Feminist research, activism, public participation, and social change

Research needs to look towards a future of public participation and institutional disruption, writes Yvonne Kiely, Dublin City University

Research questions often come about in response to an identified problem. Whether this problem is social, scientific, political, micro or macro, researchers attend to the minutest details with their chosen methods in order to affect a change in our understanding of these problems, and ultimately the problems themselves. My own field of feminist media research has, at its core, issues of social justice and disruption; there is a conscious and deliberate aim to readdress inequalities within the media-gender relationship. For many researchers and institutions, the aim is social change.

And change does happen. Since the 1970s – since feminism was realised as a worldwide movement – feminist media research has been disrupting and enriching discussions about the relationship between gender and media in society. The first feminist critique of media was heard in Mexico City at the first of three UN Decades for Women conferences in 1975, and this milestone, where women’s representation by media and within its structures was a central issue, added another critical dimension to the wider feminist movement, and to academia (see Byerly, 2016). The beginnings of feminist media scholarship were rooted within this identification of a problem and the desire to disrupt the status quo for the sake of equality and justice. In doing so, the public, lived experiences of women within media industries became an integral part of how research was directed and articulated in policy and institutional strategy. Today, the field is still evolving and challenging researchers to investigate the structures of our media institutions with fresh critical thinking.

The potential for direct social impact is inherent within feminist research.

The potential for direct social impact is inherent within feminist research. As some scholars have written about the relationship between feminist research and activism, “Many feminist researchers have been influenced by the research questions generated by women’s movements and consider it a moral imperative that their research should include women’s voices. They wish to change both the subjects and the objects of study” (Ackerly & True, 2010).

Among many academic institutions worldwide there is a strong and visible commitment to feminist research, gender studies, and the social good that can be achieved through engaging with communities. However, there is a problem within the protocols and practices of higher level education. The reality which all too often acts as a book end to huge swathes of good, painstakingly uncovered knowledge is one of inertia and stasis. From an insider’s perspective, you can see time and time again, significant pieces of research entering a normalised cycle of publication and citation with the full potential of the research itself locked behind a paywall. Uninterrupted access to the vast majority of this knowledge requires you to be a member of the institutional framework – an academic, or a student – which again comes with its own price tag. The reality of these institutional frameworks is arguably the biggest fault of academia. It is a reality that requires us to think differently about the research journey.

It is a reality that can be readdressed with the understanding that the full potential of socially impactful research resides in the encouragement and inclusion of public action and participation.

My journey from research question to publication brought me face-to-face with the stickiest catch-22 of higher level education. In the summer of 2017 I investigated gender in the music industry. Over these months I interviewed six women who occupy various roles within the music industry in Ireland. Coupled with this was a content analysis of two popular music magazines; Hot Press(Ireland) and Rolling Stone(USA). I tracked over forty years of gender on the covers of these magazines and applied a total of 8,721 individual categorisations to the people in these spaces. The result: gender matters in the music industry, and it matters in very specific ways.

It was the decision to make my research publicly available on my website* earlier this year which revealed to me the voices that academic protocols and paywalls are excluding from the conversation. They are the people to whom the research is most relevant.

The first article I published discussed my initial research question and the journey which led me to the real question that needed to be asked about gender, power and visibility in the music industry. Specifically, in relation to women music producers, the question of ‘why are there so few?’ is imprecise, and the figure of ‘less than five percent’ extensively cited by articles is inaccurate. There is a difference between what we see in the visible, widely established music industry, and what is actually there; the question we need to ask is ‘why do we seeso few?’

The second article detailed the investigation of gender on music magazine covers, and for the first time the shared transatlantic trends of how gender is constructed on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stonewere uncovered and articulated.

Combined, these two articles have been read 947 times in almost 60 countries across five continents. Within the space of six months the reach of these articles has exceeded my expectations, and their longevity endures today as they continue to be read. Since the first article was published I’ve received comments and emails from female identifying people in the music industry congratulating me on the research and thanking me for it. Through participatory spaces within online music networks, this research has travelled. Though I cannot say for sure that the people in Albania, Guadeloupe, Mongolia, or Serbia would not have read this research had it gone through academic protocols and been published by peer-reviewed journals, I can certainly speculate as to the difference in reach and accessibility.

One approach that aims to disrupt the traditional boundaries between researcher and subject, and calls for the restructuring of academic frameworks is Participatory Action Research (PAR). Through witnessing the tangible social impact of research sharing in public space, PAR has become critically important to how I conceptualise the research journey.

“Feminist principles of equality, reciprocity, partiality and valuing the voices of ordinary people as expert and authoritative on their own lives are reflected in PAR” (Pain, Kindon & Kesby, 2007).

PAR also asks us to challenge ourselves as researchers.

“PAR introduces new questions about representation, audience and product that compel us to rethink the role and impact of research. More than an epistemological shift, this approach brings commitments to action that push researchers to work in new and sometimes unfamiliar ways” (Cahill & Torre, 2007).

The argument presented by this article is directed squarely at the protocols, politics and paywalls of academic institutions. By all means, we need the peer-review system; research needs to be critiqued and scrutinised by an objective overseer before it is given the zeal of academic approval in a journal. But the cycle of publication and citation behind closed doors needs to be disrupted to allow for public engagement, to allow for the subjects of these socially significant pieces of research to become part of the conversation. For feminist researchers taking inspiration from the questions raised by women’s liberation movements and feminist activism, and for activists who change the language of gender politics and give voice to the changing needs of an equal and just society, there is a mutual interest in the creation of shared participatory spaces, and the disruption of a system which defines access to knowledge as a question of wealth, protocols and institutional status.

*Parts one and two of the ‘Researching gender in music series’ can be accessed here.

 

 

 

References

Ackerly, B. and True, J. (2010). Back to the future: Feminist theory, activism, and doing feminist    research in an age of globalization. Women’s Studies International Forum, 33(5), pp.464-  472.

Byerly, C. M. (2016). Stasis and shifts in feminist media scholarship. In C. Cerqueira; R.    Cabecinhas & S. I. Magalhães (Eds.), Gender in focus: (new) trends in media (pp. 15-27).

Cahill, C. and Torre, M. E. (2007). Beyond the journal article: representations, audience, and the     presentation of Participatory Action Research. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & M. Kesby (Eds),                      Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: connecting people, participation    and place (pp. 196-206).

Kindon, S., Pain, R. and Kesby, M. (2007). Participatory Action Research: origins, approaches and            methods. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & M. Kesby (Eds), Participatory Action Research   Approaches and Methods: connecting people, participation and place (pp.9-19)

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Is Street Art Subject to Copyright?

by Dr Aislinn O’ Connell, lecturer in law at Royal Holloway University of London.

Is there a copyright in street art? And if so, to what extent can artists use that right to protect and control their artworks? If Banksy wished for his work to remain on the street, and not be sold in a museum in Miami, is there anything he can do to enforce that wish?

Banksy art buff

A Banksy piece entitled ‘Art Buff’, which was returned to Folkestone in the UK from Miami, USA, following a lengthy legal battle. Photo via Helmut Zozmann.

