Exploring Power, Sex and Knowledge in the Feminist Debate on Pornography and Sex Work

Screenshot_20180717-185056_Google

Venus with Drawers, by Salvador Dalí

by Caroline West, Dublin City University.

What counts as knowledge in the sex work debate amongst feminists? Who is permitted to be an expert? Who is heard the most in this discussion? Why does ‘my body, my choice’ apparently not apply to sex work?

These questions occurred to me while studying pornography during my masters in Sexuality Studies. I noticed a trend: the voices being heard in the debate were primarily those of white anti-porn feminists. This is reflected in mainstream media too, where most of the voices heard are the same – with the voices of those actually doing the work marginalised in favour of those campaigning against sex work. Of the voices of those who have direct experience in sex work, the women who report negative experiences appear more than those who report positive experiences. Looking at the feminist debate, we have seen feminist authors such as Sheila Jefferies completely dismiss the lived experiences of sex workers such as Annie Sprinkle and label them as ‘victims’, with the people who listen to them labelled as ‘mistaken’. When we consider that Annie Sprinkle has decades of experience in many different aspects of the sex industry, as well as achieving a PhD in human sexuality, we must consider the ethics of this framing. What are the ethics of framing someone as a victim when they do not feel that term reflects their experiences? Indeed, what are the ethics of insisting someone is a victim, while making a career of campaigning against their chosen employment? And what are the ethics of publicly excluding someone from expert status when discussing their lived experiences? When someone like Annie Sprinkle has such a wealth of experience, why does this experience not count as valid knowledge and why is it subjected to dismissal?

Ethics is further critical when we consider the terminology used in discussing sex work. Some feminists will argue that sex work is not a valid term, and claim it hides the issue of sex trafficking. These feminists will write sex work as ‘sex work’; the use of these sneer quotes deliberately situates the term in a state of ambiguity, outside the realm of acceptable language. However, the term was coined by a sex worker named Carol Leigh who used it to recognise the labour of the worker, rather than a focus on the consumer. The outright dismissal and denial of women to name their work and identity in a way that works for them, is a critical question of power and ethics in the feminist debate over pornography. Through my research with sex workers, I have come to understand it as a form of violence, specifically epistemological violence. This nuanced form of violence is when a person is excluded from the status of expert, and their knowledge dismissed as not ‘true’ knowledge. It is exclusion from ways of knowing.

For all the heated discussion about pornography, there is very little research on the realities of working in the industry. Often, anecdotes are used in place of large scale, ethical, sound research, and anecdotes that tell of negative experiences are promoted in favour of ‘non representative’ positive anecdotes’. Porn studies is a relatively new field of research, and often ideology is substituted for rigorous research. You could almost count on your fingers the numbers of studies that actually talk to women in the industry; studies that talk to men or trans people are even rarer. Yet we see plenty of headlines talking about the ‘realities’ of working in the industry, generally written by outsiders to the industry. In any other field of research, this would be unacceptable and poor research would be instantly dismissed. Perhaps research subjects like porn and sex is too ’icky’ for some, or too extreme, or too close to home.  I have had a number of women come up to me after presentations on my research and tell me that the women who told me they willingly engaged with the industry were wrong, and they didn’t in fact consent. I ask how they know this, about these women they don’t know and will never meet, and the answers are always the same : ‘no woman chooses to do that’. And they will refuse to listen, instead preferring to cling to their beliefs. Or they end the conversation with a curt ‘we will have to agree to disagree’, without listening to what I or my interviewees actually have to say. Other porn researchers have confided the same has happened to them. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the relationship between power, sex and knowledge, and how this relationship can violently exclude and contribute to stigma.

My research involved interviewing women working in the American porn industry, travelling to the AVN awards show in Las Vegas to conduct my interviews. This research project will be one of the few studies that looks at the nuances of stigma experienced by women working in the pornography industry, a sorely neglected area of research. Along the way, I’ve learnt so much about how power operates in this debate, and how exclusion and dismissal of a marginalised group of women is justified by factions of feminists who simultaneously proclaim ‘my body, my choice’ and ask us to believe women’s stories.  A PhD will only address so much, but there is a massive scope for improving scholarly research in this area. A new approach that favours methodologically sound research over ideology is very much needed; one that is inclusive and goes beyond the usual tired binary of looking at sex work as being either exploitative or empowering. This approach will allow the multitude of lived experiences in between these opposites to be discussed in a more holistic and ethical way. But we also need to become more reflexive as researchers, and ask ourselves why we are doing this research; if the research contributes to harm to sex workers through stigma and exclusion, and if the research is accurately reflecting the experiences of the studied population. The violent Othering of research participants is of utmost ethical importance, especially in this field, and one cannot claim to contribute to a nuanced understanding of sex work without being cognisant of these concerns.

Advertisements

The unfinished gender politics of the Good Friday Agreement… and its 20th anniversary celebrations.

by Dr. Maria-Adriana Deiana, Assistant Professor, Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction (IICRR) , School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

With the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), April 2018 was a milestone, filled with numerous events and discussions about the legacy of the peace settlement and its future prospects, both on the island of Ireland and internationally. Given my research on gender and post-conflict transformation, I was invited to the U.S. to speak at an academic event to mark two decades since the signing of agreement. As speakers, we were asked to reflect on the GFA’s legacy in bringing an end to decades of political violence and building peace for Northern Ireland. My aim was to discuss the implications for women’s citizenship that emerged throughout the peace process, drawing upon my research and over a decade spent in Belfast.

GFA

Cover of the Sunday Business Post’s magazine commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The newspaper has been criticised for ‘airbrushing’ women, in particular Dr. Mo Mowlam, from the peace process.

I began my contribution by acknowledging and discussing the role of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) as co-architects of the agreement. At the same time, I pointed out that the peace process has been ambivalent in addressing women’s demands for inclusion, equality and social justice, remaining therefore incomplete. My talk was abruptly interrupted by another participant who rebuked my assessment for “being ungrateful”. He then took his turn and offered what, he felt, was the proper account of the conflict and of the peace negotiations’ complexities. The gist of his intervention suggested that gender is not relevant to understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. This is because more men than women died during decades of political violence. While acknowledging that women have suffered in the conflict, it was implied that the extent of this suffering was mostly confined to losing or caring for family members caught-up in the conflict.

