Bounds of sex and gender. Disturbance and discomfort

This example stems from the oldest of my research projects about gender meanings and the status of gender in Danish organisations who work with development (2000-2003) referred to across the book. The research design of this project was fully participatory and conceptualised as action research. I had recently returned to Denmark from Peru and was rather choked by the ways gender appeared in both professional and everyday conversations about gender inequality, as a problem that had already been overcome in Denmark. Now the task - it seemed - was to assist ‘different others’ elsewhere (read in the global South) in solving the massive and unjust societal problem women faced there. It was an attitude that disturbed me immensely. You could say that what motivated the project altogether was my own moral distancing to what 1 heard, observed and experienced, in contrast to what I brought with me from Peru. This specific historical period in Scandinavian feminism has been described and analysed thoroughly by many feminist researchers, for example Maud Eduards, Clare Hemmings, Drude Dallerup (Eduards, 2002; Hemmings, 2018; Dahlerup, 1998; Holen et al., 2012; Hansen, 2019). It was largely this mentioned historical context, and the difficulties it represented for my study, which drew me to develop alternative ways of producing empirical material about gendered meanings. Butler explicitly talks about how it is often reactions to what happens in your surroundings that leave you bothered and concerned and therefore prompt your formulation of a research question.

I think it is probably fair to say that I am one of those people who is always trying to figure out how to live, and so my reference points are both particular and social and political and also more generally philosophical. The latter emerges from the question of how to live.

(Butler in Kirby, 2006, pp. 157-158)

In this specific project that I draw on. 1 developed a processual and multimodal methodology:

  • • A dialogue group which followed the project over three years.
  • • Production of video drafts for display and conversation in organisations.
  • • Participation in public debates on gender and development.
  • • Two workshops where smaller groups tried out the image exercise.
  • • Memory work with female professionals.
  • • Constructed stories made from interviews with male professionals.
  • • Analysis of documents and the active modelling/queering of generated material for dialogical encounters with people from the field of development.

My aim was to engage Danish professionals who worked in the field of development in a livelier and politically committed discussion about the impact of gender differences and inspect the imaginaries associated with gender in their own organisational life during the project period (see Chapters 3 and 4). However, I found it extremely difficult to get close to my focus; gender meanings. The topic was either directly denied as relevant, made fun of or even aggressively ridiculed. I had to be creative to make people talk about gender in their organisations, without losing face and by creating a legitimate space where it was alright to share your ’honest’ reactions and opinions related to gender. One example of how 1 dealt with this resistance methodologically is my first example. What I did was to use a memory work story from a memory work on ’When what happened had to do with gender’, but 1 changed the pronouns of the main protagonists in the memory story. The main objective was to create a space where joint open reflexion could take place in a group and I aimed at getting to such a situation by spurring disturbance with a deliberate changing of the text. In this case I was trying to solve the problem of how to get people to talk about the impacts of gendered meanings in a specific context and historical period, but 1 suggest that the method likewise can be used to approach other difficult or taboo topics or situations.

  • 1 invited a random group of six women and one man, all colleagues, to listen carefully to the slightly changed story that 1 then read out loud. Five of the women were professionals with an academic background; the man. likewise had an academic background and the remaining woman worked as a secretary at the company. I had changed the ‘she’ protagonist to a ’he’ and, after the reading, I asked the small group to share their immediate reactions to the text by relating to two simple questions:
    • Did you at any point think that what took place appeared unlikely or weird?
    • Did you at any time feel uncomfortable by what took place in the story?

By asking these questions, 1 hoped to be able to produce material about the cognitive and affective reception of the text that could lead me to identify dominant meanings of gender. It tuned out that the simple changing of the sex of two main characters in the story was what shed light upon the working gender representations, their affective dimensions and the presence of norms and status of a mundane everyday situation depicted in the story. Here is the modified memory work story that I read out loud to the small group:

He is late again and steps even harder into the pedals on his bike. He feels relieved and frustrated at the same time. It feels so good to finally be done with ad those training videos. Eighteen of them and a whole year of working with the productions. Eighteen fucking videos! But now they are done and ready to use. Still, he feels some discontent in his body. He can’t quite locate where it sits - in the chest or is it his stomach. A feeling of being on a completely wrong track. Late working hours on a topic, which does not feel particularly engaging; How to maintain and monitor the production in Thailand's food industry! This was not the kind of job he had imagined after studying international development at the university. Far from being an expert on this he had survived the first year as a consultant though. It was his first permanent job after graduation, and he actually thought he had done a good job. He had kept the production costs at a minimum, though he had been doubtful whether they had taken notice of that in the company.

Damn. He was late. For the last half hour he had impatiently moved hack and forth on his chair, but under no circumstances he would have been able to leave before finalising the last video. Now he once again would pick up his son in the last minutes before they closed the daycare. For sure a had day to arrive late, as he had also invited his brother and small nephew over for dinner. He senses a rapid movement of uneasiness cross his chest flying down the hid on the bike lane at over thirty kilometres per hour on his 21-speed racing bike, with no foot brakes. He leaves ‘the consultant’ and ‘the producer' behind and enters ‘the father’. This shift is an illusion, he thinks, why should it feel so impossible to be both a full-time private employed consultant, father of a little child and a partner? He rarely sees friends anymore, and he certainly never takes the initiative to see anyone. The few he sees are the ones who persistently insist on not losing touch with him ... like his brother.

