Diversity, family, and LGBT rights: watching Eurovision across borders

This post originally appeared at ESC Insight on 3 May.

The working seminary building, with bishops’ portraits hanging in the corridors and a six-foot crucifix nailed to the back wall of the conference room, that I visited in April to take part in Maynooth University’s conference on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest in a Changing World: Culture, Geography and Politics’ is one of the less likely venues for giving a talk on the Song Contest – especially one about how the Contest got tied into the international politics of LGBT rights – and yet somehow felt very much in the Eurovision spirit.

To understand what might be so ‘Eurovision’ about using a room surrounded by the iconography of a traditionally homophobic, biphobic and transphobic institution to talk about European LGBT activism, Dana International’s impact on trans history, and the symbolic role Conchita Wurst took on in 2014 for people who foresaw a renewed cultural ‘Cold War’ between Europe and Russia involves understanding that Eurovision has always meant, for many of its LGBT fans, a way to rewrite heterosexual community and ritual into something special to them.

To many of the LGBT fans, especially gay men, who have historically been so heavily involved in Eurovision fandom, straight society’s annual rituals of celebration and family reunion have at best assimilated them and at worst been actively oppressive.

The World Cup and the Olympics both assemble fans celebrating national success and (above all at the World Cup) national masculinity; Christmas, the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote, is when all the social institutions where homophobia resides ‘are speaking with one voice’ to remind queer people that the idealised family excludes them. Even before Eurovision became an LGBT celebration on stage, with historic performances in 1997–8 by Páll Oskar and Dana International, Eurovision was already giving thousands of queer people an annual focal point for getting together with community and family.

 

Or as one ‘out-of-office’ graphic that’s gone around Facebook in Eurovision week over the last few years, asking forgiveness if fans are taking a long time to keep up with email, frames itself in the language of a religious festival: ‘This is because we are celebrating Eurovision.’

For someone who researches popular culture, nationalism and conflict since the end of the Cold War, the Eurovision Song Contest represents the one moment in the year when the general public in the UK or Ireland is likely to be interested in something as obscure as controversies over what narrative of national cultural identity should be the basis for Croatian popular music – the subject, more or less, of my first book, which I wouldn’t have written if wanting to find out more about Croatia’s 1990s Eurovision entries hadn’t been the very first step towards what became a PhD project on the politics of popular music in Croatia after its separation from Yugoslavia.

(The controversies over Severina’s Eurovision entry in 2006 – in many ways the ‘We Are Slavic’ of its decade – ended up giving me a case study I hadn’t even expected when I’d started the PhD in 2005. A spin-off paper I wrote on the Ruslana/Željko Joksimović mode of ethnopop at Eurovision, which I’d initially just planned as background for explaining Severina’s ‘Moja štikla’, has consistently been my most cited article since it came out in 2008, just as networks were starting to form around what’s now become an academic subfield of Eurovision research.)

 

In fact, talking about the politics of Eurovision from a perspective that starts with the cultural politics of the individual countries that participate is an opportunity to show there are more interesting cultural dynamics than just ‘political voting’ behind why East European countries seem to vote for each other at Eurovision all the time – and maybe to get people to rethink how they mentally divide the continent into ‘east’ and ‘west’.

Today, one of the big ‘symbolic boundaries’ in that imaginary east/west division involves LGBT rights and state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia. This was already emerging in the late 1990s, but really entered public ‘common sense’ in the twenty-first century as LGBT movements won important legislative struggles for LGB and sometimes even trans equality – leading to widespread stereotypes in western European countries that ‘Eastern Europe’ is somewhere ‘more homophobic’ than the West. (The same stereotypes are often, just as simplistically, applied to ‘Africa’ or ‘Islam’.)

Traffic-light maps of LGB rights in different European countries, like the ILGA Rainbow Europe Map, tend to come out looking green in the west and red in the east, giving an instant visual impression of which countries are supposedly further ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’. (The Trans Rights Europe Map, interestingly, is rather less spatially coherent.)

These indexes simplify a lot of legal and social complexities into a yes-or-no checklist of rights, and create an illusion of western European progressiveness and eastern European backwardness that east European queer scholars have taken the lead in pushing back against. Contemporary homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is not just international but transnational, with US pastors inspiring persecution of LGBT people in the Caribbean and Uganda, and French and Polish groups campaigning against LGBT equality exchanging slogans and symbols with each other. Nevertheless, opponents of LGBT equality have been more successful in some countries than others in persuading governments to follow their ideas and rhetoric – notably in Russia, where the federal parliament passed the so-called ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in June 2013.

