The Transitive Property of Status
How an Oscar accelerated the movement for trans rights in Chile
International status matters. To international relations scholars before—let’s say—1970, this would have been an unexceptionable, even unexceptional, claim; to IR scholars today, it is an increasingly commonplace one. Yet a generation or two of IR scholars, especially those trained in the United States, broadly rejected claims that status could affect how states behaved in international relations. (At the peak of their influence, they also rejected the notion that any actors other than states could matter, either.) It was a time when men were men and women were women and states were motivated by cold, hard national interests, damnit.
Overcoming those blinders has taken awhile (especially in the United States, again), but we are now back in an era of scholarly investigation when we can discuss the whole range of international relations, rather than throw-weights and great powers. The result has been an efflorescence of inquiry regarding a range of phenomena that would have passed unnoticed a generation ago—such as how an Academy Award bestowed on a Chilean film affected Chilean law.
In a recent article in Review of International Studies, Carsten-Andreas Schultz and Cameron Thies describe the case of Daniela Vega and Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman). The movie, which depicts the hardships that Marina faces after her lover Orlando dies, won the Best Foreign Language Film—a triumph for Chilean cinema and a notable accomplishment for Chile, which only a generation before had been in the grip of a reactionary dictatorship.
The context of the film’s triumph was as notable as its recognition: Vega is transgender, as is the character she plays. And the film won the Oscar just as Chile was debating a Gender Identity Law, which would have allowed individuals the right to modify identity documents without court approval or changing their physical appearance.
Schultz and Thies explore how an international award changed the domestic dynamics of the debate over the identity law. The crux of their argument is that “the international recognition of A Fantastic Woman attracted attention and evoked a sense of national pride that made it desirable for erstwhile detractors to support the law despite their opposition on normative (values-based) grounds.” In more general terms, recognition of the film by an external, internationally prestigious body provided cues and a context for even quite conservative politicians to embrace the film’s pro-trans agenda on the basis that this was something that Chile was being internationally celebrated for. International status, in other words, changed domestic politics.
This was a major victory. As Schultz and Thies describe, Chile was long inhospitable to LGBTQIA+ issues. The Pinochet regime was stridently heteronormative, and the transition to democracy did not ushur in a sexually liberated country. As the authors observe, for many elites, “LGBTQ+ rights did not belong in the same category as human rights.” It was a long fight through activism to even end legal discrimination against children born out of wedlock—and divorce was only legalized in 2004! Trans rights were marginalized within the marginalized non-het world, and so this case shows the power of international social cues strongly, as the Academy Award’s strength was enough to prompt even a newly elected, strongly conservative government to shift its position. (Tellingly, once the hoopla died down, the government administratively walked back some of the apparent legislative victories.)
Why it matters
This piece resonated with me for a few reasons. First, I read it during the height of the Bud Light/Dylan Mulvaney trans culture war fracas. If it was hard to get American political science and IR scholars to appreciate factors like status in international relations as major elements of how the world works, it’s been somewhat of an equivalent uphill battle to get gender, race, and sexuality as part of a mainstream agenda. The results are two-fold: many who study such subjects are themselves from the affected community, leading to charges of “me-search”, and separately mainstream scholars drift away from what is really mainstream in the world. In this world, gender and sexuality are major topics that are the focus of intense contestation—and I’ve heard that race may have not been “solved”, too.
Second, we need much better accounts of what status in world politics is and how it really works. Schultz and Thies convincingly display an unexpected transmission belt from an international source to a specific, meaningful domestic consequence. We already had a sense that status could produce incentives for war, for major spending (like $250 billion to put some clowns on the Moon), and the like, but now we know that even a private body (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) can exert influence sufficient to change how a sovereign state acts.
Third, this is a remarkably mainstream piece, and it should allow classes (undergrad and grad!) to mainstream status and gender/sexuality considerations. It’s a vivid, precise example, and it’s one that should allow instructors to avoid the “gender day” trap of having everything to do with feminism and “other” stuff into a single class session. Mainstream that stuff, bro—assign gender materials even when it’s not gender day. (Hell, you can always just assign this summary for your undergrads.)
Fourth, I think we need to grapple as a field with what’s liberal about the liberal order, and this piece points to two promising directions to expand that debate. One direction is to continue critically examining exactly what is liberal about the liberal order. Chile was a member in good standing of the order, even as it—and just about everyone else—was hit or miss in having a “liberal” record on what we would broadly class as “personal status laws” in non-Occidental cultures. From abortion to divorce to gay rights, the liberal order has often been…not. When is something a human right and when is it a gay right?
Another direction is to think about what the international liberal order looks like with the states taken out. Accounts like Ikenberry stress the role of dominant state powers in making liberal orders liberal, while a long literature on NGOs and other transnational movements and actors investigate how activists seek to shape the content of state policy in the context of an already existing liberal order. We already know from histories of Sputnik and the Space Race that even major status competitions can be touched off inadvertently. What’s surprising about Schultz and Thies is that status cues can come from non-state, non-activist sources. This opens up the possibility that a good deal of what’s happening in an international order may come from groups that don’t think of themselves as state or activist but which nevertheless wield a tremendous amount of cultural cachet.
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