In part four of the Shady series, we're talking about gender politics today and how a new notion is arising in the topic.
Far different from the queer or gender political standpoint that has been around for a very long time.
We hear about signs falling down on toilets and how humour is the new sedative.
AS: Alex Schady, Programme Director of the Fine Arts Programme
KO: Kerry O'Connor, Fine Art Yr 3
DS: Daisy Shayter, Fine Art Yr 3
EC: Eden Clarke, Fine Art Yr 2
GL: Gonçalo Lamas, Fine Art Yr 3
LH: Lena Heubusch, MA Fine Art Photography
RG: Ruben Green, Fine Art Yr 2
GR: Georgina Rowlands, Fine Art Yr 2
GM: Grace McLoughlin, Fine Art Yr 3
AS: It’s not surprising that so far, a lot of the discussions that we’ve ended up having are political in some ways. I think that is because it reflects the students in Fine Art but also the present time. When I was a student, Fine Art wasn't a hot-bed of political thought at all, but I think right now it is.
I’ve seen over the last two or three years, a new notion of Gender Politics and one that is very different from a queer or gender political standpoint that has been around for a very long time. There is something new that is happening, and I have some ideas as to what that may be, but I would like the group to tell us, what they think those things are, whether they are relevant to you as students and how they may be emerging in your practice.
EC: I don't know. For my exhibition and work, I went into Gender looking at Feminism, and how depending on your gender, you may perceive yourself. For example, if you look at yourself as feminine or female, and that is what you identify as, then that may be thought of as lesser in society. I think that is what first sparked off my rage. I remember when I was younger and I would always think, “ oh, why can a boy go to a party, kiss loads of girls and be cool?” I think that was the first spark in my head, that this isn’t right and asking why is it like this. From there, the ball’s been rolling. I think this is something that people of our generation are all noticing, realising that gender is something fabricated by society.
AS: I think all of you as a group are very playful with gender and would reject conventional notions of gender binaries. How might you describe your playfulness with gender?
GL: I think that is hard to describe. One day you wake up feminine, and another day you may wake up more masculine. Definitely, in a place like CSM, if you have the tiniest impulse you should do it, and should feel as comfortable as you can doing it. But then, there is more to it.
For degree show this year, from the start another friend of mine and me, we brought up the issue that we thought that the idea of referring to ourselves in statements, in the third person would be somehow selfish. And then, the standard would be gendered, so I would refer to myself as 'he' and someone else would refer to themselves as 'she'. Our proposal was, let’s get rid of that. If it is important for you to perform that, it will become a performative gesture - in quotes. So the standard would then be, I would encourage you to speak in the first person, and well, English is a very great language when it comes to that. I is I, and you is you. I should also say that, if we are encouraging people to use ‘I’ and saying that any gendered third person is excluded, I would also add that the encouragement of using ‘them’ should be respected. People deserve to use ‘them’; they may feel that two or even three identities live within one body.
AS: One thing that has become a feature of ‘now’ is how you pronoun someone; it has become a vital question. And, one question you might ask somebody you don’t know is, how do you pronoun? And, that might seem to our audience as a surprising question but just become someone presents as feminine or masculine doesn’t mean they want to pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’. They may wish to, but they may also wish to pronoun ‘them’. For me, that is interesting because it presents us with all the questions of the constructed gender and also because people of my generation are slightly wrong-footed by that. We’ve had to learn new politics, and we thought we knew the politics.
GL: We are encouraging, in any form of written communication around the degree show, that people exclude gendered pronouns as much as possible. But, I would try to be careful with the use of 'them'. For instance, I know people who feel excluded by both ‘he’ and ‘she’. ‘Them’ offers ‘them’ a potential to situate themselves. But, I don’t think it is a good solution just to call everybody ‘them’. I think, that is one of the dangers here and is a conversation we are exploring in getting the degree show together.
THE CROSS+NG: So, are you saying that if we were to avoid either ‘he’ or ‘she’ it might look like it’s irrelevant, but it isn’t?
GL: Exactly. It’s just that if we’re offering a platform for people who embody that hybrid space, how can we assure that we’re not leaving them aside as a separate group but at the same time build a common platform. Maybe the pronouns we have, are not enough.
THE CROSS+NG: Have you noticed the toilets around the school, with the boy and girl together? On the one hand, this is great. But, on the contrary, this feels a bit like oversimplifying something complex. It’s a bit too easy and doesn’t quite feel ok.