Eurovision is cherished by many fans as a site of gay, trans and queer celebration and even citizenship – a rare occasion, Peter Rehberg wrote in 2007 shortly before Marija Šerifović’s heavily queer-coded ‘Molitva’ won that year’s contest, for queer people to be able to feel that the nation being celebrated includes them. At the same time, it’s broadcast across (and beyond) a continent where public broadcasters in different countries will have very different ideological positions, and even be in very different legal positions, towards representing sexual diversity and gender non-conformity on screen.

Vitaly Milonov, prime mover of the ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in Russia, has also argued for several years that Russian television should not broadcast Eurovision – precisely so that Russian families would not have to watch the ‘Europe-wide gay parade’ and ‘Sodom show’.

What I wanted to talk about at Maynooth was the problem of ‘transnational spectatorship’, or, taken out of academic language, the fact that audiences – and broadcasters – in different countries watch Eurovision from the perspective of some very distinct national cultural politics, and yet the same contest has to satisfy them all.

Something which is the stuff of everyday Saturday-night entertainment in one country, like the kiss between two men when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede officiated a same-gender ‘wedding’ during her interval act in 2013 (marking gay-friendliness as a Swedish national value), or a direct expression of activism in another, like the kiss between two women with which Krista Siegfrids attached her performance of ‘Marry Me’ that same year to the campaign for an equal marriage referendum in Finland, could now be legally questionable under laws like those currently in place in Russia.

 

Much as Eurovision organisers like to insist that the contest is a non-political event, the social and political struggles in every European country over giving LGB and trans people access to the same rights that their straight and cisgender citizens take for granted show that an event that has become so symbolically associated with LGBT belonging in Europe is not actually outside politics at all.

The language of ‘diversity’ and ‘family’ with which the European Broadcasting Union describes Eurovision is unthreatening and non-specific. During 2016’s ‘flags controversy’, where Eurovision producers’ instructions to security staff at the venue initially stated rainbow (and EU) flags would only be allowed ‘providing they will […] not be used as a tool to intentionally make a political statement during the show’, the EBU eventually said that the rainbow flag ‘technically represents diversity which is a core symbol of the EBU’ (and didn’t give other flags in the Pride family, like the trans flag, the same recognition as the rainbow flag).

This is far from the understanding of the Pride flag as a symbol of political struggle that many activists today would still insist on – but perhaps a necessary fiction, from an organisers’ point of view, to avoid a larger confrontation with broadcasters who might object more strongly to rainbow flags on screen if the EBU itself politicised them.

The language of a ‘family’ show, meanwhile, has resonances to many queer viewers that straight people may not even appreciate – because we know how often describing television as ‘family viewing’ has led to queer lives being erased from what children are able to see. ‘Family’ as a broadcasting standard can alarm queer viewers even while it sounds completely innocuous to most straight and cisgender people – who could disagree with something as everyday and happy as the family is supposed to be?

 

And yet the ideology of family, in homophobic hands or even hands that are just trying to balance homophobia and demands for LGBT rights in a false equivalence, seeps easily into withholding queer representation from children on the grounds that they should be allowed to grow up ‘naturally’ and that LGBT experiences are in and of themselves an ‘adult’ theme. The false assumption that young people are only led towards ‘alternative’ sexualities because media have exposed them to same-gender affection and transgressions of gender norms is ultimately what lies behind legislation that criminalises promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s, the phrasing of the legislation in Russia.

Yet this is not to suggest that conceiving of Eurovision as ‘family entertainment’ necessarily closes down space for it to be a queer celebration, even though the language of family does contain within itself a hinge where that could occur. Eurovision is, and has always been, a show watched by families: so many viewers’ first memories of Eurovision come from watching it as children, on such an out-of-the-ordinary night you were allowed to stay up past your bedtime, hearing languages you’d never heard before.

Most people who remember how better queer representation in media when they were young could have made it more pleasant to grow up in their own families want there to be ‘family entertainment’ – but family entertainment that affirms all kinds of queer identities and experiences, the ones that could have shown us what we were earlier and the ones that could have shown us what a diversity of possibilities for experiencing sexuality and gender – for forming family – was actually around us.

If Eurovision, with its long LGBT history, has the potential to bridge queerness and national belonging, can Eurovision also bridge queerness and family?

How to write a conference abstract: a five-part plan for pitching your research at almost anything

One of the things about academic life that, when you’ve done them a lot, you start forgetting you didn’t always know how to do is writing conference abstracts.

Answering a conference’s call for papers will nearly always involve writing an abstract, or a summary of what your talk is going to be about, to a word limit the organisers have set – usually 200, 250, 300 or 500 words.

