Originally Posted on June 29, 2012 on
Today we bring you a conversation between Ken Corbett, Ph.D. and Mark O’Connell, LCSW.
Ken Corbett, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He is the author of “Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities.” Dr. Corbett maintains a private practice in New York City.
Here Corbett and O’Connell discuss the role gender policing has in bullying, fathers and vulnerability and more.
Mark O’Connell: Hi Ken. I contacted you for mentoring after reading your book “Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities.” I just loved it. You make it seem so freeing and empowering to utilize more gender behavior options than our society typically allows.
As you’ve said in your forthcoming paper for Psychoanalytic Inquiry though, the fantasy of what is normal (boys should be masculine/ girls feminine) lives in each of us and bullies “do our bidding”/”police” the way boys and girls behave in an attempt to keep us acting like we “should.” Take for example “The Shorning,” by which I mean the recently released horror story of a high school-aged Mitt Romney pinning down and forcefully cutting a classmate’s bleached blond hairdo, saying it was “wrong” and not “masculine” — the same Romney who today mocks guys who like pink ties. So, what’s up with that? Why do you think gender nonconformity provokes so much discomfort and aggression?Ken Corbett: I think gender nonconformity provokes so much fear and hate because that is a big part of how we are gendered. We need to hold in mind here that gender is a major part of what makes us us. Gender is part of what makes us into the kind of person we are. And gender norms make us even before we are us. Hence, norms are us. We are anxiously policed even before we are us. Hence, the police are us. Hence, anxiety is us. And gender is held tight with a lot of anxiety. Consider femininity and the battle of dieting. Consider masculinity and the battle of battle. Consider how most parents now know the sex of their child prior to birth and with that knowledge they presume that their child will follow in accord with the social norms of maleness of femaleness. If they know it is a boy, dad buys a football, mom paints the room blue.
When children and adolescents encounter gender variation either within themselves or with others, and if they have not had the opportunity to learn about variation, they react with anxiety which often takes the form of aggression. They throw a football at the sissy’s head or they set about to forcefully cut his nonconforming hair. Boys and girls who step out of the normal circle are punished both in an effort to push them into the circle, but more to the point to make an example of them as “criminal” — deplorable and shocking — for they ways in which they live outside the normal circle. We might think of Mr. Romney and his adolescent peers as speaking through their aggression and hate: “There are rules by which we live. There is a strict social reality. These rules cannot bend. You, bleach blond boy, upset the rules/roles. You upset us. We don’t trust you. You have to adapt not us. And since you don’t seem to understand, we are going to force you to adapt.”
Mark O’Connell: We have a disturbing need to punish those who are deviant — it makes me think of the carnival games called “Shoot the Freak.” But we as a society have been able to acknowledge what appear to be natural rules (such as “we need to kill to eat”) and adapt to become more civilized. Why can’t “rules” related to gender norms bend or even be named? In your paper, you ask the question, “What inhibits the naming of normative hierarchies that feed and constitute bullying?” This resonates with me specifically because I wrote a piece about bullying for HuffPost last month, trying to name the misogyny, homophobia and effemephobia in bullying worldwide, looking to what I thought to be hard evidence and I was struck by how many people (some close to me) reacted as though I was projecting, whining, stretching “gender theory” too far and that I somehow failed to understand that bullying is simply about power vs. weakness in the general sense, not inextricably linked to gender norms. Fascinating, and discouraging, because when we deny the norms that inform and trigger bullying — dismissing, for example, that in the schoolyard, in the millisecond between the impulse and the punch, the words feminine, weak, vulnerable, submissive all mean the same thing to the bully who attacks the “sissy” — then the problem gets perpetuated. So I’m reiterating your question now but why can’t the overwhelming misognyny and homophobia in bullying even be named? What does it cost people to simply name it?
Ken Corbett: I like how you ask your question as a matter of “cost.” My first impulse is to respond that it will cost the cost of doing business. Socially and culturally we have so much invested in a rigid gender binary (there can be two and only two genders, masculinity and femininity, and they are defined in opposition to one another). This social investment powerfully and productively exaggerates the relatively small physical differences between the sexes while downplaying our human commonalities.
My second response is that it will cost the cost of education and the promotion of critical thinking. It will cost a reexamination of how we teach civil rights as part of grade school and middle school curriculums. I vividly recall how important a book like Richard Wright’s “Native Son” was to me as a junior high school student as I learned about the African American civil rights movement. Challenging the gender binary and offering young children the opportunity to think critically about gender will not only cost the price it will take to introduce books like “Oliver Button Is a Sissy” or “My Princess Boy” or the Trevor Project video into school libraries, it will also rest on the cost of educating teachers to think along with their students about the social forces that are behind the playground fights.
