n. the pervasive and systemic belief in male/masculine and female/feminine as the only true, natural and correct gender identities and expressions

gender normativity n. the privileged state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders perceptibly 'fit' with locally-derived and understood expressions of masculinity (for men) and femininity (for women)

gender non-normativity n. the oppressed state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders do not perceptibly fit, as above

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teaching the Caster Semenya story: On the connections between gender, education and visual culture

I am currently taking an interdisciplinary doctoral course at York called Visual Culture and Gender, and we are engaging with the visual character of gender as well as the pedagogical implications for teaching with this visuality in mind. This post features an excerpt from a brief writing assignment wherein I connect gender, pedagogy and visuality in a 'teachable example' and centres on the Caster Semenya debacle.


Lorber (1993, p. 569) reminds us that gender as a binary has always been instantiated through seeing. As a teacher educator, I am required to engage with visual culture because public battles surrounding ‘gender’ – or, more frequently, biological sex – are fought in the realm of the visual. In recognition of this visuality of gender (and in unconscious preparation for this course), I have long collected visual texts complimentary of my anti-genderist pedagogical aims, and I discuss one of these texts here. The intense policing of sex practiced by international sport authorities has yielded an inalienable exemplar of a ‘public battle’ in the realm of the visual. Caster Semenya, the South African world track and field champion, has had her sex (gender?) publicly disputed on an international scale; in answer, the September issue of the popular South African magazine YOU responded both visually and discursively.

The September cover [inset above] contains a photograph of the newly- feminine Semenya, a smaller image of her ‘masculine’ alter ego, a statement discursively reifying Caster’s split (athletic/power vs. non-athletic/glamour) femininity – “We turned SA’s power girl into a glamour girl – and she loves it!” – and an enticing invitation to the viewer to consume this most unambiguous visual feast of true femininity: “Wow, look at Caster now!” The South African government has rallied around Caster by issuing scathing condemnations of the media and international athletic community. In light of this national rallying, that a South African publication is so firmly invested in the visually discursive reification and rendering intelligible of Semenya’s gender-normativity indicates that gender and visual culture can quickly become politicized in tandem, and on a global scale.

This cover is just one artefact of the visual culture of gender which, I would argue, can “shift the focus of analysis away from things seen toward the process of seeing” (Herbert, 2003, p. 455) and onto the ways in which this process is scaffolded by our own experiences of being gendered and being gender experts. Columpar (2002) aligns the colonial, ethnographic and male gazes “insofar as they accord their bearers a position of mastery and designate their objects as the site/sight of difference” (p. 40); I would add the gender-normative gaze for the same reasons. Analyzing the YOU cover with students will necessarily illuminate their own curiosity about Semenya’s gender as inflamed by the media, and in turn, the ways in which they exercise a gender-normative gaze when viewing visual texts and when appraising the genders of others. To this end, the pivotal question arising out of my engagement with visual studies, gender studies and teacher education pertains to the ethics of viewing and how I might foreground genderism and the process of seeing with a pedagogy disruptive of the gender-normative gaze. Just as Khan (2007) uses Hatoum’s work to pedagogically disrupt ‘racial seeing’ in the Women’s Studies classroom (p. 330), how can I seek to deflect the teacher’s eye from ‘gendered seeing’?

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