Saturday, August 14, 2010

On Sexual Politics

I read a really weird piece of news a couple of days ago - actress Portia de Rossi, who's been married to comedian Ellen DeGeneres for some years now, has decided to change her last name to DeGeneres.

Why did I find it weird? I'd have thought that was obvious - the issue of women changing their last names after they were married, taking on their husbands' names and thereby giving up a part of their name, their identity (although one might ask why surnames should be considered part of one's identity in the first place; but that is an entirely different question, and subject matter for another post - perhaps), and subsuming their selves to that of their husbands' has been an issue that has irked feminists for decades now. This is one of the most deeply entrenched patriarchal practices - it has its origins in a time when women were exchanged between groups of men, much like the other commodities bartered; and once a woman made her way to the tribe or moeity of another man, she became that man, that moiety's property - and like all properties, including livestock, she was branded - with the name of her new owner. Since women are still the 'second sex', still bodies that do not matter, this tradition continues - even among otherwise enlightened, educated, urban, supposedly worldly women who somehow do not question a practice this retrogressive, but come up various excuses (it's a way of showing him how much I love him, for instance; and no, merely tacking on your husband's last name after your own does not make you more liberated - all it does is proclaim you're a confused fence-sitter) for giving up a part of their identity, their selves.

So my disbelief and bewilderment at reading that a woman married to another woman, and part of a radical, alternative family whose very existence is premised on a questioning and subverting of patriarchal beliefs, is now about to embrace one of the same traditional practices that feminists the world over - and a large chunk of the LGBT community too, one presumes - have been fighting to eradicate, is understandable. Clearly, far from pushing the boundaries, far from creating a brave new world, DeGeneres and di Rossi's marriage seems little more than a replication of a traditional heterosexual union - one in which DeGeneres is cast as the husband, and di Rossi as the wife, who is now proving her 'love' for her partner by taking on her last name.

A straight woman in a heterosexual marriage doing the same would be censured for giving up her identity and giving in to patriarchy; or, at best, condoned for being a 'victim' in an unfair social system that gives her few choices and little agency. What do we say to the women with plenty of choices and definite agency, who had subverted the system only to resurrect it through an insidious back door?

17 comments:

MAINAK BANERJEE said...

The "Age Old" Feminist thought...nothing new. And by the way Heterosexual is not traditional. Sorry....

A very cool cat said...

Not entirely sure I understand what you mean! But thank you for taking the time to read, and post a comment.

Poonam Tanmayo said...

People do what they do, Pro, it's their choice n freedom
It's their life

Their limitations too are their own, as are their deep conditionings and psychological needs which even they may not be consciously aware of

Relationship games and social power plays are the most despicable manipulative self-subverting things in existence and something we all need to get above

But people change when they change and these games drop when they do
Doesn't matter what the relationship ... sexual, parental, whatever

And meanwhile, I believe, no one has the right to judge another or have expectation that they live up to our ideas for them

Would I give anyone in the world the same right over me?
No, not a chance
So then the only thing I can do is live my own truth
And by the by, I also reserve the right to remould that truth
to swing, change, be inconsistent ... whatever

And the only way I earn the right to that freedom is by acknowledging that others have the very same

Who cares if Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres are indulging in retro traditional sexual politics?
Its their freedom to do so

And does it really matter?
Are they that important a social trigger that they will take back the women's movement to the middle ages?
I dont think so and frankly I dont really care
Life is too precious to spend it judging or censuring them

Going by my own logic I should not be putting out my opinion on your post, but I'm doing just that
and that truly amuses me heh heh
What a laugh!

PD said...

Interesting post, and I mean "interesting" in a disturbing way. You've said everything there is to say, really, about how ironical it is that non-traditional alliances, including homosexual relationships, tend to replicate traditional/patriarchal norms.

Note that, this is not the same as saying that people shouldn't have the right to choose. Like Poonam says, the choice is their own and they have the freedom to make that choice, but the question I'm pondering is what makes them make that choice. If you're already standing up against a society that thinks you are "wrong" for your right to live and let live, why would you opt for a tradition that seeks to subjugate one half of humanity to another, a tradition that in effect defines women as objects handed over from family to family?

I don't see the big deal about surnames=identity in the first place, but if it is important to people, I don't see why they can't both change their names to something completely new, thus having a "family" name without anyone "needing to be a man" (that's a joke [thought I should clarify, just in case!]).

Finally, re Mainak's statement, isn't heterosexuality at the very centre of the patriarchal tradition?

Kajal Basu said...

