Dracula and the Ottomans

Dracula and the Ottomans

by Gemma Masson, PhD candidate at the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham.

Like most people who went through a teen-vampire-infatuation phase, I became aware of Dracula at a young age, spending my pocket money to buy the Penguin edition of Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic and receiving the expected ribbing from my peers for my “morbid” interests. As a keen historian throughout school, I was also aware of Vlad the Impaler and the fact that many of the history documentaries I watched avidly on TV connected the two. Years later, when I began to pursue my graduate studies in my chosen field of history, my interests shifted to focus on the Ottoman Empire (how and why this happened is another story entirely) and so I started reading everything I could get my hands on. The fifteenth century was a key period for the Ottomans, centring around the 1453 capture of Constantinople (AKA Istanbul). This was the victory of Mehmed the Conqueror, son of Murad II, who had previously…..oh hello? Who’s this? Things just got a lot more interesting.



An ambitious sultan, Murad had turned his attention towards Europe and devoted much time and energy into expanding his realms and influence in that direction. In doing so, he came up against the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order specifically founded to keep the Ottomans out of Europe. Vlad II was the ruler of the Principality of Wallachia, which lies within modern day Romania. He was also a member of this order, hence his title ‘Dracul’ (The Dragon). Both politically and geographically, Vlad II found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with the Hungarian rulers to the West staunchly in favour of forcefully expelling the Ottoman Turks from Europe, and the Ottomans pressing from the East. This Catch-22 scenario led to Vlad II compromising and breaking treaties and usually counting on being able to talk his way out of a sticky situation.

Murad reached a point in 1442-3 where he was no longer willing to take Vlad II’s promises on good faith and sought a more tangible guarantee of good behaviour. This manifested in the taking of Vlad II’s two youngest sons, Vlad – later to become known as Vlad the Impaler, and Radu, to the Ottoman court. Ostensibly hostages, the two young princes were subjected to an education as befitted their rank, learning not only warfare, horsemanship and combat skills, but also Turkish, Arabic, the Koran and Islam, with all the accompanying philosophy and history that implies. During their time at the Ottoman court, they came into contact with Prince Mehmed, the future Mehmed The Conqueror.

The brothers were both very different boys and they grew into very different men. Radu, the youngest, was nicknamed ‘cel Frumos’, meaning ‘the Beautiful’ or ‘the Handsome’, which was a sobriquet he lived up to – charming every man and woman he met. He was much favoured by Mehmed, and the two became very close, with some sources claiming they were lovers. Vlad, on the other hand, could not have been more of a stark contrast to his brother. Dark, surly and quiet where his younger sibling was fair and charming, Vlad maintained his hatred of the Ottomans and, though living amongst them for years, never saw them as anything but the enemy. While Radu was being won over by Ottoman culture, viewing their captivity as good fortune, Vlad also sought to make the best of the situation by applying himself to learning everything he could. He studied everything about the Ottomans, intending, at the first opportunity, to use the knowledge against them. He took his fathers oath to rid their lands of the Turks as his own mission.

Historians Gavin Baddeley and Paul Woods have examined the time the boys spent at the Ottoman court in their youth through the lens of modern psychological theory, using Freud to argue that the young Impaler’s experiences would have had a profound affect upon his adult personality.1 While the argument could be made that, by the standards of his contemporary time, at thirteen or fourteen years old Vlad was already a man when he arrived at Murad’s court. Children were required to mature very rapidly at this time, and the children of the nobility doubly so, as they were to be groomed as leaders and warriors from birth. However, there is no denying that his time with the Ottomans did shape much of his adult life, much of it spent fighting them and using the knowledge he had gained there.

Baddeley and Woods also address the question of Radu labelling his conversion to Islam and his complete assimilation into Ottoman culture as a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome.2  Arguably Radu, as the younger, was still more malleable and open to coercion than Vlad. Another contributing factor could have been the boy’s natural differences. While Vlad was fully committed to the role of prince and warrior. Radu, with his fondness for fine things and comfortable living, found peace and compromise to be more acceptable and better for his country, even if it meant his entering Ottoman service. The desire to feel safe and accepted was doubtless contributed to by the constant uncertainty of their position: one wrong move on the part of their father, and the boys would have been punished. Such an environment would contribute to the stress and anxiety of the boys, causing each to react in their own way.

Into adulthood, each prince became more rigid in his convictions and the rift between them grew. Upon the death of their father and older brother Mircea in 1447, Murad (then re-enthroned after a brief interregnum during which Mehmet was on the Ottoman throne) sent Vlad to claim the throne of Wallachia with the understanding that he would rule as an Ottoman vassal and pay the traditional tribute. Why Murad felt he had succeeded in winning Vlad to his cause is baffling. It is likely that Vlad played his part well and paid lip service to the sultan in order to gain his freedom. Even if the sultan had his doubts in terms of legitimacy, Vlad had the superior claim to the throne, with Radu being both too young and too obviously Ottoman in his dress and manners. Murad, a shrewd ruler, would have seen the sense of allowing the elder brother to have his throne. However, life as an Ottoman vassal was the last thing Vlad had in mind. Taking to himself the title ‘Dracula’, meaning ‘Son of the Dragon’, in memory of his father, Vlad began mustering his resources to fight the Ottomans.

Owing to the apocryphal, almost mythical nature of the stories about Vlad which have survived it is hard to know how accurate sources are. What is clear is that the sultan sent emissaries to Dracula’s court to discover why Vlad had not sent the promised tributes owed to the Ottoman court. Konstantin Mihailovic, a Serbian convert in service to the Ottomans, writes in his memoirs that the sultan’s emissary, Hamza, had been impaled along with the rest of his party.3

When this news was received at the Ottoman court the sultan called for Radu, who had remained behind when Vlad returned home and, according to Mihailovic,

“Having risen, the Emperor took him by the hand and seated him alongside himself on the right side in another somewhat lower chair and ordered that a purple garment of gold cloth be brought and placed on him.”4

The implications of this are more than the sultan simply showing favour. The reference to a cloak of purple and gold is key. The Ottomans were very keen to showcase themselves as the rightful inheritors of the Roman Empire by right of conquest, and they did this by co-opting visible and obvious elements of the cultures they conquered in a bid to legitimise the inheritance and make it acceptable to the population. Imperial purple was the colour worn by Roman magistrates, and later the rulers of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, the latter of which the Ottomans would finally defeat in 1453 with their taking of Constantinople. In clothing Radu in purple and gold, the sultan not only shows him favour but marks him as a future ruler. After Vlad’s death in 1476 in battle, Mehmed did enshrine Radu in his place. Owing to the convoluted nature of warfare and politics at the time, Radu reigned twice after his brother’s death.

The problem with verifying historical events in the life of Vlad is that much primary documentation concerning his life is missing, for one reason or another and thus histories have often been resurrected on folk tales and oral accounts making much of the information we have on this individual somewhat apocryphal. Given the huge amount of scholarly literature on the novel, I am forced to confine myself to a brief discussion of the person of the Count and his identity as Vlad Dracula which, in itself, is a contentious subject. Professor Elizabeth Miller raised the issue of identity in her 1997 paper entitled ‘Filing for Divorce: Count Dracula vs. Vlad Tepes’ in which she acknowledges that Stoker found the name ‘Dracula’ in a copy of An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820) by William Wilkinson, which he borrowed from the Whitby Public library in the summer of 1890. However, this text suffers from the same problem that many histories of the family have in that ‘Dracula’ is used to refer both to Tepes’s father, also called Vlad and the Impaler himself. Wilkinson also seems to have translated ‘Dracul’ into ‘devil’ in the English instead of ‘Dragon’, arguably a more accurate interpretation due to the family connection to The Order of the Dragon.5 Miller concludes that Stoker gained his total knowledge of Vlad from Wilkinson, and as such any deeper connections to the Impaler beyond the borrowing of a name are circumstantial and that serious scholarly effort should be made to distinguish the differences between the historical Voivode and the Vampire of Stoker’s creation. Dracula historian Raymond McNally responded to Miller’s article in his own paper entitled ‘Separation Granted; Divorce Denied; Annulment Unlikely’ in which he argues that historians and literature scholars are well aware of the division and able to separate myth from fact.6 However, it is all very well to say that scholars and academics can make the distinction but for someone like Dracula, so prevalent in popular culture, I agree with Professor Miller that a popular distinction should be made.

