Identity As A Birdhouse

For my Feminist Philosophy project, I will build a birdhouse and compare the construction of it with the formation of personal identity. Unlike traditional birdhouses, I will be building a cage inside my birdhouse. This cage is to represent the internal oppression that can be found within the individual and how through various situations, our oppressions can become home. I would like my art to help demonstrate some of the feminist philosophies of Sandra Bartky and Patrick Hopkins. Primarily, Bartky’s concept of how disciplinary practices helps the development of our identity, and Hopkins’ concept of the binary system and what results from it.

Although building a birdhouse itself is a solitary action, I would have never been able to build anything without the help of other people. Just as we have some control over our identity, other people play a major role in its formation. The first thing that I did was go to a lumberyard. Without anything but an idea, I needed to find what I wanted to build my birdhouse out of. I talked to a guy there for a little while about different types of woods and what they are primarily used for. I knew that because others would see the birdhouse, I would want to make it nice and aesthetically pleasing. I choose poplar because it is good outdoors and birdhouses are often made from poplar. Although I may be the designer of the birdhouse, my conception of design results from a history that I cannot claim solely as my own. The birdhouse is constructed with the same general principles. There is room for creation, but within the constructs of the birdhouse. The main layout of a birdhouse consists of four walls, a roof, and usually some kind of opening. If I were to fail to make a roof, I would not be making a birdhouse at all (according to society’s conception of a birdhouse). My conception of what a birdhouse is, leads to my development of a birdhouse. Without the societal constraints of what makes a birdhouse put in place, the concept of the birdhouse, as we know it would never have any meaning.

Hopkins writes that the patriarchal structure results in gendered personal identities, which in turn, sparks the basis of homophobia within the heterosexism structure. The patriarchy is giving us gendered identities, which is akin to society defining what constitutes a birdhouse in the first place. Hopkins says, “what it means to be a member of society, and thus what it means to be a person, is what it means to be a girl or boy, a man or woman” (170). The patriarchy gives us gender identities just as society constitutes what is considered a birdhouse.

I was not born with the skill to woodwork, or the tools to do so. I was first taught woodworking in high school, in a class specifically designed to teach me such skills. But most of what I learned to work with was heavy machinery, not work with hand tools. By not using hand tools, you open yourself up to the chance for greater accuracy and ease, but also a greater danger. It took me a couple of years after high school to get back into woodworking, as it is a hobby that requires specific tools and a location that you can cover with sawdust. Once I moved into my own apartment, I was able to once again woodwork. When I went back to it, instead of using most of the knowledge I picked up in high school, I choose to follow a different path. My grandfather used to practice carpentry and he passed on his tools and some of his knowledge to my father. In turn, my father has passed down some of those tools and some of his knowledge down to me. Because my father’s main skillsets fall under other categories, I was left much to my own devices when it came to working with hand tools. I was able to learn a lot for myself through various books and online resources. Although I made the effort to be self-directed, the knowledge that I studied, I did not create myself.

In the midst of constructing an identity, people may tell you that you’re doing it wrong, but it is just being done differently. I will construct a birdhouse based upon what I conceive a birdhouse to be. If I choose to build a structure without walls, but still a roof, I could call it a birdhouse. Using the tools and skills that I’ve acquired, I can begin construction. My ability to function within the world of woodworking is reliant upon constructs that I have been taught since an early age. This early age conditioning, Hopkins writes, furthers the ideals of the patriarchy and is further creating a rift between how we see ourselves and how we see others. Homophobia is produced through the basis that if heterosexism is right, then the opposite is wrong. Hopkins defines heterosexism as “loosely characterized as valorizing and privileging heterosexuality (morally, economically, religiously, politically)” (173) and it “can be seen as the necessary precursor to homophobia.” Using a binary system as such results in a loss of value of the individual, because that individuality is lost when you are forced to pick between the societal norm and being the Other.

People will conscribe their ideas of identity based upon what other people tell them is normative. I will construct a birdhouse that appears to be a normative structure, but just under the surface, there will be a cage to represent what the structure becomes to us. By convincing ourselves that the binary is the proper system, the oppression — the cage — becomes our home, an identity we become too afraid to leave behind.

While making my birdhouse, I primarily used chisels, saws, and files. All of which are sharp enough to cut you in one way or another, just like the reinforced disciplinary practices that Bartky details. People are socialized into gender roles, just as I am forced to be more careful. If I make a mistake, I am (often implicitly) given a lesson whether I want it or not. If I were to start doing something that went against the normativity, there would most definitely be reactions against that, but they could be small and barely noticeable. But they still are noticeable and they help create our identities. Bartky writes, “from time to time, fashion magazines offer quite precise instructions on the proper way of getting in and out of cars.” (31) What these magazines are suggesting is that there is a correct way of getting in and out of cars, and this correctness is based in the normative structure. Although it might not be something that you live you life by, it could still model some of your actions.

Once the birdhouse is built, once an identity is established, we think of it as being complete. The birdhouse with the cage inside of it is an established identity for an individual. The cage is just as much of a home as the birdhouse is. Bartky writes “women punish themselves for the failure to conform.” (38) Women punish themselves because they feel as though they do not meet the standards, the normativity of the patriarchy. They feel at home conforming — it becomes a part of their identity. When the birdhouse is built to have a cage in it from the very start, we grow to accept it as a part of what it is. Bartky further explains, “any political project that aims to dismantle the machinery that turns a female body into a feminine one may well be apprehended by a woman as something that threatens her with desexualization, if not outright annihilation” (39). Gender and sex drastically impacts the formation of our identities. If we try to dismantle the system that “turns a female body into a feminine one,” there will be a great backlash because so many people identify with the concept of femininity. If I were to come into class with a tin can of ashes and called it a birdhouse, there would probably be at least one person who would challenge that notion. That is because the idea of what a birdhouse is, is so engrained in our society and ourselves that to challenge the notion of what a birdhouse is, challenges much of our knowledge, for if birdhouse doesn’t mean anything, what means anything? As humans, we strive for stability and become comfortable within that constancy. If the stability is questioned, if the notion of a birdhouse is questioned, then the way that you view reality changes.

For the actual presentation aspect of my project, I built the birdhouse while talking about how its construction relates to the construction of our identities. While we build our identities, we are also building cages for ourselves that act as oppressive forces that eventually feel like home. The idea of my presentation is that while the birdhouse is being built, the cage is also being built. In an ideal world, the cage would be built inside the birdhouse, but there’s a whole world of carpentry logistics that prevent that from being easily done.

I wanted to not use glue so that the birdhouse could be deconstructed. I think that best exemplifies our identities, as they are also not fixed. Unfortunately, I did have to use glue twice. The first time is when I was making the front hole of the birdhouse and a chunk of wood broke off as I was filing the hole. I glued that piece as a form of repair — I was not creating any new attachments. The only other thing that I glued was the stick that is right below the hole on the front. I related that bit to Beauvoir, as a sort of facticity. Sure, you can change some aspects of the birdhouse pretty easily, but to remove the front stick would be a rejection of your facticity. The transcendence of the birdhouse is created in part due to the fact that you could break it down and you could build a completely different birdhouse from it. You could drastically change how the birdhouse looks, but it still would be the same wood. Just as how after people undergo major lifestyle changes, they are still the same person.

I hope to have illustrated through my construction and rhetoric, the parallels between constructing a birdhouse and constructing an identity. During the creation of our identities, we also build cages for ourselves. The oppressions that the cage represents become a comfort to us, as we accept it as a part of our identity.