(Some may ask for other things, like a biographical note or a short CV, and some will choose papers on the abstracts alone – so make sure you know what else to send, and what word limit you’re working towards for a particular one.)

Some large conferences, like the ones scholarly associations hold in different subject areas, will ask for this almost a year in advance, which makes it even more difficult to know what to put in the abstract – since, especially if you’re a postgrad, you probably won’t yet have done the research.

I’ve probably been writing 5-6 of these things, with a success rate of more than 90%, most years since 2006, when I was in the middle of my PhD (on a topic – popular music and narratives of identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia – that followed on from my Masters, so I already had well-worked-out arguments to talk about) – most of these presentations will have needed abstracts written for them, aimed at audiences with different disciplinary and thematic interests (even the ones where I’ve been invited to give the talk, the organisers have usually asked me for an abstract so they can tell their networks what it’s going to be about).

Before I’d had to write most of these, I’d also been involved in selecting abstracts for a large postgraduate conference that a group of PhD students in my department organised in 2006 – so I’d read a whole spectrum of abstracts from stunningly clear and exciting to utterly baffling or, once or twice, so off-topic I wondered if it was meant for something else.

Smaller conferences often circulate all the speakers’ abstracts in one document before the conference or put them in registration packs; larger conferences usually make them available through their online system. Most abstracts at academic conferences that were high enough quality to be accepted have a similar structure, as you’ll probably start to see if you look through your next conference’s abstracts book.

Their purpose once they’ve been accepted is so people at the conference can work out which papers and panels they want to hear. Their first purpose, on the other hand is to persuade the organisers that they want your paper – and you – to be part of the discussion they’re having about their conference topic, in a context where they’ll almost certainly have more submissions than they can accommodate.

They don’t just want you and your research to be there – they need you and your research to be there – or that’s the impression your abstract ought to give.

The five-part structure I’m going to go through here would make sense to organisers throughout the humanities and social sciences (I’ve used it for abstracts that needed to fit into history, politics, sociology, geography, media or cultural or popular music studies, interdisciplinary area studies, anthropology, education, even conferences on topics my CV looked like I don’t study explaining why I did study them after all) – some of its principles probably apply in sciences as well, though your fields might have more formal requirements for what you put where.

This is an abstract I wrote in 2012, based on work from my postdoctoral project on translation/interpreting and peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for submission to a set of Feminist Security Studies panels at the International Studies Association conference in 2013. I’d been realising that my research about everyday intercultural encounters on military bases actually fitted in with what this expanding field of International Relations was doing, so I needed to emphasise topics that field was talking about (peace support operations) and concepts and approaches that the organisers would recognise as relevant (power and, since this was a feminist strand, above all gender).

Here’s the abstract, and then we’ll go through how each part works:

Gender, translation/interpreting, and the exercise of power in peace support operations
Dr Catherine Baker
University of Hull
cbakertw1@googlemail.com

Ethnographic perspectives on peace support operations invite us to view their  activities, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by multiple acts of written and spoken communication between agents of foreign intervention and local people and institutions within the sites of intervention (Pouligny, 2006; Rubinstein, 2008; Higate and Henry, 2009). Yet since most military personnel in most interventions rarely speak the language(s) of their destination, this power rests in fact on multiple acts of translation and interpreting. To fully understand this dimension of international security we must therefore understand the experiences and positionalities of language intermediaries, not just of foreign military actors. Reflecting on 52 semi-structured interviews with foreign soldiers and locally-recruited interpreters collected during a project on peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, this paper suggests ways in which language and translation/identity are embodied, exploring nationality, ethnicity, military/civilian status and, primarily, gender. How did the discursive gendering of language and translation/interpreting structure recruitment and employment practices for language intermediaries? How did male interpreters negotiate the feminisation of their role? And how did the feminisation of translation/interpreting intersect with what has been perceived (with problematic essentialism) as a wider conceptual feminisation of contemporary militaries through peace support?

Here’s a model of the structure I mocked up for historian Stephanie McKellop when she was asking about abstract-writing advice on Twitter today:

abstractwriting

Let’s take each of those sections in turn.

Step 1: start with the current state of knowledge in the field you’re engaging with. What do we think we know? (What you put here is also a bit of a performance of who you think ‘we’ are, for the purposes of joining this conversation.)

Ethnographic perspectives on peace support operations invite us to view their  activities, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by multiple acts of written and spoken communication between agents of foreign intervention and local people and institutions within the sites of intervention (Pouligny, 2006; Rubinstein, 2008; Higate and Henry, 2009).