GFA2

Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition speaking outside Stormont following talks. Photo: Derek Speirs

 

I wish to dwell on this short-lived, yet telling, exchange to develop a reflection on the gender politics underpinning narratives of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as its 20th anniversary celebrations. Starting from the use of the word “ungrateful” to dismiss research that foregrounds women’s experiences and claims (how dare we critique the legacy of the peace process?), the arguments raised in response to my points offer a glaring example of a deep-seated reluctance to acknowledge that women and gender matter greatly in the politics of conflict and peace-making. To begin with, I was struck by the failure to even acknowledge evidence and research documenting the varied impact of conflict in women’s lives, such as the unequal economic and social hardship experienced by women in working-class and rural areas; women’s safety and gender based violence in relation to forms of paramilitary activity and sectarianism; the long-term effects of violence on health and well-being, and increasing caring responsibilities for women as a direct result of the conflict – for example, when family members were injured. Women’s (unequal) care and emotional labour, mentioned by my co-speaker, is  indeed a poignant example of the gendered legacy of the conflict!

What is more, obscured in such gender-blind narratives are the complex ways in which women, in their diversity, participated in the conflict and peace process. It has been documented that some women were actively involved in protests, marches and more overt forms of political activism. Others explicitly engaged in the conflict as combatants in republican/nationalist paramilitary groups, and through supportive/less visible roles in loyalist groups. Some women were involved in community groups and grass-roots organisations that emerged predominantly in working-class areas, as a response to the deficiencies of direct-rule government in dealing with the social and economic needs of communities fractured by conflict and deprivation. In some instances, these kinds of supporting networks would also extend across divided communities. Although conflicting views on the constitutional issues and on the identification with feminism remained, civic activism provided a crucial platform for women’s active engagement during the conflict.  When prospects for the peace settlement emerged in the late 90s, it offered a springboard for a more cohesive, and collective, albeit short-termed, mobilisation which led to the formation of the NIWC.

Not only do the arguments on gender’s irrelevance to understanding the complexities of the conflict suggest a partial view of its history, but this logic also sustains the tendency to dismiss women as full-fledged agents in the politics of the peace process. Beside my own experience at the international conference that prompted this reflection, this attitude has been on display during the GFA’s celebrations on occasions where women’s stake as co-architects in dealing with the legacy of conflict and building peace has been omitted or downplayed.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 15.10.10

Dr. Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, talking to the press after a visit to the Maze prison to speak with loyalist and republican prisoners in 1998, in a move described as ‘mad’ and ‘brave’. RTÉ News archives, www.rte.ie/archives/2018/0108/931726-m0-mowlam-visits-maze/

We should remember that when the Agreement was negotiated, women were unusually visible. Dr. Mo Mowlam, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, played a tremendous role both in her personal and institutional capacity.  Liz O’Donnell, as junior Minister of Foreign Affairs, also contributed to the talks as a member of the Irish government delegation. Martha Pope, Senator George Mitchell’s chief of staff, coordinated the involvement of the US delegation, playing an important formal and informal role during the negotiations.

Crucially, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) participated in the multiparty negotiations through their elected representatives, Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar. As a cross-community party, the NIWC put an emphasis on maintaining the inclusive character of the negotiations process and in keeping open the lines of communication with civil society and political groups excluded from the talks. Particularly important was the Coalition’s achievement of a separate clause in the Agreement affirming the right of full and equal political participation for women. While we agree that the NIWC was not perfect and that not all women felt represented in their political stance, their contribution was remarkable on many levels. As Danielle Roberts has written, the coalition introduced the principles of inclusion, human rights and equality through their engagement in the negotiations. In the process they also had to find creative ways to navigate the hostile terrain of the male-dominated peace talks and establish working relationships with a wide array of actors. That women’s presence and contribution to the making of the GFA are dismissed in narratives of the peace agreement’s legacy is simply unacceptable.

What a reflection on the GFA’s 20th anniversary should also not downplay is that the aspirations for inclusion and equality included in the agreement have remained peripheral in the subsequent implementation and negotiation of the settlement. As I have argued elsewhere, the divisive nature of ethno-national politics has taken centre stage, also as a result of the power-sharing consociational formula deployed in the agreement.  Gender concerns have been relegated to the margins of the dominant political agenda and often left unaddressed. Numerous reports highlight the continued economic and social hardship experienced by women living in divided and interface communities, and the lack of social services and education for young people in these areas. Women have continued to express concerns around issues of safety, violence and ‘new’ forms of paramilitary activity. Community activists report a lack of attention to the persistence of entrenched gendered violence and discrimination. The fight for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy, challenged by conservative attitudes of major political parties,  also continues thanks to huge efforts by individual activists and groups such as Alliance for Choice. As both Claire Pierson and Kellie Turtle point out, while there have been some gains in the field of political representation and in the leadership of major NI parties, women have had limited access to key institutions and processes that focus on unresolved legacies of conflict and crucial contested issues, such as the parade commission and more recently the ‘Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition’ Commission.

Generally, women’s and feminist groups have expressed dissatisfaction with a peace process wherein women and women’s claims are too often side-lined in favour of matters that are deemed of more immediate interest, such as ‘community relations’, ethnonational identity and stability/re-establishment of institutions.  This marginalisation has been intensified in the recent political deadlock that led to the suspension of NI devolved institutions, as well as in discussion around the uncertainties over  Brexit. In October 2017, I attended a consultation to discuss the implications for women, peace and security in the current moment of political crisis and uncertainty. Organised by Yvonne Galligan and Fiona Buckley, as chairs of the Gender Politics specialist group of the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI), the meeting included NI activists, community development experts and interested academics. Participants expressed concerns over the unfinished gender equality politics of the peace process, as well as over the return of zero-sum positions spurred by controversies in NI local politics and  Brexit negotiations. Our discussion brought to the fore a sense that, yet again, a gender perspective and an attention to wider women’s concerns about the equality and rights agenda have been absent from political discussions over the future of the Agreement.

