Judith Butler, “gender ideology” and the rise of conservatism in Brazil

By Thais Bessa

getthumbSource: https://plinkplunk.wordpress.com/

In early November 2017, feminist philosopher Judith Butler was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a conference she co-organised. Although the conference was not on gender, but on democracy, Butler’s presence sparked great controversy in the country.

An online petition demanding the conference to be cancelled gathered over 370,000 signatures and was heavily promoted on social media, especially by evangelical groups. The petition asked people to email conference organisers asking for its cancellation, including the following template message:

Judith Butler is not welcome in Brazil! Our nation has refused gender ideology in the National Education Plan and in the Municipal Education Plans of almost all municipalities. We do not want an ideology that disguises a Marxist political project. Her books want us to believe that identity is variable and the result of culture. Science and, above all reality, show us the opposite. Her presence in our country at a communist symposium, paid for with the money of an international foundation, is not wanted by the overwhelming majority of the population. We care for our children and the future of our Brazil. #OutwithButler. (my translation).

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A group of some 70 people gathered in front of the conference venue to protest, chanting words like “family” and “tradition”. They had posters with pictures of Butler altered to look like a devil and sayings such as “in favour of marriage like God intended – 1 man and 1 woman”. Protesters also burned an effigy with Butler’s face shouting “burn the witch!” in what looked like a surreal medieval scene (which is sadly befitting, as Brazil, and other Latin American countries, seem to be indeed returning to the Middle Ages). A group of protesters even took to harass Butler at the airport shouting things like “go away, paedophile, child killer”. The video footage is cringeworthy and I felt ashamed of being Brazilian for a moment.


As remarked by Butler herself, the protesters seemed to have little familiarisation with her work. One example is the characterisation of Butler’s concept of “performativity”. According to those mobilizing the protests, “through performance, [Butler] proposes that people live every type of sexual experiences” (my translation). But the main object of antagonism for those opposed to her visit and ideas, was the “gender ideology”, which they claimed it was founded and promoted by Butler.

Narratives using the terminology “gender ideology” have been on the rise in Brazil and in other Latin American countries for a while. Produced and reproduced by far-right Christian groups (noting that Catholic and evangelical movements have immense power in the sub-continent), the term “gender ideology” is presented as the imposition of ideas and beliefs that seek to destroy institutions like family, marriage, and religious freedom. Presented as a threat to Christian moral values and tradition, this discourse has been particularly vocal in opposing policies or even debates on issues of gender identity, LGBTQ+ rights (especially marriage equality) and abortion.

Recent examples of how pervasive these discourses are, and their consequences, are abundant in Brazil. Due to pressure of those against “gender ideology”, issues of gender and sexuality were excluded from the latest National Education Plan. Art exhibitions that questioned religion and sexuality have been cancelled following pressure from conservative groups that deemed them to offend Christian values and the “traditional family”. A new legislation that completely criminalises abortion in the country has been pre-approved and will have its final vote by the Congress by the end of November. If this legislation is approved, abortion will be prohibited even for pregnancies resulting from rape, causing risk to the mother’s life and of anencephalic foetuses. One of the front-runners pre-candidate for the 2018 presidential elections is a religious nationalist who is openly anti-gay and misogynist and claims to be “Brazil’s Trump”.

As right-wing governments increasingly rise to power in Latin America and elsewhere, conservative movements feel legitimised and narratives like those creating the term “gender ideology” flourish, with serious consequences, especially for women and LGBTQ+ folks. As recently noted by the Open Society Foundations, although “gender ideology” is a fiction, the threat it poses is real.

Gender notes about Hurricane Harvey

By Thais Bessa

Living through hurricane Harvey in Houston was a difficult experience in many levels. But during the week we were trapped home during the flooding and in the days that followed, I could not help but make some random notes about gendered aspects of the experience.

Indeed, this is my experience and what I observed. Of course it is by no means “scientific” (and definitely not from a positivist standpoint). The “sample” is small, my analysis inherently biased as I was part of it and deeply emotionally involved. Even though they are only my perceptions that cannot hold any scientific claim or be generalised, they raise important reflections about gender.