Here I’m making a point that had already been well established by recent literature on peacekeeping and peacebuilding: all these operations achieve what they achieve because they happen on an everyday level, and all these interactions are made up of acts of communication.

I’ve even referred to some recent academic works that have contributed to showing that. I cite them in a way that suggests I’m familiar with them and I think the organisers and audience will be too – don’t overuse this, but it’s another way to signal that this presentation would be contributing to a conversation that’s already going on. (And yes, I’ve used author-date referencing; sorry, humanities. Footnotes in conference abstracts don’t work well.[1])

I could add a first line with a really eye-catching detail that expresses the point I’m making as Step 1, but either I couldn’t pick one or the word limit was too short, so…

Step 2: move the narrative forward: something is WRONG with what we think we know.

Yet since most military personnel in most interventions rarely speak the language(s) of their destination, this power rests in fact on multiple acts of translation and interpreting.

All this (brilliant, valuable) work on the everyday politics of peacekeeping has missed something super important: language, translation and interpreting. (Words like ‘yet’ and ‘in fact’ are your signals here for showing that the argument is changing course.)

Suddenly we have a problem that needs solving. Narrative tension!

Luckily, someone’s just done some research about that…

Step 3: offering a solution.

To fully understand this dimension of international security we must therefore understand the experiences and positionalities of language intermediaries, not just of foreign military actors.

Here, I’m pointing to what I think can resolve the problem: accounting for language intermediaries (translators and interpreters) as well as foreign peacekeepers themselves. It isn’t perfect (for one thing, there’s a clunky repetition that I should have caught), but in using phrases like ‘to fully understand…’ it signals that it’s about what we can do to overcome whatever Step 2 is. The narrative moves forward again.

I’m benefiting in this particular Step 3 from having two feet in different disciplines. There’s a well-known idea in Translation Studies of ‘the invisibility of the translator’ (thanks, Lawrence Venuti), which had motivated not just me but also the senior academics who designed the project to research language intermediaries in war and conflict in the first place. Taken into other settings where people don’t talk about the invisibility of the translator so much, it’s one of those ideas that can stop people and make them say ‘oh, of course’ – which is exactly the kind of feedback I got after I gave this talk.

Even if your research doesn’t have this kind of background, though, there’s still something about the concepts, theory or literature that you use which will help cut through the problem you posed in Step 2 – and that’s part of what makes your research original.

(Remember that you’re much more used to the material you draw on most closely than most of your audience will be – what seems to go without saying for you now you’ve been reading about it for months or years can seem much more original to an audience who hasn’t.)

So what are we going to do about this? The next step tells them.

Step 4: methodology. What did you do (or what will you have done by the time the presentation happens) to solve the problem like you said you would?

Reflecting on 52 semi-structured interviews with foreign soldiers and locally-recruited interpreters collected during a project on peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina,

This is where your research volunteers as tribute. Summarising your methodology (was it interview-based? archival? creative? quantitative? What sources and data did you use?) shows that the findings from the research will be rigorous, and produce the kind of knowledge that the audience expects – or maybe the kind of knowledge that the audience doesn’t expect, because their methodologies have been too limited all along as well.

This was quite familiar methodology for my audience, so I didn’t spend much time on it – really just to specify the size of my collection of material, and something of the scope.

If you’re doing something unconventional with methodology, like Saara Sarma who uses collages of internet images to expand the boundaries of how International Relations experts think about world politics, you’ll want to spend relatively longer here. It’ll need more explanation, but it’s also one of your biggest selling points, so make sure you’re telling a strong story about that throughout the abstract: it’ll grab the organisers’ attention, but they’ll also want to know how the innovative thing you’re doing fits into or changes something about a field that doesn’t normally do that, and if you don’t make this clear you’re depending on how well or willing they’ll be to extrapolate from what they are able to see.

This may well be the hardest part of the abstract to write if the conference is many months away. Don’t worry if some things about your methods, sources or data change between now and then; conference audiences are used to that, and explaining why that happened can often become part of the talk.

By now the narrative’s really moving along. There was a problem; you Did The Thing; and now we’re somewhere different than we were before.

Step 5: RESOLUTION. We got there!

this paper suggests ways in which language and translation/identity are embodied, exploring nationality, ethnicity, military/civilian status and, primarily, gender. How did the discursive gendering of language and translation/interpreting structure recruitment and employment practices for language intermediaries? How did male interpreters negotiate the feminisation of their role? And how did the feminisation of translation/interpreting intersect with what has been perceived (with problematic essentialism) as a wider conceptual feminisation of contemporary militaries through peace support?