In conclusion, the relations between the Ottoman Empire and the family of Vlad Dracula were much more long-winded and complex than I have stated here. However, perhaps next time Francis Ford Copella’s classic is aired on TV we might spare a thought for the real life history which often inspires such characters and events. The truth might not always be stranger than fiction, but it can certainly be just as interesting.

1   Gavin Baddeley & Paul Woods, Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People, (Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Chatham, 2010)

2   Ibid

3   Konstantin Mihailovic, Memoirs of a Janissary, trans. Benjamin Stolz, (Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, 2011)

4   Ibid

5   Elizabeth Miller, ‘Filing for Divorce: Count Dracula vs Vlad Tepes’ accessed at http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~emiller/divorce.html on 6th August 2013.

6   Raymond McNally, ‘Separation Granted; Divorce Denied; Annulment Unlikely’, Journal of Dracula Studies, No 1, 1999.


Running with Grace

Running with Grace

As mentioned previously here on the blog, a group of us will be running the Great Limerick Run on 6th May 2018, in memory of Grace McDermott, co-founder of Women Are Boring, who died tragically just hours after running the same race in 2017. The group includes Grace’s fiancé Colin O’ Neill (who came up with this wonderful idea), and friends and family from all over the world – some will be travelling from Grace’s home of New York in the U.S. to take part.

Many of us (including myself and Grace’s fiancé, Colin) will be running our first ever race, and everyone involved is running to raise money for a good cause. We would love to have your support!

I’m running for Women’s Aid, the Irish organisation that has been working in Ireland to stop domestic violence against women and children since 1974. If you can spare some money, no matter how small, you can support me, and Women’s Aid, here: https://great-limerick-run-2018.everydayhero.com/ie/catherine 

Colin (and many others involved!) are running for Cradle, an Irish NGO that looks after children and supports communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Moldova, Thailand and Ireland. You can support Colin and all the other wonderful people who’ll be running on 6th May here: https://justgiving.com/fundraising/colin-o-neill1

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. Please share with your family and friends, and join us in Running with Grace!

A special message: a gig for Grace

Below, a message from Grace’s fiancé, Colin O’ Neill.


To all readers and supporters of Women Are Boring,

As you may be aware, last May we tragically lost Grace McDermott. Grace was my fiancée and my soulmate.

It was senseless and sudden, horrific and heart-breaking. It was quite simply the most life-altering moment I will ever experience. Everyone that knew Grace is still coming to terms with what happened and every day we are trying to live up to the impossibly high standards that she left us with. Catherine and Grace started Women Are Boring in 2016 and Grace was intensely proud of the success they achieved.

In the days and weeks that followed Grace’s death, I could not let go of the idea that, in time, I would like to plan and run a musical event to celebrate Grace’s life and to raise money for a cause she believed in.

On May 26th 2018, I will be holding a concert in her memory. It will take place in Portmarnock Sports and Leisure Centre. Any money raised will be donated to Cradle, a charity Grace worked with.* On the night, musicians, friends and family will play songs inspired by, and for, Grace. It will be a collaborative event with as many of Grace’s loved ones and peers joining us to sing, play or simply be close to each other in what we hope will be a very special evening. This event will be run with a professional backline such as lighting and sound. We want this to be a concert as much as a tribute.

Recently, I have been thinking how to include as many aspects of Grace’s life on the night as possible.

This is both an invitation and a request:

If there are any supporters of Women Are Boring that would like to contribute by performing, we would love to hear from you. We are looking for singer-songwriters & bands. However, violins, piano, cello, trumpet; all (and anything else too) are welcome!

As you can understand, we will have limited spaces for musicians but if you are interested in joining us to celebrate Grace’s life and her work, please send a link with your music to Catherine at womenareboring at gmail.com. If you cannot contribute musically, we will ensure that ticketing information is available soon so you can join us if you would like to.*

Thank you for reading this, and hopefully we can sing together with some of you in May.

Colin O’Neill

* Colin, Catherine, and friends of Grace’s from both Ireland and the U.S., will also be running the Great Limerick Run for charity on 6th May 2018 in Grace’s memory. Grace ran the Great Limerick run last year, just hours before she tragically died. More details on how you can donate to support those involved, and their chosen charities, will come soon. 

Fame and Feminism: Celebrity Activism and Performative Femininity


“When celebrities choose to express their feminism or femininity online, the reactions and responses can reflect our cultural understandings of both.”

by Emily Murphy

In early September of 1968, a live sheep was crowned ‘Miss America’ on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Nearby, a ‘freedom trash can’ collected discarded make-up, bras, high heels, and copies of Cosmopolitan and Playboy. ‘Women are enslaved by beauty standards’ one poster read, ‘If you want meat go to the butcher’, said another. This was ‘No More Miss America!’, a demonstration attended by over 400 women, who likened the beauty pageant to livestock competitions at a county fair. These feminist protestors viewed ‘Miss America’ as the ultimate symbol of the way women are objectified and lessened based on their physical appearance. The main goal of the protest was to highlight, and reject, the suffocating ideals of normative femininity, with one participant remarking: “Every day in a woman’s life is a walking Miss World Contest”.[1]

Fast forward fifty years – ‘feminist’ is now a word you can find splashed across the pages of Cosmopolitan and Playboy, defined in a Beyoncé song, or printed on a $710 Dior t-shirt. This is popular feminism; it’s glossy, digestible, and commercialised. Like any other brand, it requires ambassadors, and this is where celebrities come into play. The increase in celebrity involvement in feminist activism produces an interesting dichotomy, as many celebrities who advocate for women’s rights, often embody, or even actively promote, the very chokeholds of femininity that feminism challenges. As a feminist and a pop culture addict, I am fascinated by the tension that exists between celebrity feminist activism and ideals of femininity. When I decided to explore this in my own research, I concentrated on two women who feature prominently in this debate: Emma Watson and Kim Kardashian.

The Internet is a space where celebrity culture and activism collide. As a consequence, much of the debate around celebrity feminism first emerges online. Emma Watson and Kim Kardashian both have a monumental following across various social media sites. On Twitter alone, Watson has 28.3 million followers, and Kardashian doubles that with 58.5 million followers. These numbers illustrate the massive sphere of influence each woman has on the Internet, and this is only scratching the surface of their online presence. Popular culture is often dismissed as vapid or shallow, but when Watson or Kardashian engage with feminist activism, their millions of followers are not a passive audience. This is a realm where “collective understandings are created”[2], and when celebrities choose to express their feminism or femininity online, the reactions and responses can reflect our cultural understandings of both.

Traditionally, gender has been understood as biologically innate, and wholly predetermined. Theorists and scholars like Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and Sandra Lee Bartky rejected this assumption by arguing that femininity is instead informed and cultivated by social norms and expectations. De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ is a text that inspired many women to question the confines and origins of femininity, by suggesting ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. The book discusses the many versions of femininity that women can portray, and explores how these are received and responded to. Butler built on these ideas when she introduced the idea of performative femininity in ‘Gender Trouble’, suggesting that gender is an effect that is “produced through stylisation of the body”[3]. Similarly, Bartky’s work focuses on how femininity is represented and reproduced physically, but steers her focus towards beauty, fashion, self-image, and self-discipline.

Using these theories to think about how Watson and Kardashian represent femininity in their activism, I chose to analyse viral texts that had sparked widespread media attention. These included a photo from a Vanity Fair feature on Emma Watson in early 2017, and a selfie posted by Kim Kardashian in the lead up to International Women’s Day in 2016. These images proved to be controversial, and ignited much debate on the feminist movement, celebrity activism, female sexuality, and femininity.