A white van is about to turn to the right, and he just gets to thinking: It slows down and will stop. Then he loses his grip on the handlebars and flies up on the cooler of the van, and then down on the asphalt in front of it. The driver had made a hard braking. A thought runs through his mind: ‘I have not got the time to get run down!’ He gets up, his legs shaking underneath him. He picks up the folded bicycle and throws himself verbally at the shocked driver. She had jumped out of the van and had run to him, not knowing what to do. He yells ‘What the hell are you doing .... Don’t you have eyes in your head woman? ... you big idiot ... you are the one who should have stopped ... were you sleeping or what?’ She apologizes, and looks guilty. She had not seen him coming. Can I drive you home, she asks. No way! He asks for her data so her insurance can cover the damages on the bike. I can manage; let me handle this on my own. She reluctantly gets into the van and leaves. He tries to hail a taxi that can bring him rapidly to the daycare, wait for him and his son and then drive them straight home. As the fifth taxi passes by without stopping, he is about to whine.

Finally, a taxi stops, the bike placed on the hack and he calms down. Thoughts spin around his head. This is a sign. He knows it. Also that it just happens today. ’Someone’ — maybe himself? - has let him run the line all the way with the shit videos so he doesn't have to lose face as a consultant.

So he could get himself a fright that could mess him up. Get him to respond and see that the price of a whole year of 50- 60 hours of work a week has been too much pain, too much bad conscience. But it wasn’t just ‘shit work’. He had also been engaged by the task. Trips to Thailand and film crew footage both here and there. People had shown him great confidence, and he actually thought he had accomplished his job as a production manager much better than he had actually dared to believe.

Yesterday he had been told that they were not quite finished yet, that nine more programmes had to he made. He didn't know if he was happy, even if it meant continued employment. He had hoped to be allowed to do something else. Was the accident a sign that he was about to resign, from the job he was about to break down? On the other hand, it just couldn ’t be right that he couldn't do it, he thinks. There were so many other toddler fathers who could. Yet right now he had no doubt that he had crossed the line for what is fair to himself - and also to the people he loves. His wife hacked him up a lot, but she never encouraged him to change jobs. No one else did either. Only his brother and his good old friend criticized the conditions he was offered in the new job. For whom does he keep on working like mad? What is his real motivation? He knew he wanted to be recognised for his enormous efforts with the 18 video productions. But it was probably stupid to want that. In the company, they had no idea what it involved to produce just one single video. They did not see that he was good and would never thank him. While sitting there in the taxi he promises himself to change his life.

Then he turns his mind away and concentrates on picking up his son from the daycare. He quickly does the shopping in the supermarket and arrives home with the limp hike. His brother and nephew are waiting for him outside the door. They have been waiting for half an hour. It is only when they unpack the shopping bags that it becomes clear to him how choked he is. He has bought food for three different plates. This makes them laugh. But, he feels vulnerable and totally naked.

During dinner, someone is at the door and he leaves the table to open it. Adrenaline is still raging in his body. He does not even consider that another could get the door. Behind the giant cellophane-wrapped flower bouquet, is the driver who ran him down. She smiles with a shy smile, and repeats I’m really sorry twice in a row. She had just wanted to make sure he was alright. Yes, yes, he says, I'm still a little shaky and sore in the body, hut it’s ok. He assures her that he is alright and apologizes for yelling so loudly at her. 'It was the shock, ’ he explains, I always shout when I'm frightened. ’ How had she found him - had he given her his address? The last few hours are spinning around in his head as he goes back to the dinner table. His brother and his partner laugh at him because he suddenly feels sorry for the woman who ran him down. It may also he ridiculous.

So what were some of the insights produced by this modification of the sex of the personal pronoun? The first noticeable thing, which 1 had not expected, was that none of the five professional women reacted to the text as in any way strange or disturbing. They fully identified with the situation and did not notice or at least did not comment on the sex of the person at all. ’This could happen to both a man and a woman,’ they insistently agreed. I still understand their reaction or non-reaction as both a sign of changes in Danish gender relations among professionals at that time, as a natural identification with the situation, but also as an expression of the legitimate norms ascribed to gender back then among professionals. The male professional, though, said he personally felt both uncomfortable in relation to ’the whining part' in the story and that he found it extremely unlikely that a female chauffeur would bring a bouquet of flowers to an unknown stranger she had almost run over. After this rather informal session, the secretary made contact by mail. She said she had not felt comfortable about sharing her feelings in relation to the story with her academic colleagues, as her interpretation and reaction stood out and was different from theirs. But, she said, the reactions of the man in the story had left her with, if not disgust, then a certain discomfort, such a pussy of a man! Her way of reacting, by making contact to me after the session, points among other things to the power involved in social situations and the workings of formal positions in an organisation in this respect, but also to the diversity of interpretations of gender that you should always be aware of as a researcher.

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