As fellow researchers and activists have argued, it is time that women’s contribution to building peace and their demands for social justice, equality and inclusion are fully acknowledged and taken seriously.  That 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement these complexities continue to be dismissed in discussions on the legacy and future of the peace process is why we insist that women’s and feminist critiques, in their diversity, are not only heard but amplified at every opportunity.

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about gender politics in Northern Ireland, take a look at Michelle Rouse’s piece here. For more pieces on the role of women and gender in conflict around the world, including such issues as sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, women in conflict mediation, how women terrorists are portrayed by the media, and more,  see here.

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!

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.

Emotion Rules in Feminist Book Reviews: An Inroad to Improving Feminist Relationships

By: Lisa Kalayji

WAB 2Swimming through the endless tidal wave of demoralising political think pieces and scholarly jibber-jabber in my mostly academic Twitter feed, I came upon an account called ‘ShitMyReviewersSay’, which features the cruelly scathing comments that anonymous peer reviewers write about the hopefully-to-be-published academic journal articles of their colleagues. The account’s handle? @YourPaperSucks.

Its purpose, other than to give us an opportunity to chuckle at what, under different circumstances, makes us want to either cry or set a university building ablaze, is to highlight the absurd magnitude of the viciousness that peer reviewers will direct at their colleagues when given a chance to do so anonymously.

It’s cathartic to have a laugh at this sort of thing, but when it doesn’t come in the form of a satirical Twitter account, our reaction is a lot different. ‘What the hell?!’ we wonder incredulously. ‘Couldn’t you express your criticism in a less ruthless and petty way? What good does it do you to ruin someone’s day and treat their carefully nurtured brainchild of a paper like garbage?’

ShitMyReviewersSay reminded me of the book reviews in Trouble and Strife, the radical feminist magazine I’m doing my PhD research with.

Trouble and Strife published a fair number of book reviews – feminists write a lot of books! – and over the course of my research I’ve found that there’s a vast deal we can learn about a group of people, be they academics, radical feminists, or any other group, from the way they review each other’s writing.

My research is about emotion culture: the system of rules and social norms that prevail in a society or social group which affect how people feel emotionally and how they express those emotions. Book reviews contain a treasure trove of clues about the emotion culture of the social group that the reviews come from, but in order to see those clues, you need to know some of the things sociologists have learned over the last few decades about how emotions work.

Emotions are relational

As the term ‘relational’ suggests, emotions come up in relationships between people. Because psychology dominates the popular lexicon we use to talk about and make sense of emotions, we tend to think of emotions as states which exist inside of us, are linked to our neurochemistry and our personal histories, and are mostly governed by things like innate human needs for social bonding. All of those things are partially true, but what the sociological study of emotions has revealed is that emotions are actually relational.

Why we feel the way we do in any given situation is constituted by our relationships to the people and things around us and what we understand those things to be and mean.

There isn’t anything in our genetic code that makes us get annoyed when a friend we’re supposed to meet for lunch shows up half an hour late (though our biology is necessary for us to be able to experience feelings), and the feeling of annoyance isn’t something inside of us that emanates outward through the things we say or do (though we do express emotions in that way). We’re annoyed at someone (that’s the relation), and the reason for that annoyance is what we think the lateness signifies. We’re busy people! Don’t they think we have better things to do than sit around waiting? We have to be back at work soon – now we’re going to have to rush through lunch! Our awareness that our friend knows that it’s considered rude to keep someone waiting and that it’s an inconvenience to us is what makes us annoyed – their indifference to our needs and to the agreed conventions of how keeping a lunch date with someone works creates our feeling. Likewise, though, if we found out that they’d been delayed because a stranger attacked them on the street and nearly broke their jaw, our annoyance would quickly give way to concern – what their lateness showed about our relationship to them would have changed, and with it, our feelings about it.

Emotions are subject to rules

Much like there are social rules about how we’re supposed to behave in different sorts of situations, there are also rules about how we’re supposed to feel and how we’re supposed to express feelings. If an adult is audibly crying at, say, a fancy restaurant or a business meeting, that would seem inappropriate, and probably make everyone around them quite uncomfortable. If they were at a funeral, however, that would be considered normal and appropriate, and no one would be bothered.

Even if feelings aren’t expressed, there are rules about how we’re supposed to feel.

If, for example, you’re a bit off your game at work because your sister died last week and you’re in grief, and while not actually admonishing you for it, you get the sense that your boss is annoyed with you for not being your sharpest self right now, you might get upset or angry at them. When someone is in grief, we expect others to respond with compassion, even if that grief peripherally causes some inconvenience to others – it’s a violation of the social norms of compassion and empathy to get annoyed at someone for being grieved, even if the annoyance is mostly hidden and not openly expressed. The rules are also different depending on what the characteristics of the people involved are. If that person crying in the restaurant is an infant, while people might still not be pleased about the noise, it wouldn’t make them feel awkward and uncomfortable, because we consider it normal behaviour for babies to cry regardless of time or place.

These are all some general aspects of how emotions in social life work in ordinary social situations. What my research is about, though, is the specifically political dimension of emotions in social life.

Social norms about emotions are deeply political, even in most seemingly innocuous daily interactions like those I described above. Rules about who is allowed to feel or express what feelings towards whom divides along a lot more political lines than the differences between adults and children. Anger is generally considered more appropriate in men than in women (and in women is more likely to be characterised as histrionics or emotional instability), and vulnerability more appropriate in women than in men (with men’s abilities to be ‘proper’ men called into question if they cry, especially in public). Rules about emotions are also racialised – even very slight expressions of anger from black men are interpreted as very threatening because black men are culturally conceived of as inherently threatening, while much stronger expressions of anger from white men (or women) are regarded as less threatening and are more likely to be considered justified. Our prevailing cultural conceptions about what characteristics different kinds of people innately have give rise to specific, and often strictly socially enforced, rules about who can feel what and how their feelings can be expressed.