This is your hypothesis or conclusion, depending on what stage the research is at – either what you expect to find, or what you found. Frame it in a way which shows the reader what you’re contributing, in a way that resonates with what already matters to them because of what field they’re in.

Here, for instance, I’ve made some suggestions why gendered perceptions of translation and interpreting could tell us something about wider issues feminists and International Relations researchers would be interested in (gender inequalities in employment and the military; experiences of men working in jobs that are usually gendered feminine; an ongoing debate about how far peacekeeping might have been changing the gender politics of international security itself).

This part could have been a lot better: it ought to end in a more emphatic sentence, rather than a question, about how this research will change the part of the field you’ve seen that it could change. It still did enough to get the abstract accepted, because Steps 1 to 4 had made a compelling and original case – and it also gave me the basic structure for my talk.

You can use this structure to pitch almost any piece of research for almost any conference – once you’ve worked out what story it can tell.

[1] Unless, of course, you’re writing an abstract in a field where you’ve already seen a lot of other conference abstracts that look like that.

‘I think you should change it!’: the Spice Girls guide to calling out racism

One of the essay questions that students on my music and politics module have been able to make their own, several times over, is one that columnists and gender studies academics were already debating in the late 1990s, when most current undergraduates were born: were the Spice Girls feminists?

I owe this one to a young woman called Emma who proposed it the first year I taught this module at Hull, who wasn’t sure something so recent and everyday and feminine and from her own experience was suitable for a history essay, even one where you have to choose your own topic like this; and of course it was, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that thinking like a historian can illuminate, so I added it to the list of ‘Past essay titles on this module have included’ in our handbook the next year, to give a signal that yes, the 1990s and childhood and girlhood and pop music are all part of History.

Other students since then have framed the Spice Girls idea their own way and, more than once, turned it into first-class work. I like to think getting the chance to find out how formative moments from your childhood were actually part of gender history is one of those transformative experiences that university teaching can create when teachers trust students to be independent and support them to do more with their knowledge than worry if they’ve got the answer ‘right’.

I won’t pre-empt future students working out how their childhood fits into the history of feminism, consumerism and any other context we might fit the Spice Girls into, but I will mention something I’d started to forget about them since they became, like the other nineties girlbands, commercial reunion fodder: the authenticity of their friendship and solidarity in the early years that still shone through the multinational industry they quickly became, the emotion behind what so many fans wanted to watch, be and buy.

This clip from a Dutch children’s TV show in 1998, which coincidentally resurfaced just as the Internet was getting ready to commemorate 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another artefact of 1990s popular culture in which so many women were able to recognise themselves, then talk about it through the nascent mass internet – shows the group of friends you wanted them to be, standing up for their best mate when the presenter confronts them with the blackface carnival character Zwarte Piet, but also shows how in their early twenties they’d already grasped something it takes a lot of white women, including me, much longer to learn – what you can do in the heat of the moment when someone does something racist.

Before we go any further, Zwarte Piet is a character from Dutch Christmas tradition, a sprite or demon who accompanies Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) to bring presents to children. He’s dressed as a servant from the Golden Age Netherlands, when Amsterdam was at its height as a colonial metropole, and traditionally is always played by a white person in blackface. Which is where the problem lies.

People of colour and their white allies have been protesting against the racism of Zwarte Piet for years, and some Dutch public institutions have very recently started to compromise by dressing their Zwarte Piets in a light dusting of soot (though that doesn’t change the character’s origins in the caricature of a black slave).

Many white Dutch people contend that since the Netherlands was a more benign imperial ruler than those slave-trading Brits, Dutch people can’t be racist and neither can Zwarte Piet; read Flavia Dzodan on how present-day Dutch racism makes that so unconvincing, or see Gloria Wekker’s excellent White Innocence for a book-length explanation of how Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ hides how long and how intimately race and whiteness have formed part of Dutch national identity.

In mainstream Dutch public opinion, all the more so in the late nineties, bringing out Zwarte Piet a few weeks before Christmas is no more controversial than – is the equivalent of – a British kids’ TV show bringing out Santa, so that’s exactly what the Paul De Leeuw show did in the middle of an interview with its star guests, the Spice Girls, late in 1998.

This fifty-second clip, unearthed by a Spice Girls fan site, says as much as many feminist blog posts about calling out racism and how you often get treated when you do.

Mel B, the only woman of colour in the Spice Girls, is the first to realise that De Leeuw and his producers are about to put her in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to perform the emotional labour of appearing as a star and role-model for children while surrounded by five gurning, waving characters in infantile blackface, knowing that hardly anyone is even going to realise why that might make her upset.

