayed Well On TV

I like a lot of primetime TV this season. Wednesday night’s a great lineup. I like Mercy, Glee, Top Chef, and then of course The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Unfortunately, last night reminded us that there are some very negative portrayals of women going on that I find very disappointing.

I really like Mercy, the new hospital drama on NBC. It focuses on three women, which is nice. Unfortunately, they’re all nurses, and so far, it seems they’re all portrayed as generally weak and having to overcome their emotional issues.

Glee - Terri and QuinnThen we have Glee, which of course I love, but the women are also all portrayed quite poorly. Terri is super possessive of her husband and is faking a pregnancy to keep him committed. Now Quinn is trying to use Terri’s need of a real baby to get financial support. Glee - Emma in the Locker RoomAnd Emma the neat freak is so desperate to not be an old maid that she’s going to marry Ken Tanaka? Of course, Rachel only rejoined the Glee Club to be around Finn, and Sue is an angry lesbian.

Heaven forbid women ever be portrayed as confident and self-sustaining without being bitches or psychotic.

If all that weren’t enough for Wednesday nights, here comes Comedy Central’s Secret Girlfriend.

The entire premise of the show assumes (literally here, folks) that the viewer is a straight male obsessed with having sex with women. Also, all of the women on the show look like strippers (even the ones who aren’t actually strippers), and the only thing they care about is having sex with men. To call it disgusting would be an understatement. Secret Girlfriend Casting SceneAnd even though there is the “secret girlfriend” who isn’t a filthy whore (she’s actually quite a sweetheart), she does not redeem the show or the horrible contemptibility of the male protagonists.

It would be nice to think that women are making progress towards equality in our society, but the way the media is still eager and willing to portray them suggests there is a long way to go. To all those women out there who are better than that and working their asses off to be the best they can be, keep it up. Until we get to a day when these portrayals are obsolete and women aren’t constantly demonized, we won’t achieve proper equality.

AFA and I Agree: New A&F Shirts Are Inappropriate

Normally when I receive an “Action Alert” from Don/Tim Wildmon and the American Family Association, it’s something stupid or despicable. Some recent examples include:

(9/4) ENDA – Work place is the wrong place for sexual politics

(8/24) AARP ramps up support for ObamaCare with TV/Radio ads

(8/19) PepsiCo forms Chicago Gay Pride organization

You get the idea.

Today, I got an AFA Action Alert that I actually really agree with:

Abercrombie & Fitch pitches new trashy T-shirts to America’s youth

When I first read the headline, I thought, “Oh, I bet these are gay-friendly or something.” But they actually are trashy and inappropriate! Here is how the email describes the new shirts.

The first A&F T-shirt pictures a young girl opening her blouse – exposing herself. A&F titles the image: “Show the Twins.”

The second picture is of a female running nude. A&F titles it: “Female streaking encouraged.”

The next Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt is entitled: “Female Students Wanted for Sexual Research.”

AFA points out the prevalence of new STD infections among young people (citing valid research from the CDC!). I think there’s a bigger problem.

Sexual assault and rape are still big problems in the university setting. There is this sense among a lot of young people that college is this “Girls Gone Wild” environment. We are not doing enough to educate men about these issues, and as a result, patriarchy prevails and the oppression of women continues.

Shirts like these motivate that culture, and it’s disgusting. A&F is a popular clothing brand, and I think they have a responsibility to do better by their customers. Unfortunately, good old capitalism encourages this kind of garbage. “Play to your audience,” right? Apparently, this company doesn’t care too much about the consequences.

The AFA page has a form that allows you to send an email to A&F, but I’m going to encourage you to not use the AFA form and instead send an email or letter directly. Here is the contact information you’ll need:

Michael Jeffries, Chairman Abercrombie
6301 Fitch Path
New Albany, OH 43054
Phone: 888-856-4480 or 614-283-6500
Fax: 614-577-6710

Masculinity (According to Craigslist)

Today on Towleroad there was an article about a portrait project done by photographer Chad States. The Morning News interviewed States and he explained the project as such:

I found all my subjects through Craigslist. I began by asking the question “Are you masculine?” in the heading. In the body of the posting I talked briefly about the project. Much to the effect of: “I am doing a photography project on masculinity. If you identify as being masculine, please get back to me.” I intentionally leave it gender-neutral so males, females and trans people feel free to respond. Most of the respondents are men, but a few are female and a few are trans. I posted to a bunch of different categories to cast as wide a net as possible.

