Genderfuck, norms and achieving progressive social change

The 2014 edition of Genderfuck is only two days away. Genderfuck is a unique tradition at Swarthmore, because not only is it a party, but it is also an attempt to, at least for one night, subvert the potentially oppressive norms of gender and sexuality. My RA, Kenneson Chen ‘14, calls it “a queered query” into these issues. From my point of view, Genderfuck is particularly special because despite the strong focus on progressive social ideas at Swarthmore, I have not found that students are particularly willing to take what they learn on campus into party spaces (with the notable, if tragically imperfect exception of consent). Parties at Swarthmore do not appear terribly different from college parties elsewhere. Genderfuck, of course, seriously bucks that trend.

On April 13, the Genderfuck planning committee sent out a lengthy introduction to the party that, in a few, often humorous paragraphs, gave an impressive summary of identity politics on Swarthmore’s campus. On the “dress code,” or lack thereof, they write:

If you have absolutely no interest in making a political statement about your gender, your sexuality, or any variety of identity and in between, Genderfuck might not be your idea of a good time. There’s certainly no one at the door deciding whether or not your stilettos are absurd enough … You should use this opportunity to fully engage though, because everyone operates under norms, and this is a non-normative party.

This part stuck out, particularly the last clause of the last sentence because of its contradictory nature. The set-up of the paragraph is itself suggesting a norm for how Genderfuck should function. The norms that exist at Genderfuck differ significantly from those in normal Swarthmore life and even other parties, but they exist nonetheless.

I point this out not with the intention of being pedantic or to criticize the Genderfuck planning committee, who merit a debt of gratitude from the rest of campus. Rather, I think a discussion of norms and their relation to Genderfuck provides a great jumping-off point to think about the avenues through which social change occurs.

Norms, to define them crudely, are the shared ideas and expectations that govern social and political life. They are created through the interaction of power and ideas, which are neither entirely separable phenomena nor are they intrinsically good or bad. The norms produced lend themselves to both oppressive and emancipatory social structures.

Norms are, of course, “social constructs.” And while it may be fashionable to use that term as a way to point to their arbitrary nature, let us not forget that social constructs, like the burgeoning consensus on queer rights or an international aversion to genocide, are often terribly important and produced through constructive social processes. Of course the flip side is that norms can have very negative effects. These oppressive and binary norms of gender and sexuality are exactly what the party was set up to combat.

The process of social change is inextricably linked to the battle of different social norms. Some norms replace others, while some transform or merge. The result can be progressive or regressive, or somewhere in between. This process is something that humans can actively participate in, and Genderfuck is a paradigmatic example of norms’ potential to improve society. The email quoted earlier implicitly argues that the space of Genderfuck seeks to subvert certain norms by replacing them with more liberating ones, even if it explicitly claims to be simply eliminating them.

Engaging with norms, rather than suppressing them, offers a more productive way to imagine social change. First off, I would argue that a “non-normative society” is an impossibility. But beyond that, thinking in terms of how to eradicate bad norms, rather than how they can be altered or replaced, is a problematic conceptual framework. Following this line of argument to its logical conclusion presents us with this: only the exercise of power has the ability to shape norms and make change. But harmful norms disproportionately affect those with less power, and therefore denying the importance of ideas (in conjunction with and in relation to power) is a counterproductive strategy.

At Swarthmore, it is only possible to come close to eliminating some norms through power (aka by decree) because of a collective opinion that is farther to the left than the rest of society. The Genderfuck planning committee writes, “There is no misogyny, racism, classism, queerphobia, ableism, or sex-negativity permitted at Genderfuck” this might actually be possible in the college’s confines. Beyond the bubble, however, it becomes a much more complicated task.

This might seem like a limited or even obvious point, but I think its implications extend beyond Genderfuck. The last year at Swarthmore has been consumed by a stream of contentious political issues and attempts at dialogue have been the go-to response for the college. Some have been successful while others have been abysmal failures (I’m looking at you Robert George), but I do strongly believe that dialogue is a necessary, if often deeply flawed, exercise. Some critics have pointed out that the liberal, sanitized and idealized version of dialogue trumpeted by the college does not make change because it does not deal with the oppressive power structures present on our campus. In this view, seeing everyone in dialogue as functionally equal is the mistake that dooms dialogue.

