Reviewing Django Unchained [SPOILERS]

Preamble: DON’T read this if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know anything about it or have your reaction influenced by what I’m going to say here. Bookmark the page and come back to it after you’ve seen it. I also don’t suggest reading this if you don’t intend to see the film – and I do hope you will choose to go see it. If you’re looking for THE definitive Black perspective on the movie, I would suggest that you revisit the fact that Black folks are not a monolithic group and consider that this is MY perspective, singular, and not intended to represent the perspectives of any other people of African descent either in the U.S. or abroad. Having said that, the opinions I express here may be seen as controversial and will likely conflict with the perspectives of other Black people you may know and which you, if you identify as a Black person, may hold. Finally, this is also not intended to present the “RIGHT” way to view this film and although I consider myself a pretty thoughtful and reflective person, I’m not a student of film, so I’m not going to get into all the fancy language of film archetypes and genres except by way of referencing other folks who do. Okay, I think that’s enough of that. Let’s get into this. Oh, one more thing: I use the N-word. 

From the first preview I saw earlier this year, I knew this movie was going to provoke a lot of discussion. Indeed, people are talking about it before they’ve even seen it. Take for instance, Spike Lee, who hasn’t seen the move and doesn’t intend to. He is quoted in this HuffPost note (because it’s not really a full article) as saying that the film is “disrespectful to my ancestors.” This “story” (what’s the story here – that Spike Lee doesn’t like it?) has also been run in USA Today and other news outlets. We don’t know on what basis he has a problem with the film, other than I heard it mentioned elsewhere that he didn’t like the liberal and excessive use of the “N-word” in the film. Well, as much as I have enjoyed several of Spike Lee’s films, I don’t regard him as an authority on respect or on restraint against using objectionable language. Maybe his uninformed (because he hasn’t seen the movie) opinion might carry more weight with me if he cares to revisit his films “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Girl 6” and discuss the disrespectful portrayal of Black women or his own liberal use of the “N-word” in most of his movies. Otherwise, Spike can hush and stop allowing himself to be used as handy tool of Black-disapproval for a media more interested in creating sensationalism than provoking intelligent and informed conversation. (Sorry HuffPost, but you messed up here.)

The smartest thing I’ve seen yet about this film though came from someone else who was responding to that link to HuffPost’s Spike Lee commentary shared on my fiancee’s Facebook wall. Ryan Fitzmartin, a film student at Emerson College in Boston, wrote the following in response to Spike Lee:  “I think the objection Spike is making is that Tarantino is making a comedic film about a dark issue. But that’s what Tarantino does. Inglourious Basterds was a dark comedic revenge fantasy against the Nazis. I’m assuming Django will be the same. I don’t think anyone could mistake what’s being covered in Django as reality, and I highly doubt Tarantino will make Slavery look “fun”. I think Spike Lee’s opinion has merit, but he does have a tendency to speak before thinking, and in this case, I think that’s what he did” (emphasis added). I think we all ought to do well to remember Ryan Fitzpatrick’s name – I think we’ll be hearing from him a lot throughout his career.

Having seen a lot of Quentin Tarantino’s films, including Inglourious Basterds (2009) and having thoroughly enjoyed it for exactly what Ryan describes it as “a dark comedic revenge fantasy,” Ryan’s parallel between that movie and what he suspected he would find in Django really resonated with me. Really, in a way, aren’t all of his movies “dark, comedic revenge fantasies?” I mean, the “Kill Bill” trilogy certainly could be described in that way, as could “Pulp Fiction,” at least in my mind. And I enjoyed all those films, bloody though they each are.

So, I went into the movie last night with my fiancee with that in mind. We went to the 9:45pm showing in Bowling Green on opening day and early enough to see the audience for the previous showing let out. The theater had been packed with overwhelmingly mostly White faces – this is Bowling Green, Ohio after all. The 9:45pm showing was no less crowded and no less White. Again it’s Bowling Green and this is a Quentin Tarantino movie after all.

We took our seats at about the center of the theater, slightly forward of the exact middle row, and waited through the dozens of commercials and then innumerable movie trailers (awful lot of middle-aged, practically senior citizen White men starring in action movies these days, wouldn’t you say?). Finally the movie began and my fiancee took my hand and we held hands for almost the entire movie. A gesture that was probably as much about us being sappy as it was recognizing the need to brace ourselves and support each other through watching a film that even Oprah – who produced Beloved and Precious and starred in The Color Purple; she’s no stranger to brutality in movies – said of Django that she couldn’t watch some of its scenes (read this for a good reflection on the film by the director, some of the film’s stars, and Oprah, who has endorsed the film).

As the film began, set in 1858, two years before the Civil War, I began to think about the film Lincoln, opening around Thanksgiving. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to see the connection. A. O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times, saw the movie and reviewed it. You can read his review here. As a really smart critique of Lincoln by Aaron Bady in the Jacobin commented, slavery was already at death’s door by the time the Civil War started due to increasing frequency of runaway slaves and slave rebellions, the work of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists (across races), and increasing distaste for the brutality of American slavery. I saw in Django a reflection of the decline that Bady references, sans historical realism of course.

Yes, Spike is right, in Django’s screenplay which was also written by Tarantino, the N-word is featured prominently, even enthusiastically. Via the site WhoSay, posting to Facebook, D. L. Hughley’s synopsis of the film was “Went 2 see Django last night it was spectacular! But They said nigga so much n it even Rappers are gonna say Dayuuuum!! #TeamDl” I laughed in response to Hughley’s comment, but let’s be real, shall we? The film is set in 1858. How do you think Black folks were regarded at that time? What language do you think they would have used to talk to and about Black people? They called them all sorts of things that were never meant to be affirming or culturally authentic or relevant: coons, darkies, jimmies, a new term I hadn’t heard before that starts with a “g” but I can’t remember it now, and, yes, niggers. Yes, I wrote the word that shall not be mentioned. Niggers. White people called Black people niggers in 1858, probably more than they called us anything else because we were not considered to be morally equivalent to White folks, we were not considered as human as White folks, and therefore did not need to be regarded as much more than a derivative of the word Negro from the Spanish negro meaning black, from the Latino necro meaning dead. Black people called other Black people niggers in the same way that a child who’s called been called stupid their whole life thinks that Stupid is their name. Here’s the thing, Tarantino uses nigger in its historical context – unlike the plethora of films (including Spike Lee’s), rap lyrics, and other vehicles of so-called artistic expression whose use of the term is divorced from its ugly, racist past (and present, because it’s still a handy pejorative for mostly White people to use against targets that are always Black people). Perhaps seeing and hearing its original usage and intention, will disabuse present-day Black folks and their White friends from calling each other and other Black folks, “niggers.” Even the teenage White boys sitting behind my fiancee and I were quick to comment out loud, “That’s so racist” at the first use of the word by a White character in the film.