You can view the full gallery on State’s webpage.

Masculinity is a topic that I find very interesting in a similar way to my discussion about villains. Despite what progress women have made over the past century, we are still a largely patriarchal culture, where men and masculinity are held up as ideals.  Men should try to be more masculine. That is the message that still pervades our culture.

In this project, each of the subjects offered their own description of what masculinity means to them, and I thought it might be interesting to compile those quotes and offer a bit of social justice commentary on them. (If you want to interpret the photos and quotes for yourself, don’t read my post until after you’ve explore the gallery on your own!) Personally, I think masculinity is a foolish, archaic concept and its promotion can be quite harmful to our society. These quotes show how the concept of masculinity either motivates individuals to think in harmful/disrespectful ways or challenges their own sense of identity to be more masculine just to have confidence in themselves.

First, here is my favorite of the portraits:

Masculinity Photos - TimothyTimothy says:

Men aren’t being men anymore; they aren’t taking care of women.

Now, obviously, I disagree that men should “take care” of women. As a gay man, I obviously have no motivation to “take care” of women in any different sort of way than I would care for anyone else, nor do I think that straight men have any obligation to protect or control their female mates. But it is Timothy’s presentation of himself that I connect with the most. Of all these men who claim to be masculine, he seems to present himself with the least amount of concern for manliness. His presentation of himself is one of the most simple of the bunch. He is simply comfortable just being himself, and I personally find that to be a much more admirable quality than masculinity.

Now, let’s look at the rest of the quotes. (You can match all the quotes to the photos on States’s website.)


I am strong emotionally, have always stood up for myself, and fear nothing. I happen to be physically strong but that isn’t where I derive my masculinity.

I think Bill tells us a lot about masculinity. I wonder what he means by “strong emotionally.” My hunch is that he means he is not soft, that he does not easily show (or “succumb”) to his emotions. By standing up for himself and not fearing, he shows bravery, but also an important sense of independence. He does not relate as much to his physical strength, and yet he knows it is relevant enough to be worth mentioning.


I feel that I am not only masculine in gender but also in speech, the way I act and the way I posture myself. It has been like this from birth. I like to pass as a guy, I just don’t want to have his stuff.

Jay’s sense of masculinity is definitely not the typical “male” kind, as hir quote indicates ze is not biologically male. But, ze considers hir gender, hir sense of who ze is to be defined by masculinity, which speaks to how deep masculinity really is. There is also a masculine way to speak, walk, and talk, and I think Jay’s use of “posture” speaks to how the way a person stand or holds hirself really communicates something about who that person is.


I am finally happy with my body, my maleness and masculinity. Boy, it took a long time. I even revel in the little bit of extra weight I’ve gained…it seems like I’ve overcome a hurdle that dogged me for so long; I’ve overcome that thinness that made me feel less than male.

I think Chris’s comments are really important because they show how important body image can be to men. Because men have a patriarchal advantage, they might not always feel the same pressure to have a “manly figure,” but there are messages being sent about how men should look nonetheless. According to Chris, masculinity demands stature, and I think there is an inherent sense of power in there. He didn’t feel he was manly because he wasn’t big enough (or perhaps, subconsciously, formidable enough).


I feel masculine when I am home, I can take care of myself. I often feel emasculated when I leave my apartment though, with everyone asking me if I need help. I don’t need any help.

Dennis echoes what we have heard already about independence and self-sufficiency, but through the unique lens of a person with a disability. I definitely get the impression that Dennis does not personally feel that his impairment has any effect on his own sense of masculinity, but it does affect how masculine others’ perceptions of him might be. I think this shows that no matter how masculine a person might think hirself, it really is something determined by other people. Dennis feels masculine when other people don’t keep him from feeling that way.


First off, I’d say I’m masculine because of how I feel inside, who I am and how I carry myself. In a lot of ways my masculinity is tied to my male gender role and how I want to project that and be perceived by others.

Dex’s comments really serve to compile a lot of what we’ve heard from the others about masculinity. It’s an internal feeling, it defines his identity, and it’s how he portrays himself to others. He also introduced the word “role,” suggesting that this identity affects not only how he protrays himself but even what behaviors he depends on for that portrayal.