It defeats me why people - gender academics, feminists... - think that just because a relationship is lesbian, it is necessarily (indeed, by definition) non-patriarchal. I wonder which '-archy' it is that brought the word "butch", which is a very evocative and specific lesbian role-indicator, into common currency.

I do find it perplexing, though (despite Poonam's New Age-ish - and rather engaging - dismissal of the validity of such concern) that Portia de Rossi, born a very ordinary-sounding Amanda Lee Rogers, should have elected to have given up her very attractive chosen surname, de Rossi, for something as clunky as DeGeneres. That, however jocose, is one thought.

Another is that Amanda Lee Rogers changed her name when she was 15 years old in an attempt to reinvent herself as being more sophisticated than her average Australian background would permit. By then, she was already a lesbian, and an aggressive one, at that. But today she describes herself (http://www.advocate.com/article.aspx?id=21677) as "Lipstick" as her "first choice—I’m obviously quite femmy—yet I’m not really attracted to butch-looking women". But Ellen DeGeneres, despite her evident facelift/s, looks as butch as is possible. She also says, "The whole butch/femme thing just limits us", which is indisputable, both as an admirable opinion and as fact. When she was asked whether she would "be the husband or the wife" during her adolescent encounters, she unhesitatingly replies, "The husband. I’d always be the one who’d be made the martini rather than having to make it—I would come home from work and my wife would have a martini for me. Which is not dissimilar to what’s going on here, by the way" (with Ellen DeGeneres, I'd be forgiven for assuming).

Kajal Basu said...

So, given all this, why is it that it was Portia de Rossi who changed her surname, giving over the substantial rights of patriarchal benefit - which, BTW, still exist in the US of A - to DeGeneres, a "compassionate", "typically female" femme who chooses to look, well, butch with baby blue eyes? Could it be that DeGeneres is a far more famous and encashable name than de Rossi, and a moniker like Ellen de Rossi might dilute the public adulation a bit? (Portia DeGeneres, though, sounds royal enough to short out my pleb-loving brain and make me genuflect as if to the manner born.)

Then, again, why did de Rossi have to change her surname at all? Who knows? Perhaps because it might be prudent to make the issue of legacy permanently incontestable (DeGeneres has been around a bit, and America is the land of instinctive inheritance litigants, known, unknown and deluded). DeGeneres is 52, and de Rossi, at a much younger 37, has nature's decree to live longer, all things remaining normal, of course; DeGeneres was worth US$65 million in 2007, and de Rossi is nowhere near that sum in disposable cash. But, in the absence of all knowledge of ideological and personal persuasions, or even the bleached bare bones of a hint, I agree with Poonam, who, because of her honest savoir vivre, has the "live and let live" philosophy spot on. Ignoring the ballyhoo would be the right thing to do (although it wouldn't seem so from my happy 'bitching'): it has Hollywood written all over it. I'm betting the feminists - lesbian and straight - in the US are already in a snit, and their grief should be going public any time now. Till then, let's try to hold our horses (but not the reins of our gossip: this issue is so marvellously rich with silly schadenfreude, on the one hand, and crucial consequence, on the other).

Meanwhile, though, I'm reminded of two agreeable quotes by Germaine Greer: "I've always thought any sane woman would be a lover of women because loving men is such a mess. I have always wished I'd fall in love with a woman. Damn." And, "Never advise anyone to go to war or to get married." But get married she did, if only for three rancorous weeks. Although she maddened a great many of her supporters, at the end of it all she splendidly justified her turnaround with a reference to the inanity of nuclear fallout over given, gotten, married into, claimed, adopted, appropriated and self-arrogated names: "I was Mr Germaine Greer!" I can't but agree with her: if you like a name, take it, by hook, crook or legal permit; if you don't, change it, by the same means; if someone tries to force it on you, tell him/her to take a hike; and if you try to force it on someone, be prepared to take one yourself.

I don't know whether what I've written at such interminable length would help to misunderstand a little less the issue of matrimonial eponyms - logic says that all dribble must lead to the sea of barf - but if Poonam can be prescriptive with her characteristic sweetness, and Mainak Banerjee can flummox us with his shotgun profundity, I can choose to indulge in the doofusity that characterises so much of current feminist discourse.

I entirely admired this blog, by the way, in the way that an impassioned text about an important issue needs to be admired for rescuing said issue from routine, disinterested obfuscation.

Poonam Tanmayo said...