Calling out – which isn’t not in character – ‘I don’t like them! They’re not very good!’, she’s backed up at once by (it sounds like) Geri and Mel C, shouting ‘No!’ and not letting the interview stay business as usual. As white women and allies, they can use their whiteness as well as their membership of the same world-famous band to say: this isn’t how just one person feels because she’s black, this is something none of us find acceptable. ‘We don’t like them!’, as it becomes, is an even stronger, unified message.

Rather than making themselves the centre of attention as the woke white girls (in the nineties, we’d have said ‘right-on’) who know Zwarte Piet isn’t OK, however, they give Mel B the space and the reassurance to say what she wants to say: ‘I think they shouldn’t paint their faces! You should get proper black people to do it. You shouldn’t paint their faces. I don’t think that’s very good.’

De Leeuw’s reaction is also a classic example of derailing a conversation about racism – along the same lines as hundreds of Zwarte Piet conversations, and their equivalents in other countries, online and offline.

First he falls back on the argument that Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’; then he turns the exchange into a joke that only reveals how far Zwarte Piet does depend on aggregated racist stereotypes as Africa by calling one of the Piets ‘Winnie Mandela’.

‘I think you should change it!’ says Mel B. ‘You shouldn’t have their faces painted… this is the nineties!’

Late nineties Britain, even as society liked to tell itself it had overcome the open racism of the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by many forms of systemic racism, including an alarmingly high number of black people dying in police custody; the specific expression of racism the Spice Girls were encountering here, blackface on television, had gone off air in 1978 with the end of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

‘Yeah, but that’s culture!’ says De Leeuw.

‘Update your culture!’ says Geri – sadly not in tight enough focus for a gif – and Mel B is able to restate her point about blackface: ‘You should get proper ones! Proper black people!’

Another version of the clip, with a few extra seconds, shows De Leeuw doing something that anyone who’s called attention to racism, sexism or harassment will recognise: turning the person who pointed out the problem into the problem and making them feel responsible for spoiling the atmosphere.

(No-one in contemporary feminism writes about this more vividly or poetically than Sara Ahmed, who’s given a generation of feminists – many of whom grew up with the Spice Girls as icons – the words to understand that it really isn’t just them.)

When De Leeuw says, ‘I warn you, you mustn’t spoil a children’s party… don’t spoil a children’s party,’ he both reiterates the narrative that Zwarte Piet is an innocent children’s tradition, nothing to do with racism, and throws the responsibility back on Mel B for ruining the children’s Christmas treat.

The Spice Girls don’t march off altogether, as their ‘Wannabe’ personas might have suggested and as some stars would; other clips show them carrying on the interview. It’s still clear that the white women in the band are letting Mel B take the lead and using their own stardom and whiteness to have her back as best they can.

I wonder what impression this show might have had on a young Dutch fan of the Spice Girls, who might have been seeing for the very first time that idols she looked up to had a dramatically different view of a tradition that her parents, her school and wider Dutch society had always treated as normal and everyday.

Whether or not you think that the Spice Girls, as a phenomenon, were feminists, in the middle of a Dutch TV show at the end of 1998 they still managed to do something it’s taken many white feminists much longer to learn.

Yes, gender is a spectrum and yes, trans women are women full stop: why both these things are true at the same time

The question of where trans women fit into feminism is going round on UK Twitter again – the result, as it so often is, of a controversial article in a Sunday newspaper.

(The article is this piece in The Sunday Times by Jenni Murray, the presenter of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, about why she doesn’t think that trans women should call themselves ‘real women’ after living life with society treating them as male – we’ll talk more about that further down.)

A historian colleague, David Andress, was suggesting on Twitter this morning that he and others would find ‘a cogent explanation of why “gender is a spectrum” and “transwomen are women, full stop” are compatible’ useful – so here’s an expanded version of what I said.

Sometimes to people who aren’t trans themselves and know how hard feminists have struggled to undo gender stereotypes and break through gendered expectations about women’s appearance and behaviour, the cases against the male vs female gender binary and the cases for unambiguously recognising trans women as women can look more incompatible than they are. If sexism puts women into a box marked ‘women’, and feminism wants to lift them out of that, does that become harder if we draw fixed lines around the category of ‘women’ so that we can get trans inclusion right?

Not at all – because one of the biggest insights that trans people have gained from understanding their own lives and bodies, but that cis people (people who aren’t trans) don’t get the chance to hear so often, makes both those statements true at the same time.

Gender isn’t determined by genitals: and if that helps trans people who need legal, social and medical recognition of the gender they are in order to lead fulfilling lives, it helps cis people and especially cis women who don’t want to be boxed in by what sexism and patriarchy have told them for centuries that they should do.