When I compared her selfie to Bartky’s understandings of feminine ideals, Kim Kardashian ticked all the boxes of ‘ideal woman’. She avoids a strong facial expression, her arms are close to her body, and she takes up little space in the room. Kardashian’s pose accurately depicts the paradoxes of female movement described by Bartky, as she appears gracefully constricted, erotic yet refined, with her stomach pulled in, shoulders back and chest out[4]. The image is contemporary in the way it has been shared online, but traditional in many of the ways femininity is represented. However, in her reply to the criticism she faced for this photograph, Kim disrupted assumptions and expectations of female sexuality, and the relationship between sexuality and motherhood.

Much of the media response to this photo described it as a nude selfie, despite, as Kim herself pointed out, the black bars covering more than most bikinis would. It’s interesting that even the notion of Kardashian being naked under the bars still caused such a reaction, and demonstrates the constant sexualisation and scrutiny women face when it comes to their bodily expression. A large portion of the criticism Kim Kardashian received for her selfie was due to her role as a mother. In response, she published an essay on International Women’s Day writing, “I am a mother. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, an entrepreneur and I am allowed to be sexy”[5]. While many commentators found her photo ridiculous or inappropriate, their reactions proved that Kardashian was making an important point: Why must motherhood and sexuality be mutually exclusive?

While Kim Kardashian was criticised for not measuring up as a mother, Emma Watson was shamed for not measuring up as a feminist. When Watson was photographed for Vanity Fair, she shunned many feminine ideals in the images. She stared straight down the camera lens and wore boxy clothing that gave her a broader, more ‘masculine’ appearance. Her hair was cropped short, and she wore minimal make-up. This created a striking and unique photo, which was ignored by the media who instead focused on Watson’s outfit. The hint of cleavage displayed by Emma’s sheer blouse was deemed incompatible with her feminist activism, and the photo was sexualised by the media for its “nudity” and its perceived sexual nature. Many post-feminist theorists are concerned with the unflinching sexualisation of women’s bodies in media culture, and when you consider the response to this photo, it is clear to see why. This raises the question of why sexuality and feminism, or femininity and feminism, are believed to be at odds. As Watson herself responded, “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.”[6]

How we understand people is important to how we then react to them, and the way Watson and Kardashian’s displays of femininity are received can act as an indicator for how femininity is received more broadly. When Butler talks about gender performativity, she compares it to theatrical performances, but notes an important difference: “gender performances in nontheatrical contexts are governed by more clearly punitive and regulatory social conventions”[7]. If gender performativity is a game, it appears to be a difficult one to win. Women are expected to show off their body, and the body is deemed to be an incredibly vital part of what it is to be a woman, but if you show too much of your body, or in the wrong circumstances, or as a mother, you will be criticised. Watson and Kardashian not only present two different styles of activism, they also present two very different types of femininity—and neither is immune from disparagement. At the intersection of stardom and activism, it’s worth asking: Is the entertainment industry guilty of perpetuating normative, narrow understandings of femininity? Or does it act as a mirror to our own social expectations of how a woman should be?

[1] Walters, M. 2005. Feminism: A Very Short Introduction. 1st ed. Oxford University Press.

[2] Storey, J. 2013. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 6th edn. New York: Routledge.

[3] Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity, New York: Routledge.

[4] Bartky, S. 1988. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernisation of Patriarchal Power. In: Rose Weitz. The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Kardashian, K. 2016. Happy International Women’s Day, Available at: https://www.kimkardashianwest.com/behind-the-scenes/776-kim-kardashian-nude-instagram/ (Accessed: 25 July 2017).

[6] The Guardian. 2017. ‘Emma Watson on Vanity Fair cover: ‘Feminism is about giving women choice’, The Guardian, 6 March 2017, accessed: 15 August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/05/emma-watson-vanity-fair-cover-feminism

[7] Butler, J. 1997. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In: Carole R. McCann, Seung-kyung Kim. Feminist Theory Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 462-473.

Tackling the ethical approval process

Forms over function: Ethics, ethnography and the NHS

by Carol Robinson

At times last year I forgot that I was doing a PhD. It’s not that I was having a wild time as a student. No, by 9am every day I turned up to the office my department has kindly provided, settled down at my desk and worked solidly until some point after 5pm. Some of that time I’d be keeping on top of email, or attending departmental meetings, but mostly, I was working. Twitter doesn’t distract me, I had an organised weekly list of things to do that I worked through, and things were progressing nicely, thank you.

So why did I forget that I was working towards a PhD? Because for most of that time everything I did was aimed at getting ethical approval for my research. So it was almost a shock to look up and remember that wasn’t really my goal. My goal is to do the PhD research, to contribute to human knowledge and understanding, and to do it in a way that improves people’s lives. For a while however, compiling what became 91 pages of ethics forms plus supporting documents and all the bureaucracy that goes with that completely eclipsed the research.

I always knew I’d need to get ethical approval for my work. What I didn’t appreciate was how time-consuming, frustrating and complicated this would be. I used to listen to other people’s stories of wrestling with UK’s Integrated Research Application System, or with the NHS Health Research Authority’s byzantine processes and think either that they were exaggerating for effect or that perhaps their project wasn’t, well, good enough. I’d had approval from the prison service for England and Wales for two previous research projects; how hard could it be? I now apologise whole-heartedly that these thoughts even crossed my mind.

I did make life harder for myself by wanting to research dying prisoners, thus requiring both health service and prison service approval, as well as that of my University. The prison service process was fairly straightforward and familiar. The real trouble was with the NHS processes, and with the relationship between the three bodies. What kept me going for several weeks, as I tried to untangle the mass of acronyms and synonyms involved, was the thought that I was gaining useful experience. At the end of all this, I thought, I’ll be able to put on my CV that I understand the process, know how to fill in the form and could liaise with a health Research Ethics Committee. Not true. The process is so capricious that all such an entry in my CV would prove is that I once had the mental fortitude to see an application through to its conclusion.

Although my colleagues will tell you I sighed out loud quite a bit, I did make it through the time when an overnight update to the IRAS website hived my answers off into two separate forms, one of which I couldn’t see. I didn’t scream when I discovered just before submission that this should be changed back to one form. I stayed cheerful as my participant information sheet, carefully written to suit people not that keen on reading, expanded to yet another page with all the extra information I was asked to include. I only muttered a modest amount when asked to add the (to the participants) totally meaningless IRAS reference number to it. I maintained my outward equilibrium whilst I confirmed I would not be doing things I’d never thought of (wearing clerical dress was my favourite such request, closely followed by audio-recording outside of interviews). But I confess my heart did sink when someone I was relying on to understand what should happen next said this would be a learning process for them too.

Being a reasonable person, I did appreciate that part of the difficulty was that I was having to fit getting approval for sociological research into a process intended for clinical trials. The mismatch only seems to be partly recognised by the bodies responsible. So, whilst there’s a protocol template to complete aimed at qualitative research, I still had to say I wasn’t using ionising radiation or using human tissue samples. And whilst there are ways to amend the project once it’s been approved, there’s no appreciation that good sociological research is often iterative. Instead, there’s the assumption that you will know all possible scenarios in advance. With this comes an assumed relationship to the research participants; they are to be the subjects, not the co-creators of research knowledge. There is no scope for an understanding of ethical research that deviates from a generic (clinical) ideal, and consequently, the best of a discipline’s specific characteristics and of its newer research methodologies can be lost. I say newer, but in practice even my well established chosen ethnographic methodologies sit uncomfortably with the process of getting ethical approval from a health research authority.

There was a tendency in the guidelines provided to use language in unexpected ways. Have you ever had that experience of all the words making sense individually, but being incomprehensible when put together? I found myself trying to draft emails to effectively ask “so if ‘host organisation’ doesn’t mean ‘the organisation hosting the research’, what does it mean?” I struggled, along with my supervisors, and it turned out, the ethics committee staff, to understand what the REC had wanted when it asked whether I had an ‘honorary contract’. Later on, the REC asked if the scientific validity of the study has been confirmed independently of the academic supervisors, giving as an example of how this might be achieved “a University PhD review process”. None of us, not my academic supervisors, not the university ‘sponsor’ that I’d discovered along the way was also needed, knew what this meant. We were stumped, and resorted to gently approaching a professor elsewhere to see if they could provide such an independent scientific review, and quickly. In the end, this was not needed –all that was meant was would the University’s ethics committee be looking at it. Yes, of course.