And then there’s Christoph Waltz’s character, Dr. King Shultz – yes, “Dr. King” and I don’t think that’s an accident but I’m clueless as to what the commentary might be there. Shultz is a German bounty hunter, pretending to be a traveling dentist, rounding up people wanted by the law for stagecoach robbery and murder, choosing to bring them in dead. He’s quite skilled with his marksmanship and takes on Django – buys him as a slave from other slave traders, while setting the rest of the men chained together free. As Shultz’s slave, Django is treated with respect, seemingly almost as an equal (a redemption perhaps from the German character Waltz plays in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) though no less ignorant of Black people’s humanity than any of the other White slave owners and traders in the film. He expresses surprise and queries “your people believe in marriage?” when Django describes Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) as his wife. Upon witnessing a Black man be torn apart by dogs after being caught trying to run away so that he doesn’t have to forced to fight another Black man to death, Shultz is noticeably queasy. What’s interesting to me about that is that Shultz displays the same kind of ignorance that well-meaning White folks tend to have when they endeavor to “help” Black people fight institutionalized systems of racism, like slavery was in the antebellum South – and not unlike the White college-graduate in the film The Help, or any other movie where White people are featured “saving” Black folk. White folks are often quick to want to “help” but not fully cognizant of what “helping” might need to entail to achieve the end goal and totally unprepared to face the extent of the brutality that will be used to maintain those systems of oppression. Shultz loses his life when he loses his cool after recalling the man who was torn apart by dogs and kills Candy- jeopardizing the lives of Django and Broomhilda who were a handshake between Monsieur Candy and Shultz away from freedom.

Let’s talk about Calvin Candy, described as a Francophile who can’t speak French – the slave owner of a Mississippi plantation called Candyland with a brothel/fighting arena in a town five hours away full of Black women – slaves, don’t be mistaken – who were dressed in the grandest finery, schooled in the manners of high class society, flawless English (“luxury slaves”) – not the slave dialect commonly exclusively associated with Black slaves. Calvin Candy and Candyland reflect the cruel juxtaposition of monstrosity and refinery that was typical – yes, typical – of U.S. slavery. He meets his end at the hand of another White man who is refined for real. A statement about the role of education and refinement against the base attitudes and eugenics passing as science spouted by Candy, perhaps?

And then there’s Steven, the head house slave, who has served the Candy family for 76 years. As Samuel L. Jackson says about his character, he will likely become the most hated Black character in movie history. I certainly hated him almost immediately after he made his appearance. Scott’s review describes the character as “imagined,” however Steven was very much real in slavery and modern day racism (where do you think Uncle Tom comes from as a pejorative reference?). Likely born into bondage since his father and grandfather before him all served the Candy family, Steven knew no other life than what he knew at Candyland. He also saw the consequences of rebuttal and rebellion. He also received the benefits of living in the big house. He is thoroughly indoctrinated in racist ideology and colludes with slavery thinking himself spared from its horrors. Steven is a woefully pitiful, if not pitiable, character. In the end of the movie, when Django tells the other Black house slaves – including Sheba, Candy’s apparent mistress – to “get away from all these White people” and say goodbye to their mistress, Miss Sally (again, not a mistake in my view), Steven who is standing closest to the door tries to leave realizing that life as he knew it was coming to an end. Django tells him, oh no, not you, “You’re right where you belong” in the midst of all the White people he served and whose bidding he executed and he is killed along with the evil Whites at Candyland.

Now let’s consider the women in the film, Candy’s sister Sally and his mistress Sheba, the slave women on the various plantations Django and Shultz visit, and of course Broomhilda. The only scene where a woman speaks up to a man, in this case to put a halt to the exposure of Broomhilda’s scars received from the whippings she has received, is reserved for Sally. Sally’s character is a widow with a strange, hinting at incestuous, relationship with her brother Calvin who seems more daft than brave. Yet she has the bravest female moment in the movie – unless you regard Broomhilda’s refusal to be broken, to keep running away, as strength. I am willing to do that. Nevertheless, the women, including Broomhilda (or Hildie as she’s nicknamed), sit waiting for the rescue of a man, Broomhilda for her Sigfried. In this movie, apparently, revenge is a dish best served hot and by a male waiter to boot. Black women’s agency is either absent or shown to be futile. And that ticks me off not only because of its patriarchal sexism, but also because it is historically inaccurate. But then again, this is Quentin Tarantino.

A word about mockery and dark comedy. Again I’m not a film student like Ryan who I quoted earlier, but I think we use comedy to handle difficult subjects. On December 21st, I criticized the mockery of the Mayan’s beliefs, misrepresented as a doomsday prophecy, and I was criticized in turn by one friend for not being sensitive to people’s need to use humor to help them get through stress. Well, I still don’t believe that we should co-opt and twist another culture’s beliefs into humor for our own stress relief. However, I do recognize the power of comedy to get us to see ugly truths that we otherwise would not dare to face. I also believe we mock what we do not respect and what we want to distance ourselves from. And so, we are given the hooded raiders, ala Klansmen, led by Don Johnson’s character in a great cameo, who are mocked and portrayed as disorganized buffoons who can’t even see out of the hoods they wear to mask their identities. What is strong enough to override what would otherwise be a central flaw in executing any kind of activity? Hate, racial hatred to be exact. If not for the preparation of Shultz and Django, the raiders’ hate for Black people and those who support them would have been enough to make the raid on Shultz and Django’s encampment effective. Who needs organization when you have blind hate? Ah, and maybe their blindness in the movie, unable to see out of their hoods, is a metaphor for the blindness of their hatred. There is no mockery of slavery here, just of slavers. Slavery is serious and awful and brutal and we don’t see it made light of in this film.