Biologically and neurologically there are lots of different ways for chromosomes, sex characteristics like genitals, and the brain to line up. Some people have heard of intersex conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where someone’s body doesn’t process male hormones (androgens) so their chromosomes are XY but externally their body ‘looks female’; this is just one of dozens of ways where most cis people’s common-sense idea that people with XX are automatically female and people with XY are automatically male starts to break down. The animal kingdom shows even more combinations of chromosomes and sex characteristics, which in some species (as biology teacher Grace Pokela wrote earlier this week) can even change partway through life: chromosomes don’t even determine sex completely accurately, let alone the relationships to body and society that humans experience as gender.

Nevertheless, one of the first things doctors in any maternity ward will do is inspect a baby’s genitals and classify the child as male or female – or, for some intersex babies, not be able to decide and make the closest call. (Intersex activists have long campaigned against putting children through surgery in early years to make their bodies correspond to the medical norm for one or other gender.)

Family, state and society all treat children as they grow up on the basis of what gender the doctor assigned them in their first medical notes – even though what the doctor sees is only the outward result of a complex set of neurological and biological processes, well before the child is even old enough to talk about how they relate to what their society calls ‘male’ and ‘female’.

How someone’s body develops on the outside and how their brain has developed on the inside are not necessarily the same: struggling to realise that in your own case, in the face of so many powerful social messages telling you the opposite, is an experience that very many trans people share.

Why does the state even need to determine someone’s gender at the moment they’re born? As well as religious, conservative and nationalist ideologies that enforce prescriptive roles on both men and women, with a far stricter moral standard applied to women then men, a Marxist or other radical political theorist could argue it’s about defending the structures through which property is handed down and wealth is reproduced. The state, as a social institution that maintains these structures of wealth, promotes and regulates marriage because marriage gives men more certainty that a child claimed as theirs actually is theirs.

There are deeply embedded structures of power – the church, the state, the idea of the family itself, all the things that feminists analyse critically – which work against a world where society would just say ‘it doesn’t matter what gender a child is, let them figure it out in their own time.’

Emphasising that ‘trans women are women’ is a way of emphasising that individuals, not social institutions, have the authority over what their gender is. In stressing women’s and everyone else’s autonomy over their own bodies, it fights the same oppressive structures that feminists have organised against from the beginning. (Example: the US religious right’s cases for banning abortion and forcing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth rest on the same ideas.)

Besides gender as a category – is someone female? Are they male? Are they something else (many human societies have had three or more gender categories anyway)? – there’s also ‘gender identity’, or how someone makes sense of the relationship between their self, their body and the gender system(s) of their social world. When your gender identity doesn’t correspond to the gender you were assigned at birth, that everyone and everything treats you as, you know that something’s wrong – in a deeply felt, intimate, embodied way – even though it often takes years to name the reason why.

(The internet, where you can type the roughest description of what you think is wrong into a search engine and find the words of other people who felt the same way, has played a huge role in why so many people have been able to name themselves as trans so much earlier in life, and been able to see they’re not the only person who has ever felt like that.)

The statement ‘trans women are women’ resists the notion that only somebody who grew up being treated and oppressed as a woman can be one. The same structures oppressing a non-trans woman were oppressing a trans woman too – just in a different way.

Most cis people don’t have a word for how sexism and patriarchy oppress trans women (and trans everybody else). The trans writer and biologist Julia Serano popularised the term ‘cissexism’ to refer to the pervasive idea that trans people’s gender identities are less legitimate than non-trans people’s because they don’t have the rubber stamp of biology to back them up: deterministic ideas about biology are so ingrained in most people’s common sense that feminists are just as likely to make cissexist assumptions as anyone else, even when they’re trying to be inclusive towards trans people on moral and political grounds.

(Cis and trans just mean ‘on this side of’ and ‘on the other side of’, like some words in geography and chemistry: trans writers like Serano realised that to talk about being transgender, or on the other side of the gender you were supposed to be at birth, means there also needs to be a word for not being transgender; while if you’re not trans you might not even realise that you need one until it starts to come up.)

So how is insisting that trans women have the experience and authority to know that they’re women compatible with the idea that gender is a spectrum and that nobody should be confined to the stereotypes of what their gender is supposed to be? They’re compatible because none of the above means there has to only be a binary of gender, that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are the only gender categories it’s possible for there to be.

In fact, by recognising that gender isn’t determined either by genitals (who can reproduce with whom) or even chromosomes (which don’t even produce the genitals they usually produce all the time), it creates more space to overcome fixed ideas of gender, appearance and behaviour, not less.