There were funny moments too. Having had my application reviewed by a Research Ethics Committee that met in Essex, I then discovered how similarly I pronounce ‘Ethics’ and ‘Essex’, on the phone, to a poor, kindly person trying to understand which ethics committee had looked at it. Eventually, I said, “the one that met in Chelmsford” and we moved on. Having three ethics committees look at your work is not fun. As things are, it’s inevitable for research such as this, but unsurprisingly their expectations are not always compatible. The prison service doesn’t want any contact details for external people, such as academic supervisors, included on Participant Information Sheets; the NHS expects this. The University wants email addresses only; prisoners don’t have email. The NHS REC regarded the notices that prison governors would issue to let prisoners and staff know about the research as ‘posters’ that the REC should scrutinise, so needed the final text agreeing before I could get their approval – 6 months in advance of the governor issuing the text. Prison governors are incredibly busy people, so I am indebted to them for having calmly accepted this.

There is, outwardly, plenty of advice available on NHS websites. Much of it is out of date, hard to find, or impossible to understand. There are flow charts describing a parallel world, ‘start here’ guides buried beyond discovery, and directories that are out of date. Lovely, kind and supportive staff within the NHS R&D offices or working with RECs do their best, but if your project is unusual, there are things they can’t be expected to know, such as that there’s a limited number of Health RECs who will look at prison applications, until it’s nearly too late.

I’m not alone in this. In my struggle to understand the process, I came across numerous articles by academics similarly venting their frustrations, including one that fairly calmly reflecting on the problems, before revealing that their own project had spent the entire initial research budget trying to get permissions for research. Wiser people before me have also found that processes designed for quantitative-based medical interventions and clinical trials cannot adjust to the needs of qualitative research. And yet not much seems to have changed. My gripes may seem small, but behind them is a bigger issue, that of the imbalance of power between researchers and research ethics committees and the lack of accountability of the people, some experts, some lay people, appointed to make such important decisions.

So now I have all the ethical approvals I need, 10 months after I first starting filling in the forms, I’m remembering fondly why I’m here. It comes in flashes; the possibility of time to open that new book I’ve been eyeing up, something on the news that reminds me of the relevance of my research interests, a chance conversation with a colleague. Best of all was a recent conversation with a senior manager at one of the prisons I’ll be visiting for fieldwork. We’d not spoken before, but within minutes she’d reminded me why I’m doing this, why it matters that I’ve survived through all these hurdles. Out there are people who are doing their best in tough circumstances, and good quality research may just be able to help them. I’m looking forward to getting on with it.

The mysterious lives of chimaera sharks & the effects of deep sea fishing


by Melissa C. Marquez.

chimaera families

A rhinochimaera

“You’re not what I expected when you said you were a shark scientist.” Gee, thanks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that I don’t live up to someone’s preconceived mental image of what I should look like as a “shark scientist.” It doesn’t change the fact that I’m a marine biologist though, and that I am very passionate about my field.

I recently wrapped up my Masters in Marine Biology, focusing on “Habitat use throughout a Chondrichthyan’s life.” Chondrichthyans (class Chondrichthyes) are sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras. Today, there are more than 500 species of sharks and about 500 species of rays known, with many more being discovered every year.

Over the last few decades, much effort has been devoted towards evaluating and reducing bycatch (the part of a fishery’s catch that is made up of non-target species) in marine fisheries. There has been a particular focus on quantifying the risk to Chondrichthyans, primarily because of their high vulnerability to overfishing. My study focused on five species of deep sea chimaeras (not the mythical Greek ones, but the just-as-mysterious real animal) found in New Zealand waters:

• Callorhynchus milii (elephant fish),

• Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (dark ghost shark),

• Hydrolagus bemisi (pale ghost shark),

• Harriotta raleighana (Pacific longnose chimaera),

• Rhinochimaera pacifica (Pacific spookfish).


These species were chosen because they cover a large range of depth (7 m – 1306 m), and had been noted as being abundant despite extensive fisheries in their presumed habitats; they were also of special interest to the Deepwater Group (who funded the scholarship for my MSc).

Although there is no set definition for what constitutes as “deep sea,” it is conventionally regarded to be >200 m depth and beyond the continental shelf break (Thistle, 2003); in this zone, a number of species are considered to have low productivity, leading to them having a highly vulnerable target of commercial fishing (FAO, 2009). Deep sea fisheries have become increasingly economically important over the past few years as numerous commercial fisheries become overexploited (Koslow et al., 2000; Clark et al., 2007; Pitcher et al., 2010). Major commercial fisheries exist for deep sea species such as orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), oreos (several species of the family Oreosomatidae), cardinalfish, grenadiers (such as Coryphaenoides rupestris) and alfonsino (Beryx splendens). Many of these deep sea fisheries were not sustainable (Clark, 2009; Pitcher et al., 2010; Norse et al., 2012) with most of the stocks having undergone substantial declines.

chimaera (1)

Deep sea fishing can also cause environmental harm (Koslow et al., 2001; Hall-Spencer et al., 2002; Waller et al., 2007; Althaus et al., 2009; Clark and Rowden, 2009). Deep sea fisheries use various types of gear that can leader to lasting scars: bottom otter trawls, bottom longlines, deep midwater trawls, sink/anchor gillnets, pots and traps, and more. While none of this gear is solely used in deep sea fisheries, all of them catch animals indiscriminately and can also damage important habitats (such as centuries-old deep sea coral). In fact, orange roughy trawling scars on soft-sediment areas were still visible five years after all fishing stopped in certain areas off New Zealand (Clark et al ., 2010a).

Risk assessment is evaluating the distributional overlap of the fish with the fisheries, where fish distribution is influenced by habitat use. For sharks, that risk assessment included a lot of variables: there are a number of shark species (approximately 112 species of sharks have been recorded from New Zealand waters) with many different lifestyles, differences in their market value for different body parts (like meat, oil, fins, cartilage), what body parts they use for sharks (for example, some sharks have both their fins and meat utilised but not their oil; some just have their fins taken, etc.) and how to identify sharks once on the market (Fisheries Agency of Japan, 1999; Vannuccini, 1999; Yeung et al. 2000; Froese and Pauly, 2002; Clarke and Mosqueira, 2002).

In order to carry out a risk assessment, you have to know your study animals pretty well. It should come to no surprise that little is known about the different life history stages of chimaeras, so I did the next best thing and looked at Chondrichthyans in general. My literature review synthesized over 300 published observations of habitat use for these different life history stages; from there, I used New Zealand research vessel catch data (provided by NIWA, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) and separated them by species, sex, size, and maturity (when available). I then dove into the deep end of using a computer language called “R,” which is used for statistical computing and graphics. Using R programming software, I searched for the catch compositions based on the life history stage I was looking for (example: looking for smaller sized, immature fish of both sexes and little to no adults when in search for a nursery ground).

The way we went about this thesis differs in that we first developed hypotheses for characteristics of different habitat use, rather than “data mining” for patterns, and it therefore it has a structured and scientific approach to determining shark habitats. Our results showed that some life history stages and habitats for certain species could be identified, whereas others could not.

Pupping ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (elephant fish), Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (dark ghost shark), and Hydrolagus bemisi (pale ghost shark); nursery ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (elephant fish); mating ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (elephant fish), Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (dark ghost shark), Hydrolagus bemisi (pale ghost shark), and Harriotta raleighana (Pacific longnose chimaera); lek-like mating criteria were met for Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (dark ghost shark). Note: Lek-like mating is where males perform feats of physical endurance to impress females and she gets to choose a mate.

Ghost Shark_SPP unknown

Ghost shark

These complex—and barely understood— deep sea ecosystems can be overwhelmed by the fishing technologies that rip through them. Like sharks, many deep sea animals live a k-style lifestyle, meaning that they take a long time to reach sexual maturity and once they are sexually active, they give birth to few young after a long gestation period. This lifestyle means these creatures are especially vulnerable since they cannot repopulate quickly if overfished.