In 2018, retail giant H&M launched an advertising campaign which showed a model wearing their clothes, in front of a wall which had been illegally sprayed by street artist Revok. He sent them a letter requesting they cease using his artwork without payment. H&M responded by seeking a declaration from the Eastern District of New York court that illegally placed graffiti is not subject to copyright protection.[1] Although H&M later dropped the suit, and posted on their Twitter that they did not intend to ‘set a precedent concerning public art’, interest in the legalities of protecting street art is clear, and growing. In the time between beginning[2] to write this article for Women are Boring and the time of publication, another lawsuit regarding street art has hit the headlines. Oakley, a glasses manufacturer, was named as the defendant in a Californian lawsuit.[3] Donald Robbins and Noah Daar, better known as Keptione and DJ Rakus, alleged that their artwork was deliberately included in an Oakley advertising campaign without the correct licence.

Street art – that is to say, visual artworks located in public – is not going away. Although the practice of writing on walls stretches back tens of thousands of years,[4] modern graffiti and aerosol painting dates slightly more recently, to the 1970s in New York,[5] then spreading to other locations.[6] The practice of writing and drawing on walls is not new, from London advertisers[7] to loyalist murals in Northern Ireland.[8] The monetisation of that work, however, brings new issues with it. With street art pieces selling for six-figure sums,[9] street art pieces being sold ‘with house attached’,[10] and disputes being taken to court over who owns the wall on which a Banksy mural was placed,[11] street art is a valuable commodity. It was this specific case – Creative Foundation v Dreamland – which ignited my interest in this area of law. Although it was a protracted legal battle over who owned an artwork, the person who created the artwork – anonymous street artist Banksy – was only briefly mentioned in the judge’s decision, to state that he presumably owned the copyright in the work.[12] From there, my interest was ignited. Is there a copyright in street art? And if so, to what extent can artists use that right to protect and control their artworks?[13] If Banksy wished for his work to remain on the street, and not be sold in a museum in Miami, is there anything he can do to enforce that wish? Why might street art be seen as less deserving of protection than other forms of art? Can multinational companies attempted to deny creators of artworks the right to profit from further use of those artworks?

Graffiti, street art, or any form of damage to property, is a criminal offence under s1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Local authority officers who suspect that an individual has been writing graffiti or fly-posting are empowered to issue a fixed penalty notice[14] of £100[15] on the spot. They can alternatively prosecute for penalties under the Criminal Damage Act, including a custodial sentence of up to ten years for sufficiently severe damage.[16] Local authorities are also empowered to serve notices on property owners, requiring them to remove defacements to their buildings,[17] or allowing the Local Authority to recover the costs of removing such defacements.[18] While there is much discussion on whether graffiti is art or crime (or both),[19] graffiti prevention and control,[20] urban perspectives on graffiti cultures,[21] there is little discussion of how, or whether, street artists can exercise their rights to control their artwork, and the tensions that might create when juxtaposed against the criminal penalties which exist, as well as the rights of property owners whose works are – arguably – defaced by the artist.[22] Therefore, when works of art are being sold for millions, or reproduced for public consumption, is there any benefit to the artist from this?

Under the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988, any artistic work, any painting, drawing, chart, map, or plan, is protected by copyright.[23] Copyright is the set of rights which allows the owner of that copyright to control the reproduction and distribution of that work to the public, as well as controlling renting or lending to the public, communicating the work, or doing any of the above with relation to that work.[24] Simply put, an artwork cannot be reproduced or distributed without the permission of the author, or the person who the author assigned their copyright to. This applies regardless of the artistic quality of a work[25] – so a work of majestic skill and passion is protected to the same extent as a work which is badly drawn, badly executed, and visually unappealing – provided the required standard of creativity is met. The standard, which was set out in a European case called Infopaq,[26] states that in order to attain copyright protection, the work must be ‘the author’s own intellectual creation’.[27] This means it need not necessarily be skilled work, simply creative work. Thus, while there may be some street art that does not meet the required standard, it is so unlikely as to be impossible that all street art would fail the standard, meaning it is not a barrier to copyright protection. Thus, from a reading of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, together with relevant case law from the European Courts, there is nothing that prevents copyright from arising in works of street art. However, this then runs into tension against the conception of street art and graffiti as discussed above, illegal criminal damage, and subject to criminal penalties. As well as this, there are procedures in place to prevent those who commit crimes from profiting from that criminal activity – which could apply to those who seek to gain economically from graffiti or street art.[28] However, control of one’s art – and the rights granted by copyright – are more than just economic rights. Copyright also grants moral rights, including the right of attribution[29] (to be identified as the author of the work) and the right to object to derogatory treatment of the work.[30] As such, while the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 may prohibit artists from gaining economically from their criminal vandalism, it would not necessarily prevent the copyright from arising in the first place. It would simply empower the recovery of profits made after the fact.

While there have been multiple attempts by graffiti and street artists to claim copyright in their works, all have settled out of court or been dismissed, including suits against fashion house Moschino,[31] fashion house Cavalli,[32] McDonalds,[33] and American Eagle Outfitters.[34] Equally, street artists have exercised rights which are ancillary to copyright in both the UK and the US. Anonymous street artist Banksy profits[35] from the Artist’s Resale Right,[36] a right which entitles creators of physical artworks to a proportion of the proceeds from the sale of their work. Although not strictly copyright, the Artists Resale Right is closely linked to it. Similarly, a 2018 New York case granted almost $7million dollars in damages to 45 street artists after their (placed with permission) artworks were whitewashed by owner of the buildings they were painted on. This too was not under copyright, but under the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990,[37] which grants specific protections to artworks of recognised stature which are displayed in public.[38]

However, while the granting of ancillary rights may go far to suggest that street art is gaining legitimacy as art which is protected by law, there still is not yet a case precedent which adequately settles the question of whether street art is subject to copyright protections and provisions, whether legally or illegally placed.

All of the cases mentioned immediately above were from US courts, which have similar – although not identical – provisions to the UK. There is, as yet, no similar complaint which has been lodged in the English courts. The only mention in English courts – aside from prosecutions for criminal damage and vandalism – is in the 2015 Creative Foundation v Dreamland[39] judgment. In this case, which concerned the removal of a Banksy mural from a wall in Folkestone for sale in Miami, the dispute was whether the wall (and consequently the mural which was painted on the wall) was the property of the landlord of the building or the tenant occupier. In finding for the landlord, Arnold J stated:

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not concerned with the copyright in the artistic work, which prima facie belongs to Banksy[40]

This presumes not only that the copyright in the work belongs to Banksy, but also that a copyright actually exists in the work. However, it is not a binding declaration, and does not explicitly grant copyright in works of street art.

I would argue that an interpretation of UK copyright law as it stands does include street art and graffiti which reaches the required standard of creativity. There is no statutory provision or case law which denies those automatic protections to street art, and there is arguably case precedent which supports it. Although there are inherent tensions between the criminal nature of some works of vandalism and the granting of artistic rights, depriving artists who paint without permission of the rights which automatically arise for those who paint with permission is an unjustifiable derogation from current law which is not supported by an interpretation of the provisions as they stand. And, as the history of artists taking others to court to protect their rights shows, I am not alone in this stance.