Hahaha ... thanks Kajal
I love how the term New Age-ish instantly diffused any validity I may have had
I also admire how Kajal has valiantly risen up to defend his fair maiden's post while Pro maintains a quiet silence

I look at things subjectively rather than objectively because I believe objective is a con ... everyone is subjective
Pro, people and situations push our buttons and for me the essential response is to see why these issues are triggering such reactions in us
... because ultimately, its our own individual growth and evolvement above all

And so, my own little story of name changes

When I got married for brattish reasons I took on my husband's name because it was the easy thing to do
but something I felt quite uncomfortable doing since I did believe I was a feminist
However in that moment it was not so important to take a stand about it
Years later when I decided to opt out and leave him, he out of sheer vendatta n vengefullness, he said as much, refused to give me a divorce
For me, at that moment a surgical cut was of immense psychological importance and so I legally changed my name and went back to my maiden name
and felt very very good and free at seeing all my documents n stuff in my original name again
In my heart I was now divorced

Later my ex-husband married another woman ... in a temple with society n family present, and now lives with her as a married couple, without being legally divorced from me
She has not apparantly changed her name but I'd be curious about legalities
My son, at some point of disillusionment with his father wanted to drop his father's name and take on mine
I refused to allow this while he was still a child and so on turning 18 he did just that ... today he goes by my surname
In fact even his middle name is mine
It was his choice and he feels absolutely right about it

Today I live a life of deep independence, way beyond feminist-ism
and I find issues like DeGeneres-de Rossi to be those of someone stuck
in adolscent conditionings and knee-jerk reactions

Name and name changes are very personal issues, often practical choices
When my boyfriend of 10 years was dying of cancer, he wanted that we get married so I could legally take on his name and make decisions for him ... I didn't, but that's another story

The easiest thing in our bureaucracy is to go with the done thing so one doesn't need to argue with the clerks n conservatives at every level
In fact, this goes for religion too
and I admit guilty to pushing my son to tick Hindu instead of writing agnostic and inviting any crap from a pre-dominantly Hindu University he was applying to

Sure there's tons of money involved in the DeGeneres-Di Rossi marraige and there's celebrity value in the name change too
But above all, its freedom of personal choice and that's something that we're not answerable to anyone about
And journalists or discerning intellectuals aside, here we're just a bunch of gossips arguing about someone elses private n personal choice
There be far more creative n constructive pursuits in life

PD said...

Not think that it's non-patriarchal, but rather hope. A "Will Santa fill my stocking on Christmas eve?" kind of hope. One must look for the grains and drops rather than the pleasant land and mighty ocean, after all. In any case, I'm tempted to go with the theory that DeGeneres is far more "encashable" than de Rossi, and thus the decision. But alas, the truth is perhaps simpler than that!

That aside, it's also sound advice that, "if you like a name, take it, by hook, crook or legal permit". Just getting this one shot at life, right?

A very cool cat said...

Just a quick word - my deathly silence can be attributed to my being very ill the last few days, not to a passive 'let the man fight my battles for me' thing. Besides, anyone who knows K will know that he's the last person to write well thought-out posts simply out of a desire to rise to the defence of his 'fair maiden's' blog post.

I want to thank all of you for taking the time - and I shall be back to defend my 'adolescent' piece of gossip as soon as my brain allows me to think beyond five minutes without collapsing of exhaustion.

Poonam Tanmayo said...

Oooh! I've woken the Bengali tigress from her repose heh heh

My dear Pro, please please relax
I was not calling you adolscent, rather the issue itself
Which it may or not be, just seems to me to be that perhaps because I'm so ancient myself and beyond all this stuff

As for Kajal defending his lady love ... why not???
I thought it was very sweet ... and amdit to poking you in pure wicked jest
Actually the gap here is that you dont know me Pro and I do tend to tease the one's I love
I'm terrible in that sense, have become so over the years
... one, because I feel the whole darned world is too serious
and two, because I have become more accepting of people's compulsions or reasons to do what they do
no matter how superfical or wrong they seem to me
... hence my laughing at myself at the ending of my initial comment

And I do know K for over 30 years now and I do realise that he'd happily expect you to rise up to your own defense. I just felt to tease you both
and get a reaction out of you

However, my comments were neither malicious nor about judging you personally but more of a general judgement about judging others or what they do ... truly

I retreat into my silent cave now and promise to behave with restraint n dignity here-on
Hugs

Kajal Basu said...

Poonam: I'll just take things in the order of mention. It might make matters simpler for you to understand.