In order to manage the environmental impact of deep sea fisheries, scientists, policymakers and stakeholders have to identify the ways to help re-establish delicate biological functions after the impacts made by deep sea fisheries. Recovery—defined as the return to conditions before they were damaged by fishing activities—is not a unique concept to just deep sea communities, and is usually due to site-specific factors that are often poorly understood and difficult to estimate. Little is known about biological histories and structures of the deep sea, and therefore the rates of recovery may be much slower than shallow environments.

Management of the seas, especially the deep sea, lags behind that of land and of the continental shelf, but there is a number of protection measures already being put in place. These actions include, but are not limited to,

• regulating fishing methods and gear types,

• specify the depth that one can fish at,

• limit the volume of bycatch, limit the volume of catch,

• move-on rules, and

• closure of areas of particular importance.

Modifications to trawl gear and how they are used have made these usually heavy tools less destructive (Mounsey and Prado, 1997; Valdemarsen et al. 2007; Rose et al. 2010; Skaar and Vold 2010). Fishery closures are becoming more common, with large parts of EEZs (exclusive economic zone) being closed zones for bottom trawling (e.g. New Zealand, North Atlantic, Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, USA waters, Azores) (Hourigan, 2009; Morato et al. 2010); the effectiveness of these closures is yet to be established.

And while this approach, dubbed the “ecosystem approach,” to fisheries management is widely advocated for, it does not help every deep sea animal or structure. Those that cannot move (sessile) are still in danger of being destroyed. As such, ecosystem-based marine spatial planning and management may be the most effective fisheries management strategy for protecting the vulnerable deep sea critters (Clark and Dunn, 2012; Schlacher et al. 2014). This management strategy can include marine protected areas (MPAs) to restrict fishing in specific locations and other management tools, such as zoning or spatial user rights, which will affect the distribution of fishing effort in a more effective manner. Using spatial management measures effectively requires new models and data, and will always have their limitations given how little data in regards to the deep sea exists, and that this particular environment is hard to get to.

So what does it all mean in regards to my thesis? Well, for one thing, there is a growing acknowledgement these unique ecosystems require special protection. And like any scientist knows, there are still many unanswered questions about just how important this environment is (especially certain structures).


A juvenile Elephantfish, Callorhinchus milii. Source: Rudie H. Kuiter / Aquatic Photographics

On a more shark-related note, not all life-history stage habitats were found for my chimaeras, and this may be because these are outside of the coverage of the data set (and likely also commercial fisheries), or because they do not actually exist for some Chondrichthyans. That cliffhanger is research for another day, I suppose…

This project could not have been done without the endless amount of support of my family and friends; those who have supported me since day one of my marine biology adventures. They’re the ones who stick up for me whenever I hear, “You’re not what I expected when you said you were a shark scientist.” I am not really sure what the stereotype of a shark scientist is supposed to be, thankfully I grew up where you accept and judge people by who they are and what they do. However I see this as a challenge, as it sets the stage up for me to show the mind of a shark scientist can come in all kinds of packages.

As a final note, I’d like to thank the New Zealand Seafood Scholarship, the Deepwater Group, as well as researchers from National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) who provided funding, insight and expertise that greatly assisted the research. The challenge of venturing into complex theories is that not all agree with all of the interpretations/conclusions of any research, but it is a basis for having a discussion, which can only be good for all.




  • Thistle, D. (2003). The deep-sea floor: an overview. Ecosystems of The Deep Oceans. Ecosystems of the World 28.
  • FAO. 2009. Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries in the High Seas. FAO, Rome, Italy.
  • Koslow, J. A., Boehlert, G. W., Gordon, J. D. M., Haedrich, R. L., Lorance, P., and Parin, N. 2000. Continental slope and deep-sea fisheries: implications for a fragile ecosystem. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 57: 548–557.
  • Clark, M. R., and Koslow, J. A. 2007. Impacts of fisheries on seamounts. In Seamounts: Ecology, Fisheries and Conservation, pp. 413 –441. Ed. by T. J. Pitcher, T. Morato, P. J. B. Hart, M. R. Clark, N. Haggen, and R. Santos. Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Pitcher, T. J., Clark, M. R., Morato, T., and Watson, R. 2010. Seamount fisheries: do they have a future? Oceanography, 23: 134–144.
  • Clark, M. R. 2009. Deep-sea seamount fisheries: a review of global status and future prospects. Latin American Journal of Aquatic Research, 37: 501 –512.
  • Norse, E. A., Brooke, S., Cheung, W. W. L., Clark, M. R., Ekeland, L., Froese, R., Gjerde, K. M., et al. 2012. Sustainability of deep-sea fisheries. Marine Policy, 36: 307–320.
  • Koslow, J. A., Gowlett-Holmes, K., Lowry, J. K., O’Hara, T., Poore, G. C. B., and Williams, A. 2001. Seamount benthic macrofauna off southern Tasmania: community structure and impacts of trawling. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 213: 111–125.
  • Hall-Spencer, J., Allain, V., and Fossa, J. H. 2002. Trawling damage to Northeast Atlantic ancient coral reefs. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences, 269: 507–511.
  • Waller, R., Watling, L., Auster, P., and Shank, T. 2007. Anthropogenic impacts on the corner rise seamounts, north-west Atlantic Ocean. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 87: 1075 –1076.
  • Althaus, F., Williams, A., Schlacher, T. A., Kloser, R. K., Green, M. A., Barker, B. A., Bax, N. J., et al. 2009. Impacts of bottom trawling on deep-coral ecosystems of seamounts are long-lasting. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 397: 279–294.
  • Clark, M. R., and Rowden, A. A. 2009. Effect of deep water trawling on the macro-invertebrate assemblages of seamounts on the Chatham Rise, New Zealand. Deep Sea Research I, 56: 1540–1554.
  • Clark, M. R., Bowden, D. A., Baird, S. J., and Stewart, R. 2010a. Effects of fishing on the benthic biodiversity of seamounts of the “Graveyard” complex, northern Chatham Rise. New Zealand Aquatic Environment and Biodiversity Report, 46: 1 –40.
  • Fisheries Agency of Japan. 1999. Characterization of morphology of shark fin products: a guide of the identification of shark fin caught by tuna longline fishery. Global Guardian Trust, Tokyo.
  • Vannuccini, S. 1999. Shark utilization, marketing and trade. Fisheries Technical Paper 389. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome.
  • Yeung, W. S.; Lam, C.C.; Zhao, P.Y. 2000. The complete book of dried seafood and foodstuffs. Wan Li Book Company Limited, Hong Kong (in Chinese).
  • Froese, R. and Pauly, D. 2002. FishBase database. Fishbase, Kiel, Germany. Eds. Available fromhttp://www.fishbase.org (accessed April 2016).
  • Clarke, S. and Mosqueira, I. 2002. A preliminary assessment of European participation in the shark fin trade. Pages 65–72 in M.Vacchi, G.La Mesa, F.Serena, and B.Séret, editors. Proceedings of the 4th European elasmobranch association meeting. Société Française d’Ichtyologie, Paris.
  • Mounsey, R. P., and Prado, J. 1997. Eco-friendly demersal fish trawling systems. Fishery Technology, 34: 1 – 6.
  • Valdemarsen, J. W., Jorgensen, T., and Engas, A. 2007. Options to mitigate bottom habitat impact of dragged gears. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper, 29.
  • Rose, C. S., Gauvin, J. R., and Hammond, C. F. 2010. Effective herding of flatfish by cables with minimal seafloor contact. Fishery Bulletin, 108: 136–144.
  • Skaar, K. L., and Vold, A. 2010. New trawl gear with reduced bottom contact. Marine Research News, 2: 1–2.
  • Hourigan, T. F. 2009. Managing fishery impacts on deep-water coral ecosystems of the USA: emerging best practices. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 397: 333–340.
  • Morato, T., Pitcher, T. J., Clark, M. R., Menezes, G., Tempera, F., Porteiro, F., Giacomello, E., et al. 2010. Can we protect seamounts for research? A call for conservation. Oceanography, 23: 190–199.
  • Clark, M. R., and Dunn, M. R. 2012. Spatial management of deep-sea seamount fisheries: balancing sustainable exploitation and habitat conservation. Environmental Conservation, 39: 204 –214.
  • Schlacher, T. A., Baco, A. R., Rowden, A. A., O’Hara, T. D., Clark, M. R., Kelley, C., and Dower, J. F. 2014. Seamount benthos in a cobalt-rich crust region of the central Pacific: Conservation challenges for future seabed mining. Diversity and Distributions, 20: 491 –502.

