Module 7 | Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

Welcome to the seventh module of 51272: Cultures (spring 2021), a design studies course at Carnegie Mellon University School of Design.

This course is about analyzing and discussing various aspects of human difference and relating them to the material/designed world. You can find the course description here.

Module 07: Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

Why Gender, Sex, and Sexuality?
As mentioned in a previous class, “design is an extension of the designer’s logic.” In this light, it’s important that designers have the tools to identify the origins of schools of thought and their contemporary manifestations, in multifold. This is due to design’s ability to sustain, multiply, or compress existing narratives or semblances of their historical origins. Understanding the origins, distinguishing factors, and multiple forms of gender, sex, and sexuality affords designers with tools to design otherwise.

Class 09

This class included two parts in order to cover this complex topic:

Steiner Speaker Series: Guest Lecturer — Dr. Chad Shomura

We had the esteemed Dr. Chad Shomura share his scholarship on the emotional dimensions of creating, making, and being. His talk was part of the Steiner Speaker Series sponsored by The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, and titled: We Care, Therefore We Survive: Public Feelings, Minor Feelings, and the Politics of Care.

Click on the image to watch the full lecture

Key takeaways from his talk were:

  • Colonialism’s role in shaping the contexts in which we work and upon the lands where we speak: This is often traced back to Descartes’ I think, therefore I am. He saw the mind as immaterial and the body as material; the seat of the sense. Dr. Shomura emphasized that the West places emphasis on the mind than the body as a basis of morality and freedom. During the Enlightenment, women were thought as highly susceptible to emotions; due to this, they were not allowed in the public sphere.
  • Relationship between politics, publics, and feelings: Thinking differently, Audre Lorde states that feelings are not the impediments for freedom, but the very material of freedom, because they summon the energy for a better world. It serves as a measure for all aspects of life. In addition to Audre Lorde’s work, poet, Cathy Park Hong, states that minor feelings is a residue of a racial system.

“Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.”

— Cathy Park Hong

This work grew as the subfield of public feelings grew over time.

Public Feelings scholars formed as a response to emerging war and terror. They wanted to understand the role of affect, feeling, and emotions in political life. They emphasize the interconnectedness of mind and body; reason is supposed by emotion; and emotion has its own rationality.

  • Consciousness of equitable care as makers, creators, and designers: Two examples used are — Open in Emergency and The Corner of Heart to Hearts. Open in Emergency was created to address mental health in the Asian American community. It was supported by an academic journal that included works by scholars, poets, community organizers, and activists, which is not usual for a journal. The Corner of Heart to Hearts is a game that provides a pair of folks with a deck of cards with an emotion written on it (e.g., regret, shame) for the purposes of building intimacy whether familiar or strangers. In some sense, this game is meant to be a minor public of sorts.

Dr. Chad Shomura concluded with the importance of care in politics and the urge to reimagine care. He underscored that he is universal in that it is not restricted to only the private sphere, and that everyone is responsible for care giving.

Miro Board Scoping Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

On the Miro board, the instructors scoped different perspectives and origin stories of gender and sexuality — from the Global South to specifically the US. On this board, it included their direct ties to design — ways of designing, designs in technology, and designs in subcultures — and how skewed perspectives on our module revealed themselves shaping the lives of many, particularly the second sex, for generations and across regions.

It begins with an outline of Simone de Beauvoir’s work, author of The Second Sex, who is one of the forerunners of articulating the ‘feminine condition’ and what was seen as the second sex (arguably remains so to this day.)

The board then provides a high level view of the perspectives of indigenous Mayan women with weighted emphasis on Dr. Aura Cumes, Guatemalan thinker, writer, and activist; additionally, it provides a high level overview of different perspectives and interpretations on gender — from intersex, transgender, in the middle, to the third sex.

After the outline of multiple perspectives from across hemispheres, the Miro board provides an outline of how skewed perspectives rooted in a singular logic manifest as they meet the designed material worlds. It underscores ways it, not only excludes and includes, shapes lived experiences and cultures for generations.

Class 10

The second session for this module included Provocations in which instructors determine eight Provocateurs (in the class) to lead class discussions on the most recent class lecture. In this case, the Provocateurs prepared questions that provoked deeper thought in disability status in relation to design as a profession, field, and study. Each Provocateur were assigned to facilitate discussions with 3–4 other classmates.

Here are some of our insights:

  1. Influence of narratives: How should designers take into account dominant narratives, and to what degree? How much influence do designers have on shifting narratives? Should we think individually or collectively?
  2. Gendered technologies: Why do many technologies defer to female voices as assistive? How does that influence and shape logics, and possibly behaviors? What is the designer’s role in prompting the thinking of multiplicities and variety?
  3. Spatial dynamics: What makes a space look and feel a certain gender, and how is that process standardized? In a similar vein, how is this used as a guise to build something of substance yet fail, such as the co-working space The Wing?
  4. Bodily autonomy: Similar to the theory of the pluriverse where autonomy in addition to co-existence are emphasized, what does it mean for the second sex and other marginalized bodies to feel a sense of agency? What does it mean for design to provide the affordance to have this sense?

5. Question during Dr. Chad Shomura’s lecture: Just recently, a designer
told a group of us to work towards reducing our efforts into the most “high concept” form in order to communicate to people effectively. I wonder about your experience navigating the boundary between concision yet complex truth in this field and if you have any advice for “scaling” as you mentioned?

Answer to the question: Simplicity is an important aspect of effective communication. It’s about recognizing we don’t leave in a simple world. Heard by whom? who is the audience we’re speaking to, what are the ways in which we are creating communication. Fitting the world as it exists, it’s not only about communication but about politics. Some modes of giving messages need to be challenged. Sometimes I simplify but I don’t leave away agents that are capable of struggling and wrestling with an idea.

This concluded the final week of lectures and provocations for the Cultures course spring 2021.

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Esther Y. Kang

Owner & Principal @ studio e.y.k. + PhD Researcher & Teaching Fellow @ Carnegie Mellon University. Past: federal, state, and local US gov | www.estherykang.com