Emotions in feminist book reviews

Feminists do a lot of writing, and a lot about how emotions work in feminism can be learned from examining the books, magazines, pamphlets, manifestos, and websites they write. I’m researching radical feminism, a specific type of feminism (there are a lot of them) which emerged during the ‘second wave’ of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s, and continues today. From 1983-2002, a radical feminist collective the UK published a magazine called Trouble and Strife, and a lot of radical feminist political thought from that period can be found there.

WAB 1Because feminist politics is so substantially borne out through reading and writing, one of the central strategies that feminists use to think through politics is by reading and debating one another’s writing. For that reason, unsurprisingly, Trouble and Strife published quite a few book reviews, wherein contributing authors to the magazine reviewed books authored by other feminists. By comparing these reviews, and the responses to them that readers communicated to the magazine through letters to the editors, we can see radical feminist emotional politics in action.

What I’ve found is that the emotion rules in radical feminism are different for relationships between radical feminists than they are when dealing with someone outside that political community. When dealing with fellow radical feminists, they’re more considerate of one another’s feelings, express their criticisms more hesitantly and gently, and are more appreciative of the aspects of the work that they agree with. On the rare occasion that someone breaks this rule and is harshly critical of someone within the radical feminist community, there’s a strong backlash, with others writing letters to the magazine to express strong objections to those criticisms having been published, and some questioning the political identity of the magazine as a whole in light of their decision to publish exacting reviews.

This will ring true for many feminists who currently engage in online activism, who are familiar with the more receptive audiences within their own political communities, and harsher (and sometimes outright vitriolic) criticism from feminists who have a fundamentally different set of political values.

This has profound implications for the future of feminism: if feminists who disagree on crucial political issues are more willing to upset one another, and less desirous of understanding where others are coming from, then we’re likely to see a continuation of the entrenched infighting that has plagued feminism for decades. I’m not suggesting here that we should return to the ‘happy sisterhood’ of yesteryear (which, as many feminists have pointed out, never actually existed). What I do want to highlight, though, is that if we want to understand why conflicts between feminists get so heated and can be so divisive, understanding the emotion rules which give shape to feminists’ relationships with each other is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Once we become more aware of these rules and how our own feelings are shaped by them, we can act to change them, and while this won’t solve all of feminism’s problems, it can go a long way toward generating more fruitful dialogues between feminists who belong to different political communities.

This strategy can be extended to other social movements as well, and it has rarely been a matter of more urgency than it is right now for social movements to be able to prevent the breakdown of their political projects due to irreconcilable conflicts from within their communities. During the currently ongoing period of rapid and disorientating social and political change, understanding the emotion rules of social movements can help us to ensure that efforts to enact positive social change are successful, and examining the way we speak to, speak of, and write about one another is one tool we can use for making sense of our emotion cultures.

You can find all issues of Trouble and Strife on their website at troubleandstrife.org.

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.

From The Taming of the Shrew to 10 Things I Hate About You: taming wild women in European culture

Don’t kiss him, Kate: Shrew-Taming Traditions in European Culture

by Dr Florence Hazrat

Before she is allowed to leave the house for a Friday night date, her father makes her wear a plastic apron with a big belly attached to the front. This is how it would be if she became pregnant. And does she want to become pregnant? Never trust boys! She complies begrudgingly, familiar with her father’s peculiar protectiveness. She needs to humour him, the prom is fast approaching, and the hottest guy of the whole high school has asked her out. If only there wasn’t her elder sister! Their father lets Bianca go to the proms upon condition that Kat goes too. But she’s a wild one, and has never had a date in her life. Only that mad boy, Patrick, could perhaps be bribed into asking her out…

This scene stems from the beginning of the 1999 teen film Ten Things I Hate About You, featuring future Hollywood actors Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in the leading roles. The film, however, is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s late sixteenth-century comedy The Taming of the Shrew in which a recalcitrant young woman, Katherine, is getting married off to a robust character, Petruchio, who starves her high spirits into wifely obedience. But Shakespeare’s piece is itself a spin-off of previous versions of the well-known theme of shrew-taming across diverse cultures, languages, and times. Scholars propose at least 400 of such stories in European literature alone, including oral versions, proverbs and story collections. Shakespeare’s play is among others inspired by an anonymous ballad called ‘A merry jest of a shrewd and cursed wife, lapped in Morrelles skin, for her good behaviour’ in which the husband cowers his wife by beating and wrapping her in his horse’ skin.

katherine_hits_the_music_master

A Louis Rhead ink drawing of Katherine breaking a lute over the music master’s head, from a 1918 edition of Tales from Shakespeare

Modern audiences struggle with the physical and emotional violence of the tale, particularly in the case of Shakespeare whose celebration as moral paragon sits awkwardly with the seeming misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism of some of his plays such as The Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Critics either denounce or attempt to salvage the playwright from such charges, arguing he writes within the traditions and genre conventions of his time, indeed  wringing subtlety from them by pushing and pulling their limits. The Shrew, it is said, is a satire on domineering male behaviour, emerging from a social trend towards the romantic companionable rather than arranged marriage. That the inequalities suggested were unpalatable even to early modern sensitivities is, perhaps, shown by a play written as sequel to Shakespeare’s, The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher: Petrucmisohio has bullied Katherine into the grave, re-marrying a supposedly mild young girl who turns out to be a wilder wife than the first. As in Shakespeare’s play, the couple eventually makes peace after many hilarious tricks played upon each other. As in Shakespeare’s play too, we’re left not entirely sure what to think, but that may just be the point.

shrew-caricature

A caricature by Williams from Caricature magazine (1815), entitled ‘Tameing a shrew; or, Petruchio’s patent family bedstead, gags and thumscrews.’

The Taming of the Shrew complicates the difficult business of “are we to take the misogyny seriously?” by setting it apart as play within the play. The piece doesn’t actually start with the shrew story but with a framing device: a drunkard is duped into believing he is a lord for whose amusement the story about wife-taming is being staged. It is introduced as farce, and we are supposed to laugh at what it so obviously proclaims.