Taking Selfies Seriously

Those who are familiar with Women Are Boring will know that this is the first new research piece to be published on the site since the tragic death of our co-founder, Grace McDermott, on 1st May 2017. If you’re a new reader, and you’d like to learn more about Grace, please take a look here. If you’d like to donate to a charity in memory of Grace, please follow this link.

Taking Selfies Seriously

by Mary McGill

Selfie piece

Stupid. Narcissistic. Annoying. Typing ‘selfies are …’ into Google leaves no doubt as to how the phenomenon is generally regarded. It’s evident in the wry eyebrow arch when people hear about my research, that sniff of judgement suggesting in no uncertain terms that taking selfie culture seriously is a suspicious and fanciful activity.

In Western societies were atomisation is endemic, selfie culture is often used to symbolise our current malaise, typified by rising levels of anxiety, loneliness and intolerance. Young women’s fascination with the phenomenon can be particularly worrying, as sociologist Ben Agger underscored when he described the selfie as ‘the male gaze gone viral’.[1] Concern in these contexts is understandable. Dismissing selfie culture, however, and disparaging those who partake in it, brings us no closer to understanding its appeal. And if aspects of that appeal are unsettling or at worst harmful, dismissal brings us no closer to solutions.

As a researcher, I am drawn to the ‘why’ of the selfie’s popularity. My work explores young women’s (aged 18-30) subjective views on the phenomenon and the ways in which they position themselves in relation to it. It pays close attention to the following questions: if we say that selfie practices are indicative of a ‘culture’, what does that mean? And if this culture holds an appeal for women (as is indicated by research, not just opinion), why is this the case? Key to this is taking culture – specifically popular culture, the soup we swim in every day – seriously.

We use the term ‘culture’ in a variety of ways but it usually refers to popular entertainment, and issues of identity, community, and difference. Cultural studies, in the British tradition, understands culture as political, a site where meaning is made and power is challenged, negotiated and exercised. Central to this is subjectivity, how us human beings, as subjects, come to understand ourselves and the world through culture. As John Hartley succinctly puts it, ‘culture is the sphere of reproduction not of goods but of life.’[2]

Feminist cultural studies, the tradition I work within, began, as so often is the case, to redress an imbalance, namely the absence of women in cultural analysis, both as participants and as a focus. Its arrival on the academic scene contributed to the cultural studies’ axis tilting from arguments concerned with ‘ideology and hegemony to those concerning identity and subjectivity’.[3] While the melding of feminism and cultural studies is sometimes difficult, they do share some key concerns, most notably how power and oppression function, and how knowledge is created and naturalised.

In studying selfie culture, I am interested in how our impressions of this new phenomenon have been formed, especially in popular commentary. Such commentary often draws on disparaging tropes of female vanity and narcissism to explain why it is young women are drawn to the selfie. The more these conversations are had, the more these conclusions are reiterated and the more this perspective becomes accepted ‘common sense’, a process that is often as unhelpful as it is lacking in significant insight.

Now, there is no doubt that narcissism and vanity are critical factors. But failure to ask more complex questions of selfie culture (or to reflect on the social and historical relationship between narcissism and femininity) risks developing understandings of it that are at best superficial and at worst, woefully insufficient for unpacking its appeal. As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture. It fails to consider why and how aspects of culture become gendered. It also ignores the richness of women’s experiences and the potential for knowledge distilled from these experiences to challenge injustice.



As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture.



So, what does all this mean for how women engage with selfie culture? To begin, we need to situate the selfie as part of Western visual culture in which images of women created by men dominate advertising, film, photography, classical art and so on. Since the Second Wave, feminist scholars have sought to denaturalise these images, drawing attention to the power dynamics inherent in their construction and the function of such images as commodity objects in capitalist societies. These scholars also explored women’s personal relationships to visual and popular culture. For example, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan showed how iconographies of wifely domesticity differed from women’s subjective experiences of their lives in Fifties and Sixties suburbia[4]. This dissonance led Friedan to remark, ‘A geiger counter clicked in my own inner ear when I could not fit the quiet desperation of so many women into the picture of the modern American housewife.’[5] Images of women then, characteristically represent idealised notions of femininity which girls and women relate to in complex ways.

Digital technologies have enabled women and other minorities to self-represent online, a welcome disruption to the traditional regime of image production, circulation and reception. While the ability to self-represent in a world were representation for all is still a work in progress is a positive, it is not without issue. As French philosopher Michel Foucault puts it, ‘Visibility is a trap.’[6] Foucault refers to the ways in which the process of being seen, whether real or imagined, can be used to instil discipline. Sensing that they are being watched, human beings monitor their behaviour and the behaviour of others. This dynamic influences the kind of behaviour which is deemed socially acceptable and which must be punished.

In representing ourselves on social media using artefacts like the selfie, we claim space through visibility. In doing so, we simultaneously open ourselves up to new, more intense forms of judgement and surveillance. If you have ever posted a tweet that went wrong or a selfie that got no likes, you will know exactly the kinds of feelings that this digital system of ‘being seen’ can inspire. In this climate, I find myself considering whether selfie culture alleviates the kind of dissonance Friedan describes or presents fresh and potentially even more invasive iterations of the same old dynamics. For instance, images of women have long been used to fuel consumer dreams. Thus, in the age of an internet that is designed and dominated by corporations, we need to remain cognizant of how images of women, even those taken by women themselves, can be utilised as commodities by a system that is as patriarchal as it is neoliberal.

Just as ‘the personal is political’ shapes feminist activism, it also informs feminist scholarship. I am regularly struck by how rarely young women’s perspectives feature in mainstream discussions on their relationship to selfie culture. This is exclusionary and short-sighted. In collecting and analysing data from women themselves, feminist scholars have succeeded in challenging flimsy presumptions while providing nuanced understandings of social phenomena. The young women I interview are no dupes; they are well-aware of how the selfie is regarded because they navigate those assumptions every day. Their relationship to selfie culture is complicated and illuminating, but you would never appreciate that if you wrote it off as narcissistic or frivolous, refusing to take the time to listen.

For better or for worse, be it on Instagram or Snapchat or some new-fangled app, the selfie is here to stay. Taking the phenomenon and its enthusiasts seriously is the first step to unpacking its appeal and learning how best to tackle its challenges. If visibility is a trap as Foucault suggests, it is only through attentive, open-minded research that we will be able to identify selfie culture’s worst effects while also gaining useful insights into that which makes it so compelling.


[1] Agger, B. (2013) Quoted in ‘Putting Selfies Under a Feminist Lens’ by Meghan Murphy, Georgia Straight. 3 April 2013. Online at: https://www.straight.com/life/368086/putting-selfies-under-feminist-lens

[2] Hartley, J. (2004) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, p.51

[3] Franklin, S., Lury, C. and Stacey, J. (1991) Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, p.6

[4] Shiach, M. (1991) ‘Feminism and Popular Culture’, Critical Quarterly, 33(2), pp. 37–46.

[5] Friedan, B. (1963) The Feminine Mystique, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, p. 29.

[6] Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Pantheon, p.197.

One year of Women Are Boring

by Catherine Connolly


Women Are Boring was due to celebrate its first birthday on  5th May 2017. However, my co-founder Grace McDermott died tragically on 1st May. Grace’s fiancé Colin has written a beautiful homage to her, which you can read here. You can also donate to a charity in her memory by following this link.

While the blog is currently on a short hiatus, I wanted to write something small, for Grace, about what Women Are Boring has achieved in the fourteen months since we launched. We were blown away by the response to the site, and I continue to be humbled by the messages of support that we get every day. We worked really hard, and had so much fun as we did. We regularly told each other that it was one of the best things either of us had ever done. Every single moment of doing this with Grace was exciting and joyous, because we shared it together. We met at the beginning of our PhDs, in 2014. She felt like a friend I had been waiting for my whole life. My heart is broken, and I miss her more than words can say.