This manner of critical thinking seems even more important at the junior high school level as adolescents can begin to engage abstract and critical thinking to read about the history of feminism and gay rights as part of their American history curriculum. It will cost the kind of discussions that could be had if students were assigned the introduction to Berry Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” or Ellen Wittlinger’s novel “Parrotfish” about a transgendered adolescent. Mark O’Connell: You know, Ken, as you mention all these great books I’m thinking about that recent Ohio University study showing that by identifying with characters in books, people’s minds change significantly. As you said, the lacking investment in publishing and distributing of books with gender atypical characters presents a road block to this change. We are starting to see more characters like this on television though, and I think if more gender variant actors were cast and characters created for TV and film, the collective fantasy of what is normal would begin to transform — I’ve written about this in a paper for Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health(which will be published in July). It’s a continuing challenge of course, to convince producers to adapt their own normative fantasies in order to invest in stories about gender variant lives.
It’s just frustrating that folks can’t simply take a leap of imagination into another person’s life, the way we do as therapists with our clients or actors do with their roles. My mother — who righteously owns that she has successfully raised a gender nonconforming kid for whom things (luckily) got better — wants to know why people can’t simply empathize with those who are different from them, or just mind their own business. I tell her that if we could get Meryl Streep to tour the country teaching people (men in particular) how to connect with the internal life (the agonies and ecstasies) of women and “girly boys” we’d instantly see less violence. If the characters don’t show up onscreen, we can teach people how to act, how to dream themselves into another life, how to empathize. Can we get a grant for this Streep project?
Ken Corbett: I am laughing thinking about how many requests Meryl Streep must get everyday to save the world in every way. We should note here that she is doing some remarkable work raising funds and making plans for a women’s history museum in Washington D.C., an institution that I imagine is being conceived as place for school trips and the kind of education about feminism of which I spoke. But you raise a very good point about what it means to put oneself in the mind of another and step imaginatively into their shoes. Whenever anyone lapses into that “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” mantra, I always like to remind them that Flaubert imagined Madame Bovary or that George Elliot imagined Mr. Casaubon and Mr. Latislaw. Perhaps middle school children should be given a writing assignment in which they must write from a gender with which they do not identify. But here we must remember that the appeal to imagination has always been the romantic impulse when reaching for change and that romance only takes us so far. Along with the romantic imagination, we would want to make sure that children are learning about the social and political forces that do more to make our world, even more than Meryl Streep, although that is hard to believe.
Mark O’Connell: Extremely hard to believe! I’m telling you, Meryl’s already saving the world; she’s starring in blockbusters about smart, lively women in their sixties, who have agency, and lots of sex — for fun, and on their own terms. It may be romantic of me but I do believe that the world having protagonists like this for people to dream themselves into can make more kids and grownups interested in how politics and social rules impact lives. Unfortunately, without that identification with a person — a character, a life impacted by our oppressive rules — most people just can’t be bothered to learn about the mechanics of society.
Ken Corbett: You are certainly correct in reminding us, as have philosophers for centuries, that we need not and cannot separate reason and emotion. We need both and one does not follow without the other.
Mark O’Connell: So, since we’re talking a little pop culture… You refer to one of Eminem’s lyrics in your paper; something like “we all got reps to uphold,” and you discuss how the defensive posture of upholding “reps” perpetuates aggression and defers vulnerability. So, I’m going to challenge your rep as a distinguished analyst and scholar for a moment, and hope that you don’t get violent: Do you watch “Glee”?
Ken Corbett: Yes, I do on occasion watch “Glee” and I like to think that the ways in which I am engaged by the romantic imagination of the plot lines does not tarnish my scholarly street cred. I think there is room for a show like Glee to skirt reality and, in so doing, teach.
Mark O’Connell: Good, so you’re not going to punch me? “Glee” is good times, certainly of the cotton-candy variety but with one exception: the story between Kurt and his father. That somehow grounds the whole show in the burgeoning tensions that we’re discussing. I often feel a delicious discomfort myself when I see how accepting Kurt’s father is of him. No matter how flamboyant, feminine, girly or “dramatic” Kurt is, I’m always astonished by how his father’s response to him completely lacks any kind of aggression. It’s like I expect it to be there and so I vacillate between squeamishness because it’s unfamiliar and tears because it’s a catharsis we’ve never experienced before on television — or perhaps even in life.
Ken Corbett: As you suggest, Kurt’s father is in my experience a rare man and a rare father. But let us hope that some little proto-queer boy and his father are watching and learning that things might be otherwise.
Mark O’Connell: Have you noticed any changes in the parents of gender nonconforming children you’ve worked with over the years, fathers in particular?
Ken Corbett: In my consultations with parents of gender variant kids I have begun to note a subtle shift in the attitudes of both mothers and fathers. In a word, they are less anxious and more eager to support as opposed to change their child’s experience of difference. Still, one frequent problem that I have found that it is important to address with fathers of gender variant boys is the father’s anxiety when and if he finds himself to be the object of his son’s desire. If a father allows himself to become the object of his son’s desire, does he remain a heterosexual man? If his imagination goes queer in following his son, where does that turn leave him in relation to his own straight imagination? Fathers and proto queer boys often get caught in this snag and fathers often resort to a kind of paternal behaviorism: “Let’s go out to the yard and play catch.” I have found that it is important to help fathers see that pushing against their son’s imagination/wish is not simply a matter of sidestepping or challenging his son’s play but also a matter of dropping his son’s psychic reality and, in turn, his son’s bid to alter social constraints.