The first thing I do when I walk into a room is figure out which male could kick my ass and which female I would like to fuck. Sometimes this is so subconscious it is alarming.

Andrew seems to convey the way masculinity can take control of how a person feels and thinks. It reflects a sense of competition with other men and a sense of domination over women. While Andrew’s take on masculinity might be more “extreme” compared to the others, I wonder if it’s only just a bit more honest.


Masculinity is an attitude. I feel that I’m masculine because I carry myself as such. It doesn’t have anything to do with what you drive or how many women or kids you have.

Like several of the others, Dwight refers to how he carries himself, but I think the rest of the quote tells us quite a bit about masculinity. Though he chooses not to use cars or women to demonstrate his masculinity, he recognizes that many people do. I think this speaks to the use of props for posturing. In the world of masculinity, both cars and women can help convey a sense of domination and accomplishment, perhaps with the intent of intimidation or control.


To be masculine is to dominate in one’s field of study.

Franco offers an interesting juxtaposition. He speaks quite bluntly to the concept of domination, but he seeks to dominate in academia, which is quite different than physical strength or domination of women.


I feel most masculine when I am lying in bed naked.

I’m not sure what to make of Greg’s comment. It might be unique to the bunch, as he favors what is ultimately a pretty vulnerable position.


To me it’s about being comfortable with myself. I like the way I look, am comfortable with my body and enjoy being a man.

I think John has a healthy perspective on his identity, but he still feels it important to define himself as a man. From the limited context of his quote, it is hard to tell whether his positive self-image is in coherence with or in spite of expectations for masculinity.


I am fiercely competitive. Not that women can’t be also, but there is something about being a man and having a competitive drive.

In a Carrie Prejean “no disrespect” kind of way, Johnpeters demonstrates the inherent superiority in masculinity. He suggests that no matter how a woman competes, she can never compete with a man. Given that men still dominate our society, this attitude reflects a widespread resistance to abdicating that privilege.


I consider myself to be masculine because I spent time in the Marine Corps, I work out, I have a mohawk, I have tattoos, I’m a tattoo artist, i cuss a lot, and that’s all I can think of right now.

Again we see themes of domination, formidability, and independence. What Josh also reveals is a sense of earning and deserving masculinity and the respect that comes with it. This parallels notions of control we have also seen.


When I wear men’s clothes I feel comfortable and confident in how I look on the outside which now matches the inside.

I’m not sure what Liz might exactly be indicating about hir gender identity, but ze echoes what others have said about presentation, internal identity, and a sense of cohesion between the two.


I am masculine because I abandon women after taking their love. Because when you study Freud you don’t let him study you. Because I study philosophy not literature.

While I cannot be exactly sure, Luke’s comments seem to be self-contradicting. He seems to be setting himself apart from Freud (and, likely, the gender role expectations Freud laid out), and yet his selfish use (or perhaps even abuse) of women aligns him in just that way. His image (NSFW) conveys a sense of superiority that seems to mirror more his commitment to stereotypical masculinity than against.


In my mind I am masculine. I feel I don’t have to prove it to anyone who might think otherwise (I don’t care what others think).

Following another common thread, Michael seems to be facing the challenge of who defines masculinity, one’s self or how people perceive hir. This poses the interesting question of how and why we do define ourselves. If Michael doesn’t care what others think of him, why does he find it important to still define himself in a certain way?


I want to show that, despite stereotypes, gay men can be masculine too.

I find a certain irony in Mike’s comments. While Mike definitely seems to present himself in a nonstereotypically gay way, he does so by presenting himself in a stereotypically manly way. It seems that Mike’s rub isn’t with stereotypes, but with negative perceptions. By the imposed “rules” of a patriarchal culture, gay is “bad” because it defies masculinity because it does not dominate women. While Mike likely benefits from his presentation he also helps interrupt gay stereotypes, I feel like he does it in a self-defeating way. He still feels bound to masculinity despite the fact that his very nature “violates” the ideal.


I have been called a SNAG (sensitive new age guy), a renaissance man, a man in touch with his feminine side, etc….I think that I am masculine in the sense of self reliance.