Through the site, we met wonderful people, read and shared fascinating research every day, and created a community of women in academia through the Women Are Boring forum, which now has over 600 members. The site received its first acknowledgement and citation in an academic journal in May 2017, and numerous contributors have been featured and quoted in news stories as a result of their contributions. To date, there have been more than 100,000 views of the site, from almost every country in the world. In the past year we took part in numerous events to talk about the women whose research is featured on the site, why academic research is so important, and why we need women experts featured in media. Grace and I hoped that in some small way we were achieving what we set out to do when we created the site – to increase public engagement with academic research, to enhance the visibility of the women doing that research, and to improve the representation of women as experts.

When we discovered that only 24% of experts quoted in news media in Ireland and the UK are women, we decided to create a space for expert women’s voices ourselves. We couldn’t have done so without our partners, our families, our friends, and most of all, the women who contribute their research to the site – it could not exist without them, and they have supported and championed the project from the very beginning. Thank you all so much.

What follows are the most popular posts from each month of the first year of Women Are Boring, along with some of our own favourites. It is such an honour to promote this research, and the women who conduct it. I’ve also included some of our media interviews, and pieces that Grace wrote for the site. I would really love for everyone to read these and to listen to our podcast interview, so as to hear Grace herself in her own funny, smart, ferocious, and always brilliant words.

Women Are Boring will be back with new pieces of fascinating research by interesting women at some point in the future. Thank you so much for reading.


Pieces by Grace

10 Things Americans can do to make St. Patrick’s Day about more than alcohol and appropriation. Grace was from New York – a proud Long Islander – and she wrote this piece in about half an hour on St. Patrick’s Day 2017, after becoming annoyed at some St. Patrick’s Day articles she’d seen online. Grace wrote this piece with her usual ferocity, humour and critical mind (and Irish people should read it too!).

The Media Gender gap… and what to do about it. Why the invisibility of women in media matters and what you can do about it.

Grace and I wrote this piece on Gender, Media and the Unbreakable Ivory Ceiling together for The Institute for Future Media & Journalism (FuJo) in DCU. We look at gender equality in Irish academic institutions, and female academics in the media.

The L’Oréal – UNESCO for Women in Science Awards: Grace wrote this piece about the importance of women in research and how research funding is allocated after we attended the 2016 L’Oréal – UNESCO event in London.

Women Are Boring media interviews and features

Listen to our chat with the wonderful Very Loose Women podcast

Our most recent interview was with the excellent Riposte Magazine

We were SO excited to learn that we had been featured in Marie Claire magazine in South Africa!

We chatted feminism and normalising the intellectual female voice with Siún of As An Nua

Our first print interview was in The Irish Times, in September 2016

We were interviewed in the January 2017 issue of Irish Country Magazine, and featured in the August 2016 issue of Stellar magazine


The most popular posts during the first year of Women Are Boring

May 2016: The Political Participation of Women in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina, by Tajma Kapic. The very first piece published on Women Are Boring, by our amazing friend Tajma. Learn about why it’s important for women to be involved in post-conflict peace processes, and what happens when they’re not.

June 2016: What now for UK academia? Twelve academics on Brexit. Twelve academics working in the UK give their reaction to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and the affect they think it will have on higher education in the UK.

July 2016: All by myself: what I have learned from doing fieldwork on my own. Olivia Wilkinson writes about travelling abroad on her own to conduct her fieldwork research, and gives advice for others who want to do the same.

August 2016: Waking the Feminists: Ringing the alarm for gender equality in theatre. We spoke to three women, all involved in different aspects of theatre in Ireland, about what the Waking the Feminists movement means to them.

September 2016: Death and Me. Dr. Ruth Penfold-Mounce writes about her research into death and popular culture, from Disney movies to celebrity deaths.

October 2016: Women: Ruling Hallowe’en since forever. Dr. Lucy Ryder tells us about the origins of Hallowe’en, and how women have always been central to its celebration.

November 2016: Space weather: predicting the future. Aoife McCloskey researches weather in space (yes, there’s weather in space), how it affects the Earth, and how we can predict it.

December 2016: Women, Shakespeare and Ireland: What ish my nation? Emer McHugh grapples with women, national identity, and Shakespeare.

January 2017: Using Evidence of Previous Sexual History in Rape Cases: The Ched Evans Case, Part 1 (trigger warning). Molly Joyce’s important three-part series on understanding the Ched Evans case, and the use of sexual history in rape cases in England and Wales.

February 2017: Dr. Kearney, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Imposter Syndrome. Eve Kearney’s piece on adapting to life as a PhD student, and accepting the imposter syndrome that many PhD students experience, is a perennial favourite of visitors to the site.

March 2017: Researching through recovery: Embarking on a PhD post-brain surgery. Sinead Matson writes about starting a PhD after undergoing brain surgery, and overcoming the challenges that come with it.

April 2017: Literary representations of maternity. Helen Charman’s wonderful piece on literature and maternity, featuring Beyoncé, Warsan Shire, Georg Eliot, and Adrienne Rich.

And some more:

Learn about the diversity of life on Earth and the role of evolution in this piece by Emma Dunne.

‘There’s something about women who speak – sing, even – that makes people nervous…’

Parents and friends provide an important role for young people with depression

Fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

Think animals don’t have personalities? Think again! This excellent piece also has lots of monkey photos, and an appearance by the legendary Jane Goodall

Understand why there are difficulties with preventing sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers on peacekeeping missions (trigger warning)

One of our STEM editors, Reham Badawy, writes about her research into developing a mobile phone app that can detect Parkinson’s Disease before symptoms arise.

Carol Ballantine writes about stigma, shame, and gender-based violence.

Folktales may have an evolutionary benefit for humans

There are tons more excellent pieces on the site – please do go and explore them and tell people about them!

(Our wonderful logo was created by Chloe Randall-Hinton, who recently graduated from the Winchester School of Art. See more of her work here)

Homage to the one I love

by Colin O’ Neill, fiancee of our late co-founder, Grace McDermott.


Colin and Grace, minutes after their engagement on Christmas Eve 2016.

Each morning I wake up to the same ritual of horror. For a fleeting second my hazy mind forgets, then I remember that I have lost you all over again. So perpetual, it feels almost routine at this point and the worst part of all is that I can’t see that feeling ever ending. The contrast to my morning routine prior to May 1st is almost laughable. ‘Now I wake up happy, warm in a lover’s embrace. No-one else can touch us, while we’re in this place.’ Remember we used to send each other songs when we first met? My desperate attempt at trying to tell you how I felt, or even that ‘I liked you’. I remember you telling me how much you loved that lyric. I had it all with you, that’s the hardest part.

I met Grace in Melbourne back in 2012. We immediately hit it off. I convinced myself that Grace would pay someone to put her lunch in the highest cupboard just so she could ask me to get it for her each day.  I would get ripped apart by the lads coming in from work in the evening because I wouldn’t shut up about the cute American girl at the office and would go on to tell them about the countless email chains of flirting. ‘How’d it go this week, Col?’ It was all in good fun but they knew something serious was coming. I couldn’t believe my luck when she agreed to go for dinner with me.

You were beautiful, charming, kind, caring and funny. I thought I was cool (I wasn’t). My USP was that I played in a band (I’m laughing now thinking about how cool I thought I was), but when you began to explain to me the theory behind musical chord structures I was in complete awe… Is there anything this girl doesn’t have? We talked about music and we laughed all night. I remember you telling me all about your family as we had dinner, I was instantly hooked. We told each other that we were going our separate ways after 3 months but I think we both knew that wouldn’t happen, and when I left you at the train station that day, I stared at my phone for an hour before sending you a message ‘Maybe we should give this a go?’ We sure did that. The proceeding years, I will never forget.