The other instance of comedy that stands out to me is when Django gets to pick out his clothes for the first time and he goes for an outfit that can only be described as silly. A slave at the next plantation they go to asks him in disbelief, “So you choose to look like that?” I nudged my fiancee and whispered, “black dandy,” being reminded of an article and photo-feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education from several weeks ago. As Stacey Patton discusses, black dandyism actually grew in response to the luxury slaves used in 17th century England. Turning expectations for race, gender, and sexuality on its head, Black dandies, then and now in the guise of academics, reflect an image of Blackness that stands in sharp contrast with how Blacks were expected to look and act. When Django dons his blue dandy outfit complete with white stockings and neck scarf and riding a horse no less playing Shultz’s freeman valet, he disrupts not only what Whites expected of Blacks but also what Blacks expected of each other. But this is missed in the film and Django only looks like a clown. After leaving that plantation, where Django kills 2 overseers in defense of  a Black woman about to be whipped for breaking eggs, 2 for whom Shultz had bounties (the ones that Shultz bought Django to help him find; Shultz kills the 3rd himself), Django purchases a new outfit that is more toned down, more typical of the everyday man in the American South at the time. No longer dressed the part of the dandy, Django no longer openly flaunts others’ expectations of how he will behave, what he will say, and how he will engage Whites and other Blacks. Instead, he continues to flaunt those expectations with his speech – a skill that Black folks have developed and perfected in multiple forms, including satire.

Scott’s NYT review, cited earlier, questions whether part of the criticism of Django’s violence as “excessive” is linked to the fact that it features a Black man visiting revenge upon White people. I think this is a very smart insight. Indeed, this movie is violent and blood literally runs down the walls in some scenes, people are blown away and blown apart by gun fire, blood spouts and spurts and gushes. This is a Quentin Tarantino film; by comparison, the Kill Bill movies were no less violent really, in my estimation.  But, contrary to what Spike Lee said, there’s no gang rape scene, and the greatest brutality is saved for the revenge killings of White people who brutalize Black people. I don’t believe that Tarantino glorified the violence of slavery but he didn’t back away from it either. When Broomhilda is whipped and branded, when the two slaves are embroiled in a blood match to the death, when the runaway slave is fed to the dogs – you hear more than you see and what you see is not gratuitous. Nevertheless it was enough to produce a visceral physical reaction in me, even beyond what I usually feel when I see brutal violence visited upon children or women. I could literally feel my chest tighten, my fiancee and I squeezed each other’s hands, my face felt flush with warm blood racing to my cheeks, water began to form in the corners of my eyes, and just when I thought I couldn’t take another second (beyond the 30 seconds intervals in which you see each of these acts take place) and would scream out in my horror and pain and go running from the theater – just at that moment, the scene was over and my breathing could return to normal and I could release some of the tension in my body. No, the greatest violence and gore is saved for the revenge killings, which caused me no unrest or tension and no small amount of glee. Just being honest, folks.

And that’s really where I think the movie’s biggest point for me comes through. Candy asks at one point why Blacks, who far outnumbered their White slave owners and overseers, never rose up and killed all the White people. Candy recalls how Steven’s father shaved Candy’s father with a straight edge razor 3 times a week every week for 50 years, yet never availed himself of the opportunity to kill him. Candy proclaims with no hesitation that had he been that slave, he would have killed the elder Candy and it wouldn’t have taken him 50 years to decide to do it. So, this revenge fantasy of Tarantino’s then takes on a whole new twist. Perhaps its not so much a revenge fantasy for Black folks, but rather for White folks. Perhaps this is one White man’s projected fears/fantasies of what would have happened had there been a Django in real life – or if the real-life Nat Turner’s raid been successful or any of the other slave rebellions that did occur throughout slave territories in the North and South before the 13th Amendment was passed (there’s that Lincoln film again). Why didn’t more Black slaves in positions of access to both weapons of murder and the opportunities to carry it out take advantage and rise up and kill the men and women who were responsible for brutalizing them and tearing apart their families? Is it because those Africans, brutally enslaved, were just naturally submissive? This was Candy’s rationale in the movie. I don’t think that’s the answer. Is it because they just weren’t as evil and regarded human life more highly than their slavemasters did? I like to think this is a more likely reason. But I think the truth lay somewhere between that and the reality that opportunities to visit revenge violence against their slave owners really were not as easy to come by as any of us in modern times may like to imagine that they were. Although outnumbering Whites on most plantations, the firepower was definitely controlled by those Whites and unlike Django in the film, learning how to use a gun properly is not really a “natural” talent that can be easily picked up. By the time Steven’s slave father would have sliced the throat of the elder Mr. Candy and tried to escape, more than a couple of overseers would have caught and killed him and anyone else trying to escape with him. Slavery lasted in the US for as long as it did, nearly three centuries, not because Blacks were so submissive and not for lack of trying to escape or revolt, but because the system of slavery benefited from a set of laws, both state and federal, social customs, and the intentional disabling of communication and social networks among slaves that were intended to preserve slavery on purpose. The existence of which made the success of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s 300+ trips to the South to rescue slaves remarkable, if not miraculous.

In fact, Django does not set out to liberate all slaves or end slavery. Given an opportunity to set a trio of slaves free who were bound to a cruel life at a quarry breaking stones until their backs wore out (as Steven described it to Django), Django merely asks them to hand over the dynamite that had been put in the trailer with them and rides off back to Candyland. He leaves them without direction or guidance, their slavers dead on the ground, them still chained (?) in the trailer with the door open, and that’s where we last see them. Django doesn’t set anybody free before blowing up the big house, merely tells the house slaves to get away from the house. Django, in fact, is responsible for preventing Shultz from saving the life of the slave who ends up being fed to the dogs. Django is no abolitionist hero; he is only interested in rescuing his wife, Broomhilda, and other women who reminded him of Broomhilda along the way. So Django’s destruction of Candyland stands somewhat consistent with historical reality as an isolated event with little long-term consequence or significance: Even slave revolts that were successful were little more than isolated flare-ups, quickly subdued by even more repressive laws and actions on the part of individual slave owners seeking to ensure that there were no copycats among their slaves.

