The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

The Mother as The Child’s First Bully

In Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm
Marx Ernst, 'La Vierge corrigeant l'Enfant Jésus devant trois témoins: André Breton, Paul Eluard et le peintre,' 1926

Marx Ernst, La Vierge corrigeant l’Enfant Jésus devant trois témoins: André Breton, Paul Eluard et le peintre, 1926

by Diego Costa

When my sister got pregnant with her first child and was able to see what sex it was going to be assigned (that irreparable death sentence that the ultrasound enacts), she immediately knew what she would name him: Gael. She associated the name with the devil-may-care coolness of harmonica-playing boys who manage to be tough and sweet, masculine and sensitive. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal served as the perfect manifestation for the kind of boy she hoped her son would be. He was intellectual without being arrogant, manly without being brutish. Unfortunately, as she spread the name choice to everyone around her, strangers were taken aback by Gael. Doesn’t it sound like gal? Or even…gay? From Facebook comments to random women getting their manis and pedis at her local salon, folks went on about how strange, and literally queer, Gael sounded. My sister was thus bullied into re-thinking the naming of her son in order to avoid that this child who hadn’t even been born yet would be bullied because of his unconventional name. Pre-natal bullying, you may call it. He was being bullied as he was being gendered. He was being bullied into gender.

My sister decided to give up on Gael and re-name him something more normativity-friendly. For ethical reasons, I won’t say which name, but the point is that little does it matter. While Gael marks difference and rupture, Brian, Michael, or Ben offers continuity and maintenance. They leave things as they are, granting us the same cozy illusion of inevitability that the direct relationship between genitals and gender that we insist on can offer us. As the-child-formerly-known-as-Gael became, say, Ben, I can’t help but think of it as his first major castration episode. The first of a series of regulatory events that will certainly come in due time to keep him in line, to think twice before daring to venture outside the prescribed path of sameness under the “law.” Before language, before catching sight of the (“lack of”) female genitals, before letting out a cry– he has been silenced. Some fundamental protuberance that may have grown out of his singularity has been smoothed over, patched up like an irksome porthole (don’t holes tend to elicit so much anxiety?) out of which something disturbing is sure to emerge. An openness has been sealed, something has been maimed.

The Mother’s first encounter with the normativity-demanding Other could have become the stage for a symbolic intervention on her part. She could have staked a claim, she could have denied the Other’s entrance, she could have preserved the naming of her child as an intimacy between parent and child, without chiseling the baby into one that fits comfortably (for a price) in the world. Instead, she allowed her position of power, the unparalleled power of naming (and a quite violent one as is), to be contaminated by the anti-queer pre-natal police, transforming her motherhood into a function of the hetero-normative State. Here the Mother becomes not only an agent of bullying under the guise of preventing bullying, but a depersonalized baby-making machine in the service of a utopian hygenized society that is queerness-free. A society that is queer-free before queerness can even begin to manifest itself before our eyes. Like Down syndrome fetuses, which thanks to cutting edge technology, can now be spared from their birth so that we can be spared from their sight.

This has nothing to do with mothers individually or my sister’s excellence or lack thereof as a mother. I admire her as a person in the world and do not doubt her maternal love. This has to do with the Mother as function, the position of the Mother and the labor she is asked to do within the gendering economy. Under the spell of the hetero-normativity promises of an unscathed member of society, the Mother with a capital M is ironically the first to injure her baby by giving it up on a properly labeled platter to those who will actually decide if we will keep him or chuck him. Wasn’t it Eve Sedgwick who claimed that in our society the good homosexual was either the masculine homosexual or the dead one?  In order to assuage anxieties about an imagined future violence enacted by others, the Mother ironically wounds the child preemptively, robbing him of the opportunity to begin life from an authentic position. She teaches him how to lay low and pass before he gets a chance to gage his attraction to whatever it is he is passing for.