 

[1] H&M Hennes & Mauritz GBC AB et al v Williams, EDNY 1:18-cv-01490

[2] H&M [hm]. (15 March 2018). https://t.co/NMLCiv4iSt [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/hm/status/974384097316491264 accessed 25 June 2018. The tweet consists of an image, with the following text:
H&M respects the creativity and uniqueness of artists, no matter the medium. We should have acted differently in our approach to this matter. It was never our intention to set a precedent concerning public art or to influence the debate on the legality of street art. As a result, we are withdrawing the complaint filed in court. We are currently reaching out to the artist in question to come up with a solution. Thank you for your comments and concerns, as always, your voice matters to us.

[3] Robbins et al v Oakley, Inc et al, Central Californian District Court 2:18-cv-05116

[4] Valladas and others, ‘Radiocarbon AMS Dates for Paleolithic Cave Paintings’ 2001 43(2B) Proceedings of the 17th International Radiocarbon Conference 977.

[5] Norman Mailer, Mervyn Kurlansky and Jon Naar, The Faith of Graffiti (New York: Praeger, 1974)

[6] For more, see photographic collections of street art such as Magda Danysz, From Style Writing to Art: A Street Art Anthology (Drago, 2010); Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Subway Art (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1984); Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff, Spraycan Art (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1987).

[7] On which see Alison Young, Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination (Routledge, 2013), 5.

[8] Magda Danysz, From Style Writing to Art: A Street Art Anthology (Drago, 2010) 304.

[9] Maev Kennedy, ‘Sotheby’s cleans up on Banksy at £500k a time’ (6 June 2014, The Guardian) <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/06/sothebys-banksy-artist-exhibition-street-art> accessed 25 June 2018.

[10] Sara Newman, ‘Banksy mural goes on sale – with a house thrown in’ (10 February 2007, Independent) <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/banksy-mural-goes-on-sale-with-a-house-thrown-in-435813.html> accessed 25 June 2018.

[11] Creative Foundation v Dreamland Leisure Ltd, [2015] EWHC 2556 (Ch)

[12] ibid, 2.

[13] You may question why this article does not include any images of works of street art; this is because of its conclusion. I would argue that street art does attract copyright protection, and thus to include pictures of street art without a proper licence would be an infringement of copyright. Even if I took the photographs myself, the artwork which is depicted in the photograph would have a separate copyright, and thus publishing that photo without a licence for the street art work would be a violation of copyright.

[14] Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, s 43(1).

[15] Environmental Offences (Fixed Penalties) (England) Regulations 2017, Reg 7.

[16] Prolific tagger Tox, whose tags are visible on trains, buses, walls, bridges, from London to Paris, was sentenced to 27 months in prison after being convicted of multiple counts of criminal damage in 2011. Paul Cheston, ‘Prolific Graffiti vandal jailed for 27 months’ London Evening Standard (18 July 2011) <https://web.archive.org/web/20111217055429/http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23970702-prolific-graffiti-vandal-jailed-for-27-months.do> accessed 25 June 2018.

[17] Anti-social behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, s 43.

[18] ibid, s 47.

[19] See, for example, Cameron McAuliffe and Kurt Iveson, ‘Art and Crime (and Other Things Besides … ):

Conceptualising Graffiti in the City’ (2011) 5(3) Geography Compass 128

[20] For example, Jeff Ferrell, ‘Urban Graffiti: Crime, Control and Resistance’ (1995) 27(1) Youth and Society 73; Rob White, ‘Graffiti, Crime Prevention and Cultural Space’ (2001) 12(3) Current Issues in Criminal Justice 253

[21] For a fascinating look at feminism in American hip hop and graffiti cultures, see Jessica Nydia Pabón-Cohón, Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in Hip-Hop Urban Diaspora (2011, NYU Press).

[22] That is not to say that there is no discussion. See, for example, Enrico Bonadio, ‘Copyright protection of street art and graffiti under UK law’ (2017) 2 Intellectual Property Quarterly 187; Marta Iljadica, Copyright Beyond Law: Regulating Creativity in the Graffiti Subculture (2016, Hart).

[23] Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988, s4.

[24] ibid, s16.

[25] ibid, s4.

[26] Infopaq International A/S v Danske Dagblades Forening (2009) C-5/08. This case concerned whether short summaries of news articles attracted copyright protection as creative works in their own right, or whether they could be freely copied on the basis that they did not meet the minimum standard for copyright protection. The court found that they were sufficiently creative, and were subject to protection.

[27] Infopaq at paras 1, 6, 7, 11, 33, 35, 37, 44, 48.

[28] For more information see Criminal Prosecution Service, ‘Proceeds of Crime’ (undated) <https://www.cps.gov.uk/proceeds-crime> accessed 25 June 2018.

[29] Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, s 77.

[30] Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, s 80.

[31] Tierney v Moschino et al, Central California District Court, 2:15-cv-05900-SVW (PJWx).

[32] Jason Williams, et al v Roberto Cavalli SpA, et al, Central California District Court, CV 14-06659-AB.

[33] Berreau v McDonalds Corp, Central California District Court, 2:16-cv-07394.

[34] Anasagasti v. American Eagle Outfitters, Inc, New York Southern District Court, 1:14-cv-05618.

[35] Maev Kennedy, ‘Sotheby’s cleans up on Banksy at £500k a time’ (6 June 2014, The Guardian) <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/06/sothebys-banksy-artist-exhibition-street-art> accessed 25 June 2018.

[36] The Artist’s Resale Right Regulations 2006, s 3.

[37] Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), 17 USC § 106A.

[38] Aislinn O’Connell, ‘The 5Pointz Case: Damages awarded against property owner for whitewashing street art’ (2018) 7(1) Journal of Intellectual Property Law and Practice 529.

[39] Creative Foundation v Dreamland Leisure Ltd, [2015] EWHC 2556 (Ch).

[40] Creative Foundation v Dreamland Leisure Ltd, [2015] EWHC 2556 (Ch) 2.

Law and suffrage: Four women lawyers who campaigned for the right to vote

The relationship between ‘Votes for Women’ and Early Women Lawyers in England and Wales: A glimpse into my PhD research by Laura Noakes

When my friend asked me what I was planning to study for my PhD, I told him I was investigating the relationship between the campaign for women’s suffrage and early women lawyers. He looked at me blankly. I said, “oh, you know—the suffragettes. Think Mary Poppins and the Pankhurst’s and throwing stones at windows.” He thought for a moment and then said, with a very serious expression on his face: “Suffragettes are a kind of Viking, right?”

It was probably at that admittedly hilarious moment that I realised why I thought my research was important. If you weren’t aware, the Suffragettes aren’t a type of Viking. They were women, members of a group dedicated to getting the parliamentary franchise for women. In fact, the Suffragettes were one of a myriad of groups that formed and campaigned for this goal—there were the organisations as diverse as the Actresses Franchise League, the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, and my personal favourite, the Gymnastic Teachers’ Suffrage Society. All used diverse methods to bring attention to their cause, from petitions and demonstrations, to accosting MPs and committing arson, to throwing handbills out of dirigible air balloon at 3,500 ft! 2018 marks the centenary since *some* (believe me, it’s a very important distinction) women gained the parliamentary vote.

But suffrage is only a part of my research. I’m also interested in the slightly more niche topic of early women lawyers. Women couldn’t become either barristers or solicitors until after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed and became law. However, they could study law at university from the 1880s, and some women tried to enter the legal profession prior to the 1919 act. Some also practiced ‘unofficially’— at the borders of the legal profession.