What does this mean for my opinion of Django? I think it’s a good film for what it is – a patriarchal (my view) and dark, comedic revenge fantasy as Ryan Fitzmartin described it. I am glad I saw it; I was delighted that the “bad guys” got what was coming to them at the end. I think other people should go see it and enjoy it (unless they have a general distaste for blood) for the opportunity to see a Black man getting vengeance against White people – not generic White people, but those directly responsible for brutalizing Blacks, as Scott writes in his NYT review. However, I respect the opinions of those who saw it and hated it and those who won’t go see it. It is a Quentin Tarantino film after all.

Bad (Christian) Theology

In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that befell Newtown, CT last Friday, people are attempting to make sense of what happened, offer some solace and comfort to the grieving, and reassure themselves of the central tenets of their beliefs. I imagine that this is being done by people of all convictional beliefs, not just Christians. However, as this country’s dominant voice of religion and meaning making, Christian theology is taking center stage. You wouldn’t know it from the media, but not all those who died claimed Christianity and people of other faiths have also mourned and spoke out of the truths of their beliefs to comfort, make sense, and recall the tenets of their faiths. For example, at this past Sunday’s interfaith vigil, voices representing the Muslim and Jewish communities were also present.

In the face of such unspeakable tragedies, what we really believe about G-d (by whatever name we call the Divine; click here for what spelling G-d this way signifies) is often revealed through our words and actions. In the midst of truly beautiful messages of solace and empathy, I’ve seen people speak of the G-d of Christianity in ways that I can only call idolatrous because I do not believe them to represent the truth of what is revealed about G-d in the Bible or in my own experience and that of others I know. I call these idolatrous representations of G-d “bad theology” and I’ve seen them all over my social media feeds (by people either laying claim to them or as the objects of derision). I have even heard them uttered by the POTUS himself at the end of what was otherwise a powerful and moving speech.

These idolatrous views of G-d pain me, not only because they don’t reflect the G-d I serve despite claiming to do so, but also because they drive people away from faith and belief. I have seen people respond to this bad theology with comments like, “that’s why I stopped going to church” and “this just makes Christians look worse than they already do.” I have no problems with those who choose other doors toward faith and meaning making. However, I am deeply pained by someone rejecting a door because it has been misrepresented.

So, here are 5 images of G-d that I’ve heard in the last week since the lives of 28 people were lost (yes, 28 – I’ll get to that in a moment) in Newtown, CT. I offer my understanding of how I see G-d and why I see these images as problematic and reflecting “bad theology.” I’m not a theologian, nor am I a priest or a bishop. However, I have walked with G-d long enough to have learned a thing or two about how She operates and how I believe She wants to be known in and through my life. Maybe something here will help somebody else (at least that’s what my fiancée told me when she said I needed to share with others what I shared with her a few days ago).

1. G-d as The Grand Puppet Master.

I keep hearing people try to make sense of this tragedy by saying “it must have been G-d’s will” or “G-d allowed this to happen” or “G-d used this to achieve His will.” I’ve seen people try to walk this tightrope of explaining the difference between G-d’s “permissive will” and G-d’s “perfect will.” Like academics whose jargon ostracizes the general public, language like this from Christians just makes other folks confused and frustrated with our inability to make sense. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, there is a line that asks for “Thy will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It doesn’t say that G-d’s will IS done on earth as it is in heaven. Moreover, the instruments of G-d’s will are US. WE are G-d’s hands, feet, voice; WE are Her instruments of peace, mercy, justice, love, etc. If WE don’t act in those ways, then G-d’s will – which is for justice, mercy, and peace (see Micah 6:8) – is not performed in the earth. What we witnessed last Friday was humanity – represented by Adam Lanza – usurping the will of G-d to assert his own will in the earth. G-d is not a grand puppet master, manipulating us in keeping with some grand design that is only known by Him. That would violate our free will. I believe that She wants certain things for our lives that have been made known (justice, peace, love, mercy) and has equipped us with everything we need to manifest those outcomes in our lives. I believe that the Lord has called each of us to fulfill certain purposes in our lives. I also believe that those purposes can be disrupted, cut off, and derailed – sometimes permanently, other times temporarily – by our actions or the actions of others. We can’t look backwards on someone’s life and decide that the purpose of their life was ultimately fulfilled by the time they were violently snatched from this earth. What kind of G-d would determine that upon a person fulfilling their purpose on this earth that they should die in a hail of bullets at school one day anyway? That just doesn’t square with G-d being compassionate and full of mercy.

2. G-d as Vengeful Quid Pro Quo Arbiter 

There’s a meme going around Facebook of someone asking why would G-d let something like this happen and “G-d” responding with “you wouldn’t let me in your schools.” Other versions of this say that we since we kicked G-d out of our schools (by not requiring everybody in the school to pray to a G-d in whom they may or may not believe in a manner that may or may not resonate with them), we shouldn’t be surprised that this kind of violence has stepped in to fill the void. I think this falls into the category of “His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways” (Isaiah 55:8). I don’t believe in and would not serve a G-d who played a tit-for-tat game with humanity. What do we think G-d is saying here, “Well, you wouldn’t force me on other people, so I’m gonna take your children?” No. Just no. Hell, no, in fact. This makes G-d look like some kind of petulant toddler (no offense to toddlers), who throws a temper tantrum because he didn’t get his way. Never mind the fact that forcing people to believe a certain way or to pray a certain way isn’t very G-d like in the first place. And never mind the fact that this very thing could have happened in a religious school and has happened in places where G-d was very much present (e.g., Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin this year; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963). For more on how this happens, I direct you back to #1.

