Courtney Martin is an editor for who came to UNC last week to speak as part of the Carolina Women’s Center’s Got Gender? week. The title of her presentation was Fag Jokes, Fishnets, and Fiancés: How Narrow Gender Roles Compromise Quality of Life and How to Get Liberated.  It has taken me a whole week to fully process why I was so agitated after her talk, and I will address this shortly. However, first I will provide a basic summary of her talk for those who missed it.

Courtney began by telling us about how she became a feminist in the first place. Her mother was a second wave feminist and so Courtney initially associated feminists with older women like her mom. Her mother would have other feminists over who appeared androgynous, shunning “beauty” products. When Courtney went to college, she heard a feminist speak who wore fishnets and wasn’t androgynous looking. She then warmed up to the idea of a feminism that looked different than her mother’s second wave version. She found that she could embrace “beauty and style” and still be a feminist.

She also spoke about ways we can show up for our gender and feminism in our everyday lives. She likes taking a “nuanced” approach to feminism through tactics such as speaking up at parties where she overhears friends making “fag jokes” or other offensive comments. For those who worry about being a downer when stopping people’s conversations to make them aware of the implications of what they’ve just said, she has a very simple solution for you: Do it anyway. This kind of work is very important and can create awareness among your friends, who can then create awareness among their other friends, and so on.

One of the more interesting aspects of her talk was about blogging as a form of online organizing. While she said that some accuse her of “sitting around in her underwear” trying to create social change from bed, she asserts that blogging can be used to raise social consciousness about feminist issues in an entirely new way. I totally agree; blogging is a powerful new medium that has the potential to organize large groups of people in a short amount of time. Blogs are great. Especially this Feminist Students United blog.

And now, without further ado….my critiques.

Her talk reminded me of a Women’s Studies 101 course. Since I have already taken this course, during her lecture I felt my eyes starting to glaze over. The title of her presentation was misleading; I felt as though she barely scraped the surface of how gender roles are embedded in our culture. Also, while she talked about using an intersectional lens in her articulation of feminism, her examples and language reflected a heteronormative slant. One comment that really stuck out to me was when she claimed that birth control “affects all of our lives,” assuming that everyone in the audience has or is planning to have heterosexual sex. As a queer woman who does not engage in heterosexual sex, and therefore does not need to take birth control, I felt left out of this conversation.

My biggest critique is that she spoke about gender strictly in the traditional female/male binary form, not acknowledging those who choose other gender expressions or choose to dismiss the notion of gender completely. When someone in the audience brought this omission up, she became defensive and accused the person of “other-ing” transgendered individuals. She then explained that she sees gender as being laid out on a spectrum. However, I feel it is important to note that her spectrum ultimately has two sides: female and male. If you are in the middle of her linear spectrum, you identify as being equally feminine and masculine. But what about those who do not identify as being male or female – those who identify as “ze,” “they” or “hir” rather than “she” or “he”? By locking gender into two categories, male and female, Courtney has herself effectively “other-ed” those who don’t identify as either of these two genders.

As Jody Marksamer and Dylan Vade so eloquently put it in a Trans 101 presentation provided for the UNC LGBTQ Center:

There are women and there are men. These are two options among a million. Female and male are not two endpoints on a line. There is no line, no spectrum. If there were a line, where would a sissy ftm fall compared to a butch dyke? Where would a butch mtf fall? Where would a fierce femme fall? Gender is much much bigger than a line. We cannot order people on a scale of masculinity/femininity. Gender is (at least!) a 3 dimensional space that allows motion. One way to picture gender is as a gender galaxy – a space with an infinite number of gender points that can move and that are not hierarchically ordered.

Anyone interested in further reading on this topic may want to consult this article by George Dvorsky and James Hughes, PhD:

Feminists, we can accomplish so much more if instead of becoming defensive when someone challenges our current beliefs, we listen. The concept of gender and sexuality is ever shifting, and those of us who embrace intersectionality should be moving with it.

-Jessica Dilday