Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Who's Zooming Who?

   Sexism at Dancing Rabbit
Sometimes it can take 1000 words to explain a picture. Let me see if I can tell this story within that budget.

The image above is a rather jaunty photo of Coz Walker, one of my community mates at Dancing Rabbit, styling in his crazy quilt skirt as he sashays down the stairs, arms and legs akimbo. It was selected to accompany a thoughtful article written by DR member Sam Makita entitled "Sexism at Dancing Rabbit" that appears in the spring issue of Communities magazine (on the theme of Gender Issues), in which the author explores the phenomenon of reverse discrimination in feminist culture and the tender issue of the proper response when trying consciously to address a mainstream societal imbalance and move toward a more level playing field.

This image appears on page 16 of the print magazine, accompanied by the following cutline: "Dancing Rabbit has much looser gender expectations than most of the wider culture, as demonstrated by member Coz Walker." 

The fun began when the magazine staff posted this article as a teaser for issue #162 on our magazine website, and inadvertently left off the caption in the transfer. Here's what happened:

The author, Sam, is a woman with a name that's often associated with a man (yes, there are Samantha's out there that go by "Sam" but you get my point). Further, Sam describes herself in the article this way: I’m a woman. I am genetically and physiologically female. I have some masculine traits but I don’t think I’m mannish. I’m pretty tall for a woman, but not at all tall compared to all humans. I have pretty strong arms for a woman, but they’re probably less strong than the average adult’s.

As the above photo is the only one that accompanies the article, it's rather natural, without the cutline, to assume that it's a picture of the author—a mistake that's not contradicted by the topic or the author's self-description.

Why does this matter? I received an email from a correspondent new to intentional community (yet curious) who reported being strongly put off by Sam's article—the first Communities piece he'd ever read—and it took me a while to sleuth out that this was a reaction to the photo, not the writing. My correspondent felt that it was way too much in his face to be asked to deal with a fully bearded person who presents as a man yet identifies as a woman (he was just sampling "life in cooperative culture"; not trolling for a genderfuck).

While there's a funny side to this (which is not often a byproduct of mistaken assumptions—if you step back far enough), there's also a important question embedded in this story about how to engage with people who see life differently than you, which is something that Communities magazine very much wants to accomplish.

As a general strategy there tends to be tension between: a) being fully yourself, and insisting that others deal with you as you are (if you're going to be rejected, at least let it be for your truth); and b) altering your message (or at least its packaging) so that it's more receivable by your audience (if the door is slammed in your face, no dialog is possible and it doesn't matter much what your message was). The dilemma, at least in part, is whether the latter strategy dilutes the potency of your truth; or whether the insistence on your truth reinforces isolation and misunderstanding. This is not a trivial concern.

Because we (both FIC as an organization, and I as an individual) are in the cooperative culture business, I lean toward building and protecting bridges first, and then navigating the differences afterwards. I'm reminded here of the Aesop fable of the Wind and the Sun arguing who is the stronger, and settling their dispute by both trying to separate a man from his coat. No matter how hard the Wind blew, the man just pulled his coat tighter. But when the Sun beat down the man soon became so warm that he willingly took the coat off. The moral: force is rarely a successful strategy for effecting lasting change.

Keep in mind that my correspondent took the time to let me know his reaction. That was precious. Most people who feel affronted by an author simply put the magazine back on the rack or click to another site. Yet publishers (by definition in the communication business) need to know when we're turning people off. (In fact, we all need to know when we're turning people off, but I'm focusing here on FIC's role as a disseminator of information about cooperative living—which is a core Fellowship mission.) In this case, because there was an opportunity for some back and forth, I was able to sort out the misperception and the correspondent has been willing to give us another chance by reading more magazine articles. How many website visitors had a similar reaction and didn't bother to tell us?

One of the ironies of this incident is that the article focuses on cultural conditioning and how to address it in ways that don't accidentally perpetuate the discrimination it is trying to eliminate. It is about being aware and purposeful when it comes to unconscious behavior and assumptions about gender. In this instance, the reader fell right into it… by making a gender assumption. (To be fair, I might have made the same mistake if our roles had been reversed, so I have some sympathy for what happened, and it's on FIC that we dropped a stitch when we posted the photo online, sans caption.)

But let's take this a step further. Suppose the correspondent was right, and the author was a woman with a full beard. While I get it that it would be unusual, especially given Madison Avenue's diligence about training us to view femininity in a defined, limited way (which does not include women with facial hair), so what? Would it mean that the author's views were less cogent? Do beards on women make them think less clearly? I don't think so.

Maybe the gender views of a woman with a beard would be more likely to be dismissed as the perspectives of someone who's obsessed with questions of gender identity. Although that's pure speculation on my part and I'm not sure why that would undercut the validity of their views about sexual discrimination, I will note that the correspondent got much more out of the article after he learned that the photo was not of the author.

While photos are meant to enhance an article, in this case is was majorly distracting, and that itself, though unintentional, turned out to be an example of gender discrimination, and the ways in which those in the majority (and therefore "normal") tend to be less tolerant or accepting of those who are not, without their necessarily even being aware of it. I'm telling you, unpacking this dynamic is like opening a set of Russian dolls—there's always another reflection nested inside the last one.

Well, I almost made it. This particular picture has taken me 1,196 words to unpack.

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