I’m looking at this fascinating connection within the context of four women: Eliza Orme, Christabel Pankhurst, Helena Normanton and Chrystal MacMillan. All played pivotal roles in women entering the legal profession, and were also involved in the suffrage campaign. Their legal education helped to inform and influence suffrage tactics, and in turn their participation in the often misogynistic and sometimes violent campaign for Votes for Women prepared them for the trials and tribulation of their later careers.

Eliza_Orme

Eliza Orme

Interestingly, two of these four women never officially practised law. Eliza Orme was born in 1848, and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came too late for her to put her legal expertise into practice. However, she was the first woman in England to graduate with a Law degree in 1888. Eliza soon realised that the legal profession was well and truly shut to women, and so, instead of trying to be admitted in the traditional way, she skirted the rules and set up an office as a “devil” in Chancery Lane. A “devil” is sort of like a trainee barrister, and Eliza would have spent her time drafting documents for counsel. Eliza was involved in the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first national group dedicated to getting women the vote. She was also a passionate supporter of the Liberal party, even writing a biography of Sophia Fry, the founder of the Women’s Liberal Federation (WLF). However, cracks between her political ideology and her belief in women’s suffrage began to show when, in 1892, the WLF split over the issue of women’s suffrage. The problem was this: the political leaders of the Liberal party weren’t sold on the idea of women getting the vote. Some in the WLF thought that supporting women’s suffrage should become part of the official policy of the Liberals, whilst others felt that suffrage was too divisive an issue. Eliza fell into the latter group, putting party loyalty above suffrage ideals, and joined the Women’s National Liberal Association in protest. Thus, although Eliza was committed to the principle of women’s suffrage, her activism was somewhat limited, and her legal career was focused on working around the restrictions placed upon her because of her gender. She was involved in legal work till about 1904, and died—having seen the achievement of both suffrage and women lawyers—in 1937.

Christabel_Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst also never practised law. She is probably the most well known of the women that I’m looking at, as she was the leading strategist of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and a member of the famous Pankhurst family. However, she also graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Law from what is now the University of Manchester in 1906. She applied to study at Lincolns Inn, one of the four Inns of Court where barristers are called to the Bar, but was refused. She was also honorary secretary of the short lived ‘Committee to Secure the Admission of Women to the Legal Profession’. As such, although Christabel is better known for her suffrage campaign, she was committed to opening the legal profession to women. Christabel’s legal knowledge permeated her work for suffrage. On October the 13th 1908, Christabel was arrested because she handed out leaflets inviting people to “help the suffragettes rush the House of Commons”. She was charged with conduct likely to instigate a breach of the peace. As a law graduate, Christabel defended herself. She cross examined Cabinet ministers who had witnessed the rush, including Herbert Gladstone and Lloyd George, the latter a trained lawyer. Christabel managed to persuade Gladstone, who was clearly uncomfortable, to admit he that he hadn’t felt endangered by the rush, and also that some of his past speeches could have been interpreted as a similar incitement to violence. In her closing speech. Christabel argued that the case suggested that the independence of the judiciary was in doubt, invoking the famous legal document, the Magna Carta. Although she was found guilty, Christabel directly linked her legal knowledge to her campaign for the vote, and used her legal expertise to frustrate and challenge the Court, and Members of Parliament. For Christabel, who never formally qualified, her activism in the suffrage campaign was a priority. However, she used her legal knowledge to further this activism.

MacMillan_Chrystal

Chrystal Macmillan

Unlike Christabel and Eliza, Chrystal Macmillan did practice as a Barrister after the 1919 Act. Chrystal was a suffragist, not a suffragette. The suffragists used peaceful, constitutional means of campaigning for the vote, in contrast to the WSPU’s more militant strategies. She was the first female Science graduate of the University of Edinburgh, and it was this pioneering activity that led to her first Law related excursion. Graduates from the University were entitled to vote for an MP who would represent that University Seat in Parliament. Chrystal, and four other female graduates, therefore argued that this entitled them to the vote. This was an attempt by Chrystal, and by the suffrage campaigners at large, to circumvent Parliament’s unwillingness for women’s suffrage by asking the Court to give women the vote. Suffrage societies raised money so that Chrystal could take her case all the way to the House of Lords, then the highest Court in the Country. She was the first woman to argue her case in front of the House, however they held that the word ‘persons’ did not include women in the relevant statue. Yes, you read that right—women were not considered persons. After the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, Chrystal did enter the legal profession. She joined Middle Temple as a student barrister, was called to the Bar in 1924, and joined the Western Circuit in 1926 — she even founded the Open Door Council, an organisation that aimed to remove the legal restrictions on women. As such, Chrystal Macmillan combined her activism with her career, using both to further her feminist aims.

Photograph_of_Helena_Normanton_c._1930_(22770439042)

Helena Normanton

Helena Normanton’s suffrage campaigning differed from both Chrystal and Christabel’s—she was a member of the Women’s Freedom League. The WFL was a militant suffrage group that was formed in 1907 in a spilt from the WSPU. The main difference between the two groups was that the WSPU was autocratic, and the WFL democratic. Helena applied to join Middle Temple before the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, but was refused, and immediately on the Act receiving Royal Assent, she reapplied. Helena wasn’t the first woman called to the bar—Academic Ivy Williams beat her—but she was the first woman to practise, she was the first woman to obtain a divorce for her a client, the first woman to prosecute a murder case, and was appointed King’s Counsel in 1949. She was a campaigner for women’s right beyond the vote and making the law accessible for women, even writing a book on the subject—Everyday Law for Women. Helena was a prominent suffrage campaigner, and achieved many ‘firsts’ in terms of women in the Law.

So, why does this all matter? Why these women? Well all four of them were actively involved in the campaign for women’s votes. However, this involvement was diverse—Christabel was the autocratic leader of the suffragettes, Chrystal a constitutional suffragist, Helena was involved in the militant, but democratic Women’s Freedom League, and Eliza was first and foremost committed to the Liberal party. Despite this, they all received a legal education, and all of them utilised this education in their career, and in their suffrage activities. Christabel invoked complex legal concepts in defence of herself and suffragette militancy. Chrystal used her legal reasoning to argue for parliamentary votes for women in the House of Lords. Helena’s feminism extended beyond the vote—she campaigned for women’s rights in reforming divorce law and in keeping her maiden name professionally and on her passport. Eliza worked hard at the periphery of the legal industry, establishing an office on Chancery Lane, and in her political alignment furthered the cause of women, and in particular women’s work.

The reason why I’m so interested in the relationship between the suffrage campaign and early women lawyers, is because I think there is a unique and interesting dynamic between the fight for women to gain parliamentary representation, and the fight to be a legal representative in a court of law. Both invoke concepts of citizenship and of legal rights, and the legislation that allowed the entry of women into the legal profession and the right to vote were passed relatively close to each other—and it is these aspects that inspire the crux of my research. The next time I’m asked what is a suffragette is (NOT a Viking, FYI), and how they fit into my PhD research, I’ll direct the questioner to this article, in the hope that they’ll read it and find these four remarkable women as fascinating as I do!

Aging, Modernism, and Unexpected Final Words

Listening to Loy: Ageing, Modernism & Unexpected Final Words

 

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Mina Loy, Aspen, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

by Jade French, PhD candidate at Queen Mary, University of London.

