Friday, December 5, 2014

Julia Serano's "marked groups"

Generalizing about social movements

The other week I saw a talk by Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity!, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.  She also has a super sweet blog.

This particular talk was based on Excluded, which is about the way that minority movements exclude other minorities.  Feminists have a history of excluding lesbians.  The gay movement has a history of excluding women.  Both of those movements have a history of excluding people of color.  And then moving on from that, feminists have a poor track record with transgender people, gay/lesbian people have a poor track record with bisexuals, and so on and so on.

Julia Serano draws from her personal experience as a bisexual femme tomboy transsexual woman.  Since she's part of several different groups which have been excluded, she hopes to make some general theories about how the exclusion operates, and how to combat it.

I am totally in favor of this conversation, since it's something I often talk about myself.  I started out as an atheist activist, and then became an asexual activist, and I've found it very interesting to compare and contrast.  However, I'm a little less optimistic about making broad generalizations, because it seems to me that bisexuality, transgender, and femme issues, despite being very different, are basically nextdoor neighbors.  Atheism isn't even on the same block.  And what happens when we consider other minority groups, such as poor people, criminals, people attracted to minors, or people in poor countries?

For example, one strategy Julia Serano advocated was unification.  Feminists thought gender was everything and ignored LG issues, and LG activists thought sexual orientation was everything and ignored women's issues.  If the movements had been more unified, they would have avoided this problem.  But should every pair of issues be unified, just because some people are affected by both problems?  What about the disadvantages of unification, such as when a broader umbrella causes more group-specific issues to get lost?

This is not to say that we shouldn't try to make general theories.  I think even when these ideas turn out to be wrong, they don't cause much harm, and instead lead to lovely discussions.

Marked and invisible groups

Julia Serano presented at least one idea that I thought might be widely applicable.  She proposed the idea of a "marked group" vs an "unmarked group".  For instance, transgender people are marked, and people who are not transgender are just considered "normal".  When a group is marked, they are "sticky", in that stereotypes, assumptions, and everything tend to stick to that group.  When a group is unmarked, we don't think of them as a unified group at all.

Thus, the term "cisgender", to label people who aren't transgender.  Now, if we want, we can think of cisgender people as a marked group of their own, removing some of the conceptual disparity between cis and trans people.  Of course, trans people remain as the marked group, and a minor change in language can only do so much to counteract that.

Here's why I think the idea of a marked group is generalizable:  It even applies to careers.  I'm a physicist, and that marks me as different in many contexts.  People tend to assume that I know all about cosmology and want to talk about it.  People assume I'm really smart and that I cultivate a secular spirituality.  Of course, this is not a very strong marking, and the assumptions people make aren't particularly bad ones.  But it's easy to see how the same processes can go wrong when a group is more strongly marked, and the assumptions more negative.

Consider another group, asexuals.  Are asexuals marked the way that transgender people are?  For the most part, asexuals are invisible, which is like the polar opposite of marked.

On her blog, Julia Serano has discussed the way that activist language changes over time, primarily so that people can avoid being stuck with "bad" words.  Serano imagines that once the groups are no longer marginalized, the language will stop changing so quickly.  This stands in contrast with asexual language, which seems to change radically every five years.  Asexual language does not develop to replace bad words.  Instead, people coin words to describe experiences that they feel people haven't talked about enough.

In a way, asexuals are voluntarily marking themselves, and marking their various experiences.  This is not without its disadvantages.  It may lead to stereotyping.  Perhaps one day it will allow a more coherent anti-asexual movement.  But these are still preferable to invisibility and obscurity.

Serano has also talked about the way that activist movements change strategies over time in response to the changing context.  What's adaptive in one generation can be maladaptive in another.  She recommends embracing ambivalence--"recognizing that certain ideas or objects may simultaneously posses both good and bad qualities, especially depending upon the context in which they occur."  I suggest that we should also embrace ambivalence with respect to being marked or unmarked.


miller said...

Someone pointed out to me that "markedness" is a pre-existing idea in linguistics and social science. Perhaps I was wrong to attribute it to Julia Serano.

miller said...

Thank you for the explanation.

Julia Serano had not discussed invisibility at all in her talk, so I'm not sure what she'd think about my contention that invisibility and markedness are polar opposites. It does seem like when a group is invisible--say, nonbinary people--it's assumed that everyone is by default male or female. So in a way, invisible groups are already marked, regardless of whether there's any actual word with which to mark them.

miller said...

For reference: Julia Serano finally wrote a blog post about marked groups.