Race, Gender, and the Oppressive Public Gaze…
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I’ve been struggling with writing this post for some time now. On the one hand there are things I feel need to be said about the treatment of Caster Semenya (especially in light of the news that she has been placed under a suicide watch), on the other hand I don’t want to add to the ridiculous, offensive, dehumanizing treatment that she’s been receiving to date. There is this sick undercurrent to the coverage reminiscent of the treatment of Saartjie Baartman (better known as the Hottentot Venus) particularly with the framing of the discussions of her body. There has been a rush to compare Caster to “real” women with pundits pointing to the size of her breasts, her shoulders, even the shape of her jaw as “proof that she is a he and should be disqualified” because somehow there’s a specific concrete metric for “normal” femininity.
And if you’re deemed to be outside the range of “normal” all the basic rules we were taught as children about polite behavior and common courtesy fly out the window. If the press coverage is any indication many people feel entitled to poke and prod and discuss her body like she’s specifically on display to satisfy their curiosity. After all it’s not like she’s human or anything, what with her having the temerity to (maybe) be born intersexed. Instead she’s a freak with no feelings, no right to privacy, and above all no right to her own body. Right? If you’re staring at your screen right now and contemplating asking if I have lost my everloving mind? I totally understand that reaction. Because it’s how I’ve felt every single time I’ve read an article about Caster’s “condition” or seen someone expounding at length on her body without once pausing to consider that her humanity is being questioned along with her gender. Looking at the descriptions of the treatment of Sara Baartman I’m sure a modern reaction would include an acknowledgment that the way Sara was treated was abominable.
Of course it was abominable and shameful and disgusting. So is what’s happening right now to Caster. And it’s not just about the treatment of Caster Semenya. Yesterday I got into a long protracted discussion about someone wanting trans people to explain the workings of their sexual organs so that they could include a sex scene in a story they were writing. And I explained over and over again that no one should feel entitled to such intimate information, especially to satisfy what amounted to prurient curiosity. And all the basic arguments from the bingo card were laid out (including my favorite “Well how else are people supposed to know if they don’t ask?”) because apparently for a lot of people it has never occurred to them that they don’t have a right to someone else’s body or to their experience. It has literally never occurred to them that people who are not like them have boundaries. Because they’re curious about the “freaks” and their curiosity trumps any delusions of humanity or equality.
Between the misogyny and the racism and the privilege and the sheer entitlement on display this is one of those areas where intersectionality cuts to the bone and then beyond. Being human isn’t about fitting into a box designed by someone else. It’s not something other people get to define for you. And if you think that the way Caster has been treated makes sense because she’s a public figure, or you think you have a right to treat people like an exhibit to satisfy your interest in their experience? You’re directly using your privilege (whatever it may be) to oppress someone. This idea that examining and inspecting and discussing someone else’s body is acceptable behavior because they are “different” is so reprehensible. But, it is also an idea that permeates our culture. That’s the point of tabloids and gossip and fatphobia and every other ‘ism I can think of right now. That’s why a friend just posted about having to tell someone repeatedly that they were not going to be allowed to touch her hair only to be met with questions about why she was refusing. As though she owed this person access to her body.
Curiously enough I think we can all agree that we expect our boundaries to be respected. That we expect people to have some sense of manners and decorum and not stare or point or generally treat us poorly. So then, why are we as a culture so comfortable deciding that the Other (as defined by us) is supposed to accept our intrusion? What is this idea that that they should explain their experience to the world at large? It’s always framed in terms of normal and different, but other than being a member of the majority what gives us the right to define normal? The oppression inherent in turning the public’s gaze to someone and demanding that they explain themselves is often waved away as just a part of life. Because somehow the public’s desire to know has become the public’s right to know. And the idea that knowledge is power has been turned on its head to give the “normal” the power over those that they deem to be Other. It’s unacceptable behavior no matter how you frame it and we should all be ashamed of ourselves.