Ageing is a complicated and subjective experience. To make sense of the variety of experiences that are popping up in the Western world, old age has been split into two cohorts by gerontologists as people seek to make distinctions between quality of life. Those in the Third Age (‘young-old’) have self-autonomy and the potential for a pleasurable post-retirement.[1] They also have pretty deeps pockets and will inevitably be targeted by marketing agencies looking to tap into the ‘grey pound’. In contrast, the Fourth Age (‘old-old’) is the type of old age largely ignored by society, where the deterioration of faculties and biological changes mean the ‘old-old’ are inherently imbued with a sense of otherness.

These are the people Age UK noted as most at risk from social care austerity. When we listen to the voices of older people, does it have to be framed through either fitness or frailty?

My larger PhD project uses these contemporary gerontological frameworks to approach poetry, art and prose written in the twentieth century by older, female modernists. I’m currently looking at work by H.D. (1886-1961), Mina Loy (1882-1966), and Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) to examine the tensions these authors faced as public figures ageing against the backdrop of the latter half of the twentieth century. Looking at the lived experience of the authors, as well as their own representations of ageing, I want to highlight the avant-garde nature and embodied creative process of these later works.

Because what happens when we begin to apply an understanding of lived experience to the voices of the past?

To (try to!) approach this question, this blog will take a brief look at Mina Loy and her final recording, made a year before her death. A complex intergenerational relationship emerges between the interviewer/interviewee. Despite sharing similar cultural touchstones, wires cross as moments are misheard and misinterpreted. There are expectations unmet and well-worn stories untold. The myth of Mina Loy is perhaps complicated when we finally hear her. So first – an introduction.

 

Mina’s Mythologies: A Brief Biography

When I first started reading modernist poetry as an undergraduate, I didn’t often think about the extended lives of my favourite authors. I was happy enough to stay in the Parisian Left Bank or New York jazz scenes, seeing dancing and bobs and poems as all bound up in the same heady cigarette smoke mist of the 1920s. This continued when I picked up a copy of Mina Loy’s The Lost Lunar Baedeker, edited by Roger Conover, Loy’s literary executor. I was instantly grabbed by a vision of feminine nonconformity:

For a brief period, early in the twentieth century, Mina Loy was the Belle of the American Poetry Ball. But by the end of the century, most had forgotten she was there at all.
On the evening of May 25, 1917, Mina Loy and Marcel Duchamp made their way to Greenwich Village’s “ultra bohemian, prehistoric, post-alcoholic” Webster Hall, where the twenty-third and final “Pagan Romp” of the season was just getting under way.

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Again, Conover’s introduction spoke of glamour, jazz, fancy-dress, all night parties with Loy at the centre, knowing all the giants from James Joyce to Peggy Guggenheim, Ezra Pound to William Carlos Williams to Marcel Duchamp. And that’s just for starters. Having this legacy placed front and centre of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, prefacing any of her poems, it becomes hard to picture Loy as anything other than this modernist myth. A beautiful woman first, a poet second. This is not to say Conover doesn’t acknowledge Loy’s later work, the last half of the book features a picture of Loy as an ageing woman and her later poems. But how we begin to construct our understanding of our favourite writers and poets is, in many ways, sentimentally bound up in our first introductions to them.

And, chronology rules. We meet the youthful Loy before the older Loy:

 

 

The mythmaking our favourite authors or poets undergo is a fascinating process. More often than not, our glamourised ideals of our favourite authors are crystallised by their relative youth. Mina Loy is often looked to as the quintessential ‘modern woman’. In her lifetime, she designed her own clothes, had affairs with Futurists, owned her own business, published poetry advocating ‘free love’ and had dalliances with a variety of twentieth century ‘isms’: Surrealism, Futurism, Dadaism, Symbolism, Feminism and Cubism all connect to certain sites of her oeuvre. She was also a quintessential modernist mover; she lived in Florence, Paris, New York, Berlin, Mexico City, London, Vienna, and Rio de Janiero. These lists are endless and often repeated.

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Brancusi’s studio, Paris: Constantin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, unidentified woman, Mina Loy, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson.

 

Her later years have been characterised as eccentric; her assemblages were described at the time as “sentimental”, in contrast to the fast-paced, masculinised movement of Abstract Expressionism. In 1958, Loy had her final exhibition where these “sentimental” collages were exhibited. Depicting the ‘bums’ of the Bowery, where she lived during the time of making them, these arresting artworks show the grim post war, post-recession reality of New York. Loy settled in Aspen, Colorado to be near her daughters and receive late-life care in the 1950s. And that’s where her final interview was recorded in 1965.

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“Bums Praying”, assemblage by Mina Loy, with Marcel Duchamp

 

The Last Interview

There’s a curious recording by Loy that you can listen to through Penn Sound. Recorded a year before her death, the ageing poet recalls her memories and reads out what has now become some of her most iconic poetry.

Listen to the recording here.

Paul Blackburn and Robert Vas Dias, two Black Mountain College alumni, interview her. The Black Mountain School was known for its non-conformist approach to education through extreme experimentation and collaboration across disciplines. So, this congregation of Blackburn, Vas Dias and Loy was a meeting of minds between experimental early and late twentieth century art makers, with expectations from the younger poets that they would hear the stories of the past so valued about Loy – who she knew, where she lived, how she fitted in. What actually transpires is over an hour of chat, shaggy dog tales, reminisces about the past, and attempts to pronounce the long, varied, experimental words that Loy loved to pepper her work with: ‘cornucopia’, ‘loquent consciousness’, ‘Parturition’. Loy also reads a few poems. Once Loy gets into the swing of the readings, the tremble in her voice is a sign of age rather than nervousness. She punctuates her readings to exclaim: “Wasn’t I clever”, “Wasn’t I wicked”. She laughs at her own jokes.

In the recording, she admits: “I’d only written these things for the sake of the sounds”. But what happens to sounds over the years? What we read in our head is not how poems sound when read aloud. The proximity to an author’s work, read by themselves, is a special moment – particularly when that poet has aged.

Another Loy biographer, Carolyn Burke, describes hearing the poet’s voice:

“When I first heard it, it gave me goose-bumps. It was an absolutely chilling and remarkable experience to hear her voice because it was the closest I ever came to her physical presence except in dreams” – Quoted in Jacket Magazine

 

This act of listening takes us to emotional and embodied levels that the written word often doesn’t allow for. The chilling quality of a voice crackling across the years – a voice read and re-read many times – is a unique type of haunting. The visceral quality of the recording is enhanced by the fact it was recorded in 1965. The crackling and distortion of reel-to-reel recording historicises the moment further.

Loy, at the age of 83, begins the interview saying ‘I never had any teeth all my life… Did I tell you that story?”. The interviewers concede she hasn’t, and Loy tells a tale of how, as a teen, a dentist gave her a filling by drilling down into the nerve of the tooth. Clamped by metal stays, she can’t move or run away (prompting the interviewer to say: “Sounds like a nightmare”, which in her evocative retelling, it does). After this experience, Loy vowed never to have a filling again opting to have her teeth pulled out instead. This rather long-winded tale results in finding out Loy had false teeth most of her life, but they didn’t bother her until old age. The false teeth, coupled with her slightly slurred speech, result in a set of poetic readings that situate the Loy of Conover’s avant-garde soirees in an altogether more everyday setting.