Parker’s comments speak to the idea of reconciling one’s masculinity. On the one hand, he doesn’t shy away the fact that in many ways he strays from the expectations of masculinity. Simultaneously, he still finds it important to identify with the term in the ways that he does still match—in this case, his independent nature. Like Mike, Parker’s comments demonstrate the hold that masculinity has over how men come to identify. What kind of person would Parker be if he didn’t feel compelled to still identify as masculine? Despite his deviations, that norm still affects how he defines himself.


Why am I masculine? Hmmmm. Because I have never for a moment questioned my gender identity. Though I love women (perhaps too much) I have never wished to be one.

The approach Patrick takes is simple: I’m masculine because I’m a guy. I think there are plenty of people who would suggest (perhaps based on their own identities) that gender and gender presentation are not nearly that cut and dry, but to him they are. When considering the other quotes in this collection, masculinity seems much more complicated. In one sense, masculinity is an inherent trait of being male, and yet in other ways it can be portrayed, earned, or deserved. Masculinity is really all of these things, because it is societal pressure to meet expectations because of what is actually an inherent (biologically male) trait. The male need not exhibit all of these traits, but we have create a social compulsion to achieve or portray them.


I consider myself to be masculine because I have been working out all of my life and I am a man. I am male so all males should consider themselves to be masculine.

Thomas sums up a lot of what has already been said and adds one important detail. Masculinity is about physical appearance and presence and it is an inherent expectation of being male. Those are ideas we’ve heard before. But Thomas also speaks of the idea of being competitive, but in a way that reflects a group dynamic. With his comments, Thomas seems to indicate that men who do not consider themselves masculine are not to be considered men at all. This mindset speaks to the control and domination men still work to convey over women. Men are strong, if you aren’t strong, you aren’t a man. You aren’t one of us. You’re weak.

So this is what have we learned from these individuals about what masculinity (according to Craigslist) really is…

Masculinity is earned, deserved, inherent, proven, perceived, and portrayed.

Masculinity is demonstrated through appearance, dress, speech, actions, posture, vehicles, accomplishments, women, and presentation.

Masculinity represents an attitude, a sense of gender, a sexual orientation, a feeling inside, a body image, a role in society, and a sense of identity cohesion among all of the above.

To be masculine is to be physically strong, emotionally strong, independent, intimidating, formidable, fearless, self-sufficient, competitive in ways women can’t be, and secure.

To be masculine is to take care of women, to be sexually dominant over women, to be emotionally dominant over women, to be dominant in one’s career, to be dominant in one’s field of study, and most importantly, to consider oneself masculine.

Obviously, I have a bias against the concept of masculinity, and I did not try to hide it in this post. I expect people have different interpretations of this photography collection, and I welcome those different perspectives. One thing that these individuals have in common is a sense of pride for their masculinity, but judging from what I have seen, I’m not sure it’s something they should be proud of.

I encourage everyone out there to really think about how you define who you are. Don’t be who you are because of expectations for your sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, worldview, age, socioeconomic class, or even chosen career. Be who you are because it’s who you feel the most comfortable being. That’s the kind of identity trait that truly deserves the most respect in our society.

Brüno: It Takes Silly Absurdities to Reveal Harsh Realities

So, succumbing to all the hype, I attended the premiere midnight showing of Brüno last night.  Here are my reactions and reflections.

*WARNING: There are some general spoilers in this post about what happens in the movie.*

I’ll start by saying this: I liked it.  In fact, I actually felt I left the theatre with a positive message.  Brüno is filthy, offensive, and absurd, but it actually has a decent point to make.

If you walk into Brüno expecting some coherent, gripping plot, then you are a clueless hermit who has never heard of Sacha Baron Cohen.  As in Borat, the character of Brüno is merely a device designed to create reactions.  In a sense, it’s a very extreme form of candid camera.  Some of the scenes, such as a sex montage that was surely inspired by Team America: World Police (with an inventive homage to Burn After Reading), are for the audience directly, whereas others are more to capture the reactions of the innocent passers-by in the camera’s view.

What is interesting is the way that Brüno is essentially the opposite of Borat.  Borat represented “foreign,” and created many unique scenarios that exposed much of the xenophobia and racism Americans can express.  Brüno actually represents an exaggerated archetype of the American dream: rich, glamorous, celebrity.  This personification creates many opportunities to reveal sexism, racism, classism, and definitely quite a bit of homophobia and heterosexism.  Many have expressed concern that Brüno’s sexual orientation represents a mockery of the gay community, but my reaction was that I did not actually perceive the character as playing gay the way we think of, say, Jack McFarland.