Life with Grace was one of constant amazement. The pride I felt every day as she would tell me of her latest success is one I cannot effectively describe. Invited to speak about her PhD at conferences all over Europe, lecturing, activism and of course, this amazing blog, which led to interviews and cover stories in countless broadsheet newspapers & publications. I watched her lecture in DCU. There she was, 5 foot nothing, controlling the auditorium. Even the students that arrived late after quite clearly enjoying the finer side of college were glued to Grace. I didn’t get to see her after the class as there was a queue – a mile long – of students waiting to get a few minutes of her time. I checked out her twitter upon arriving at my office, streams of students ‘I want to do what you do’ or ‘Thank you, that was the best lecture I ever attended’ and so on.

Equality was one of Grace’s biggest passions. She firmly (and correctly) believed that women should not have to choose between work success and family. She wanted to be the CEO of an organization and have 100 kids. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting one and not the other, however, Grace wanted both. She would stop at nothing to achieve whatever she set her mind on. My Girl, My Hero.

My life with Grace was one of utter happiness. We loved, laughed, sang & travelled. We were best friends in every sense of the word. As I read through all the glowing tributes of Grace’s achievements, I came across one written by a lady that Grace thought the world of. At the risk of misquoting, I recall a line ‘Above all else, Grace was a goof!’. THIS was my Grace. We had a mutual respect for everything we achieved, but we were total goofs. We laughed literally all day every day. We would sing together in the car and of course I would give her a hard time about the high harmonies and insist that I would do them if she couldn’t hit the notes. We would be the first on the dance floor at every wedding and tended to remain there for the duration of the night. It was easy to see where she got it from, though. I recall my first meeting with the McDermott family at a family wedding in New Jersey. Moments after we were seated for the meal, we were on the dance floor… The panic running through my veins as I was yet to have a drink! What a night, zero inhibitions. They were as mad as I was!


I recently sat and spoke to a friend of mine about how many lives Grace touched. In 30 minutes, we could name 5 people that Grace not only touched, she helped shape them. I can only speak for myself, however. In the first 3 months of our relationship I found out Grace was moving back to Ireland to pursue her PhD, I simply had to be there. I came up with a plan to speak to our boss about moving back to Ireland and setting up my own business in partnership with the company. He knew exactly what I was up to. I was motivated, so it made sense for all of us. The first 2 years of any company can be a struggle, we certainly had plenty of them. Coming home every night and hearing the words ‘I am so proud of you’ was enough for me to get myself out of bed the next day and go again. She was my rock, there is absolutely no doubting that. Grace gave me so much strength every single day. I would tell Grace all the time, ‘Ah I’m not smart, sure I didn’t even go to college’, she would flip! She would then begin to explain to me all the different ways someone can be intelligent and that I too was intelligent. When someone tells you that for four or five years, it starts to rub off. I can honestly say she made me who I am. Grace made me believe I could achieve things, constantly in my ear with reassurance, love and support. My brother mentioned during his eulogy, ‘Grace met people on their level’, that may have been her number 1 asset, she just knew how to connect.

 Over the past few weeks your friends and family have told me how much you loved me. I can’t tell you how nice that was to hear, but I already knew. You were so incredible at showing me. I have never felt love like the love you gave me. You told me all the time and I could even tell when you looked at me. You made me the happiest man in the world when you agreed to marry me, I’m sitting here picturing your face that day. It was the best day of my life and I keep trying to replay it in my head.

Though I know that this might sound arrogant, I believe what we had was truly unique. I try to tell myself that if the world was meant to lose you on that date, how lucky was I that I got to spend the last five years of your life being loved by you. I go through all the usual emotions, daily. In my selfish hours, I feel hard done by, but I am still here. I know how wonderful your life was and I know how much you achieved, but you were taken too soon. You would have been a fierce and amazing mother and I know how much we both wanted that. It’s just unfair.

 I will try to live my life in a way that would make Grace McDermott proud of me. I will keep my chin up and try to achieve anything I feel she would approve of. I know my life will never be the same but that is something I must live with and walk with (I can hear her screaming at me now ‘different doesn’t mean bad’) but I will have to disagree with her on that one. I suppose I just miss my best friend.

I love you Grace. Thank you for being my number 1 fan, for teaching me how to be a better human and for choosing me to be your life partner. I just wish it lasted another 50 years. x



You can donate to charity in Grace’s memory here, and learn more about her work here.

Charity donations in honour of Grace McDermott (1990-2017), co-founder of Women Are Boring


Gracie remembrance leaflet

Grace McDermott, 1990-2017.

As most readers of the blog will have now heard, our incredible co-founder Grace McDermott died tragically on 1st May 2017. She was 26 years old. Everyone who knew and loved her (and there are so many of us) are still slowly trying to come to terms with this devastating and enormous loss.

Many people have been in contact with me in the week since Grace’s tragic death, enquiring as to whether there is a cause they can donate to in her honour. Below this brief message is a list of charities (some are based in Grace’s adopted home of Ireland, some in the United States – Grace was a very proud Long Islander), created by the McDermott family and by Grace’s fiancée Colin O’ Neill and his family, to which they ask that you donate should you wish to do so.

For the many who have asked if it is possible to donate to Women Are Boring, thank you so, so much. Your thoughts are very much appreciated. However, I firmly believe that all of the charities listed below are far more in need of your generosity. Each of these charities provide important and much-needed services, many of which are underfunded, and all of which are valuable.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone so much for their extremely thoughtful and beautiful words about Grace, and your messages of support for Women Are Boring over the past week. I can’t tell you how much they’ve all meant to me. Aside from being a colleague here on the blog, Grace was a best friend to me – I love her so much, I miss her so much, and I am bereft to be without her.

Women Are Boring will continue. Some of the messages I’ve received in the last few days have demonstrated to me (more than either of us had realised before) how much this project means to many people in academia, and to those who have no connection with the academic world. For this reason, and because Women Are Boring is now a small part of Grace’s substantial legacy (and perhaps most importantly because Grace would kick my ass if I stopped now), Women Are Boring will be back soon.

Catherine Connolly, co-founder, Women Are Boring.

Women Are Boring_0004

Message from the McDermott & O’ Neill families:

In consideration of Grace’s commitment and work for social causes, should anyone care to make a charitable donation in lieu of flowers, please consider the following charities for your donation in Grace’s name:

Charities based in Ireland


Cradle is an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) working with child refugees and community development projects in crisis-hit and war torn regions.


To Donate Online: https://www.idonate.ie/2334_cradle.html ______________________________________________________

Irish ALS/ Motor Neurone Disease Association (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Sonas Women’s Refuge Charity, on behalf of Grace McDermott

Accepting donations for the treatment of ALS (Lou Gherig’s) disease; and the Sonas Women’s Refuge Charity, an organization for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse in Dublin, Ireland.

(While the original fundraising page for both the above charities is now closed to donations, you can still donate to either of these charities in Grace’s name at the following links):

Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association: www.imnda.ie/get-involved/donate/donate-online

Sonas Women’s Refuge Charity: www.womensaid.ie/donate/


Charities based in the United States

Nassau Suffolk Services for Autism Adult Program

Nassau Suffolk Services for Autism
The Martin C. Barell School
80 Hauppauge Road
Commack, NY 11725
(ph) 631-462-0386
(fax) 631-462-4201
Email: office@nssa.net
To Donate Online: http://www.nssa.net/donate/
Stupid Cancer
An organization focused on empowering and assisting young adults affected by cancer.
To Donate Online: http://give.stupidcancer.org/grace


Camp Spaulding provides services for many children in the New Hampshire area, including children in underprivileged and high risk homes.

To Donate Online: https://ymcacampspaulding.org/make-a-difference/ways-to-give/ Gift by phone: tel. 603.598.1533 during business hours. Gift by email: jschupack@nmymca.org ______________________________________________________________________________


Grace McDermott Tour Scholarship Fund

Grace sang Alto with the MYO Youth Chorale from 2005-2007, and toured with them as one of the first vocalists ever on a MYO tour, performing throughout New York and on a summer tour in China. Grace spoke about traveling with the MYO China tour at such a young age as being a formative experience and essential to developing her independence, and leading to her decision to live abroad.

To Donate online: http://www.myo.org/support-myo/grace-mcdermott-tour-scholarship-fund/ To Donate by Telephone: call 516-365-6961. ______________________________________________________________________________