3. G-d as the Canaanite god, Molech. 

In the Hebrew scriptures, we see Jehovah warning the Israelites not to worship Molech, one of the divinities in the land of Canaan. Worshippers of Molech believed that their god required child sacrifice in order to be appeased. We see Abraham nearly sacrifice Isaac in this same way (being tested by G-d) and then be stopped by an angel of the Lord. I have heard this idol raised in the last week when people say things like “G-d sacrificed our children because of our disobedience.” Lifting up this idol usually involves blaming gays and lesbians for every natural disaster that comes along and it has been raised in the wake of the shootings in Newtown. Mike Huckabee, Westboro Baptist Church, and other folks have come out in the last week blaming marriage equality, abortion rights, and other “sins” for Adam Lanza using his mother’s guns to kill her, 26 innocents, and then himself. Yea, I see the connection there, no problem – NOT. Without even wasting my breath to debate whether marriage equality and a woman’s right to safely access means to terminate her pregnancy are actually “sins,” I will simply decry the characterization of G-d as a child killer to assuage his judgment. I know this simply because the Bible teaches that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary was atonement “once for all time” (1 Peter 3:18, NLT). According to Christian doctrine, there is no more a need for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 9:12, 10:4) and there was NEVER a call for child sacrifice even when the slaughter of animals was necessary. G-d didn’t take Abraham’s son Isaac and God didn’t take those Newtown sons and daughters or anybody else’s son or daughter who was claimed by violence or illness or starvation as a propitiation for sin. To say that G-d did is disgusting, unholy, and unChristian.

4. G-d as the Perpetually Cheerful, Slightly Addle-brained, Amusement Park/Cruise Ship Social Director

This is the image of G-d that pictures some grandfatherly guy with a big smile who joyfully greets all these children into a great big playground otherwise known as heaven. Another version of this says, as our POTUS did on Sunday, that “G-d called His children home,” as though the street lights had just come on and it was time for supper. This idol seems very innocuous. After all, it matches the image of G-d that many people grew up with – an old White guy with a long white beard and a great big smile whose got the whole world in His hand. But here’s the problem with that: G-d isn’t always happy and rejoicing at the death of one of His children (regardless their age). Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and I wholeheartedly believe that G-d wept bitterly at the death of those children and their teachers (and Nancy and Adam Lanza, but that comes next). Yes, I believe that G-d received them into Love, but not as though that was His perfect timing. The heart of G-d was broken last Friday, just like so many of our own hearts were broken. It was too soon, that was not G-d’s design or plan, and if His will actually had been done that day, they would be with their families right now being tucked into bed after the street lights came on. Owning this means recognizing that the full manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d on earth as righteousness, peace, and justice is largely about our own inability to get our acts together and surrender our wills and our egos.

5. G-d as Human.

This is the most insidious misrepresentation of G-d in some ways because it seems to make the most sense. I hear this idol being lifted up when people recite only 26 names of those who died last Friday and sometimes leave out Nancy Lanza and just about always leave out Adam Lanza. Only the names of the “innocents” are read aloud; only 26 candles are lit for the dead; when even the teachers are ignored and only the children are lifted up as worthy of remembering and mourning, as an impetus for calls to social action to address gun violence and mental illness (see my last blog post to address those issues). Perhaps Nancy Lanza is excluded because once it was discovered that she owned the gun licenses for the weapons used in the massacre, she lost her sympathy as the unsuspecting mother of a child who departed from the way she taught him to live. We don’t want to extend her sympathy or mourning because we believe, some of us, that she brought it on herself. It’s obvious perhaps why people leave Adam Lanza out. Of course we should not mourn his death; doing so would sully the memories of those he killed. Or would it? It is completely human to make determinations about who is more or less deserving of G-d’s grace and mercy. But it is just that – human, not Divine. If we believe in a G-d of mercy and compassion and that Jesus gave his life for all because we couldn’t deserve such grace and mercy, then we cannot believe that G-d is any less brokenhearted over Nancy and Adam as She is over the children, teachers, and school administrators who were killed. G-d mourns all those lives lost; we who claim to be followers of the Way should also and extend forgiveness to those responsible.

If you’re still reading this, G-d bless you and give you peace. In the end, what happened last Friday was unconscionable and incomprehensible. We will likely never know why Adam Lanza did what he did. And when faced with questions we cannot answer or whose answers seem to bring more confusion and pain than peace and comfort, we are best served by saying, honestly and openly: “I don’t know, but let’s pray for peace, for comfort, and for wisdom to know how to console those who are grieving, those whose faith has been shaken, those whose future is now dimly lit.” And then let us wait in silence, seeking and serving Christ in everyone we meet, for the answer to our prayer to come.

It’s happened AGAIN! [UPDATED]

It’s still fresh, people are still weeping, and the number of lives lost is still being counted at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. So far, 20 children have been killed plus 6 teachers by a gunman, Adam Lanza, 20 years old. It’s been reported that he first shot his mother at their home before the shootings at the school. The gunman is also dead, apparently by suicide.

Parents around the country are weeping, including President Obama, and my Facebook newsfeed is filled with post after post of people offering prayers and calling on divine help, people calling for stricter gun control laws, and pleas for expanding access to mental health diagnosis and treatment. To those who say that it’s “too soon” to talk about gun laws and how to stop the violence, I say that’s horseshit. We had damn well better talk about it and talk about it right NOW because as I saw someone comment on Facebook earlier this afternoon, talking about after it happens is actually too damn LATE.

This is happening AGAIN after already happening just two weeks ago when Jovan Belcher, a football player with the Kansas City Chiefs, murdered his girlfriend and the mother of his 3 month old child, Kassandra Perkins and then committed suicide in front of his coaches the night before a game. This is happening again after a mall shooting in Portland, Oregon earlier this week. This is happening again after Aurora, CO’s mass shooting in a movie theater, after a school shooting in northeast Ohio, after a mass shootings on college campuses at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, after Gabby Giffords nearly lost her life and several others did when Jared Sullinger pulled a gun and open fired at a rally in Tucson, AZ. How many more times must this happen AGAIN before we as a nation are willing to mourn AND then ACT to STOP this from happening AGAIN?

What’s happening in CT right now is the result of complex, intertwined issues including gun access, mental health access, and masculinity. This piece by Ezra Klein is nuanced and highly balanced and addresses some of the complexities of tackling gun access.

