Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ethnography: Defining Radical

I would like to preface this ethnography by acknowledging the great fortune I had in my observational period. While the situations I observed may not be completely radical, I must argue that the circumstances within one particular relationship mentioned were not ordinary. I am grateful to spend my time with such a colorful group of characters. Without them I would not have been able to see what I saw, so special thanks goes out to my merry band of miscreants.

This ethnography seeks to compare radical and normal types of romance. I observed relationships at a college party in an apartment near the California State University, Northridge campus. I did not tell anyone that I was observing them for an ethnography. The names of the observed have been changed to conceal their identities.

The apartment is across the street from the university on the west side. It is a one bedroom shared by two women who we will call “Beth” and “Gwyn.” I know Beth well and I am fond of Gwyn. The apartment has a spacious living area and a bar, both perfect for the gatherings that they host about twice a week. These “kick-backs”, as they are called, usually consist of about ten to twelve people at one point in time (people shuffle in and out throughout the night). There are about three regular attendees, excluding Beth and Gwyn. I am one of these regulars, and we will refer to the other two as “Viv” and “Alexis”. Most new-comers are people that Beth and Gwyn know through CSUN’s film department (they are both CTVA majors) or other friends who bring their own friends. There is always someone new at their apartment to talk to and it is rare that you will see the same person twice. This is typical of gatherings of college students from a large university such as ours.

My hours of observation were from 8:00 PM to 12:00 AM on September 10, 2010. People were drinking scotch and listening to an alternative music playlist on someone’s iPod. The mood was very mellow, as is typical of Beth and Gwyn’s parties. They note to each guest as they arrive- after asking them to take their shoes off so they do not dirty the carpet- to keep their voices down and that, if they want to put music on, to make sure that it is not loud enough to disturb their neighbors.
Beth has a long-distance boyfriend, “Charlie”, who she is constantly text messaging. She keeps up a conversation with him via text throughout the entirety of my observation. While I do not know what is being said between them, every two minutes or so Beth’s phone will vibrate, she will look at it, smile and reply. Beth shares that it is very rare for her and Charlie to talk on the phone and that, when one of them calls the other, they assume something is wrong.

Viv has a different set of circumstances. Viv is pansexual, meaning she is attracted to people for who they are regardless of their gender identity or sex, and the more she drinks throughout the evening the more she shares with us. Viv tells us about a woman she has feelings for named “Meg”. At a small get-together, it is inevitable that people will start talking about relationships. Viv talks to other guests about Meg and debates whether the feelings she has for her are mutual.

Enter Kim, Mona and Tom. Kim and Mona are friends with Beth. They have been dating for about six months. Mona has an apartment closer to school and Kim has practically been living there since they have been dating. Kim and Mona do not come in holding hands or even smiling. They greet everyone that they know and introduce themselves to others. Tom follows close behind Kim, not saying much and nodding hello to everyone. Tom met Kim a week or two prior to this meeting and they have seen each other frequently ever since. Tom and Mona do not talk to each other. Instead, Mona goes in one direction and Kim in another, each talking to people that they know. Tom follows Kim, but does not stand close enough to her to hear her conversation. I overhear Kim telling someone in a hushed voice that Tom kissed her the other day and that Mona does not know about it. Kim has an ambiguous sexual identity and is very vocal about people, both male and female, that she finds attractive. Tom is also very vocal about being a transgendered man, meaning that he is biologically female and is transitioning into a man. Tom was talking to another transgendered party guest about being “pre-T”, meaning he has yet to start taking testosterone and other male hormones in order to transition, and about binding his chest every day.

                       A love triangle of sorts. Thought I'd break up the text with a visual.

It may take some work to decipher which of the relationships I observed are radical and which are normative because of the genders of the players in each of them. From what I have observed, though, “normal” does not equal “heterosexual” and “radical” is not equivalent to “queer”.
Beth and Charlie, for instance, are a heterosexual couple that are keeping up a long-distance relationship. While this may not be the most convenient relationship, it is something that many people attempt. Most couples that go off to college will either break up or attempt a long-distance relationship. The only thing that could be interpreted as radical may be the fact that Beth and Charlie do not speak on the phone, says this observer.

In Chris Barker’s book Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, he defines social identity as, “the expectation and opinions that others have of us.” (215) Viv and her relation to Meg, while not heterosexual, still adheres to a formula of a homosexual relationship. This being the year 2010 and this being Los Angeles County, I am going to take the liberty to say that a homosexual relationship is in itself not radical. Viv, seeking a lesbian relationship with Meg, expects each of them to have equal roles in their potential relationship and does not expect one of them to take a more masculine role and the other a more feminine role. Whether this romance is radical or normal depends on your idea of a homosexual relationship.
In general, we can say that there are two different relationship styles within the queer community. One style would be the previously stated one of equal roles in a relationship, and the other being adherence to a more heterosexist ideal of a “male” and “female”, despite each partner being of the same sex. This is where the sub-identities of “butch” and “femme” in the lesbian community come from. We can see the same in the gay male community with men who are extremely flamboyant compared others who are not.

In the case of Kim, Mona and Tom, this heterosexist formulation is the basis of their whole relationship. Tom is a transgendered man; the foundation of his identity is in a societal definition of what it means to be a man. Of course his identity is also wound up in feeling uncomfortable in the body he was born in, but he feels comfortable doing what is prescribed behavior for a man. Barker states that, “…it is a sociological truism that we are born into a world that pre-exists us.” (218) Tom’s understanding of what it means to be a man is what he has grown up seeing in the media and in real life. He uses these learned habits in his relation to Kim, asserting himself, being the pursuer and treating her, “like a lady”. Tom treats Mona as competition for Kim’s attention, but does not treat her as though they are both vying for her affection in the same way. Tom treats Mona as though she is the disapproving best friend of his love interest in a romantic comedy, instead of someone that Kim has feelings for.

Kim’s action in her sordid state of affairs may be considered radical as well. Tom kissed Kim and disregarded the fact that Kim was dating Mona. When this usually happens, the girl in the relationship lets their pursuer know that they have gone too far and that it would not be appropriate to see them any longer. Kim has not done that. Instead, she does not want her relationship with Tom to change and still spends as much time with him as she would had he not kissed her, effectively leading Tom on. There is not denying that Kim is attracted to Tom (having described him as, “hotter than all hell”) and while she does not want Mona to get hurt, she does like the attention that Tom gives her. Kim, in comparison to Michael Douglas’s character in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, may be landing herself in hot water (like a certain pet bunny I may mention) but does not seek Tom the way that Michael Douglas sought out Glenn Close. Her flirtation is pathological and, while hurting others may not be her intention, it is inevitable.

Every romance, even the most mundane, has a tinge of radicalism to it. There are a number of circumstances that could qualify it as such depending on who the observer is. Because of my background, I do not see homosexual relationships as radical. Another viewer may not see the potential for polyamory radical the way that I might. Our definitions of radical versus normative romances are based in our interpretation of language and our understanding of the pre-existent culture around us.

Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2009. Print.

Douglas, Michael, perf. Fatal Attraction. Paramount, 1987. Film

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