“Mattress Girl,” Caitlyn Jenner, Abortion, the Bible and You

Could the logical outcome of an ever-more-divided nation be … unity?

"Emma Sulkowicz, Mattress Performance, 19 May 2015 (cropped)" by Adam Sherman - Adam Sherman by email. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Emma Sulkowicz, Mattress Performance, 19 May 2015 (cropped)” by Adam Sherman via Wikimedia Commons; Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair; The Duggars

Last week was a mad-crazy week for gender relations. To recap just a few of the highlights:

  • Over in England, the last all-male academic institution at Oxford University, St. Benet’s Hall — the descendant of an entity founded more than a thousand years ago — announced it will admit female undergrad students for the first time this autumn.
  • On this side of the big water, Barnard College, the women’s affiliate of Columbia University, announced that it would begin admitting transgender women this fall.
  • In a surprising decision, an advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration recommended approval of the drug flibanserin to increase sexual desire in women—though the FDA has already twice rejected it because of concern over its side effects and questionable efficacy. (The drug had been championed by a coalition of activist groups claiming that the FDA was discriminating against women by refusing to approve this drug while green-lighting 26 libido-improvers for men.)
  • The Duggars, Michelle and Jim Bob, master progenitors of TLC’s 19 and Counting, appeared on Fox News to explain to Megyn Kelly how it took their son Josh’s molestation of four of his younger sisters to really bring him to Jesus. Amen.
  • Northwestern University cleared professor Laura Kipnis of charges that she had violated Title IX by writing about being charged with violating Title IX.
  • Columbia’s renowned “Mattress Girl,” Emma Sulkowicz, who had toted her favorite accessory to graduation in May, released a follow-up piece of performance art, an eight-minute-long hard-core porn video in which she plays herself being violently raped.
  • Pakistan, which had announced that 10 men had been found guilty of attacking Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and sentenced to life in prison, backtracked just a wee bit and revealed that eight of them had actually been acquitted.
  • Oh, and a former Olympic champion named Bruce Jenner announced that her name was now Caitlyn, put on a bustier and was photographed by Annie Liebovitz for the cover of Vanity Fair, evoking references to circus sideshows, jokes from a guy running for president about peeping-Tomming high-school girls, and, in Forbes, an in-depth examination of whether the costs of transgender surgery are tax-deductible. (The nitty-gritty? Medical costs aye but cosmetic ones nay, assuming Jenner has been diagnosed with gender identity disorder.)
  • All this hard on the heels of a vote last month by Ireland — violence-loving, hard-drinking, oh-so Catholic Ireland! — to legalize same-sex marriage.

What the hell hath God wrought?

Major cultural changes normally seem to accrue at a snail’s pace. Witness how long it took for women to earn the right to vote, or for blacks to be able to sit in the front of a bus. In contrast, it took about 10 minutes for American public opinion to shift from anti-gay-marriage to pro-gay-marriage. So is everything actually happening all at once these days, or does it just feel that way because the Internet bombards us with a never-ending cascade of breaking news?

Yes. Both, I think.

Accompanying the tectonic shifts in gender relations have been a number of commentaries bemoaning the rise of “identity politics” — the balkanization of our political allegiances into various “isms” (racism, sexism, ageism, even size-ism) that grow ever smaller and more exclusive of each other. You can’t know what I’ve been through! we shout at one another, even as we seek to rally others to our cause. The ultimate extension of this process leads Michelle Goldberg of The Nation to note on MSNBC that “a lot of the younger feminists … no longer want to use the word ‘woman’ in relation to abortion because it excludes trans men.”

Earlier this year, oddly enough in The Nation, feminist Katha Pollitt argued against such gender neutralization when it comes to abortion: “Once you start talking about ‘people,’ not ‘women,’ you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially,” she wrote. And then:

 [A] feminism that can’t say “women” — or “vagina” or “sisterhood” or even the cutesy “ladyparts” — is cutting the ground from under itself. … How do you even talk about women’s being underrepresented politically, or earning less than men, or being victims of rape and domestic violence? In an era where politics is all about identity, as a tool for organizing and claiming public space, are women about to lose theirs? Because after all we’re all just people now.

Maybe, like liquid mercury, we have to burst into a bazillian separate droplets before we can find a way to come together. Maybe that’s where the zeitgeist is taking us now, in such a rush. The upside of everyone being such a special snowflake is that everyone else is also a special snowflake. So let the divisions between us continue to grow ad infinitum, until each cheese stands alone. Once we recognize that gender is merely one of an infinitude of social constructs, who gives a damn if Caitlyn Jenner’s parts match up? What’s built can be unbuilt; the walls between us will come tumbling down. After all, who’s to say we’d be where we are today if the Hebrew authors of Genesis — and the English translators after them — hadn’t been tethered by their languages’ gender-specific pronouns? It could be that God created people in its own image, and the Bible just got it wrong.

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