Let me be clear: Brüno is stereotypically gay. He’s got the effeminate posture, the revealing wardrobe, and the oversexed behavior and bitchy queen attitude that fill out the stereotype, but I felt it was so obviously over-the-top that it almost became irrelevant as I watched the movie.  When I go back and watch Will & Grace, I often feel like Jack epitomizes the idea of “queerface” that Brüno has been accused of.  Jack was a straight actor playing a gay man the way society saw gay men, and it was normalized.  What the 90s saw as progress of gay inclusion, we can now look back on as gay manipulation.  We cheered Jack’s flamboyance and weekly hook-ups while actually kind of hoping Will would start a family… but with Grace, not another successful mature gay man like Will.  It’s almost kind of astonishing how heterocentric Will & Grace is in hindsight.

Brüno is different because the character makes no assumption of being normal.  You expect to actually find gay men like Jack; you don’t expect to find gay men like Brüno.  In my theatre audience, I heard a few “gay panic laughs,” nervous isolated reactions by men because suddenly something gay happened, like if Brüno seemed to be coming on to someone who was straight.  But it’s clear the intent is usually not to laugh at Brüno because of his eccentricity, but to observe the reactions of the people who don’t realize he’s not real.

And the reactions are quite telling.

There are kind of two parts of the movie.  The first chunk is mostly about making fun of the celebrity ideal.  I was honestly delighted by how easily Brüno revealed “fame” for what it really often is: shallow and stupid.  From the way Brüno exposes and creates controversy himself to the way he reveals what others will do for fame (including a great montage of sell-out stage parents), the movie’s message is clear: fame is overrated.  Somehow, though, he also worked into the movie the fact that war in the middle east is stupid.  Much like Tim Minchin suggests peace over not eating pigs, Brüno suggests peace through the eating of the healthy snack that is hummus.

The rest of the movie really is about sexual orientation and gender roles, and I thought it actually did an effective job of demonstrating just how ridiculous anti-gay and patriarchal views are in the United States.  Brüno decides he can’t be famous if he’s gay (which alone is representative of the disadvantage and oppression the LGBT community does experience), and so goes on a quest to become straight.  Along the way, he speaks to Christian ex-gay therapists (one of whom had awful things to say about women), he goes to boot camp and self-defense training, he goes hunting, he attends a swingers’ party, and then, in the movie’s denouement, he creates quite the controversy for an arena of wrestling fans.  In each of these scenarios, people’s discomfort with same-sex relations—despite comfort with opposite-sex sexuality—becomes the true exposé.  While many of the reactions are not quite as extreme as the viewer hopes for, they don’t have to be to get the point across.

One of the best examples of this is an encounter Brüno has with former Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul.  While certainly not being a gay rights activist, Paul’s libertarianism was often lauded as progressive, particularly when he suggested he would support same-sex marriage.  Unfortunately for Paul, he represents the perfect example of how talking the talk is not the same as walking the walk.  When Brüno comes on to Paul, his reaction is offensive and intolerant.  Though prompted by absurdity, I found the scene one of the most poignant in the movie: saying you support or tolerate gays or saying you have gay friends doesn’t mean you’re an ally.  Paul’s reaction represents the invisible homophobia that persists in society.  When Brüno knocks over a Westboro Baptist Church (“God Hates Fags”) picketer while trapped in leather bondage, you realize that it’s not the trivial, obvious Phelps clan that maintains oppression in our society, it’s the closet homophobes like Ron Paul.

Yes, Brüno intentionally tries to make you cringe in the graphic over-the-top ways first inspired by Jackass.  There is plenty in the movie to find wholly offensive, and sometimes it’s so offensive, the audience laughs because people don’t know how else to respond.  Surely, there is nothing funny about deciding whether Jamie Lynn Spears’s baby should be aborted, but what is funny is how shallow and pretentious the rich and famous can be.  There is nothing funny about using Mexican workers as furniture, but the portrayal of how the rich literally sit upon the poor is profoundly symbolic.  And there is nothing funny about an arena full of wrestling fans chanting “Straight Pride,” but it is remarkable to see how easy it is to get people to show their true colors.

