Friday, March 25, 2011

The Meaning of Moaning

It's that time again -- V-Day season -- and I'm working with students and faculty to put together the Montgomery College production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues", which will be on Wednesday, March 30 at 7:00pm in the Theatre Arts Arena at Montgomery College (Rockville, MD).  I'll be performing with a new piece for me, one I have wanted to perform for a while.  This monologue features a sex worker, a dominatrix who works exclusively with women, and who is obsessed with women's moans.  I particularly like the narrative because it includes a fascinating analysis of the source and meaning of moaning, which appeals to my intellectual nature.  At the end, she demonstrates an array of different types of moans.  This typically elicits howls of laughter from the audience and can be a show-stopper when done really well.  (But no pressure, right?)  I'm enjoying the challenge of working on this piece, but it also got me thinking about our reaction to women's moans.  Why do they generate such a strong response?

Our response to women's moaning is, in part, reflective of our broader cultural ambivalence regarding sexuality, and women's sexual pleasure in particular.  Our culture has considerable discomfort about public displays (or even discussions) of sexuality, so this litany of moans is bound to be a little uncomfortable for some.  Moreover, we have particularly ambivalent attitudes regarding women's sexual pleasure.  In many (but not all) cultures today, women are expected to experience sexual pleasure; indeed, part of a heterosexual man's sexual prowess is measured by his ability to bring his female partner to the height of ecstasy during lovemaking.  Yet, if she is too demonstrative in her pleasure, she risks being seen as wild, oversexed, loose, a bad girl: a slut.  (The remnants of the sexual double standard at work here.)  In other words, she should enjoy sex, but not too much.  So women's moaning is fraught with meaning, as it is presumably evidence of her sexual pleasure.  She mustn't moan too much or too loud, but some discreet moaning will be met with approval, even approbation . . . if it is genuine.

As a demonstration of pleasure, moaning is also suspect, since it can so easily be faked.  Women's sexual pleasure is often viewed with suspicion.  Given the significance of women's sexual pleasure and our general belief that women don't want or enjoy sex as much as men do, it is easy to understand why we think women may "fake" pleasure.  (This fear is not unwarranted:  One study [Elliott & Brantley, 1997] found that 60% of heterosexual, and 71% of lesbian or bisexual, college women reported faking orgasm at some point.  On the other hand, we could be suspect of men's pleasure, too, as 17% of heterosexual, and 27% of gay or bisexual college men reported that they had faked orgasm at some point.)  The classic scene from the film When Harry Met Sally in which Sally gives an extended performance of sexual pleasure that is obviously fake illustrates the cultural anxiety surrounding signs of women's sexual enjoyment. 

In her book Hard Core:  Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible", Linda Williams (1989) argues that the central dilemma of pornography is how to represent women's sexual pleasure.  While (presumably authentic) male pleasure can be visibly demonstrated by erection and ejaculation, "the visual terms of the cinema do not allow the female protagonists of hard-core films to authenticate their pleasure" (Williams, 1989, p. 32).  While the woman may moan and writhe in the film, how do we know it's for real?  Hard-core films then rely on other cinematic mechanisms to putatively reveal women's sexual pleasure, often using displays of male pleasure as though they are intrinsically representative of female pleasure (hence, the use of the money shot).

So it is not surprising that the litany of moans given on stage during "The Vagina Monologues" would generate a strong reaction.  The monologue highlights the sexual pleasure of women, about which we already have considerable ambivalence (too much = slut;  too little = frigid).  The sexual pleasure is being given by a woman to another woman, with no man involved.  If women don't need men for sexual pleasure, that threatens men's status as the ultimate source of women's sexual pleasure and undermines one of the core pillars of masculinity (as defined in our culture).  The moans in the monologue are obviously fake, highlighting the concerns about the authenticity of women's sexual response (if she can fake it this convincingly on stage, then maybe all my lovers have been faking it too).  In other words, the monologue foregrounds anxieties about the authenticity of women's sexual response, which further undermines the degree to which a man can be sure of his sexual prowess, and hence, his masculinity.

With all that going on, of course we guffaw -- what else can we do?  Eve Ensler has found a way to get to the heart of our cultural anxieties surrounding sex and gender, but in such a way that we can laugh at ourselves.  The humor is deftly woven through the show, giving us a way to release some of our discomfort as our assumptions regarding women's sexuality are challenged and we learn about the diversity of women's experiences.  The show is a powerful experience, for performers and audience alike, but it is also a lot of fun.  I am, as always, struck by the capacity of V-Day to educate, transform, and entertain.  