During the days leading to the hurricane’s landfall, virtually everyone in Houston made preparations for the event. Supermarkets were like a scene from a movie, with people literally cleaning up the shelves of supplies like non-perishable food, water, flashlights and fuel. I noticed that as usual, most people buying provisions at the supermarkets were women. For almost all families I spoke with, in the days before the hurricane’s landfall and even in the first few hours of the disaster, men were quite nonchalant about it, relying on women to make preparations like getting provisions. In many cases, men made comments about how women were being “hysteric” or “overly dramatic”, a discourse that changed once the situation evolved and the hurricane turned out to be one of the worst natural disasters and the worst flooding event in the US history.

During the flooding, thousands of people were displaced and those who were luckier like us were trapped in their houses for days. How men and women reacted to being trapped home is permeated by traditional gender roles. Being more accustomed to occupying the private space of the household, women found it easier to adapt to the situation, whilst men, who usually inhabit public spaces, suffered a bad case of cabin fever. Even when leaving the house by car (Houston is an extremely car-bound city) was not possible, men were seen pacing in front of houses, often in knee-deep or waist-deep water, making remarks on their need “to leave the house” even if just for a moment.

A friend who is a well-educated professional had to evacuate to a relative’s house, where other friends and family members also sought refuge for a few days. Upon returning to her home she confided about how tired she was as on top of all the stress and the demands of keeping the children entertained and somewhat oblivious of the seriousness of the situation, she had to cook for and clean after the 15-20 people staying in the house. According to her, the men in the house were like “headless chicken”, pacing around the house all day and still relying on women to take care of the daily maintenance of life.

Once looting began around town and a state of panic spread, men found a new purpose in the chaos: to guard neighbourhoods. A few of my neighbours were pacing around flooded streets carrying one, two and in some cases three guns (Texas thing for guns never ceases to amaze me) and brandishing “masculine” mottos like “come loot and I will shoot”.

The disaster also gave space to misogynist and anti-LGBTQ+ remarks. Conservative author Ann Coutler tweeted that Hurricane Harvey was more likely God punishing Houston for having elected a lesbian mayor than a result of climate change. A photograph of a rescuer carrying a woman and her child through floodwaters was used as a symbol of traditional gender roles.

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Conservative columnist Matt Walsh tweeted “Woman cradles and protects child. Man carries and protects both. This is how it ought to be, despite what your gender studies professor says.” Another conservative author, Ben Shapiro, wrote that the picture evokes the right vision of humanity: “men as protectors, women as guardians, children as innocents”. Besides the reproachable use of an act of human solidarity to fit a certain narrative, these writings ignore the thousands of women who worked in rescue and relief during and after the floods, as well as the thousands of men who had to be rescued and equally carried out of flooded houses.

Academics and practitioners have discussed how natural disasters are gendered, particularly how people have specific vulnerabilities and are impacted differently by natural disasters due to gender roles and how sexual violence against women increases in the aftermath of disasters. However, how everyday practices during all stages of disasters are deeply gendered remains under analysed. In addition, most debates have focused on developing countries, including analyses related to gender aspects of natural disasters. As largely criticised by postcolonial feminist theory, this assumes that Western/developed societies are somehow unaffected by gender inequality.


The Shadow Monster: 4 things I wish I’d known about doing a PhD with OCD

Milly Morris


(Credit: Dr. Nicki Smith’s analogy about the monster from ST2 being like her writing process inspired this article)

Don’t think about a polar bear. 

…you are thinking about a polar bear, aren’t you?

Now, I bet you are trying not to think about a polar bear, which is making it even worse. There’s now a gigantic white bear dancing about your brain, taunting you. The more you try, the clearer it will become before you can almost see it’s teeth and pearly white fur.

Everyone gets these kinds of intrusive thoughts, the ones that pop into your head and potentially cause you mild discomfort or stress. But then, for most people, these thoughts float away and allow you to move on. For those with OCD, however, these thoughts can be debilitating. No matter how hard you try to get rid of them, they won’t go away.  There is a common misconception that people with OCD wash their hands religiously or spend five hours a day flicking on and off the light switches. In fact, OCD can range from constantly replaying an incident from one’s past to experiencing recurring and disturbing images in one’s mind.