There’s part of me that feels like the interviewers treat Loy as an old lady. They politely laugh at her jokes, try and get her back on track, audibly sigh when she veers off again. The act of listening is undone as the interviewers prompt a seemingly frail poet in increasingly frustrated tones. I can’t help but feel annoyed at this veiled irritation and their over-loud and slowed down speaking. Because here Loy’s preoccupations are her own – and they’re not the preoccupations of modernist biographers. Instead, they are memories on a loop. A life relived through conversation that cannot be steered.

Listening, you get the impression the Blackburn and Vas Dias want Loy to recall the giants of modernism and wild parties that often frame her writing – they prompt her to read her poem about James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. My favourite moment is Loy not taking the bait and instead wondering over and over why Joyce had married his wife, Nora. She reminisces about the Florentine countryside and class systems and where her second husband, the famous Arthur Craven who disappeared off the coast of Mexico sailing a makeshift boat, ended up. The interviewers don’t ask to hear any of Loy’s later poems but if they did they’d find them to be full of Cold War existentialism, dealing with the shocks that the modern world had to offer: she wrote about the Atom Bomb, Bowery homelessness, film, literature and consumerism alongside her more well-known ruminations on gender and the body.

She’s in many ways a contemporary of the interviewers but at times they treat her like a relic from the past.

Of course, Loy was not completely forgotten. There were reprints of her poetry and an exhibition of her work in the 1950s and this interview in the 1960s. But, as she aged into the latter half of the twentieth century, her voice became less listened to.

That opening sentence in Conover’s introduction once more rings out:

For a brief period early in the twentieth century, Mina Loy was the Belle of the American Poetry Ball. But by the end of the century, most had forgotten she was there at all.

By the end of her life, her work and inventions may have sold, but not enough to sustain her. Her poems may have been read, but not enough to cement her in the canon. Just as society often fails to include older, female voices (unless you’re a feminist who has happened to age yourself, like Gloria Steinem) we might also be guilty of listening too often to the youthful voices of our favourite authors. So, in the spirit of listening to an old recording, grab those late works and flick through – they might just have something to say.

 

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about the work of Mina Loy, take a look at Lottie Whalen‘s piece on her work for WAB: Mina Loy’s decorative, domestic modernism.

[1] Chris Gilleard and Paul F. D. Higgs, ‘The fourth age and the concept of a ‘social imaginary’: A theoretical excursus’, Journal of Aging Studies, xxvii, 4 (2013), 369

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.

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.

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.

References 

[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.

Literary representations of maternity

Narrative obstetrics: on literary representations of maternity

by Helen Charman, PhD Candidate at Trinity Hall and the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.

In February— in case you needed reminding— Beyoncé announced that she was pregnant with twins via a heavily symbolic photoshoot that drew on everything from 15th century Flemish portraiture to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Queen Nefertiti. Announced on the first day of Black History Month in America, the pictures figure as a twofold celebration of historically marginalised and objectified physicalities. Amongst the inevitable media furore, the celebrations were countered by predictable complaints from the entire political spectrum of the media, backed up by censorious comments from members of the public. Readers all over the U.K. felt compelled to share that they ‘couldn’t care less’ about the announcement, urging the papers to ‘write about real news’ instead. In fact, many commenters professed to care so little about Beyoncé and her belly that they composed quite lengthy rants about it. Perhaps, as seems to have been the case for one visitor to The Sun online, the photographs were the final straw: ‘Yet another preggie publicly flaunting that ugly bump. Why cant these people wear sensible clothes and cover up, keep the naked pics for their own eyes.’

beyonce P1

A photo from Beyoncé’s photoshoot

The desire to censor the pregnant female body is nothing new, and it goes hand in hand with our inability to discuss things like the menstrual cycle without deferring to the delicate sensibilities of actual or imagined listeners, particularly male ones. Beyoncé’s photographs were accompanied by a poem by Warsan Shire, making the link to Venus— goddess of love— explicit, and reinforcing the sexual aspect of the images: ‘in the dream I am crowning / osun, / Nerfetiti, / and yemoja / pray around my bed’. The photograph that seemed to incense people the most was the one posed sitting on the roof of a car: a hyper-sexualised pose familiar to many from calendars and glamour magazines. Critics were also vocal about the ‘exploitative’ nature of the photographs, suggesting that there was something unseemly about Beyoncé— who, as of March 2017, has a net worth estimated by Forbes to be over $290 million — ‘using’ her pregnancy to contribute to her lucrative personal brand. The announcement illustrated a familiar truth: the intersection of female sexuality and economic power— and its mirror image, commodification— touches on deep-seated societal fears. Although the smattering of tight-lipped comment pieces framing their disapproval of the photograph’s lavish celebration of the pregnant body as concern for childless women were mostly disingenuous— this concern doesn’t usually seem to bother tabloid newspapers who mine ‘fertility’ dramas for exposure— they served to illuminate the paradox of maternity: censorship goes hand in hand with idealisation. Some of the positive responses to the announcement were deceptively conservative in their valourisation of motherhood as a woman’s ‘true’ purpose, something all too easily appropriated by exclusionary and harmful discussions about what ‘real’ womanhood is or should be.

My doctoral research evidences that these conflicting attitudes to motherhood are far from a new phenomenon. I am a PhD student in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, and my doctoral research uses the novels of the prolific Victorian author, translator and essayist George Eliot as a focus through which to explore the changing attitude towards maternity in the nineteenth century. In her seminal study of ‘motherhood as experience and institution’, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich asks how have women given birth, who has helped them, and how, and why? These are not simply questions of the history of midwifery and obstetrics: they are political questions.’[1] My project contends that by the time Eliot published her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876 the political aspects of these questions had become issues of economic and literary production, too: like the furore around Beyoncé’s baby bump, the response to pregnant bodies in the nineteenth century demonstrated subversive power they held over every aspect of society.

george-eliot-0

George Eliot

In the Victorian period the mother was idealised as, in Coventry Patmore’s phrase, ‘the angel in the house’: the pressures of the new industrial age created a divide between the public, masculine workplace and the feminine, domestic domain of the home, which was seen as place of moral stability in a changing world. Yet the domestic idolisation of the mother was closely linked to the rapid economic and political advancements occurring in ‘masculine’ society. From the eighteenth century onwards, childbirth itself had become radically medicalized: rather than midwives attending to expectant mothers in their homes— in exclusively female spaces— lying-in hospitals, male obstetricians and the use of forceps became the norm. Wet-nursing turned mother’s milk— and the lactating breast— into a commodity. Throughout the nineteenth century, the effectiveness of these medical advancements was fiercely debated in publications like the British Medical Journal and The Lancet: these discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by men who linked the debates around childbirth to broader political and moral debates of the time. Ruth Perry, Valerie Fildes and other historians of motherhood have made a persuasive argument that this medicalization, alongside the charitable drives to save infant lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as the establishment of the London Foundling Hospital, links the construction and valourisation of bourgeois motherhood to the Victorian concern with Empire. As Perry puts it,

… motherhood was a colonial form—the domestic, familial counterpart to land enclosure at home and imperialism abroad. Motherhood as it was constructed in the early modern period is a production-geared phenomenon analogous to the capitalizing of agriculture, the industrializing of manufacture, and the institutionalizing of the nation state.[2]

In the nineteenth century, the emergence of the maternal ideal was, rather than a positive or empowering development for women, a means of co-opting the female reproductive body into the service of a patriarchal societal and economic system.