I hope to see you at the show! 

Elliott, L., & Brantley, C.  (1997).  Sex on campus.  New York: Random House. 

Williams, L.  (1989).  Hard core:  Power, pleasure, and the "frenzy of the visible."  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Color Junkie

"The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most."  -- John Ruskin

As I've mentioned before (here and here), I love color.  I am drawn to bright, deep colors, compelled by them.  Walking through the drugstore, my eye would be caught by the luscious metallic colors in the nail polish aisle.  The fact that I hardly ever wore nail polish seemed immaterial -- how could that compete with these gorgeous shiny bottles?  I finally bowed to the inevitable and gave them all away last year and have resisted buying more (thus far). 

Recently I've been getting my color fix through fabric.  I love making burp cloths, for example, because I get to put together bright flannels and chenille with contrasting colors of thread for the serged edging.  Having the fabrics run under my fingers makes my soul sing. 

I also had fun choosing fabrics to make linen dinner napkins.  Who needs boring, white napkins when you can have every color of the rainbow at your table?

And, of course, my fiber fantasy scarves are full of color and texture and sparkle -- what a joy to put so many different colors together.  It's like creating a symphony; each color has to live in harmony with the rest.  You can see pictures of my first fiber fantasy scarf here, and pictures of my fringe madness scarf here (check out the riotous color).   I'm working on a scarf now in blues and greens, turquoise and teal (oooh, love that combo); I'll post pictures soon.  I also made one in earthtones with copper accents and a bit of red for zing:

And, of course, colorful flowers are always a delight.  In the midst of winter, my Christmas Cactus offers a profusion of bright pink petals that look ready to take flight.

November, 2009

And one can find cut flowers and bouquets everywhere. 

From a bouquet we sent to my grandmother for her last birthday (November, 2010)
Blue roses (on display at Cedar Ridge for their gala event, November 2010)
Isn't this bouquet from my father and his wife lovely? (November, 2010
Now that spring is here, brightly blooming flowers are popping up in my garden; Q says they are like fireworks, exploding into full bloom one after another. 

I want to live a life infused with color.  Why shouldn't we be surrounded by gorgeous color in everything we do?  I believe that everyday items should be beautiful, so that we can have joy in our daily activities.  My philosophy is similar to that of the Art Nouveau movement, which held that art should be a part of everyday life.  Of course, napkins and burp cloths and flowers are not art, but they remind us that the elements of art (color, design, value, meaning) can be found all around us and that our environment impacts our experience.  We should design all aspects of our environment purposefully to enhance the quality of our lives.  For me, that means a life rich with color.

"The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color."  ---  Hans Hofmann

"Color possesses me.  I don't have to pursue it.  It will possess me always, I know it.  That is the making of this happy hour:  Color and I are one.  I am a painter." --- Paul Klee

"Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment." --  Claude Monet

If you need a burst of color in your life, check out the items for sale in my Etsy shop.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Resistance or affirmation: What is queer?

On Saturday, I attended a conference at Morgan State University (in conjunction with BMore Proud) entitled Intersections:  Sexuality, Gender, Race and Ethnicity.  It was great to connect with others engaged in issues of sexuality, and I was part of a panel discussion on the complexities of sexual identity.  I talked about the fluidity of women's sexuality and how that presents challenges and opportunities for the traditional models of coming out in psychology and the GLBTQ community.  The other panelists included Dr. Andrea Brown, who talked about the intersection of race/ethnicity and sexual identity, with a particular emphasis on the role of the black church, and Genevieve Carminati, who discussed the (often ignored) role of social class in women's sexuality.  I think we did a good job of exploring the theme of the conference and I am always inspired by working with my fabulous colleagues.

The keynote speaker for the conference was Dr. Antonia Randolph, a sociologist from the University of Delaware who discussed her research on hip-hop and what it says about race, gender, and sexuality. Her main theme was that there are "queer" elements present in hip-hop that challenge the mainstream ideals of gender and sexuality.  She wasn't claiming that hip-hop artists are actually gay/lesbian/bi, nor even that they are necessarily going to be allies for GLBTQ issues.  She was merely claiming that there are themes within the hip-hop subculture that are not consistent with mainstream heteronormativity. 

This (infamous) kiss between Lil Wayne and Baby, for example, illustrates the strong affection male hip-hop artists openly express for each other.  These close bonds between men may be coded as similar to father-son relationships, as part of a broader construction of kinship among those in street culture.  Lyrics of hip-hop extol these male-male relationships, indicating their primacy even above the traditional family unit involving wives and mothers (fathers are typically absent in the world of hip-hop, replaced by the paternal care from those in the street culture). 