1. Why do you assume that my using the term "New Age" to describe your argument would devalue it? The term might have been derogated when the whole 'fad' started, but it has gained a great deal of cachet over years of becoming a part of almost every aspect of the life we live today. You'll find "New Age-ish" aspects to ways of thinking, and doing, that are not only not derided, they are celebrated. I think you need a knowledge upgrade.

2. My drawn-out rant wasn't, as she herself made clear, in defence of my beloved wife. I don't think she needs a defence: she's perfectly capable of taking on your argumentativeness herself. (Do you admit that you were on the offensive? You didn't seem to me to be, but then appearances, and fluency, are deceptive).

3. Excessive subjectivity is a con, too: it permits people the very narcissistic pleasure of driving without brakes or acting with minimal concern. In any case, there is nothing known as complete subjectivity: that philosophical debate stopped raging quite a while ago, resolved by scientific explorations into the nature/s of reality (which 'fact' might send you off again, but we'll discuss that as it comes). Again: knowledge upgrade necessary.

4. I don't wish to dwell on your personal issues, but it's obvious to me that your take on names, and the matter of changing them, is based on a single, ruinous relationship. While that is certainly cause enough to embark on a philosophical journey, it's not cause enough to arrive at a fortified philosophy that militantly revels in denying a different, (perhaps more) 'objective', philosophy than yours.

Kajal Basu said...

5. Did you disallow your minor son from changing his father's surname because you wanted him to be able to make up his own mind - when he reached adulthood - or because it would be difficult - if not impossible - to explain the anomaly of his carrying your 'maiden' surname, since you were still technically married, to the admittedly bureaucratic authorities in his school?

6. "She has not apparantly changed her name but I'd be curious about legalities": It's no longer legally necessary to change your surname to that of your husband. But if you wish to challenge your husband's marriage to another person without divorcing you or having your marriage annulled, all you have to to is complain to the authorities. The law requires bigamy to be reported by the first wife - but I'm presuming that you know all this, and so I'll also presume, if I may, that your reasons for only having gone ahead with a 'legalised' name-change and not the whole hog are 'subjective' and not 'objectively' feminist.

7. "The easiest thing in our bureaucracy is to go with the done thing so one doesn't need to argue with the clerks n conservatives at every level": This, as you'll no doubt see on a second reading, is crock. Feminism wouldn't be where it is today without having taken on these "clerks n conservatives at every level". Clerks? For heaven's sake, get off your high horse.

8. Are you a Hindu, Poonam? Is your son? If not, or you're sitting on the fence where deism is concerned, it was a retreat from self-belief on your part to have had your son tick "Hindu" on the admission form instead of "agnostic". Another battle run away from instead of taking it head on. And it's not even much a battle, at that.

No one's arguing on this thread against the primacy of the freedom of personal choice (can you hear anyone say they are, Poonam?). But, at some point, a philosophy like this has to become systemic in order to make the world a better place. And that means making it 'objective'.

Poonam Tanmayo said...

Ouch!

Kajal, as I said before, my comments were neither malicious nor meant to hurt or offend
I was certainly not on any offensive with Pro and I'm really surprised at the things she reacted to because those were truly in jest or have been misunderstood

As for your response, I dont care even about being 'wrong'in my approach to issues or judged as someone that needs a knowledge upgrade
What I do care is that the tone of my comments has been totally misconstrued and you both seem to have taken personal offense
That was not my intention

However, since you've done a Shourie on me, here goes ...

My response was just that, a subjective response, yes, because I feel more honest being subjective and talking from personal experience

My own name change was just an example, as was my son's
I have no moral issues about being an un-wed mother or my son a bastard child
We've moved around in very open circles and these are non-issues there
Yes, I did stop my son from changing his name as a minor because I felt this needs to be his decision as an adult

Yes, I did not go the whole hog with the bigamy bit because I truly did not have the energy or inclination to tredge through courts and the required mud slinging
It felt more right to just disconnect and live my life

Dealing with clerks and conservatives is not my way
Live and let live is
I'm not a frontline bra burner but I do live my life in my own way, quietly
except when I share with friends or on a forum of friends like this one

Kudos to all those that are at the battle front each step of the way
I truly dont have the energy for that and yes, I do take the easy way around sometimes
To me those are the un-important bureaucratic hurdles of life and I prefer not to step in that crap

My apologies for any offense I seem to have inadvertantly caused
My heart is clean, as were my intentions

A very cool cat said...

*Sigh* What I intended as a post about an incident that I found surprising, yes, but also interesting in that it seemed to raise certain 'feminist' questions appears to have missed the target - I was hoping to get people's reactions to the issue, and maybe spark off a debate or two, not a clash of personalities.