So how does this link to the literature? By the end of the nineteenth century, the novel had become the most prominent literary form in Britain. The revival of serialisation increased accessibility and, combined with the dominance of social realism, meant prose fiction was a highly relevant and reactive art form. In the first half of the century, economists had reformulated traditional concepts of value according to the ability to generate financial returns. As the novel became increasingly concerned with an explicitly capitalist system of value, the figure of the mother became symbolic of these ongoing debates about worth: the commodification of care. The reproductive bodies of the female protagonists in George Eliot’s novels, as well as in the work of her contemporaries like Charles Dickens, are embedded in a complex value system in which their idealized virtue is directly related to their economic function as producers.

Maternal virtue, however, was inconveniently linked to sexuality. The female body was most acceptable when it could be rationalised as fulfilling the function of maternity, but the physical reality of pregnancy was a threat to repressive norms that governed Victorian society. As Carolyn Dever notes, novels of this period were struggling of an impossible reconciliation of ‘a maternal ideal with the representation of the embodied—and potentially eroticized—female subject.’[3] Consequently, the idealised mother loomed large in Victorian fiction, but more often than not these texts feature mothers who are absent, or dead: psychologically overwhelming, but physically absent. Although recent developments in historical thought suggest that the maternal mortality rate in the nineteenth century was not as high as was once assumed, it is true that the medicalization of childbirth brought with it an epidemic of puerperal fever, or ‘childbed fever’. Maternal death in nineteenth-century fiction, however, far exceeded the actual rates of childbed death, which consistently remained well below 1%. Dever and others have linked this trope to Freudian psychoanalysis, and the destabilising effect the idea of the sexual maternal body could have upon the identities of children raised in a culture that linked female sexuality with hysteria and disorder. In nineteenth-century narrative, the tragic death of the mother ensured her virtue: free of the troubling aspects of her embodied existence, she could fulfil the symbolic role society required of her.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

In a letter of 1866, George Eliot referred to her fiction as an attempt to ‘make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit’. This notion of ‘incarnation’ is undermined, however, by the fact that Eliot largely avoids any engagement with matters of the flesh. Indeed, Eliot seems to want to avoid biological maternity altogether. In her novels mothers either die young— often in childbirth— or are comically incompetent or grotesque and replaced by substitutionary maternal figures who are able to provide moral guidance uncomplicated by the problem of physical maternity. The few female protagonists in her work who do go on to have children have to sacrifice something of themselves in the process: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch (1871-1872), lives happily with her husband and two children, but we learn in the novel’s final passage that although her husband is an active social reformer, Dorothea’s own ambitions remain unfulfilled. It could be argued that the reason for the dearth of maternal characters in Eliot’s novels is the narrative dead end the circumstances of maternity provided for so many nineteenth-century women. We’ve got a long way to go before we can honestly say that this isn’t still the case for many women today. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich— writing in 1986— comments on the metaphorical resonance that death in childbirth retains:

Even in a place and time where maternal mortality is low, a woman’s fantasies of her own death in childbirth have the accuracy of metaphor. Typically, under patriarchy, the mother’s life is exchanged for the child; her autonomy as a separate being seems fated to conflict with the infant she will bear. The self-denying, self-annihilating role of the Good Mother (linked implicitly with suffering and with the repression of anger) will spell the “death” of the woman or girl who once has hopes, expectations, fantasies for herself—especially when those hopes and fantasies have never been acted on.[4]

The valourised, idealised Good Mother is a trope that works against women, not for them. If we want to change it, we need to understand where it came from, and how inherently linked it is to our economic and political systems, and we need more ‘preggies’ like Beyoncé to ‘flaunt’ their maternity in a way that includes, rather than denies, their autonomous, sexual identities.

[1] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976, reissued with a new introduction by the author [1986], reprinted 1992), p.128.

[2] Ruth Perry, ‘Colonising the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, (Journal of the History of Sexuality,Vol. 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991), pp. 204-234), p. 205.

[3]Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 19.

[4] Rich, p.166.

Commemoration, Inclusion, and Dialogue in 1916 Centenary Drama in Northern Ireland

By: Kayla Rush

The sanctuary of Belfast’s Fitzroy Presbyterian Church buzzed with activity. Friends and neighbours chatted among the dark wooden pews, the columns of the pipe organ soaring high above their heads. The congenial atmosphere felt like the minutes before the start of a church service, save for the Beatles tunes playing softly in the background.

Halfway House

At precisely 7:30, the music stopped, and those assembled fell silent as the lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on the platform in the middle of the sanctuary, turning it into a minimalist theatre stage. A white-haired man walked onto the stage. He introduced himself to us as Philip Orr, the author of Halfway House, the play we had all come to see. He explained that the play is set in 1966, in a snowed-in pub in the Sperrin Mountains. As he described the particular historical setting of the mid-1960s – a time of significant social change in the Western world, and in Northern Ireland the years directly preceding the conflict known as ‘the Troubles’ – the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ began to play softly, and two women joined him on stage, entering from opposite doors on either side of the platform.
In the course of the next hour, we watched as the two women, Bronagh and Valerie, weathered the snowstorm – of which we were occasionally reminded by an audio clip of a howling winter wind – in conversation with one another, a conversation that ranged from congenial and sympathetic to tense and, at times, openly hostile. We soon learned that one woman is Protestant, the other Catholic; one’s father a veteran of the Easter Rising, the other’s father a veteran of the Battle of the Somme.

Parallels and Contemporary Politics

The essence of the play rests in these parallels: both women grew up in Downpatrick, County Down, but due to the divided nature of the community they have only heard of each other’s families, never met – ‘a question of “same place but separate lives”’, as one of the women puts it (Orr 2016: 5).

Both are equally proud of their respective parents’ brief military service in 1916, and both tell stories of national and familial hurts occasioned by the other ‘side’.

Halfway House[i] capitalized on an important historic concurrence: the close proximity of the Easter Rising (24-29 April 1916) and the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916). The Easter Rising is commemorated each year as an important event in the formation of an independent Irish state, and relatedly with the Partition of Ireland. It is associated with an Irish identity, and thus with Catholicism, nationalism, and republicanism. The Battle of the Somme serves as a sort of opposite: it is commemorated as an important event in British history, and is thus associated with British-ness, Protestantism, unionism, and loyalism (see Grayson and McGarry 2016)[ii].
Commemorations serve the present: they harness the past and shape it in ways that suit the commemorators’ present-day needs. As anthropologist Dominic Bryan puts it, ‘The marking of a centenary is an act of contemporary politics… the commemorative practices are constructed in the present, for the present’ (in Bryan et al. 2013: 66).