I don't know enough about hip-hop to say whether the themes Dr. Randolph identified are typical or not.  What struck me was the question of whether these are, in fact, "queer" -- that is, do they fundamentally challenge the values of mainstream culture?  At one level, she is correct to say that these are non-normative, in that American (heterosexual) men are generally prohibited from expressing strong affection for other men; this affection should be directed toward heterosexual relationships and those of the nuclear family which are supposed to be the most important and central bonds for men (and women). 

Yet at another level, the hip-hop narratives were completely consistent with the dominant paradigm of American masculinity.  These hip-hop artists glorify a masculine subculture in which they are independent from (and dominant over) women.  There is a long tradition of all-male enclaves, from the fraternity to the gang, and it has been commonplace for men to form strong bonds with each other, even though they may not always express their affection openly or directly.  While it is true that the nuclear family is strongly valued in our culture, there is also a tension between the vaunted masculine independence and the ties of the nuclear family.  To be a man is to be free and answer to no one, certainly not to a woman.  Express too much affection for your mother and you risk being labeled a "mama's boy"; for your girlfriend or wife, and you are "whipped."  Heterosexual men tread a delicate balance in our culture. They must establish heterosexual credentials by forming intimate bonds with women, but maintain their independence from women at the same time.  By rejecting the nuclear family bonds for those of the street culture, male hip-hop artists stake out their masculinity.  I'm a man, I can do as I like: I don't answer to my mother or my girlfriend or my wife. 

So we are left with the question of whether these close relationships among men in hip-hop are countercultural or culturally normative.  Do they resist cultural pressures, "queering" the text, or do they epitomize normative masculinity?  I suspect they may be both.  Cultural representations and practices can have multiple layers and convey divergent messages simultaneously.  Our attempt to resist a cultural norm may simultaneously affirm and reject that norm.  By prioritizing their relationships with other men, hip-hop artists may decenter the nuclear family as the putative core of a man's life.  By doing so, they highlight the tension that the nuclear family represents for constructions of masculinity, and they create an alternative kin network of the street that continues to reify and valorize traditional models of masculinity.  These relationships are a bit queer at one level, but they also serve to reinscribe the core values of gender performance at another level. 


Randolph, A.  (2011, March).  Wayne loves Baby and other queer lessons from hip-hop:  Notes toward a race and sexuality research agenda.  Keynote presentation at Intersections: Sexuality, Gender, Race and Ethnicity, Baltimore, MD.

Brown, A., Carminati, G., & Stearns, D.  (2011, March).  Sexual identities:  Complex, contextual, and fluid.  Panel presented at Intersections: Sexuality, Gender, Race and Ethnicity, Baltimore, MD.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Women's Studies Silent Auction

The annual Montgomery College Women's Studies Program Scholarship Breakfast is on Wednesday, Mar. 9 (8-9:30am), which showcases the achievements of Women's Studies students and faculty.  In fact, this year, I am one of the faculty being honored -- I will be one of three faculty members receiving the On Her Shoulders We Stand Award.  This award is given to those who have contributed significantly to the Women's Studies Program, and I am tremendously pleased to be receiving this recognition.  It is truly an honor to receive an award for doing work that is so meaningful to me and that I love so well.  I am fortunate to have such wonderful colleagues and fabulous students, as well as an incredibly supportive partner, who doesn't complain about my long hours at work and shows up every year for our V-Day production.  Thanks, Q!

The event is also a fundraiser for the Women's Studies Scholarship fund, and I am coordinating the silent auction part of the breakfast.  Thanks to our generous donors, we have a wonderful array of items for the auction, and all proceeds from the auction go toward student scholarships.  The auction has a diverse range of items, including jewelry, ceramics, textiles, vintage items, stained glass, watercolors, housewares, and accessories.  If you see something you want, I am happy to arrange a proxy bid for you.  Just email me by Tuesday, Mar. 8 at 5pm to let me know what item you wish to bid on and how high you are willing to bid.  Click on the individual pictures to see more details about each item, including the estimated value and the minimum bid. 

My contributions to the silent auction included some of my own textile creations.
Set of four burp cloths (green and blue bubbles)
Set of four burp cloths (red stripe and bookbinder red)
Set of four autumn leaves placemats with matching tangerine linen napkins
Let's hope for enthusiastic bidding so that we can fund even more scholarships for next year!