Mark O’Connell: So interesting. We never talk about “Daddy’s Little Boy.” Maybe one day it’ll be easier for us to discuss that, and all that it implies, and perhaps we’ll start seeing more father/son dances at weddings. I’d like to think I’d have danced with my father at my wedding — if he were alive at that time — even though, had I even been brave enough to get out of my own way and ask him, I’m sure everyone else (aka “the normal police”) would have punished us (as you were describing earlier). We need to make more room for fathers and sons to relate to each other.
One of the big obstacles here is that to accept his son’s “bid to alter social constraints” requires a father to be vulnerable and many fathers resist that at all costs.
My father was a high-school principal in Westchester, a lot of pressure and responsibility, and his rep as a stern authority figure was often referred to as a notable strength. But as I was writing a eulogy for him, the stronger quality that I recalled — and still hold onto — was his ability to fail, to not be the smartest, to work hard yes, but to embrace the unpolished parts of himself with grace and humor, to let them breathe. That continues to be a great source of strength for me, reminding me to be on my own side even when I feel inadequate, which, I think, makes me more successful in many areas of my life, but in our culture that’s not considered to be a very “manly” or “powerful” exchange from father to son. This also comes up in the film “Bully” when one of the moms says to the dad, “Maybe I should punch you in front of our son, so he can see that you cry once in a while.” How can we convince fathers that they’re helping their boys by sharing vulnerability with them?
Ken Corbett: Your question about fathers and vulnerability is an interesting one because I often experience fathers as exquisitely vulnerable. Indeed they frequently defended against that vulnerability and one has to work with them to see that their fears are an expression of their love and concern for their children. Here, I think we sometimes underestimate children and while we do not want to constantly flood them with our feeling states, it is often not only helpful to be more expressive but it offers them the opportunity to learn the hard work of empathy and repair. Also life is not only made in recognition. It is often those relationships that are threaded with conflict from which we learn the most. Perhaps threading back to your wish that we see more conflict between Kurt and his father.
Mark O’Connell: It’s a tricky balance for parents and leaders to strike — isn’t it? — to allow conflict to exist without giving up authority completely or completely shutting down those under their wing. Speaking of authority, in your paper you discuss how, when unaddressed, the unspoken hierarchies that inform bullying behaviors affect psychotherapists, like me, when we seek mentoring from seasoned analysts like you. You haven’t bullied me yet. Why?
Ken Corbett: I think your use of the word “balance” here is key. In my experience with children and students, authority is earned through processes of mutual recognition and respect. In that sense authority is shared, not earned by conquering. Key here as well are matters of shame. Behind every binary there is a hierarchy (teacher trumps student, masculinity trumps femininity, heterosexuality trumps homosexuality, whiteness trumps blackness, wealth trumps poverty, christianity trumps islamism). Behind every trump there is shame (the shamed lesser one). The bully relies on that shame. He/she works by silencing their victim, trusting that their victim will not speak because to speak is to place one in the position of shame.
Mark O’Connell: So, that’s why you’ve tolerated me yapping away like a naive Gen Xer; If you shamed me, shut me down, you’d deny me the opportunity to take risks, to fail, and to grow. On this note, I find it particularly disturbing what you’ve written about “the bullied mind” and how our fears — of transgressing the lines of gender, for example — can keep us locked inside of ourselves, isolated and potentially cut-off from our own life force — to the point of resembling the walking dead. For all of the “actors” involved in bullying — those who attack and those who palpably attack themselves — there are also the unsung casualties, the myriad people who experience severe, and perhaps debilitating disconnect, too afraid to be spontaneous or, as you say, live a “liveable life.” This mostly troubles me because when a person experiences this nobody really notices what’s happening on the outside. I don’t have a question here… I’m just depressed by this…
Ken Corbett: Well, you should feel depressed. That means you are paying attention to the plight of others. Recognizing how we oppress others and how we lock them inside their own torment should make us depressed. But importantly, that depression is a place to move from, a place from which we might make a difference. It allows us to see that while we might not always have the opportunity to help those who don’t know that they need help, or know how to seek help, we can work, nevertheless, to build a better social world in which the power and hierarchies that oppress people can be challenged and changed, thereby affording our fellow citizens greater mental freedom. This is why I think it is so important to not only address bullying as something that happens between two kids on a playground, but as something that happens in the social network that is the school — a system that reflects the misogyny, homophobia, racism, and class prejudice that circulate in our society at large. Of course we must intervene between the bully and the bullied and we must include the witnesses to those acts of aggression but we must also educate children about the social forces that push all of us around.