On the one hand, this is a very convincing critique. It is true that avoiding accounting for privilege and dialogue for dialogue’s sake is not a recipe for social change. But I am also wary of the resulting implications. If the exchange of ideas cannot occur because of the inequalities present among participants, then the only way to make change is through institutional power. For two reasons, I’m skeptical of this absolutist interpretation. First, the exercise of institutional power is itself influenced by ideas that are most clearly expressed through dialogue. Oppressive structures may temper the progressive potential of these ideas, but this does not make the ideas worthless. Second, seeing dialogue as only productive when oppressive structures have been eliminated imagines an impossible scenario. Privilege and inequalities are durable, and so the task becomes to exchange ideas and work for social change in a highly imperfect world. We should also look to directly alter oppressive structures, but when we are left with only the opportunity to discuss them, I think it is crucial to not underestimate the power of discourse.

I believe what I am proposing is neither a revolutionary or reformist conception of social change. Rather, understanding how norms develop over time, and consequently, the relationship between norms and power offers an avenue for conceptualizing a better society that can be used by individuals with varying degrees of radicalness. For me, Genderfuck offers immense emancipatory potential, and while it won’t solve most social problems even at Swarthmore, I do hope it can teach us something about the possibilities for progressive change.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Danny –

    Part of me is glad that the e-mail provoked dialogue on important and complicated topic. The other part of me wants to correct a few things you’ve outlined here, because I think your issue may be more to do with the limitations of an e-mail as a means of disseminating information as opposed to issues pertaining to the logic of genderfuck organizers.

    “This part stuck out, particularly the last clause of the last sentence because of its contradictory nature. The set-up of the paragraph is itself suggesting a norm for how genderfuck should function. The norms that exist at genderfuck differ significantly from those in normal Swarthmore life and even other parties, but they exist nonetheless.

    I point this out not with the intention of being pedantic or to criticize the genderfuck planning committee, who merit a debt of gratitude from the rest of campus. Rather, I think a discussion of norms and their relation to genderfuck provides a great jumping-off point to think about the avenues through which social change occurs.”

    You’re correct in pointing out that this is overly simplistic. When explaining complicated matters like “social norms” to the campus community, who have a range of experiences spanning “very little experience” and “accepted to graduate programs in relevant fields,” one has to be pretty careful about how many qualifiers an e-mail can have. It may more properly read, “You should use this opportunity to fully engage though, because everyone operates under norms on a daily basis, and a successfully non-normative party is possible through the collective, meaningful political engagement of attendees.” This sort of sentence causes eyes to glaze over. Perhaps I’m cynical, but most campus-wide e-mailers know the effect of a long-winded, preachy e-mail and it generally doesn’t work very well.

    The following discussion of norms is similarly shortsighted, however:
    “Norms, to define them crudely, are the shared ideas and expectations that govern social and political life. They are created through the interaction of power and ideas, which are neither entirely separable phenomena nor are they intrinsically good or bad. The norms produced lend themselves to both oppressive and emancipatory social structures.”

    This doesn’t account for the ways in which norms are internalized and reproduced by individual subjects. Indeed, norms do not simply fall from the sky from a monolithic entity — “power structures” — but are also critically reproduced by everyone. These reproductions are what an event like genderfuck seeks to interrupt. What if everyone stopped reproducing gender norms? Or sexuality norms? Or racial norms? The list goes on. You begin to see the transformative power of a 4 hour time span in Sharples when hundreds of individuals agree to explicitly “speak back to” the tacit agreements of individuals to reproduce norms (in the words of Butler) that shape everyday behavior and thought. The e-mail’s language demanding respect for the various traditions and identities of future attendees (“no misogyny, no classism, etc…) is an attempt to shape the structural dissemination of norms by laying out the “rules.” It is up to attendees to realize any sort of “utopia” (I cringe writing this word, but one cannot deny genderfuck is at least partly utopic). This is the logic behind declaring the event a “non-normative party.”

    (I would also like to note that every year we hear about “genderfuck being reshaped” speaks to its ability to destabilize norms; no two events are the same from year to year. Indeed, no one can seem to explain the party in one soundbite, indicating that the concern that “non-normative” is in fact just a different kind of norm is not really the point. Referring to genderfuck as though it is something discrete and definable does reflect normative thinking though, and I would encourage you to consider it an event shaped by collective non-normative performance.)

    Given the tone and intention of this article, I think you probably understand everything I just said, but I wanted to make this explicit addition to your comments.

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