French essayist Roland Jacquard once said that bringing a child into the world is already abusing him. American culture does an excellent job bringing the violence of bullying to the headlines in a kind of masturbatory panic. It interpelates its celebrities to plead for tolerance, it creates task forces, it broadcasts TV specials, it puts bullying on display to be spoken about, judged and condemned ad nauseam. It’s like it brings us the sadistic high that the act of bullying begets but in a roundabout way that relieves us from the guilt. Yet, America administers this enjoyment mostly through finding bounded human entities to blame for it — which is the same strategy any kind of panic, fueled by claims of tolerance or hatred, tends to follow (the slut, the Jew, the black man, the homosexual, the illegal immigrant, the sex predator, the barebacker, take your pick). Someone is to blame, which leaves the social and symbolic structures (of which we are authors) conveniently unexamined.

So what is a mother to do? What is a mother to do if she submits to the mentality that one combats violence by changing the behavior of the victim, not the perpetrator and what produces their asymmetric relationship? What is a mother to do if she accepts the outsourcing of the bullying by others into her own hands, with the excuse of eliminating future justifications for bullying? What is a mother to do if the fantasy of some un-bully-able child gets her off? If the existence of her un-bully-able child would, really, be contingent on her child being the bully himself? Is that what she secretly wants? A bully, not a faggot? A bully to beat up all the faggot? A bully if that’s the only safe antidote against faggotry? What is a mother to do if subscribing to a culture of elimination of difference that muffles particularity seems like the safest strategy?

Normativity is labor, labor that is bound to fail, and thus requires constant reiteration. It’s the classic Judith Butler bumper sticker ethos: The lacuna between each reiteration is where the opportunity for something to go (positively) awry lies. If only we could invest in teaching the child to tap into that, into this space of alterity out of which something beautifully unsafe can actually spring… The spaces in between each repetition that aims at some kind of perfectly normative eugenic being oozing sameness and belonging is the potential breeding grounds for something else to occur, for difference to come to being and unsettle the structures that demand mindless (and violent) repetition – which gnaws on queerness until its some grotesque worn out piece of flesh nobody wants to fuck .

But if normativity is labor, so is its resistance. Something presumably so simple and cute as the naming of a child can surely place quite significant and path-defining weight on that child’s shoulders. It can certainly help define what shape, stance, consistency and look those shoulders are going to bear. The naming, just as any other choice a parent may make as it helps mediate the child’s relationship to the world, can be a decisive interceptor or interlocutor of the demands that the hetero-normative script puts forth. Trying to camouflage a child’s queerness (Kathryn Bond Stockton tells us every child is essentially queer) is unlikely to change the dynamics of this war. It instead helps fuel it, reiterating a system in which everyone is pretending to embody some kind of hetero-normative standard that only exists in the realm of ideality – the unbreakable phallus, the woman that lacks, the child who is pure, and not, as Freud famously put it, polymorphously perverse.

If the Mother chooses, in the name of the child’s future wellbeing, the violence of a present castration of her child’s inherent queerness, she is abiding by the same logic that would react to the 2012 bus gang rape of an Indian woman with a “But was she wearing a skirt?”. Which is actually in line with protesters who, thirsty with vengeance, called for the public lynching, hanging or literal castration of the perpetrators. As if killing the latest agents of a whole culture of violence against the feminine (in both female and male bodies) would annihilate the drives that bring that culture into being in the first place.

As of this writing, my nephew “Ben” is six months old. Unlike popular belief, yes he does already have a sexuality. If you’re the kind who needs visible empiric evidence, just know that babies can often have erections in the uterus. As we wipe their butts, massage their limbs with baby oil, hold them or hit them – we are touching/writing/speaking/spanking their bodies into (pleasurable) being. What isn’t yet evident is toward which direction his sexuality leans – which, of course, can always change directions, if he finds the space to. Will he follow his uncle’s footsteps and dream of ballet slippers, stardom and gangbangs at age 7? Will he take up the harmonica and embody the nonchalant cool his mother had originally dreamed for him? Or will he end up taking some unaccounted-for path that will leave us all floored, scrambling for ways to understand it, questioning our love for him, realizing he will never match whatever fantasy we had carved out for him fill in? Or will he do what he is supposed to do, with self-effacing dexterity, comfortably hiding the scars that brought him into being from our sight, and perhaps even his own? Either way, he will bear the heavy burden of that coarse, flakey whiteout separating his mother’s desire from his settled-for name.

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