I do not understand people whose response to this tragedy is to go out and get a gun license so they can have their gun. That is only likely to lead to more lives being lost and injuries being reported. Everybody walking around with guns is not going to make me feel safer. I also don’t understand the responses that insist that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” No really, Sherlock? People make decisions to take another’s life. Yes, we know that. We don’t have to make it possible for those people to actually implement those decisions. Today, there was also a “homicidal maniac” (which is how I’ve heard Adam Lanza referred to several times today) who went to a school in China’s Henan Province. He was wielding a knife and while two dozen children were stabbed in this equally horrific tragedy, no one has died from those wounds because the villager had a knife and not a gun like Adam Lanza did in CT (who used guns licensed to his mother apparently it is now being reported).  I also do not understand the invocation of the 2nd Amendment in this argument. We no longer have the need for an armed militia, so there is no need for citizens to have personal guns to join in defense of the country. But it’s entirely too late to take people’s guns away, but it isn’t too late to STOP the manufacture, sell, and possession of automatic weapons. I live in a part of the country where hunting is a sport. Fine. You like to hunt, go right ahead, but you will never convince me that you need an automatic weapon to take down a deer, a bird, or any other animal that you intend to kill, eat, and mount its head on your wall.

A word about mental health access. There’s not a person who’s spoken out about any of the tragedies I’ve mentioned above, including today’s in CT, that has not questioned the mental stability and mental health of the gunman in question. I don’t disagree with those questions. I can’t conceive of anyone in their right mind thinking it’s okay and justifiable to kill innocent people, especially children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old as today’s child victims were. And yet, the FACTS are that people who do live with mental illness are more likely to be the VICTIMS of violent crime, not the perpetrators of it – read this article be s.e. smith. As smith writes here, “The false linkage between violence and mental illness is damaging and stigmatizing for mentally ill people, in addition to being incorrect.” This writer is absolutely right when ze says that such responses serve to just distance us “normal” people from “those lunatics” who kill people. We can’t insulate ourselves by targeting another population who themselves are vulnerable.

However, as Smith also acknowledges, we do have a mental health crisis in thsi country. And, I would add, that something isn’t right in one’s mind when violence is seen as the only feasible response to anger, pain, or frustration. That would put our whole country on a watch for mental illness given our unchecked militarism. Back to individual mental illness, I also know how difficult it is to diagnose and treat mental illness of the type that leads to this kind of psychotic break. Schizophrenia, sociopathic personalities, and other forms of psychopathology usually begin in childhood and require that parents and teachers recognize disturbed behavior and refer the child for treatment. Most of these people don’t end up committing mass shootings however, as s.e. smith points out.

In order for that to happen the child has to do something extreme and I have doubts that we would effectively identify people with true mental illness. After all, we have a history in this country of assigning mental illness based on race, not based on actual behavior. Racial minorities are overrepresented in correctional facilities, special education, and mental health facilities despite actually being underrepresented in the reports of those committing mass shootings. And yet, we must increase access to FREE mental health services and reduce the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health challenges.

Finally, a word about masculinity. It really cannot be ignored that the overwhelming majority of mass killers are men. Why is this? Writing about a week after James Holmes murdering rampage in an Aurora, CO movie theater, Lizzie Crocker discusses the socialization of men as central to understanding why it is that mass shooters are almost always men. The code of masculinity, as discussed by one of her sources, which socializes boys to reject any show of emotion as weakness, leads adults – including health care professionals – to ignore or misinterpret abnormal behavior in boys and young men. We must redefine masculinity in ways that do not include such platitudes as “boys don’t cry,” “don’t be a sissy,” and “be a man” as an exhortation to not admit fear, sadness, or weakness. Otherwise, violence becomes the only acceptable solution to one’s problem. Further, because men are socialized as boys to externalize their pain, instead of internalize it as girls are socialized to do (which leads to its own mental health and self-care challenges by the way), they will inevitably put others at risk of harm or death, as they seek to work out their own pain and trauma through the only means left to them to do so and be seen as “real” men – violence.

All three areas need to be addressed. Tighter gun laws without addressing mental health and masculinity will not prevent this from happening AGAIN. But developing a holistic, intersectional approach just might.

Praying, writing, acting for the victims, all of them.


The shooter’s name is actually Adam Lanza, 20. His brother, Ryan, 24, has been taken in for questioning. I’ve also corrected some other factual details about the shooting as information is being released.

I have added more on the stigmatizing effect of immediately attaching mental illness as a root cause of mass shootings.

‘Tis the Season

And so it has begun: The innumerable “holiday” specials, holiday-themed product marketing, debates about whether it’s good to encourage the belief in Santa Claus, consumerism disguised as love, and calls for charitable giving in the spirit of the “true” meaning of the season. We also become host to endless cries of a “war” on Christianity and attacks on Christmas. Let’s set the record straight and I encourage you to look up Jon Stewart’s Daily Show monologue on this topic from last week, also.

First, the “holiday” being promoted is undeniably Christian. It’s all about  Christmas – the birth of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us – even if it is a highly commercialized, deeply devoid of anything resembling the spiritual, let alone religious, meaning of the holy day (i.e., holiday).

There are, of course, feeble attempts to recognize other holy days and culturally significant commemorations happening during this same month. Local news stations in some parts of the country have begun Hanukkah greetings, starting this past Saturday evening. Kwanzaa will get a headline beginning December 26 through January 1 and there are even now “Kwanzaa cakes” being advertised on food shows (despite the fact that there is no such thing as a Kwanzaa cake in the traditional celebrations of Kwanzaa and I’m not even going to dignify it by posting a link to it).

The replacement of “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” is seen throughout marketing promotions and holiday parties. Nevermind that all of the accouterments used in decorations are still tied to Christmas and Christian symbolism, either in their creation or later adaptation: I encourage you to look up the origins of candy canes, for example.

All that’s happening though is merely an attempt to co-opt and assimilate other spiritual and cultural traditions as being “just like” Christmas, or other versions of Christmas, or another culture’s Christmas (e.g., “Hanukkah is like the Jewish Christmas” and Kwanzaa is African Americans’ version of Christmas). This is how we get Kwanzaa celebrations featuring gospel choirs and “holiday” trees with a menorah as a tree-topper. This does not represent religious pluralism or de-center Christianity and it’s certainly not a “war on Christmas.”

Making any other holy or cultural commemoration in December the same status as Christmas, regardless of its status in its own tradition, merely reproduces Christian privilege.  It’s cultural exploitation and cultural imperialism, plain and simple.

Moreover, what is still in place is that there is a federal and banking holiday on December 25 (or an alternate weekday if the 25th falls on either Saturday or Sunday). Christian privilege is not in danger and neither is Christmas.

