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Archive for the ‘binary’ Category

Binary

Binary: The root of this word is “bi” which means two, so when we speak of the binary we are talking about that which has two sides. An example of this, seeing as we’re talking about women’s studies, is man and woman. In a simpler context we have the idea of on and off, or up and down.

In our society today we have a strong desire to use the binary to label things right, or wrong, with us, or against us, and the idea of “us” and “them.” This idea holds true with gender as well, you’re either a man or woman in our society with no room for anything else. Bell Hooks calls this “competitive either/or thinking.” This idea that everything has two sides is a very simplistic way of looking at the world.

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Long hair is a physical characteristic associated with both “femininity” and “masculinity” conventionally defined.
It is a pervasive Western (patriarchal) norm that women grow their hair long and men maintain their hair respectably short(er). Revealingly, men retain a great deal more freedom in hair length normativity/social expectation than do women.
There are exceptions to this norm, but deviants of both genders risk being socially ostracized by defying hair length normality. In United States history, noteworthy examples include:
-The “Flapper” movement of the 1920s in which women adopted a short “bob” cut and took more “lenient” positions regarding the woman’s proper relation to sex, drinking, partying, dancing, and “masculine” activities such as driving cars and smoking. The Flapper was consequently ostracized by “society” (or “Society”) due to her deviation. This movement all but disappeared with the coming of the impoverished Depression 1930s as opposed to the opulent economic conditions of “the Roaring 20s” that gave rise to such feminine liberation. (this is an interesting correlation to bear in mind: whether economic comfort lends itself to greater opportunities for women liberation? There is–or is there?–a connection.)

-The 1960s ushered forth a social rebellion against established norms. The youth population expressed its discontent with US foreign policy and stifling social expectations by being socially reactionary. Men wore their hair long–whether in protest against norms or simply to “conform” to the non-conformist hippie movement. Long hair was “liberating” but also stigma affixed itself to wearers of long hair and this trend (as a trend) died with the end of the 1960s. However, the 60s men wedged their foot in the door of historical norms, thus allowing for men later in US history to wear their hair long and not to be regarded as a “savage” or space alien.

-The 1990s-today allow for many hairstyles that defy normality. Women with short hair and men with long hair can readily be found. However, social and gendered/sexed significance is still attached to one’s hairstyle, indicating that we haven’t moved nearly as far from Victorian ideas as we’d like to believe. A woman can shave her head, but that MEANS something. A woman can leave her hair long, and nothing more is thought of it. We’ve not escaped foolish hairstyle norms.

One is left wondering: why should hair say anything about what’s in between my legs? And the answer is: it shouldn’t. Frank Zappa once remarked, in an exchange with an interviewer:

Interviewer: “So Frank, you have long hair. Does that make you a woman?”
Zappa: “You have a wooden leg. Does that make you a table?”

(NOTE: this is a severely inadequate history of American hair length–particularly because the women and men involved were all white and middle to upper class in social standing. But, then again, isn’t that the typical historical subject of American history? If anyone has other ideas about hair length and historical normativity, please add!!!)

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Default  (de·fault – [di-fawlt]) n.
A term used to denote normality and neutrality and identify adherents to it. Similar to what one might find as the ‘defaults’ on her computer (Times New Roman type font, the same homepage for internet access, the vertical letter format for printing documents in a printer), the Default is the constant and unhistorical standard of society by which everyone/thing else is described. It simply is.  With regards to feminism, Simone de Beauvoir writes that while “the fact of being a man is no peculiarity” simultaneously it is acknowledged that “the body of woman [is] a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it” (FTR 33). In this way, the male body and man as social being is ‘neutral’ and ‘unaltered’ and therefore good. It is the woman who is distinguished in her deviance from the Default. Hers is a body crafted in the perfect image of man, but taken tragic and disgusting wrong turns in the journey to finality. In this mindset, Aristotle aptly remarks: “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities, we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness” (FTR 33).

We can take this concept of Default further, however, than the realms of gender binary and apply it to (American) social consciousness in general. How then do we define the default? It is everything that does not need a signifier preceding it.

  • A human is a person, but a person is a man. If not, her sex is indicated with the signifier ‘woman’ or ‘she’.
  • A human is a person, but a person is a white man. If not, s/he is distinguished by a suitable racial and skin color signifier. One is black; one is Latino, one is Asian. But the One (the Subject to which everyone else is Other) is white.
  • A human is a person, but a person is a white, straight man. If not, s/he is ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bi’, ‘trans’, queer, etc. Homosexuality and all other deviations from Default, that is, heterosexuality, must be identified lest we confuse the idealized Default with contrarily identified others.
  • A human is a person, but a person is a white, straight, middle class man. One cannot but be of middle class without being identified as such as well.
  • A human is a person, but a person is etc. etc. etc…

Undecided portion of definition—is this true?: It is crucial to distinguish this idea of Default from the notion of ‘assumption.’

Assumption indicates agency–that is, one is choosing to apply a totalizing model of being to all individuals.  But is the Default a set of assumptions or something deeper, more insidious?  It’s not just the way we talk (though, actually, it is: the way we talk betrays the way we consider our social and material surroundings).  It’s the way we interpret reality…through an understanding like the Default?

Is this an issue of power–is our manufacturing of the Default an unacknowledged, unaware strategy towards understanding social gradations of power?  Does the Default assist us in comprehending difference?  Or is it a straw man, absent from reality, towards which everything is oriented in opposition?

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An adjective used to describe someone or something that possesses one or more of a set of qualities which are normally attributed to men. (more…)

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