AS: Gender-neutral toilets were created over the summer and I think that’s great. However, all of the gender neutral toilets have appeared in what used to be the women’s toilets. So, we’ve ended up with men’s toilets and gender neutral toilets; that is not avoiding a binary, but creating a new binary which is problematic. I mean, it’s easy to see why it’s happened. It is financially better to convert women’s toilets that only have cubicles and no urinals, to gender neutral toilets but it still creates another problem.
EC: I just thought that the sign had fallen down on them. I thought that both would have just been gender neutral toilets!
RG: So the other phrase that is thrown around a lot at the moment, is non-binary. It is an umbrella term, or some say, for people who don’t neatly fit into the binary categorisation of individuals, that society has created. I’ve been very interested, in my research, in the kind of strange diversity you find in people who identify as non-binary. Before the linguistic framework existed, you’ve got groups of people that wouldn’t necessarily have identified under the same umbrella before and you end up with strange sub-categorisations, like I’ve heard people identify as ‘non-binary women’. I can understand the motivations behind that though because it is someone who doesn’t feel they fit within the binary structure, but recognise that society is viewing them within this gendered framework. It almost feels like a necessary stepping stone in a truly non-essentialist, gender irrelevant way of thinking about things, which I think is closer to how I think about my gender. Those linguistic categories are almost something that one day we’ll be able to discard, but at the moment they’re useful to serve a practical purpose.
AS: There seems to be a fluidity in the way you’re describing it. It’s something that you picked up on earlier Gonçalo, that one morning I might wake up and want to describe myself as ‘grr, man’, the next morning I might decide to describe myself as ‘girly boy’ and the next gender neutral. There is something about the agency that offers us, that is potentially exciting.
GL: I was thinking after what Ruben said, yesterday Evan was showing her work.
AS: This is an artist who came to visit us called Evan Ifekoya, they would describe themselves in the ‘they’ and they would describe themselves as gender neutral.
GL: You see, this is the trap that one falls in. Especially, not being a native English speaker. It’s tricky.
EC: I think that is tricky because you’re so used to using, ‘she’ and ‘he’, bringing in ‘they’ and then describing someone as ‘they’ can be difficult. For instance, I’ve just written about Evan in my essay and another artist called Helen Castle, explaining their work was tough because it sounded like a group of people when I was using, ‘themselves’ - describing them in that way is hard to get across. So, I think this idea of creating new pronouns is quite a good one. Ones that people can better identify with because saying ‘they’, even though it is correct it becomes difficult to use.
RG: I suppose it becomes mini-cosmic in a way, how we need to unlearn in the same way you unlearn linguistic patterns that we’ve developed, you need to unlearn societal hierarchies. It almost becomes not about the pronouns themselves but a mental-inside-out turning that we all need to do to some extent.
AS: And that’s where I think getting it wrong and catching yourself out is useful because it places you in the same conundrum. ‘Oh, I got it wrong, and therefore need to unlearn this’. I become aware that I need to unlearn something because I keep falling back into old patterns.
RG: This is something that makes a lot of people anxious. I don’t use ‘they’, ‘them' pronoun, but the people that do wouldn’t get upset if you get it wrong and correct yourself. Right, because that’s a part of the process?
THE CROSS+NG: Would anyone say, 'I’m gender neutral'?
RG: Well, that might be a phrase people use. You’ll hear people referring to themselves as non-binary, but that again is a category that might include a lot of individuals. It included people who would have been non-essentialist, feminists who rejected the societal expectations of gender but also included questioning trans people. It is an intentionally, hazy category which I think is an idea we can see in other areas, for example, borders and the soup of maybes or in-betweens.
GL: One of the ways of these soups, is perhaps the vernacular that the communities around queer identities might generate. Like, I remember Evan Ifekoya mentioning ‘boi’ yesterday. If I’m correct, it is a way for a lesbian to associate with a boyish identity. I think to find that vernacular, even if it doesn’t mean much for the majority, could be a way into this area.
AS: I think a point that is critical here, is a point of etiquette. From the point of etiquette, it is fine not to know the vernacular. It’s fine not to know it and get it wrong. I think it’s not right to make a great, big fuss when you have gotten it wrong. I’ve seen this in the past, where someone will refer to a person who is perhaps trans and who they used to know as ‘he' but would prefer to be called ‘she’, and they make a mistake. Once they make a mistake, they’re like “Oh my god, I’m sorry!” Because what you’re then doing, is feeling bad about yourself rather than moving on and correcting yourself in the future.
