Plumb Lines

February 13, 2009

Gender Exploration as Grafitti Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 12:01 pm


David makes some interesting and welcome points in his most recent post. While I don’t want to read too much into his brief comments, I think that they provide an opportunity to question what our understanding of gender entails. That gender involves biology and an expressive function seems obvious. Calling this expressive aspect ‘performance art’ is suggestive but misunderstands what femininity and masculinity can and should mean in a society. For David, the expressive aspect of gender is experimental, exploratory, highly idiosyncratic, and personal. Figures of great talent will be able to create an expressive gendered identity that quivers with ambiguity. This is all well and good, but the problem with this experimental conception of gender is its highly modern focus on the expression of the individual, which comes at the expense of non-elites.

Traditionally, gender has expressed not individual taste so much as societal values. Concepts like courage, strength, nurturing, and obedience have all been codified in gender roles. While feminists are right to recognize that some of the ideas encoded in gender were harmful, such a realization does not suggest that gender roles should be abandoned altogether. Gender rightly understood is a public possession–not unlike a park–that everyone in a society enters. It leaves room for individual movement, but it also prescribes and proscribes particular behaviors. Such an apparently restrictive conception actually exists to encourage people to do things required for social stability and evolutionary success. For example, the notion of man as a ‘provider’ is good for children because it calls men to be engaged in their upbringing.  The fact that poor black fathers and rich white CEOs spend little time with their wives or children reflects that our notions of gender are far from sufficient.  It is possible that an “ethic of exploration” among the elite could coexist with solid middle-class and lower-class notions of gender, but it seems  to me that the democratizing of this “exploration” over the past several decades has weakened families and communities. Could this work for just the elite as long as we forbid such exploration to everyone else? Maybe. But only if David is willing (as he may well be) to make gender expression an aristocratic privilege.  My feeling is that, far from repairing and improving traditional gender roles, an “ethic of exploration” would seem to vandalize what little remains of the concepts of masculinity and femininity.  To extend the analogy, there is real aesthetic value to graffiti art, but it tends to thrive where the public space has not been tended. Indeed, it tends to encourage the public space’s further decline.

-Matthew Schmitz



  1. […] what price art? Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:11 pm Matthew accuses me of doing away with gender roles and laying waste to what proscriptions still stand between our […]

    Pingback by At what price art? « Plumb Lines — February 13, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  2. […] political for what Rohmer is doing here, but before I address David’s very good response to my post, I want to pause over this implication of Rohmer’s valedictory film: While introducing irony […]

    Pingback by An alternative to irony « Plumb Lines — February 13, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

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