Brüno‘s goal is to trigger people’s reactions—both on screen and in the audience—and the film succeeds. What astounds me, though, is how the movie actually makes you think.  Brüno reminds us that we have to stop trying to measure up to the American ideal (white, rich, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchal), and start trying to meausure up to a better human ideal.

When identities don’t just defy norms, they supercede them…

One of the many great workshops I attended at Creating Change was one about Bisexuality Theory.  It turned into a really interesting conversation about all kinds of identities and the work that we do promoting that “gay agenda” of ours.  Here’s a recap and some of my own thoughts…

During the first part of the workshop, we talked about different theories of defining sexuality…

We talked about Kinsey’s theory of a spectrum from 0 (totally heterosexual) to 6 (totally homosexual) with 3 being bisexual.

Then we talked about the Klein sexual orientation grid, which considers all different kinds of attraction, orientation, and behavior and plots it over time.  (Our presenter divided sexual behavior into “encounters” and “relationships” and divided fantasies into “conscious” and “unconscious.”)  This grid allows a lot more diversity than the Kinsey scale and helps plot out a person’s sexuality in a much more complex way.

As we discussed some other models, one of the other participants mentioned Eli Colemans’s model, which uses pie charts to consider different aspects of a person’s identity (see page 22).

All of these models provide a way to consider bisexuality, but in the conversation that followed, we quickly realized that bisexuality and other nonspecific identities are much more complex.

The working definition we used for bisexuality was “recognizing and honoring the potential for sexual and romantic relationships with more than one gender.”  I liked this definition because it helps demonstrate that “bi” does not mean both.  Nonetheless, it is not inclusive of all the experiences of people who might not have a better word… so we brainstormed some new and familiar words and language to help be more inclusive.   Why do we need to be more inclusive?

What about people who are attracted to people who are trans?  What about people who are attracted to people who are queer?  What about people who are attracted to any kind of person?  There are some people who are bi who are gender-blind in their attractions and some who tend to be more gender-oriented in their attractions, so should we distinguish between them?  Is “-sexual” limiting to just sexual attraction and not representative of the deeper connections people experience?  What accommodations should be made for people who identify as polyamorous?  Here is some of the language we brainstormed:


One of the challenging aspects of these new kinds of identities is how we talk to others about them and how we earn respect for them.  What do we do about that whole “choice” thing?  Forgetting all the new language for a moment, even bisexuality is threatened by the “choice” idea: “If you’re bi, then you should exclusively date the opposite sex since that is normal (God’s expectation, natural, the only thing we’re not going to hate you for, etc.).”  Given that, how do we get people to even understand these identities that are so open that individuals who identify with them do have a choice—in a way—of who they partner with?

One of the points I made during the discussion is that there is a difference between having a “choice” about who you are attracted to compared to a “choice” among who you are attracted to.  If someone is attracted to someone else and their partnering doesn’t fit the heterosexual norm, who are we to challenge their relationship?

I hope we can start being more inclusive with sex education and promoting sexual literacy so that these unique identities and experiences don’t have to carry such a stigma.  Arguments like “is it a choice?” or “what’s natural?” totally miss the point: love.  I commit here and now to working towards breaking down these barriers.  We are human and we are free, and norms like heterosexuality, patriarchy, or the gender binary should not limit our potential to be.

We should be able to identify however fits best for us.
We should be able to love and partner however fits best for us.
We should all be ourselves, regardless of how that fits into the norms of society.
We should all be able to be happy.

We will never get there until we can stop fearing and condemning the difference we see around us.  Let’s start now.

Be a man! Be insensitive, overaggressive, homophobic knuckleheads like us!

So, I saw on Facebook today that some of my friends were participating in an event called National Man Day on Monday, June 15.

Here is an excerpt from the event’s description:

I’m not asking you to throw some sissy party, or to go buy a new power tie because you’re a man. All I’m asking you to do is step up live this day like a man would. Blow something up, shoot some animal, punch your buddy in the face for no reason, be a good father, play football and literally knock someone’s head off… Do something manly. Be a man like God intended you to be…
Take this day and celebrate your manhood!