        In production as in interpretation, much depends on Katherine’s final speech in which she berates disobedient wives, advertising the complete submission of women to men in marriage.

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (Act 5, scene 2)

What sounds at first as almost intolerably cruel – the speech ends with Katherine’s offer to place her hand under her husband’s foot – may be a beautifully effective piece of subversion when staged: the 1967 Zeffirelli film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton has Katherine storm out of the hall after her earnest speech, leaving Petruchio to run after her, severely casting doubt over just how tamed she is.

hughes

A pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Robert Hughes from 1898 (‘The Shrew Katherina)

A fascinating response to this particular ambiguity of Shakespeare’s play is a seventeenth-century German version called The Art of all Arts: How to Make an Evil Wife Good. Between the 1590s and 1620s, English acting companies travelled across the continent, carrying with them numerous texts by Shakespeare and contemporaries. Some years later, these texts start to appear in, amongst others, Danish, Dutch, and German, sometimes closely attached to the originals, sometimes adapting them according to the theatrical traditions of the different cultures. There is, for example, the clown-figure called Pickleherring with whom seventeenth-century Germans would have been familiar with, dropping into the tragic Romeo and Juliet adaptation.

It is a mystery how these versions came into being: did the English actors learn German? Did they work with translators, or did they marry German women who helped them translate, or with whom they had children who spoke both languages? What is clear, however, is that these plays are an untapped source for insights into the Renaissance landscape of European theatre, attesting to a much more wide-spread exchange than we are aware of. They also bring us tantalizingly close to performance practices of Shakespeare’s own time, considering their date of printing a mere handful of years after the playwright’s death.

        I am part of a team at the University of Geneva that seeks to make early modern German plays available to an anglophone readership, and am re-translating The Art of All Arts into English. Differing attitudes to gender between the German and the English play are particularly striking: although The Art of All Arts does firmly anchor itself in the shrew-taming tradition (Socrates offers the prologue, lamenting his cursing wife Xanthippe), Katherine is accompanied by a robustly practical maid servant with whom she holds conversations that reveal her thoughts about the situation, a privileged access to her situation lacking in Shakespeare. Her final speech also receives radical treatment in shrinking from some 46 lines expatiating on female obedience to a bare two:

This I want to tell us briefly:

You men, love your wives. And you women, obey your husbands (Act 5).

This ‘lesson’, though ambiguous and performance-dependent it is, shifts the poetic weight onto both men and women in the audience through its memorable parallelism. The translator’s decision to cut a speech that crowns the play, particularly considering the sometimes close verbal echoes to the original, is a stunning circumstance which encourages a revision of charges of misogyny with which we encounter early modern ideas of gender.

Today, it seems, we still have not quite outgrown a taste in shrew-taming: films and musicals, notably Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate, evidence a sustained interest in the subject, if only, perhaps, because it puts under pressure what we think we know about gender relationships. Little known Shrew versions like The Art of All Arts will contribute to complicating and nuancing our notions of marriage in the Renaissance, as well as today.

 

A woman’s place is in the kitchen?

The Rise of the Chef: The Skill of Cooking Becomes More Complicated

by Mary Farrell.

Women have always been involved with food: gathering food; growing food; processing food; cooking food; presenting food; feeding their families. This is something that is true across the world and throughout history. Yet in many societies, indeed most, women have tended to be poorly represented at higher-status activities associated with food. Think of the Michelin chefs, famous chefs, head chefs – do we automatically think of men? It is fascinating that, even in societies in which women are considered “liberated” from the restraints of traditional gender mores, and protected at work from the most egregious cases of gender discrimination, women are significantly under-represented as top chefs, and women’s writing about food has been typically relegated to the areas of domestic and family life. Even now, it seems that men’s involvement with food, whether in preparing it or writing about it in the public realm is seen as having more gravitas; as being, almost by definition, higher status. The question is why this is the case? How did it all get so confused? After all, women remain the predominant cooks in the domestic setting. In order to understand the particularity of this phenomenon we must look back through history in order to understand the curious state of affairs we now find ourselves in.

sketch2821715591

Illustration by Rita Blair

The Creation of the ‘Le Chef’

It is during the 17th century we witness the emergence of the concept ‘The Chef’. Early chefs were members of the military and were exclusively men when, in the 17th century, the landed nobility began to rely on chefs to prepare food. The employment of a man in this capacity was seen as a sign of one’s status at that time[1]. As chefs began to take on more power in shaping the cultural and culinary world around them, they searched for ways to separate cuisine with a high social value, or haute cuisine, from the everyday, and little valued, cookery of women[2].

It is also at this time, the era of the Industrial Revolution, that we see the emergence of two distinct spheres, the domestic/private/feminine on the one hand, and the professional /public/masculine on the other. Prior to this, most women and men’s lives overlapped. Most work was carried out around the home where women were the primary food providers and caretakers while also taking part in home-based manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution relegated women to the private realm of household management, child rearing and religious education, as factories split the family unit. Working-class men worked in the mines, mills, and workshops and women remained in the home with the farm and family, creating the concept of “homemaker”. This division reinforced an already gendered world by identifying separate spheres, unequally weighted in favour of the masculine and the public. This dichotomy prevails to this day and continues to underpin our understanding of the public/private realms and the concepts of masculine and feminine.

This gendered division of the skill of cooking, aided by the rise of separate spheres for men and women, prevented women from participating in the growing restaurant industry in Europe (Ferguson 2004). Men controlled the means of professional legitimation such as authoring cookbooks, teaching at culinary schools, and exhibiting at culinary expositions thereby juxtaposing men in the role of ‘‘educator’’, and their women audience members as ‘‘students’’, helping to institutionalise the exclusion of women from professional cooking (Ferguson 2004).

The terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are directly related to the separation of the public and the private sphere. The chef means “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen” and related directly to the métier of food preparation in the professional public sphere. The term cook is understood more as much more working class, understood as being a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, a cog in a wheel. The chef is a professional who goes through proper training and rises in the ranks of a military system, a term historically associated with men, whereas the cook is self-taught, home-schooled, working by instinct and has historically been associated with women and the private sphere. A chef is granted higher public status and the freedom to be creative and imaginative with their food; a cook may only be responsible for following the chef’s recipes and produce food. In Ratatouille, Revel believes that the raw edible materials in the hands of “mothers” can lead to some fine “craftsmanship” but not great art, whereas the chefs have to transcend everyday methods to realise a grand cuisine which should be restricted only to professionals, who are undoubtedly men. When Colette asks Linguini “How many women do you see in this kitchen?” her response is illuminating,

“Because Haute Cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world…” People think haute cuisine is snooty, so the chef needs to be snooty”[3].

Colette reveals that cuisine is associated with high culture and the world of the professional man whereas cooking is associated with working class people and women’s work. This hierarchical stance creates binaries – art/craft, cultivated or educated professional cuisines /local cooking, and male chefs/female cooks. This dichotomous relationship is played out in the world of the professional chef, where women and men are judged according to their gendered understanding of the skill of cooking within our culture, to women’s disadvantage[4]. The most recent academic work researching women chefs found that females are overly represented at the cook level and underrepresented at the head chef level, questioning whether the gendered understanding of chef and cooks reveal a bias against women based on their gender and historic hierarchical structures[5].

sketch1169292

Illustration by Rita Blair

With the emergence of modern feminism, the predominant representations of the domestic are of oppression, entrapment, tyranny, enslavement; “captive wives and housebound mothers”. Women are portrayed as victims, subjects of male action and female biology, removing women’s agency and dismissing the domestic and the myriad of important actions that take place within this space. Betty Freidman argued in The Feminine Mystique that the domestic was contrary to the aims of feminism.  As a result, the relationship between the female, food and the domestic has long been identified as oppressive; a representation of powerlessness.  This has excluded the female in the domestic space from telling her story, who, while working within this private sphere was able to carve out her own area of power and independence. The greater intimacy, the very domesticity that is often seen to relegate women’s involvement with food to a “lower” level, also means that their cooking, writing and talk of food are rich with social context in the way that more formal involvement often is not, giving us abundant insight not just into their own and their family’s lives, but to social mores and historical context.

In recent years, food studies and third wave feminists have helped to open up the domestic space to further investigation, allowing us to recognise the significant lives of women in the domestic spheres. By conceptualising the kitchen as a space as opposed to a place, we can represent a site of multiple changing levels and degrees of freedom, self-awareness, subjectivity and agency.  Here, food studies uncover a relationship with food and the domestic that reveals “opportunities” to demonstrate creativity and skill, and accruing value within families and communities and increasing opportunities to express resistance and power; it permits a revision of the text to allow for more a “more nuanced, culturally inclusive consideration”, suggesting that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom and power for women even as it constrained them in other ways[6].

My PhD key factors for the gender disparity in head chef positions in the  restaurant industry in Ireland. It has always fascinated me as to why, when women carry out cooking in the domestic setting, it is men who consistently feature as the top chefs in my industry. The rise of the chef has resulted in a complicated and misunderstood relationship for women and their relationship with the skill of cooking.  The rise of the chef, married with the separation of the two spheres – the public and private – seems to me a good place to begin the story for women chefs and the many challenges they may face through their careers.  Many challenges remain for women in this industry but by looking back at how it all began it helps me frame my research and develop it through the lens of feminist discourse.

 

References

[1] Trubek, A. (2000), Haute Cuisine: How the French Created the Culinary Profession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[3] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[4] Swinbank, V. A. (2002). The Sexual Politics of Cooking: A Feminist Analysis of Culinary Hierarchy in Western Culture, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 15, pp.464–494.

[5] Harris Deborah A. & Patti Giuffre, Patti A, (2015), Taking the Heat , Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen , Rutgers University Press

[6] Abarca, Meredith E. (2008), Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. U.S.A: Library of Congress.

Women, Shakespeare, and Ireland: what ish my nation?

by Emer McHugh

Let’s begin with Henry V. It’s the scene where Captains Gower and Fluellen meet with their Irish and Scottish counterparts, Macmorris and Jamy, to discuss the siege of Harfleur. Macmorris and Fluellen have a particularly agitated conversation:

Fluellen. Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation.

Macmorris. Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal? What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? (3.3.61-65)

Even though he is a relatively minor character, Macmorris’ response there – ‘what ish my nation?’ – has been taken up as the starting-point for approaching issues of national identity in Irish literature and drama, and also as the linchpin for Shakespeare and Ireland studies as well. Of course, Macmorris’ predominance in such criticism does not come without its problems: Stephen O’Neill has drawn attention to how

‘[s]uch privileging [of Macmorris] has as much to do with Shakespeare’s centrality to the canon – stage Irish characters in other plays from the period have not been analysed to the same extent – as it does with the centrality of MacMorris’s questions to a play about conquest, cultural difference and national identity.’[1]

O’Neill is right to advise caution here, but I think that ‘what ish my nation?’ still carries meaning in Shakespeare and Ireland studies, and in 21st century Ireland too. I don’t have far to look: I look at my country’s treatment of its women.

DruidShakespeare

Druid Theatre Company’s ‘DruidShakespeare’

Women and Ireland 

This year alone, I think of the unveiling and removal of the Maser Art mural at the Project Arts Centre. The establishment of the Repeal Project clothing company. #TwoWomenTravel, unflinching in its depiction of what Irish pregnant people are put through should they want to make choices for their own bodies. Brianna Parkins talking about wanting to see the Eighth Amendment repealed on the Rose of Tralee, an unlikely (but nevertheless, welcome) topic to be discussed on everyone’s favourite Lovely Girl competition. ‘We Face This Land’, a two-minute visualisation of Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem that dared to assert ‘The laws of the church have no place on your flesh […] Witches or women – these are our bodies which shall not be given up’.[2] However, Enda Kenny’s words still ring in my ears: ‘The T-shirts may be black and white writing on them but this is about people and people have different views.’ ‘This is about people’: but am I not a person? Are the twelve people who travel to the UK every single day not people as well? If my country does not recognise me as a person, then what ish my nation? (It’s also worth pointing out that his year also marks twenty years since the closure of the last Magdalene laundry in Ireland. I could go on about this country’s treatment of its women over decades.)