My intention was certainly not to judge anyone or question people's right to do what they please - but then, the point has to be made - at what point do personal choices stop being a purely subjective issue and make its way into the public domain? I don't believe in the personal being entirely political, but I do believe that there are times when living and letting live (which I firmly believe in too) can become an obstacle. The issue here wasn't with de Generes or di Rossi per se, but the larger question of identity - and especially identity after marriage for women.

Poonam, I'm sorry I didn't get the humour - it did seem as though my post was under attack there, as was I, for fussing too much over a non-issue like celebrity shenanigans. I'm not really going to say anything about the discussion you and Kaju have been having - as someone who's been your friend for over 25 years now, he can comment on personal issues in a way that I cannot - and should not.

As far as this issue goes, though, it's all too likely that this particular instance was prompted by monetary considerations, as Kaju said - and as far as the issue of name change in general goes, that is a debate that might never be resolved. Better still to do away with surnames altogether, as PD said.

Kajal Basu said...

Poo, far be it for me to have taken offence at what you wrote. It's very rarely that I get pissed off, and then it's utterly unmistakable. You'd agree that I've known what and how you think for a while now, and agree with at least half of it, 'New Age'-ish or not. (You forget that I was one of the co-founders of Life Positive, which remains to this day India's one and only 'New Age' magazine. Saw and heard and learnt a lot at the nano level there, not even 25 per cent of it wholesome, so I think I'm entitled to occasionally skewering alt life philosophies. Just one of those things.)

But what I did want, through my rant, was to try to make you admit that there are other sides to an issue - any issue; this one about post-marital cognomen complications was just an open window that let me through - that are as valid as yours, and should be open to discussion. It's hardly prudent to say, "Screw you, this is what I believe, and this is the only right and proper belief."

There is a level on which I admire the fact that you're secure in your convictions. I'm afraid I haven't got even hailing distance of there yet, and may never do so. It's the price the universe makes some of us pay for living in something so large and refractory and full of ideas that defy themselves from moment to moment.

So, glad you're there. But I do know one thing: if Pro and I do have progeny, damned if we are going to append a double-barrelled surname to her name, which seems to be the 'liberal'/'progressive' thing to do at the moment. The law, or ticking boxes in bureaucratic forms? We'll take on that stuff as it comes.

Poonam Tanmayo said...

ooh! You co-founded Life Positive?
I'm impressed, even though it usually just skims the surface and leaves one wanting much much more
The concept was/is good
but the presentation is terribly boring, to say the least

Yup, I'm quite clear about my own fundas in life but I'm not into conversion or convincing either
People live how they live, do what they do, because it works for them or gives them a hidden payback even when they declare they're forced to live how they do ... basically the victim trip, an excuse
(there's a HUGE debate under lying that statement too heh heh)

Even among the poorest and most challenged there are those that rise above their limitations and/or have the courage to step outside their comfort zone
I see this disparity within families at all social-economic levels, including mine, my ayah's, various friends ...

With Pro, if you read my first comment, it was more of an older person talk ... it's what I'd do with Sims who, at 22 is a mighty intellectual opponent with shining clarity of views n opinions
It's more about, live your life babe, its not worth mind-fucking over what others do
Life's too precious, so much to do, be, enjoy, experience

Can you believe I'm hurtling towards the big 50?!
I remember the day I turned 21 n called you at Sunday Observer to share my adult milestone with
Seems like yesterday but its 28 years ago, bloody hell!

contd...

Poonam Tanmayo said...

Of course other views are equally valid ... as valid for the person as mine are for me, no arguments there at all
Oh, I'm totally new-agish with deep roots in my understanding and acceptance of existence which I realise I've got over the years from my Dad and I'm quite grateful for that
My Mom's at the other end of the spectrum as are some siblings
much more into the materialistic acquiring n social climbing
But I see that's their need of the hour, of this life, very valid for them
My Mum didn't tell her siblings or other family for years that I'd split from Y or that my sister was not with her boy friend, who my Mum had portrayed as a husband
She was too embarrassed and ashamed even I'd say

About progressive naming, I remember Silveira giving his kid the Hindu-Muslim-Christian trinity
I wonder how that worked for him, its not always positive and often unfair to the child

Hence I like 'The one that must not be named' because of all that the name implies or 'The artist who was once known as Prince'
Or even the Chers n Madonnas, they're cool in their one name
I wonder if they had to face any bureaucratic hurdles