When I help teach the amazing Gender Justice class at my current university, I ask my students to consider the question: “Which came first, men exerting power over women or men having power over women?”  Centuries after the seeds of patriarchy were planted, the question is moot, because the two are in a vicious cycle.

Why do we have gender roles?  Why does “being manly” mean what it means?  Because being manly means taking control, being aggressive, being hard and not showing your feelings.  Being womanly means being submissive and weak.  This is the nature of patriarchy.  It promotes power over women.  It promotes power over the LGBT community (gay men don’t actively oppress women and lesbians don’t submit to men, so they are circumventing the power structure).  It promotes power over other men, and competition, and aggression, and violence, and war.  It all comes back to these simple gender roles and the idea that our society is male-dominated, male-centered, and male-identified.  This is what we mean by patriarchy and the male privilege it enshrines.

So, seeing how (at the time of this posting) there are over 70,000 individuals actively participating in this event, I decided to add my voice to the mix.  After all, my commitment is to putting myself on the line, speaking up, and resisting privilege.  It’s important, even on a small scale like an inappropriate joke that really isn’t funny, to interrupt privileged views.  Here is the message I posted on the event’s wall:

This event is extremely sexist. It just forces men back into their stereotypical, unfeeling, block-headed roles that so many of us are trying to undo. Whether you believe it or not, you’re contributing to violence and homophobia, and I think that’s pretty sad.

I’d like to share some of the responses I received.  Since Facebook does not protect anonymity, neither will I.  Here’s Ethan Gray (Montana):

dude zack do you have a pair of balls?

And here’s Chaz Cool (London):

Yeah Zack, grow a fuckin’ pair, pfft

The next response was one of my favorites, because the young man proceeded to demonstrate not only how sexist he is, but how racist as well!  I can’t help but note the irony of his current network.  Here’s Chase Weaver (Santa Fe Christian High School):

most stereotypes are true, zack. why else would people like you hate them? if they werent true… how come theyve done such an astounding job of sticking? men have just as many feelings, but a majority arent outwardly emotional. men play football and (metaphorically) try to knock peoples heads off. black guys can jump. white guys cant dance. asians are really REALLY good at math. stereotypes are defined as generalizations and thats exactly what they are. some black guys cant jump and some white guys can dance

How about just a few more for posterity?  Here’s Joe Deligio (SEMO):

zach…. why u gotta be so gay

Parker O’Neill:

zack, you lost me (and everyone) at “this”

Brian Plant (De La Salle High School):

zach, you’re a woman, go make us really men sandwiches

And lastly, we definitely could not leave out this one.  This one really takes the cake.  Here are some words of wisdom from Jc Swaney (Lakeville Senior High School):

I think Zack’s gay, and we should commit acts of violence upon his head for being gay.

Is it sad that there is still a part of me that respects Jc’s attention to sentence structure and spelling?

Notice that most of these responses were from high school boys.  They are not even 18 yet, but they are already conditioned to be sexist, heterosexist, aggressive, violent, and “superior.”

Somebody has to speak out.  Somebody has to do better by these young men.  If we want gender equity in this nation, we have a LONG way to go.  We all have to acknowledge that there is a problem, acknowledge that this is NOT the way that our society has to be or should be, and acknowledge that it is not going to get better unless we cooperate proactively to resist and reverse the power imbalance and negative behaviors that maintain it.

I’ll end this post by sharing a very positive response that appeared while the others were gay-bashing me.  Here’s Andrew Perrigo (Des Moines, IA):

You can be a man without having to blow shit up, kill something, beat something up, or commit some other act of random violence. Being a man is about taking responsibility for themselves and their family. Knowing that when times get rough you don’t rely on other people or the government. When a guy sells blood to put food on the table for him family. That is being a man. When a guy works two jobs to make ends meet. That is being a man. When a man sacrifices what he wants for what he or his family needs. That is being a man. Being a man is not about watching football, scratching yourself inappropriately, belching, drinking beer, eating bacon or steak, or some animal you just cook. That is not a man. That is a savage.

If you care about women, the LGBT community, or even men who don’t 100% conform to the ridiculously unflattering norms of “masculinity,” speak out against this event.  Join the event as “Not attending.”  That number was already over 36,000.  Let’s send a message to these pathetic excuses for men that they don’t control our society anymore.