Female Voices and Cross-Community Dialogue 

As part of my Ph.D. research, I look at one particular approach to commemoration, in which artists, particularly those working in community arts, engaged with the dual centenary of the Somme and the Easter Rising in their work. Halfway House is one of my case studies.
I would like to draw out two key projects that such artistic endeavours attempt to accomplish, using Halfway House as an example. First, the play mirrors a wider move toward more inclusive commemorations in Northern Ireland in the twenty-first century. Commemorations that recognize both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising, and the roles of both Catholics and Protestants in each, have become increasingly common (Daly and O’Callaghan 2007: 4; McCarthy 2012: 430-439; Grayson and McGarry 2016: 2-3).

Likewise, Orr’s choice to write women characters reflects a growing desire to include women’s voices in the narratives told during and around commemorations (see Mullally 2016).

While the stories that Valerie and Bronagh tell are still in many ways men’s stories – the stories of their fathers’ involvement in armed conflict, and of their fathers’, brothers’, and uncles’ pride in the respective commemorations – they also speak of the fabric of their everyday lives as women in the Northern Ireland of the 1960s: leaving the workforce after having children, moving to the ‘big city’ of Belfast versus staying at ‘home’ in Downpatrick, caring for elderly relatives, and so forth.

Second, Halfway House represents a desire for increased dialogue, both between individuals and, more widely, between the two main ‘communities’ in Northern Ireland. The two women model ‘good’ dialogue for their audiences: while they may disagree on certain points, they never raise their voices or interrupt each other, and each actively listens and attempts to empathize with her counterpart. They are ultimately respectful of one another, and willing and able to reflect on their own biases. Neither do they shy away from difficult or painful discussions. For example, midway through the play, Bronagh, the Catholic woman, tells Valerie that the Ulster Special Constabulary, known as the ‘“B” Specials’, regularly visit her family’s home to search their barns and house. She reveals a great amount of hurt at this felt invasion of her family’s property and privacy. Shortly after, Valerie hesitantly reveals that her father and uncle both joined the ‘B’ Specials after the war, and we can see her struggling to reconcile her own pride in their service with Bronagh’s experiences of hurt. The following exchange takes place at the end of this telling:

Valerie: But what you also have to realise, Bronagh, was the fear, back then. Uncle Joe still says you could have cut it with a knife.

Bronagh: The town was miles away from the riots in Belfast and it was miles from the border.

Valerie: But we were afraid.

Bronagh: Afraid of whom?

Valerie: Afraid of you. (Orr 2016:22)

Tellingly to the play’s project, the two characters have an equal number of spoken lines, so that neither dominates the dramatic action or dialogue. One reviewer commented on this phenomenon of ‘good’ dialogue, and the way in which it encouraged the audience to participate in similar conversations, writing that ‘the quality of listening on stage was echoed in the venue’s café afterwards as people sat round and discussed the play over a cup of coffee’ (Meban 2016).

A Major Shift: Re-Imagining the ‘Other’ 

This approach to cross-community dialogue in theatre evidences an important shift in the past thirty or so years. Take, for example, Frank McGuinness’s (1986) play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which dramatizes the journey of eight (fictional) Protestant, Northern Ireland-born World War I soldiers to the Battle of the Somme[iii]. McGuinness, born in County Donegal and hailing from an Irish Catholic background, famously drew his inspiration for this play from living for the first time in a majority Protestant community, while teaching at the (then) New University of Ulster in Coleraine. Grene (1999: 242-245) considers Observe the Sons an exercise in ‘imagining the other’ and encouraging audiences to do the same, as ‘[f]or southern Catholic nationalists Ulster Protestant Unionism is as other as you can get … The play represents therefore a new sort of imaginative reaching out in Irish drama’. Lojek (2004: 77-79) similarly notes that in both the play’s premiere and each of its subsequent stage revivals, Observe the Sons has been heralded as ‘an icon of cross-cultural understanding’, and ‘an indication of increased understanding by Irish Catholics that Irish Protestantism is also part of the island’s culture and heritage’.

What is particularly interesting is the major shift that can be seen between the type of imagining undertaken in Observe the Sons and that found in Halfway House. In the former, the playwright imagines the community that is ‘other’ to him, probing its trauma and writing from a place of empathy. It is indeed a type of dialogue, but much of the work of dialogue is implicit, having already taken place in the experiences of the playwright, though of course as spectators or readers we can choose to dialogue with the play’s material ourselves. In Halfway House, however, the dialogue is physically presented on stage. While we can, of course, choose not to engage with the material in an inner dialogue of our own, we cannot sidestep the fact of the dialogue itself, as it forms the very substance of the play. This great shift, then, is one from ‘imagining the other’ to imagining ways in which oneself – or someone very like oneself – might encounter the other in an everyday situation such as a snowbound pub.

[i] Halfway House and its companion play, Stormont House Rules!, were commissioned by evangelical Christian organization Contemporary Christianity as part of a project entitled ‘1916, a Hundred Years On’ (see Contemporary Christianity n.d.).

[ii] Of course, individual identities do not fall so neatly into these two categories, and plenty of residents of Northern Ireland, including its growing migrant population, do not consider themselves part of either the Protestant community or the Catholic community.

[iii] Dublin’s Abbey Theatre staged Observe the Sons of Ulster as part of its 2016 centenary commemoration programme. This production was staged at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in early July 2016, around the time of the local commemorations of the Battle of the Somme (1 July) and the Battle of the Boyne (12 July) (see Coyle 2016, Hardy 2016).

References

Bryan, Dominic, Mike Cronin, Tina O’Toole, and Catriona Pennell. 2013 Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations: a Roundtable. New Hibernia Review 17 (3): 63-86.

Contemporary Christianity. n.d. ‘1916: A Hundred Years On’. http://www.contemporarychristianity.net/website/1916-a-hundred-years-on/.

Coyle, Matthew. 2016. ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’, Culture Northern Ireland, 30 June. http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/performing-arts/observe-sons-ulster-marching-towards-somme.

Daly, Mary E., and Margaret O’Callaghan. 2007 Introduction: Irish modernity and “the patriot dead” in 1966. In Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’Callaghan (eds.), 1916 in 1966: commemorating the Easter Rising. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, pp. 1-17.

Grayson, Richard S., and Fearghal McGarry. 2016. ‘Introduction’, in Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry (eds), Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University, pp. 1-9.

Grene, Nicholas. 1999. The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Hardy, Jane. 2016. ‘Review: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre’, The Irish News, 5 July. http://www.irishnews.com/arts/stage/2016/07/05/news/review-observe-the-sons-of-ulster-marching-towards-the-somme-at-belfast-s-lyric-theatre-593218/.

Lojek, Helen Heusner. 2004. Contexts for Frank McGuinness’s Drama. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America.

McCarthy, Mark. 2012 Ireland’s 1916 Rising: explorations of history-making, commemoration & heritage in modern times. Farnham: Ashgate.

McGuinness, Frank. 1986. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. London: Faber and Faber.

Meban, Alan. 2016. ‘Halfway House – Philip Orr’s New Play Exploring 1916 from the Vantage Point of 1966’, Alan in Belfast, 19 January. http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/halfway-house-philip-orrs-new-play.html.

Mullally, Una. 2016. ‘Why Women Have Risen to the Top in 1916 Lore’, The Irish Times, 28 March. http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullally-why-women-have-risen-to-the-top-in-1916-lore-1.2588986.

Orr, Philip. 2016. Halfway House. Belfast: Contemporary Christianity.

The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack

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You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.