The feminist blogetariat is abuzz at the revelation that freelancer and professional blogger James Chartrand is actually a lady, and that ze could only make a real living after swapping genders. Sure, hir story definitely demonstrates that sexism is alive and well. The fascinating thing about this story, though, is how many layers it has, even after you peel away the obvious message about sexism. There’s hypermasculinity and gender fluidity; imperiled working mothers and supposedly ball-busting mommy bloggers; feminist outrage and faux feminism masquerading as a commitment to a liberal ideal of “choice.”
For starters, Chartrand’s success shows that masculinity can be purely a social construct. No, that doesn’t mean there’s no biological elements to masculinity, but it does indicate that it’s possible for it to be entirely performative, at least online. At the Sexist, Amanda Hess dissects the many ways in which Chartrand’s constructed masculinity goes beyond hir name: a hypermasculine logo, descriptions of hir female co-blogger as “perky” and “adorable,” bashing of mommy-bloggers, and the occasional gratuitous naked woman.
Once you know that Chartrand is actually a woman, hir web persona starts to look almost like a caricature of exaggerated masculinity, as if ze was trying to overcompensate for hir gender-switching. It’s possible Chartrand was indulging in an extended in-joke, but that seems improbable, given that hir livelihood was at stake. It seems more likely that the naked ladies and just-one-of-the-guys banter was part of an elaborate defense system against hir cover being blown.
At any rate, the fact that Chartrand’s charade was entirely successful suggests that masculinity can be pure artifice. Despite the occasional slip (like a recent post in which the otherwise assertively heteronormative James mentioned dating men, and then hurriedly changed the byline to hir female co-blogger’s), no one seems to have challenged hir online persona, and indeed hir regular readers appear to have been flabbergasted when ze came out. Ze only came out because someone threaten to “out” hir, not because hir facade of masculinity had cracked.
About that language of “outing” – it’s pretty weird, isn’t it? Why does a virtual man ‘fessing up to being a woman borrow a term linked to more clearly stigmatized identities? Obviously, there should be no shame attached to being homosexual or trans, either. Yet it’s telling that the vocabulary of “outing” appears in all of these contexts, providing more evidence that homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny form a kind of unholy trinity.
Chartrand’s virtual gender swapping further demonstrates what Sherry Turkle (in Life on the Screen) began arguing in the mid-1990s: since a person can swap identities online, gender can dissolve into an arbitrarily chosen posture – at least for a while.
I wonder if this very instability of gender online fosters a sexist backlash. That is, do people work harder to shore up gender boundaries online precisely because anonymity makes it possible to play with one’s identity? Are we collectively so insecure about gender that we have to police it intensively on the Internet? We know that women get harassed online in ways that men don’t.
Are web-based professional writers also especially vulnerable to being pigeonholed as unserious if they’re female? Chartrand writes of hir experience writing under hir real name:
I was treated like crap, too. Bossed around, degraded, condescended to, with jibes made about my having to work from home. I quickly learned not to mention I had kids. I quickly learned not to mention I worked from my kitchen table.
This snippet of hir story suggests it’s not just the name change that revolutionized Chartrand’s fortunes, although I’m sure figleaf is right when he says that publishing is still thoroughly sexist. Nor was it only aggressively masculine posturing that won Chartrand clients. Chartrand started making more money as soon as ze stopped portraying hirself as a work-from-home mom. It wasn’t just hir gender that held hir back; ze was hampered by the image of kitchen table chaos and presumed children tugging on hir imagined apron strings. It’s ironic that in order to support hir kids and keep them from falling out of the middle-class, ze had to pretend they didn’t exist.
Ironic, but not surprising. Sociologist Shelly Correll has demonstrated that women with kids face a “motherhood penalty.” They’re less likely to be offered jobs and less likely to be paid well. When Correll gave potential employers fake resumes that varied only in subtle references to parenting activities, she found that supposedly childless women were twice as likely as mothers to be called for an interview.
The motherhood penalty suggests it’s not just plain vanilla sexism that accounts for Chartrand’s advantage as a “man.” Nor is the glass ceiling going the way of the dinosaurs, as Chartrand’s female co-blogger Taylor implies:
I thought I couldn’t do anything I wanted to for other reasons. I actually thought I was never going to be as successful as my mother, powerful woman that she is. But the very idea that I couldn’t accomplish great things because I was a woman would have been laughable to me.
After all, the person I thought I couldn’t live up to WAS a woman.
That’s how my generation thinks. We’re much, much closer to the glass ceiling than our mothers. A study done in 2005 showed that women under 25 working full time earned 93 cents to every dollar a man earned.