So, to those fearful of a “war” on Christmas, from one Christian to another: Stop whining. If we really cared about religious pluralism and learning about other religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions, we’d do so throughout the year, not just in December. And all of our traditions would have value.

Joy to you in any celebration this month and throughout the year!

(Hey, it doesn’t fit neatly on a card but it works.)

Transgressing Gender: Another Level

Transgressing Gender: Another Level

Today’s post is the (edited) text of the opening keynote speech I gave at the University of California, Davis this past Saturday, December 1st for their “Ain’t I a Woman” Empowerment Conference.  It was the first time this conference had been held in 40 years.  It was last held as the first official event of the Women’s Research and Resources Center (WRRC) at UC-Davis.

Act One – Sojourner

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”1

It has been one hundred and sixty-one years to the month since Sojourner Truth first spoke these words in Akron, Ohio at the Women’s Rights Convention being held at a local church.2  Perhaps it is fitting then that your keynote speaker this year comes to you from Ohio, albeit the opposite side of the state, to address this body at this empowerment conference.  Perhaps it is also fitting that I am the one to deliver this year’s speech, seeing as how I, like Sojourner Truth, disrupts, and possibly even transgresses, what it means to be a Woman.

Let me explain.  This convention on women’s rights that took place in 1851 was held in a church, which is neither irrelevant nor incidental to the situation.  Prior to Sojourner Truth taking the floor – and she did take the floor – several Christian ministers, all men, from various denominations, including Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist ministers had spoken and dominated the discourse.  Frances Dane Gage, who convened the meeting in Akron, wrote that women did not typically speak in public.  I would argue that furthermore speaking publicly in church was not encouraged for women and that therefore the setting of this convention in a church did as much to silence women from speaking out about women’s rights as did any general social norm about women speaking in public.

Gage wrote in 1863, 12 years after the incident, that Sojourner had walked into the church with “the air of a queen up the aisle” and decided to take her seat on the pulpit steps. For those of you not familiar with traditional Christian church architecture and layout, that would be like her coming to the front of this auditorium and sitting right here [pointing to bottom of podium perhaps], facing you in the audience.  It was a bold act.  And from the moment she came in, Gage recalls that people began imploring her not to allow Sojourner to say anything to the crowd lest their cause, women’s suffrage, be lost on account of it getting “mixed up with” abolition and Negroes.

Recall that in 1851, we are still a decade before the first shots were fired in the Civil War and the South seceded from the Union.  We see Sojourner here in Akron before the election of Lincoln to the presidency and his pragmatic and strategic use of emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment to cripple the South and set off Reconstruction in the aftermath of his assassination in 1865.  At the moment that Sojourner Truth enters that Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and other fervent abolitionists were working in Oberlin, Ohio and other cities along the Underground Railroad to render slavery all but dead by the time the Civil War begins.3

What is not dead, nor close to dying, not in 1851 and seemingly not even in 2012, is the idea of Woman naturalistically defined.  As Simone de Beauvoir wrote women are not born, but one becomes a woman.4  Sojourner Truth asks repeatedly in the first paragraph of her speech, “Ain’t I a woman?”  The answer that came back really was a resounding “no” as the cult of true womanhood that was at its height in the second-half of the nineteenth century, ascribed the title and status of “Woman” based on race and social class criteria that Sojourner Truth would never meet.  Even by 1913, when the women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. would become the only Black women’s group, just a couple of months after its founding, to walk in the women’s suffrage march in Washington, D.C., the vote, having been secured and quickly undermined for Black men, was primarily still promoted as a fundamentally White woman’s right.

Sojourner Truth deftly undermines the patriarchal argument against women’s suffrage on biological, intellectual, and theological grounds.  She not only challenges her own exclusion from the circle of women whose rights were being argued for, but she also successfully argues for the expansion of women’s rights using the same worldview of the men who were objecting to those rights.  Gage later exalts over how Sojourner won the crowd over to their cause and notably does not use language that would include Sojourner in that cause.

So, no, Sojourner, you may be female, but you sho’ ain’t a Woman in 1851, not in the minds of your audience.  Which leaves me wondering, would Sojourner be a Woman today in 2012?  Am I, or anyone else who flaunts gender boundaries and binaries, a “Woman” in 2012?  Perhaps we ought even to ask whether becoming a “Woman” is something anybody should want.

Act Two: Gender Performances

But first let’s return to Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that a woman isn’t born but becomes.  This can be because one’s biological sex is not equated to one’s gender.  Gender is not inherent in our biology; our hormones, reproductive organs, and sexual desires do not dictate, or necessarily inform, our gender.  We come to gender through the omnipresent socialization that is begun at birth and even before birth.  As soon as a woman is found to be pregnant, information concerning the sex of the fetus is demanded – ostensibly so that people know what to buy the child, what colors, what kinds of clothes, what toys.  After the child is born, these accoutrements are required so that people know how to treat the baby.

I will never forget an interaction I had with a woman when my daughter was about 6 months old (she’s now 13 years and 6 months, so that lets you know how much this stuck in my craw).  I was out for Sunday brunch, my daughter was wearing a Tigger outfit.  She had very little hair at the time and it was brushed down – no bows, no ribbons, no headband squishing her tender skull, and there were no earrings in her earlobes.  I had taken her into the restroom to change her diaper and a woman also in the restroom began to remark on how cute he was and that he was such an adorable little boy.  I corrected the woman twice, “it’s a girl actually.”  She immediately took umbrage with me, chastised me for not marking my daughter appropriately as a girl, so that unsuspecting, well-meaning people like her would know how to properly address my child.

I didn’t realize before this moment that perhaps Tigger – and all of Winnie the Pooh’s characters except for Kanga – were meant for boys and by adorning my helpless child in Tigger’s costume, I was violating her gender coding.  Was I trying to pass my girl-child off as a boy?  Cast my daughter in the role of a son?  Had I disrupted the natural order set in place by God Himself at the creation as those ministers in 1851 tried to claim?  Indeed, I was a bad mother, because I had failed to make my child’s sex – and therefore presumably her gender – publicly visible for inspection and appraisal.  I’m reminded of Foucault’s Panopticon; we are constantly under surveillance as a means of control.6

Becoming a Woman means fulfilling a set of naturalized expectations for comportment, pedigree, beauty, and social graces that have been reserved for White middle-class and upper-class women and to which other females – of different races and pedigrees – would seek to emulate and thereby (hope to) be granted the status of woman.  This is what Judith Butler argues in her essay on performative gender5, that gender is not merely performed as though it was an individual act, but rather gender is rehearsed before a public audience in such a way that it is no longer a private commodity to be traded by the individual, but rather the result of a public, communal construction.  Gender – the binary of masculinity and femininity – reflects, communicates, and seeks to promulgate a social status that is meant to support patriarchy and heteronormative privileges with the cooperation of religious authorities.

