As a young boy, I was feminine. Or maybe I was just indiscriminate, loving both My Little Ponies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Luckily, my parents didn’t police me as I neared the dress up box, pulling out some of the gaudier items. But my inability to obey the rules of gender would soon cause some problems. I would struggle with these problems, until a transformative moment in second year anthropology.
The Playtime Police
Being indiscriminate wasn’t grounds for suspicion during kinder, at least with the other kids. But by primary school the cohort had truly bifurcated. Without exception, the boys were playing with boys and the girls with girls.
Left in a kind of gender limbo, and with no friends, I decided to approach some friendly-looking girls during a sunny recess. Group ring leader Stacey Peterson* intercepted me before I could enter the cubby, duly notifying me her posse didn’t play with ‘gay people’. I didn’t know what gay people meant, but I can remember feeling ostracised. Not long after labelled a ‘gaybo’, this kind of policing would continue through to high school. For example, Matt MacDonald* took it upon himself to habitually sing Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ whenever I was within earshot.
I had intuited something not-quite-right about the rules shared by Stacey, Matt and their contemporaries. But with the help of anthropology, it became easy to see the strictures of gender as culturally and historically contingent. Elsewhere, particular gentials aren’t determining people as male or female (Helliwell 2001) and people are going about their lives quite capably without any mandate to keep things ‘natural’ (MacCormack 1980). We could also take these ideas towards a more speculative anthropology (Anderson et al. 2018): in another place, or another time, boys will play with My Little Ponies and no one will think twice, much less police, reprimand or taunt them. And nor will Shania Twain be co-opted.
Conceiving of This Encounter
There’s a few ways we could think about my encounter with the anthropology of gender.
Ghassan Hage (2012) has noted that, throughout the 20th century, people have sought social and political change with reference to a critical sociology that has ‘helped us see… relations of power and domination’ (p. 287). Hage calls this sociology-inspired politics an ‘anti-politics’.
In contrast, the kind of politics that might emerge from anthropology he calls ‘alter-politics’ (p. 288). Coming into contact with the radically different, whether through fieldwork or reading,
‘such difference disorients us to begin with and in the process of helping us reorient ourselves within it and in relation to it, anthropology widens our sphere of what is socially and culturally possible’ (Ibid.)
My experience reading about gender is a bit different to this, however. I had already felt an ongoing sense of disorientation with gender, and anthropology provided some tools for a further disorientation, eagerly received, followed by reorientation with new possibilities. This experience led me to pursue further disorientation throughout my bachelor’s degree.
Helen Verran (2013) has grappled with similar issues to Hage. Sketching experiences of disorientation and reorientation, Verran frames this in terms of epistemic disconcertment (p. 145). Marisol de la Cadena (2015) lucidly summarises Verran: ‘this disconcertment… is the feeling that assaults individuals – including their bodies – when the categories that pertain to their world-making practices and institutions are disrupted’ (p. 276).
For Verran, knowledge is not only cognitive, but variously located in ‘institutions, categories, arranged materials and communitive protocols’, meaning ‘the multiple pulls of these intense habits of knowing are felt bodily’ (p. 145-6). This is something I wish I knew in first year. As you encounter radically different worlds, remember that it is not only your brain being pulled around.
*not their real names
Anderson R, Backe E, Nelms T, Reddy E and Trombley J 2018, ‘Speculative Anthropologies’, Theorising the Contemporary, Fieldsites, December 2018. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/speculative-anthropologies
de la Cadena, M 2015, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds, Duke University Press, Durham.
Hage, G 2015, ‘Critical Anthropological Though and the Radical Political Imaginary Today’, Critique of Anthropology, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 285-308.
Helliwell, C 2001, ‘Engendering Sameness’, Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, vol. 6.
MacCormack, C 1980, ‘Nature, Culture and Gender: A Critique’, in C MacCormack and M Strathern (eds), Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 1-24.
Verran, H 2013, ‘Engagements Between Disparate Knowledge Traditions: Towards Doing Difference Generatively and in Good Faith’, in L Green (ed), Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge, HSRC Press, Cape Town, pp. 141-161,
I mentioned speculative anthropology. Cultural Anthropology has a series of short blog posts on this topic. Sarah’s Anthropozine post on ‘interplanetary anthropologist’ Ursula Le Guin also considers the imagining of future worlds.
You can listen to Ghassan Hage speak about alternate worlds and multiculturalism in this Familiar Strange podcast.