This is also a nation where its own national theatre omits – bar one playwright – women from its 1916 commemorative programme: leading to the birth of the #WakingTheFeminists movement, which, over the last year, has tirelessly worked to create change, equality, and equity in Irish theatre. Its work is far from over, but it is incredible to see how it has invigorated the theatrical landscape both in terms of scholarship and practice. (It’s certainly been a huge influence on my own research, as well as leading to the creation of Feminist Theatre Squadron, a podcast which I co-host with my colleagues.) When the movement was in its beginning stages, out of interest I decided to read up on the Abbey Theatre’s stats in performing Shakespeare. How many women have directed Shakespeare for the national theatre? I wanted to find out. And it turned out that, in the theatre’s 110+ years’ history, there had been only one woman who had done so. And she happens to be the incumbent artistic director of the Gate Theatre. (It was Selina Cartmell, by the way: King Lear in 2013.) I understand that Shakespeare may not be an immediate choice for Irish theatre practitioners: yet, as Mark Thornton Burnett cautions, ‘[a]lthough Shakespeare’s work can be seen as an imperial export, it also belongs to a broader dialogue – a system of negotiations, manipulations and imaginative reinscriptions.’[3] Shakespeare performance in an Irish context, then, can be a fascinating site for exploring issues of national identity. I also believe that it can be a fascinating site for exploring gender – for writing women back into the narrative.

Women & Shakespeare

As an intersectional feminist, I find myself grappling with the fact that I work on the most famous dead white man in all of Western literature. Shakespeare’s plays are not inherently feminist. But, the performance of his plays can be feminist. As Kim Solga writes, ‘feminist resistance to the gaze is both visual and structural; it’s a matter of both what is presented on stage, lifted up to audience view, and how that material is presented, the narrative that shapes its presentation.’[4] I also emphasise Sarah Werner’s idea that ‘all performances of Shakespeare engage in localized production of meaning’[5]: which has implications not only for the creative team’s approach to the play, but also audience members’ reception of the production: what I took away from it may not be the same as someone else in the audience that night. Margaret Jane Kidnie suggests that ‘a play, for all that it carries the rhetorical and ideological force of enduring stability, is not an object at all, but rather a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users.’[6] In line with Kidnie’s argument, I’d contend that any given Shakespeare production is one out of many products of an evolving process, that being the chosen play as it has been shaped by shifting cultural attitudes over time. So, in light of that, what I want to offer in this short piece are some examples of Irish Shakespeare performance that explore gender and feminism in interesting ways.

Druid Theatre Company’s DruidShakespeare premiered in May 2015. This was a seven-hour adaptation of the first Henriad into one continuous narrative, and in the three principle roles of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, the Henrys were played by women. Particularly in the case of Aisling O’Sullivan’s performance as Henry V, DruidShakespeare used the performance of gender to subvert conventional ideas and patterns in Shakespeare performance – quite pertinent given the cultural signifiers that Henry V as a character and as an icon of English patriotism produces. O’Sullivan spoke with a guttural County Kerry accent, not only recalling her previous roles for Druid but also throwing into sharp contrast the ghosts of previous Henrys, the majority of these male and having performed at British theatrical institutions that Worthen would describe as ‘institutionalized Shakespeare’: examples such as Hassell at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kenneth Branagh at the same theatre and on film, Jude Law for the Michael Grandage Company, Adrian Lester for the National Theatre, and Jamie Parker for Shakespeare’s Globe.[7]

Many of the theatres housing these performances are associated with institutionalised ideas of verse-speaking: indeed, some of them ‘have been extremely influential in the establishment of principles of Shakespearean verse speaking on the modern British stage.’[8] Not only that, O’Sullivan’s physical presence cut a distinctive presence. Considering the likes of Hassell, Branagh, Parker, Law, and Lester – all of whom played athletic, muscular, conventionally masculine Henrys – upon her first entrance, O’Sullivan’s Hal was lithe, wiry, and prone to posturing and slouching. Her chief uniform, too, was a large black leather jacket and jeans: contrasting with the royal livery with which we commonly associate Henry: not only a crown and a suit of armour, but the colours of red and blue, the three lions, and the fleur-de-lis (Hassell, Branagh, Law, and Parker all sported variations on this, harking back to Laurence Olivier’s take on the role). O’Sullivan is not the only female Henry in the current theatrical landscape: Lazarus Theatre Company produced an all-female version last year, and Michelle Terry played the role this year for Open Air Theatre.[9] Genderblind Shakespeare may not be innovative, but it is clear that O’Sullivan’s performance in itself is a response to conventions, traditions, and iconographies in Irish and Shakespeare performance practice – conventions that are predominantly quite male.

A feminist approach to Shakespeare

If we return to 2016, the most unexpected place to find an alternative response to this 1916 centenary year – a response which was certainly inspired by #WakingTheFeminists’ efforts – was in a reconstructed Elizabethan theatre on the Bankside in London. Caroline Byrne’s production of The Taming of the Shrew was announced as part of Emma Rice’s first season as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe earlier this year. In a press release announcing its final casting, the production was billed as marking ‘the centenary of the Easter Rising by revisiting 1916 Ireland and remembering the role of women in the fight for independence.’[10]

To be sure (perhaps because of where it was performed), this Shrew deals in commoditised Irishness – on the night I saw the production, the musicians played their jigs and reels on the bodhrán, tin whistle, fiddle, and guitar for the crowd’s pleasure. The production’s Irish Catholic context was brought to the fore: during her wedding, Katherina (Aoife Duffin) sat on top of two staircases that folded together to display a neon-light cross, whereas Petruchio’s (Edward Mac Liam) admission to Gremio (Raymond Keane) that ‘me father dead’ was met with numerous members of the cast blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. The text, too, was edited to add elements of Hiberno-English and Irish, such as ‘Jaysus’, ‘mo chara’, and ‘go raibh mile maith agaibh’.