GL: It also makes you aware of ‘he’ or ‘she’ being a choice.
THE CROSS+NG: In society, it would be useful to have those conversations we're having now. That’s more of a discussion as opposed to using, ‘gender neutral’, which is pretending borders don’t exist and it doesn’t help us as citizens to think about it.
RG: The society we live in is a binary framework where borders do exist. And, to an extent, we need some semantic separation, to talk about anything at all.
AS: What do the others think their position is, about what we’re discussing? All of us have an idea of gender or how we relate to it, and whether there is a feeling of new freedom around gender.
LH: I think we’re definitely in the time where the systems of knowledge that we’ve created are being blown open. Whether we like it, or not. So, it’s this constant change that we have to deal with, and it’s uncomfortable, but at the same time, we need it. Otherwise, there is no evolution in a way.
AS: Does anyone else feel that sense of, it’s uncomfortable?
LH: I mean it's changing, and there is nothing we can do about it. We’re losing that, in a sense, wrongful safety.
AS: The new sexual politics seems to me, to be a good assault on patriarchy. Because if gender binaries don’t exist in the way that we imagine they exist, then suddenly the patriarchal system isn’t stable. We can’t say that men have always had power, men don’t exist and that seems to be an ingenious way of attacking patriarchy.
There are people here in the group who might identify as anti-patriarchal, is there anything for you that feels potentially exciting there or not?
GM: I think, for me, words that seem like they're repeating are words like ‘playful’. I think that feels vital. And, this feeling of fluidity comes across in this explosion of categories. It is a reaction to this binarization. It’s not an ‘either or' but an ‘and’ situation. It’s not this or that, one day you could be this, that or the other. I believe that is the exciting thing and it's about how you define yourself creatively one way and how that differs from the next. The signs were funny a couple of weeks ago at a Trump rally. People are genuinely going about things in a hilarious way. I don’t know if that is because of a reaction to this whole serious doom and gloom moment that we’re in, but it’s like a farce people are taking the mick out of it. I think that playful side of it is potentially exciting and compelling.
AS: I completely agree about the humour. The marches were not only exciting but inclusive. I’ve been to a couple of them recently with my 8-year old and 11-year old; there is no sense of not bringing them there. It feels like a genuinely inclusive space.
THE CROSS+NG: Going back to the patriarchal system mentioned, there is an apparent disillusionment with politics. Therefore, the idea of doing something in a certain way and the serious nature of it doesn’t make sense anymore. The distance between the crowd and the palace is widening and widening. Humour feels to be a clear sign that people are going down another route.
GM: It’s not a silly reaction but clever humour. People are employing humour in an intelligent way.
AS: I think that’s profound and has a feeling of now which is very different to the feeling a few years ago.
THE CROSS+NG: Even political satire has become boring. Ten years ago, it was hilarious when politicians would do something and comedians would create humour from it. Nowadays, politics is just so absurd that it is humorous in itself.
GL: There was a point made about people like John Stewart and all those guys, who are the face of the liberal left in the US. And, they have become completely numb in their input recently, and that’s because their format became obsolete, as well as ineffective.
AS: There is something else I would mention about gender - boys in skirts. In a way, I think it is easier for people who present as males to be playful in that very easy way, because the act of putting on a dress/skirt is more of an affront to the binary than someone who presents as female putting on a pair of trousers. But, I do think there is a brilliant amount of that happening here at Central Saint Martins. What I like about it, is its relationship to drag is fascinating as well. So, for some people it might be high drag, for others, it might be a beard with a dress on, and that’s it. There is a whole range of options, regarding how you would engage with the items of clothing you choose to wear that morning, and I’m interested to hear about that.
RG: It is really interesting, the difference between - with air quotes - ‘male cross-dressing’ and ‘female cross-dressing’. They almost have a really divergent set of histories associated with them.
GL: When women came into the labour market, the standard was a male one. To put on a suit, and that kind of thing. That became a normalised gesture in some ways.
GM: In regards to drag, I think there is a massive appraisal for men that dress as women whereas when it comes to drag kings, there is only one lesbian bar in London. I think the visibility of drag kings is lesser known, and it may be unintentional, but it is still problematic.
AS: It has a long history of being problematic. In the 80s, one thing that was particularly problematic with drag was the version of femininity it portrayed. I think drag has done a lot to expand its notion of what femininity is and what it wants to show.