Women over 25? They were still stuck with 79 cents to the dollar.
That means that if I take a salaried job today, I might be earning $32,550 while the guy next to me earns $35,000. And that’s not fair, and I would complain about it.
But it’s nothing compared to the $27,650 that James would be earning right next to me, under his female name.
James is 38 years old. I am 25.
The pay gap is dying out due to mere generational change? That’s just wishful thinking. Let’s see where Taylor and all those other 25-year-olds are in twenty years, if they’ve chosen to have kids. This chart (from U.S. News and World Report, via Sociological Images) shows that near-equity has been achieved only for young (and mostly childless) women. The pay gap opens up during women’s prime childbearing and mothering years and persists until retirement age.
Maybe the stigmatization of mothers in the labor market accounts for James Chartrand’s disparagement of mommy bloggers (via Amanda Hess):
I’ll give you an example of a stereotype: Work-at-home mothers are frazzled women with six kids at their feet. They wear baby spitup, the washing machine runs all day, the dishes are piling up, and they have a million things on the go at once. No one appreciates them, they bitch and whine, and they feel they aren’t taken seriously in the business world.
Before I have my comment section filled up with nasty remarks about how I hate women and my email bombarded with insulted letters telling me that I have no idea what I’m talking about, let me reassure you that I fully understand the hardships of both being a mother and working from home. I respect work-at-home mothers.
I cannot say, in all honesty, that I know what it’s like to be a work-at-home mother, though. But I’m a dad, and that’s close.
Many blogs run by women, managed by women and read by women seem to have an unspoken “all men beware” mantra. They’re full of posts and comments that leave me the distinct impression that these women wield their feminism like a spiked mace sword.
Woe to the man that steps foot in those online communities of female bloggers with children.
On the few occasions that I’ve risked my balls to post a comment on a mommy blog, I noticed my comments were skipped over as if they (I?) didn’t even exist. Sometimes my comments get a sharp, snappy, “piss off” kind of remark in reply. Sometimes I’m absolutely bashed, and I have a hard time figuring out why. …
I don’t understand that. Yes, I understand catering to a female/mother audience and forming a blog community. I understand forming an online personality. I understand discussing the difficulties of working while raising children and maintaining a household.
I don’t understand making male readers and participants feel unwelcome. I know plenty of mothers who blog and who come off as… well, bloggers who are mothers. They don’t perpetuate the stereotype of a frazzle Mom trying to work in a household of chaos. They don’t try to shave the balls of all males who dare to visit the blog. They don’t discount opinions from men. Everyone is equal. They blog, they work, and they raise their children.
Note the conflation of mommy bloggers with feminists with man bashers. Note also the anxiety about hir wholly virtual balls. Chartrand appears to have a bad case of pen(is) envy.
I think it’s perfectly fine to assume a pen name. I even have some limited sympathy with Chartrand’s decision not to admit that she was working under a pseudonym. It’s dishonest, and that’s not entirely cool. Yet it’s understandable, given the long tradition of women writers who’ve posed as men to get published, that a woman toiling in obscurity would “pull a Bronte” (as Kate Harding puts it in a great analysis at Salon). If we really believe that one’s gender is as important to the quality of one’s work as one’s eye color – which I do – then there’s no reason to think Chartrand’s gender should matter, at all, to her potential employers. Unlike Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky, I don’t think there’s something “Uncle Tom-y” about Chartrand’s choice. Unlike Fran Langum at Blue Gal, I don’t worry that Chartrand’s example will contribute to ghettoizing women who write, because Chartrand’s case is – as far as we know – singular. (You should read Fran’s post anyway, if only for the awesome pink penis pen illustration.)
However, it’s deeply disingenuous to claim to be a feminist (via your co-blogger) once you’ve made sweeping generalizations about “many” (weasel-word alert!) women bloggers being ball-busters. I don’t care if those balls are real or virtual. It’s all well and good for Chartrand’s co-blogger, Taylor, to write, “No one, but no one, gets to tell us how women should behave.” Sure, I’m not the boss of you. But I do get to point out that Chartrand’s story isn’t just a fable about the persistence of sexism, or the fluidity of gender, or the precariousness of working motherhood. It’s also a precautionary tale about the perils of liberal feminism of the sort that elevates “choice” above all else, including basic respect for fellow women. If your choice is not just to pose as a man but prop up the old boys’ club by dissing other women en masse, then that’s a choice I can’t respect. It’s a choice I can’t call feminist.
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