But more pertinent in relation to the production’s feminist approach was the inclusion of additional songs, with lyrics written by the production’s dramaturg Morna Regan. A most notable example is the song ‘Numbered in the Song’ which, in Byrne’s words, ‘[remembers] all the women unsung by Irish history’, and was ‘in part inspired’ by Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, ‘where only the men are “numbered in the song”.’[11] This song, sung by Aoife Duffin as Katherina in a thick Dublin brogue, acted as an ongoing theme throughout the production: as Byrne simply states in an interview, ‘[i]t is a motif in the production, to be numbered in the song.’[12] The production also dispensed with Christopher Sly and the Induction in favour of Duffin performing the song after the musicians had left at the beginning, and Katherina’s singing closed the first half and also concluded the show. Again, this is part of this Shrew placing women – more specifically Katherina and her story – at its heart, and it is interesting that it did so through an appropriation of a male Irish writer’s words. With lyrics such as ‘The nation promised equality’, the song also threw into sharp relief the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in Ireland over the last hundred years.

From the get-go, the production was sympathetic to Katherina’s plight, and suggested that her taming by Petruchio was unnecessary and cruel. From Katherina’s spoken-word songs, to her newspaper being ripped out of her hand by her own father, to the production refusing to shy away from the psychological and emotional abuse Petruchio subjected her to (she spent the second half in her torn wedding dress, sleeping on a bed with only Petruchio’s cowskin cape as a duvet) – this Shrew emphasised the implications of a patriarchal Irish Catholic society on the lives of women. In doing so, it did not provide easy answers: Katherina delivered her final speech in resignation, anger, and frustration at the world she was forced to inhabit, and her relationship with a troubled-looking Petruchio was left up in the air.

Additionally, it emphasises these women’s voices: instead of Petruchio, Katherina was given the production’s final words through song, telling Petruchio that ‘I will not go to war with thee | Dulce et decorum est’ – the melody following the traditional tune ‘The Parting Glass’.[13] In addition, Amy Conroy’s Widow had an expanded role to play in this production: hovering in the background, quietly horrified at the misogyny unfolding on stage, providing quiet counsel to Katherina throughout. This relationship between the Widow and Katherina was built to the point where the final scene appears to be a battle between the former and Petruchio for the latter’s soul. (A Pyrrhic victory for Petruchio is implied here.) As Byrne comments, ‘[i]t’s not a play about the Easter Rising, but it attempts to chime with the experience of Irish women. The promises made in the [1916] Proclamation were not kept in the decades that followed and Irish women are still seeking equality to this day – much in the same way that Katherina is in Shrew’.[14] However, I am not sure if all of this was in the mind of Globe audiences throughout the production’s run. This is judging by the ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ chant Petruchio encouraged the crowd to partake in very early on in the evening, as well as the cheering and whooping that greeted a later kiss between the two. Both times, Duffin’s Katherina was uncomfortable and unwilling to participate. This is perhaps illustrative of Werner’s idea of ‘a performance of Shakespeare that reflects the individual viewer’s perceptions and desires as much as it does those of Shakespeare or the director’[15]: indeed, performance reception is always a composite of individual and collective responses.

Writing last year for the Irish Times and reflecting on the very first #WakingTheFeminists public meeting, Lian Bell commented that ‘[d]uring the past weeks, through the voices of a multitude of women and men speaking up as feminists, this word came to life for me. I realise how important exposure to a spectrum of stories is – next year more than ever.’[16] Bell’s idea of ‘exposure to a spectrum of stories’ is crucial here: not only in our commemoration of 1916, but also in the year of commemorating Shakespeare’s death and the constant reinforcing of his dominance in world culture. (I’d also argue that it’s crucial in the context of recent world events, as well.) Feminist Shakespeare performance should not be the only intervention to make, but at least it should be one of many: specifically in the case of Irish women as we attempt to rewrite what ish our nation indeed.

[1] Stephen O’Neill, ‘Beyond MacMorris: Shakespeare, Ireland and Critical Contexts’, in Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers, ed. by Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp.245-57 (p.247).

[2] ‘We Face This Land’, YouTube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=571vnkdrWC0 [accessed 27 November 2016].

[3] Mark Thornton Burnett, ‘Introduction’, in Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, ed. by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp.1-5 (p.4).

[4] Kim Solga, Theatre & Feminism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p.30.

[5] Sarah Werner, Shakespeare and Feminist Performance: Ideology on Stage (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p.19.

[6] Margaret Jane Kidnie, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p.1.

[7] Worthen, p.41.

[8] Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Shakespearean Verse-Speaking: Text and Theatre Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), p.1.

[9] See <https://openairtheatre.com/production/henry-v> and <http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Theater/production/stage/3410/> for more information on these two productions.

[10] ‘Globe Theatre Press Release – Shakespeare’s Globe announces full cast for Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew’, shakespearesglobe.com, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/uploads/files/2016/04/12.04.16_shrew_casting_release_final.pdf [accessed 18 October 2016].

[11] Caroline Byrne and Danielle Pearson, ‘Confronting the Shrew’, programme for The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2016), p.9.

[12] Byrne and Pearson, p.9.

[13] ‘Adopt An Actor: Katherine Played By Aoife Duffin: Performances 2’, shakespearesglobe.com, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/discovery-space/adopt-an-actor/archive/katherine-played-by-aoife-duffin/performances-2 [accessed 18 October 2016].

[14] Byrne and Pearson, p.8.

[15] Werner, p.102.

[16] Lian Bell, ‘Lian Bell: #WakingTheFeminists still waiting for the Abbey’, Irish Times, 16 December 2015, http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/lian-bell-wakingthefeminists-still-waiting-for-the-abbey-1.2467408 [accessed 3 October 2016].