Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Week 4, Making Sense of Blake Allmendinger's Red Fringed Cowboy Boots

This week we're thinking about gender on the frontier by reading Susan Lee Johnson's dense article, "Domestic Life in the Diggings," and then Blake Allmendinger and Valerie Matsumoto's quirky introduction to that article and others, in their anthology, Over the Edge: Remapping the American West.

Johnson is challenging. To begin with, you need to understand two incredibly important theories of American Studies:
1. Race is culturally constructed. (That was the point of the previous post.)
2. Gender is culturally constructed.

While biology makes us all female or male (almost all – a very few babies are born with both a penis and vagina, but that’s a rare exception), anyway, biology usually makes us female or male, but culture makes us feminine or masculine. By “feminine” or “masculine” I mean the whole array of habits and norms that get associated with female-ness or male-ness, and those norms change over time. It’s not biology, it’s culture.

In the United States, skinny men who showed self-restraint were considered the most macho, manly, masculine men until about 1890, when adventurousness and muscularity became newer signs of modern masculinity. We saw a bit of that change in week 2's analysis of Teddy Roosevelt. This gender change was related to economic changes, to the decline in physical labor and the rise of corporate work. It was related to fears over what Turner called the closing of the frontier. It's a fascinating case of how gender ideals can change over time. If your own family includes different cultures, you might have noticed that what is considered masculine or feminine can vary by cultures.

Gender ideals of masculinity and feminity vary over time and place and culture, while biological ideals of male-ness and female-ness are more set. You need to understand that in order to understand Susan Lee Johnson's question: What were gender ideals like on the California gold-rush frontier? Why did some men actually suffer scurvy (a painful vitamin deficiency) instead of simply planting easy-to-grow lettuce around their cabins? That question is raised at the bottom of page 113, and to me it is the crux of Susan Lee Johnson’s article.

Johnson's answer is nuanced by ethnicity, race, and class. In her detailed research, it turns out that French men were more likely to plant lettuce and other vegetables on the California frontier, because their French masculinity had more room for lettuce-planting types of domesticity. Mexican men were more likely to arrive in California with women who would do the lettuce-planting for them, along with other cooking and food-preparation -- while those Mexican women also launched entrepreneurial businesses. Miwok Indian families already had their gendered division of labor sorted out with divisions of which sex did different tasks of food-gathering and preparation (women gathering acorns, men gathering meat, and a more balanced diet already established than that of the newer immigrants).

Anglo men on the gold rush frontier didn’t have their gender ideals sorted out yet. They divided up cooking duties in groups of 2 to 5 men, but with mixed results. I keep thinking that this would make a fascinating sitcom, a kind of “Three’s Company” for the gold rush. Long before sitcoms, the actual men of the gold rush associated what they saw as mixed-up gender roles with a world-upside-down and with the life of animals -- notice all the quotes describing living like dogs or pigs -- and with the lives of other races. One of the things that this language reveals is that these men assumed women and non-white races were closer to animals.

This brings us back to the cultural construction of race. If you haven't already read Week 3's blog, "The cultural construction of race," now's a good time to do that.

Welcome back to week 4.

On the California gold-rush frontier, the racial categories included Miwok Indians (some from missions, some not), Mexicans (some who considered themselves white and Spanish, some who didn’t), Chileans (who held themselves quite distinct from Mexicans, and were looked down upon by Mexicans), various Europeans (who had their own ideas of who was on top, and who thought that Irish actually looked black), African-Americans, Anglos, and Chinese. It's not quite our current list of races, and that's the point: racial categories are culturally constructed.

Once you have digested that both gender and race are culturally constructed, then you are ready for Susan Lee Johnson’s deepest point: especially on the California frontier, categories of race overlapped with the categories of gender. Chinese men opened laundries, took on work as cooks and servants, and performed other jobs that were perceived as women’s work. Here we see some of the deep history that means that Chinese men still don’t often ever appear as macho or sexy in American movies. On the gold rush frontier, Mexican women opened businesses, selling tortillas and making profits that were associated with men’s work. Miwok women were perceived as working harder than men, in a perception that allowed Anglos to look down on all Miwoks.

Here's an image to help you think about this issue. This is an undated color postcard printed in San Francisco and titled "The Honeymoon of the Chinese and the Coon." This postcard makes the woman look unfeminine, showing her smoking a pipe and disrecpectfully calling her a "coon." The postcard makes the man look unmanly, living in a house that is poorly repaired. This "honeymoon" doesn't look restful or romantic. And who is the child standing in the front: a servant, a neighbor, or their bastard child whom they just legitimized by getting married? Apparently the child was too insignificant for the postcard-labelers to even mention. I find this postcard offensive and fascinating. It helps me think about how ideas about gender can overlap with ideas about race and with opportunities for labor.

That is Johnson's point: ideas of race and gender overlap with issues of power, with who makes money and who assumes the right to rule.

Consider Johnson’s conclusion:

As time went by in the Southern Mines, Anglo American men … found more reliable ways to assert dominance in the diggings. And as even more time went by, and as the Gold Rush passed into popular memory, Anglo Americans, particularly Anglo American men, found ways to claim the event as a past that was entirely their own. In so doing, they buried a past in which paroxysms of gender and race brought daily discomfort to participants, but also glimpses of whole new worlds of possibility. (Johnson, page 126)

So what does it mean to remember that Chileans, Chinese, Mexican, Miwok, French, and Anglo all interacted in the gold mines – and shifted gender roles too? Johnson concludes that all this mixing and gender-boundary-crossing can provide us with “a useable past,” perhaps offering models of more flexible gender roles today. This is much more optimistic than last week’s reading which traced the racialized language that various groups used to try to legitimize their auhtority in the west. Johnson chose not to include the massacres in the gold-mining camps when Anglos invaded Indian or Chinese camps, burning and killing and driving non-whites out.

Which is your view of the west: optimistic mixing, or pessimistic conquest, or something else? And does Turner's frontier thesis fit with either of those views?

Finally, I promised I'd get to those alligator boots. What does all this have to do with the very different writing in Blake Allmendinger and Valerie Matsumoto’s “Introduction.”? To me, Allmendinger’s fringed red alligator cowboy boots and his delight in his self-selected gay campy frontier are a reminder that “each of us makes up the West for ourselves,” selecting history and identifying boundaries that fit our own needs (page 2).

But we have to be careful: it's not entirely made up. I won't ever tell you that the west was settled by one-armed midgets with purple polka-dots, because it wasn't. We each make up our own analysis, but we base that analysis on evidence. We use material culture (alligator boots), visual evidence (postcards, photos), letters, diaries, news reports, labor records, and more. We gather up evidence, we ask careful questions, and then we recognize that we each create our own conclusions.

Similarly, Matsumoto’s personal story of growing up Japanese in Nogales is a reminder to all of us that, especially on borders, “boundaries – whether geographic or cultural – [are] powerful, arbitrary, and shifting.” (3). That's an important insight. Allmendinger expands on it: “Today, although the West may be settled, its meanings and boundaries remain unfixed and unsealed,” affecting issues from immigration to environmentalism. Matsumoto and Allmendinger explain that their collection of academic essays “views the West through a cockeyed kaleidoscope” (6) because “community [is] a dynamic, often messy, process” (11) and “Imagining the West is a transgressive act” (6).

That last quote is the key connection, but you need to think it out for yourself: what is transgressive about Johnson's re-examining of the California Gold Rush?

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