Consequently, when gender is constructed under the auspices of interlocking systems of oppression – patriarchy does not stand alone but works in concert with heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism, and religious dogmatism – who becomes woman and who becomes man reflect the narrow social constructions of those oppressive structures.  The social norms that have been developed to enforce compliance are hard to resist and often become co-opted even by people trying to transgress gender binaries and gender role conformity.

What do I mean by this?7

Masculinity and manhood still have naturalized, rehearsed performances that rely on the oppression of women and femininity, and the assumptions of women’s incapacity and second-class citizenship.  I see this when I look at television commercials for men’s hygiene products (e.g., Axe), as well as in ads marketing soft drinks (e.g., Dr Pepper Ten), even in commercials for website hosting (e.g.,  Men are socialized to relate to women as objects, whether of desire, protection (more the territorial than nurturing kind), or manipulation.  Regardless of how benign the objectification may be, it still reflects patriarchy.  Ultimately, how masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen perform and embody masculinity reveals how little work our society has done to change our performative gender acts.  In addition, it challenges masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen to consider their gender performances as opportunities to truly transgress patriarchal gender as manifested in hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen relate to women in ways that reflect the worst patriarchal behavior I’ve seen in cisgender men.  I had a masculine-of-center lesbian once tell me that while moving boxes with a transman, he said to her, “Let me get that for you; this is a man’s job.”  Although she set him straight, it was his easy recitation of this familiar gender performance of the role “man” that is most troubling.

The same kinds of habitually rehearsed gendered norms happen at the other end of the gender continuum.  In those performances, cisgender women, effeminate gay men, and transwomen often default to “being a woman” as a rationale for their indecisiveness, love of shopping, chocolate, and Oprah, and supposedly superior nurturing skills.  This is how women are supposed to behave, think, look and departing from that usually has social consequence.  For example, it’s often considered “cute” when a girl is a tomboy as a child, but as they get older, they are expected to drop that performance and become what they really are – a woman.

Thus we perform a gender whose definition has been so rehearsed and become so “natural” that we can hardly think our way out of these performances.  This brings me back to the questions that ended part one of this speech: Am I a woman?  Should I, or anyone else, what to become a woman?

Act Three: Gender Transgressions

In order to answer these questions, we must first consider our context.  We are in the United States in 2012, particularly in northern California (as opposed to Danbury, CT or rural Alabama) and these are all factors that are significant.  Although the common setting of the United States and the year allow some social norms to be recognizable in otherwise variant parts of the country, local culture does add contour to the act.  So, with that in mind, consider that you were preparing for a theatrical role as the part of Woman.  What would you need to portray Woman as realistically as possible?

  • What would her costume be?
  • How would Woman speak, what vocabulary would be used, the pace and rhythm of speech would be set with what in mind?
  • What is the timbre of Woman’s voice?
  • What gender pronouns would Woman use?
  • What are Woman’s props, biological and otherwise?
  • How long is Woman’s hair?
  • Would Woman be the lead role or a supporting cast member?
  • What is Woman’s sexuality?
  • What would Woman’s backstory be concerning Man?
  • What is Woman’s motivation in the play?

Consider how much the patriarchal messages we’ve learned have informed our Woman.  Is there any part of her that patriarchy has left untouched?  What do your responses say about your own gender performances?  Take a moment and share with the person you introduced yourself to earlier.

Given this modern day performative Woman, what would be said about Sojourner Truth?  I know that I don’t see Sojourner or myself much at all in this character.  Some things fit, a lot of other things don’t.  If I reject the role of performative Woman, then what am I?  Ain’t I a woman?  Do I want to be?  As Monique Wittig has argued, “lesbians are not women” because woman has meaning only in heterosexual relationship to men.8  Take note of whether you assigned your Woman to be heterosexual and likely to be in the supporting role relative to a lead character that you assigned as Man; heterosexuality is used as a site for the practice of patriarchy.  Yet, gay and lesbian relationships can also be sites for the practice of patriarchy inasmuch as the people in those relationships still engage each other through a patriarchal relationship dynamic manifested in rehearsed, naturalized (i.e., performative) gender acts.

The reality is that in the theater of lived experience, most females do not fulfill the role of Woman as scripted and rehearsed with 100% precision, 100% of the time.  Yet, have I done enough to disrupt patriarchal rehearsals of womanhood by changing how I dress or speak only?  Given all that I have argued above, I would say no.  However, if I act too far outside the rehearsed, naturalized norm that is Woman, am I affecting transformation within the rehearsed performances of Woman-hood that are happening constantly everywhere around me?  Alas, I have no clue.

But, just maybe, if enough people “act out,” perform ourselves outside the rehearsed Woman and Man roles, perhaps Woman and Man will become empty categories and several new dynamic, evolving, innovative genders will take their place.  Now, that would be truly transgressing gender.

[End scene. Exit stage left.]



1 The text of Sojourner’s speech was found online at the Modern History Sourcebook collection,

2 More information about Sojourner’s speech and Frances Dane Gage’s enhanced description of the setting and reaction of the crowd can be found online at the Sojourner Truth website,

3 For further discussion and critique of Lincoln’s role in emancipation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the end of slavery, please read this excellent critique of Spielberg’s film Lincoln by Aaron Bady in the Jacobin, “Lincoln Against the Radicals,”

4 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949.

5 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” 1988. Available online at There is also a great short video clip of Judith Butler speaking about performative gender available on YouTube:

6 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975.  You can read more about it at the website,

7 These next two paragraphs are adapted from my article in the third issue of TRUTH Magazine, “Gender Transgression 2.0.” Information about the magazine is available at

8 Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind, 1978.