To me, OCD is like the Shadow Monster in Stranger Things 2. It is not felt or seen by anyone except you, even though you are sure that everyone else can hear how loud the thoughts are in your head.  When an obsessive thought takes hold, it’s like an icy grip on your chest and stomach. You can’t move or think outside that worry, the fear is all-encompassing and debilitating: I can’t believe I did *that*, how long before everyone finds out my true nature? These obsessions multiply and mutate when you are alone, becoming distinct from the initial worry until you begin to doubt your own memories and blur the lines between the obsession and reality. I once read that OCD feels like being a stone in a stream, whilst your friends and family are fish. They change and move on as you stay rooted and unchanging, permanently revisiting and analyzing memories of potential mistakes and bad deeds. You constantly feel that the Shadow Monster is lurking behind you, biding it’s time until it can leap out and reveal your true self to those you love.

When I started my PhD, I knew that it would be difficult. 80,000 words is, let’s face it, too many words. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the intense impact that the research process would have on my mental health. Doctoral research includes long solitary hours staring at a computer screen, a complete lack of structure and the persistent question of “is anyone even going to read this?” (answer: probably not).  This is accompanied by precarious teaching contracts and financial worries, which makes the PhD a perfect breeding ground for poor mental health. For that reason, I decided to cobble together some (hopefully) helpful tips for looking after your mental health whilst studying for a PhD. These don’t necessarily apply to just OCD, but they have been some small tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.

1. If it isn’t going to happen, don’t force it. 

There are days where you sit down at the computer and bang out a thousand words before lunch (I didn’t say they were “good” words). These days are few and far between. Often, when I’m feeling particularly anxious, I can go days (and sometimes) weeks without writing anything. I will stare at the computer, hoping that words come to me, but they just won’t. This gets worse if you try and force yourself to write, becoming a cycle of anxiety and annoyance at oneself for not “working hard enough.” Indeed, it can often feel like you are “slacking” whilst everyone else is at their “real job.” In these instances, be kind to yourself. Go for a walk, to the gym, read a non-academic book or write a blog about something that interests you. Something completely separate to the thesis that you enjoy. When you come back to writing, you’ll hopefully be able to focus and you won’t feel unproductive.

2. Talk to people that you trust. 

This is something that’s particularly difficult when you have OCD as obsessions manifest themselves in thoughts or fears that the individual is particularly ashamed or embarrassed about. Airing these thoughts to people that you trust, however, can help you to feel less alone in your obsessions and to separate rational thought from irrational spiraling.

3. If you can, exercise helps!

I like to run whilst listening to podcasts (favorites being Russell Brand on Radio X and Criminal). This really helps me to get space from my anxiety and to concentrate on something else. Exercising, if you are able to, wears out your body and helps give you some peace of mind. I’ve found that going for a run before I start my thesis works builds structure into my day and makes me feel slightly calmer for when I start writing.

4. Tidy space, tidy mind (I’ve turned into my Mum)

Having a clean and homely space to work in has been a really important part of writing-from-home for me. It’s something that really helps soothe anxiety and stress and I find that if my flat is a mess, then I can begin to feel overwhelmed with my workload too. The lack of structure is one of the hardest things about a PhD, and so keeping things tidy stops your mind feeling “cluttered” and allows you to feel “on top of things.”  However, if you are having one of those days where a shower feels like the hardest thing in the world, perhaps do something nice for yourself like light a candle or paint your nails.

5. Your obsessions don’t define you. 

It can often feel like you can’t get away from your worries and that you’ll never be able to move forward, let alone finish a PhD. I’m the worst for this, as I often let myself disappear down a rabbit hole of despair and shame. Here, I’ll try and take my own advice: you are much more than your obsessions and fears. Try and remind yourself of the good parts of your personality or the times that you might have made people happy, rather than that potentially “terrible” thing you did five years ago.  It can feel impossible, but it’s important to try! Hopefully, this will mean that the Shadow Monster becomes smaller and smaller, until it is a distant and unfamiliar memory.