One of the most revealing things for me about trans feminism was finding out that gender identity (what gender someone is) isn’t the same as gender expression (how someone uses clothes and other practices often thought of as feminine, and clothes and other practices often thought of as masculine, to present themselves to the world). I can have very similar gender expression to someone with a completely different gender identity – I do – and that doesn’t mean that either of our genders are wrong.

The writer and musician CN Lester, author of the forthcoming Trans Like Me, knows that ‘they’ not ‘she’ is the right set of pronouns for them and that the name they were given at birth doesn’t describe them; it would be as wrong for me to insist that they must be a queer woman because the ways we present ourselves aren’t a million miles apart as it would be for a sexist and homophobe to insist that, because I cut my hair short and deliberately play off masculinity in the way I dress, I must really want to be a man. Everyone knows best what their own gender is; everybody feels it, or would feel it, deeply if they are or were forced to live as something else.

Some people know, or realise after years of confusion, they’re neither male or female, as strongly as a trans woman knows that she’s a woman: gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and standing up for the womanhood of people who know that they are women doesn’t make it any less so.

 

Coming back to what originally prompted these conversations today – Jenni Murray’s article in The Sunday Times, which was screenshot here – what’s at stake in Murray’s reluctance to acknowledge that trans women are as real as she is, and the pain and anger many trans people felt on reading that, is the same cissexism we’ve just been talking about: who had the right, but also the power, to determine what someone else’s gender is.

Murray is particularly critical of trans women who have expressed stereotypical ideas about feminine beauty standards to her – as if cis women don’t ever say anti-feminist things – and who she implies haven’t faced the same oppression as women whose bodies make them able to have children, with all the sexist disadvantages that means.

But ‘woman’ isn’t one undifferentiated category – as black feminists and womanists have already had to say to white women for many years. (If you’re a history student who’s been linked here, look up work like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s ‘African-American women’s history and the metalanguage of race‘.) Racism as another structure of power means that the experiences of black women and white women in the same society, at the same time, are extremely different even if we’re just talking about women who are cis. (And for women in any other racialised category it’s different again.)

‘Intersectionality’, as Kimberlé Crenshaw termed this idea in African-American women’s thought, means accounting for their race and their gender in talking about how they experience discrimination, and how discrimination plays out very differently at each race/gender intersection – which helps trans feminism make the case that trans women have suffered different forms of oppression than cis women but the root cause of that oppression still harms both of them. (While the intersection of race continues to shape trans and cis women’s experiences of discrimination too – see the writing of trans women of colour like Janet Mock.)

When so many trans women have been beaten – and worse – by transphobes and homophobes who targeted them as effeminate or gay men, it rings hollow to say they’ve had the ‘privilege’ of growing up as a man.

Many trans writers on Twitter today – Shon Faye and Mia Violet, Ray Filar and CN Lester, Katelyn Burns – have been writing about how Murray’s article gives trans people less say over knowing what their gender is than cis people get. (If these threads sound angry, it’s because that double standard happens in British media all the time – including the false-equivalence debates that keep forcing trans people to explain why their gender is real to critics and transphobes on Women’s Hour.)

No-one’s going to question that Murray is a woman, because her biological history already makes that case, including the traumatic experiences she’s faced because of what body tissue she has; but biology doesn’t determine her gender or what she should do with it either, even though she’s come out with the relationship between body and gender that most people expect. (And gender identity wouldn’t prevent someone with the same body tissue from suffering in the same ways that she has.)

 

One reason this is so confusing for many people who aren’t trans is because trans people’s experiences, from their own perspectives, are very rarely part of wider public culture.

If we use racism as an imperfect analogy (because the history of transphobia and the history of racism aren’t the same), many white people do know at least a little bit about racial discrimination and racism even though they can’t have experienced it themselves. Often, and with most emotional weight, this comes through the arts, like literature and film.

Representing the lives and histories of people of colour in the arts has been and remains its own struggle – and the structure of who gets jobs in the arts is still very far from properly resembling contemporary Britain, as the actor Riz Ahmed stressed in a powerful speech this week.

The stories of what it means to be trans are even more disproportionately told by cis creators, and keep coming round to the same tropes that fascinate people who aren’t trans – while publishing pressures trans authors to keep writing in one limited format (memoirs about surgical transition, which not every trans person even wants or needs).

That’s at the cost of cis people never getting to hear what trans people and their experiences have to say about different ways of moving through the world with genders and bodies that don’t fit in: compare CN Lester’s LGBT History Month talk at Oxford this year about the actual life of the Danish artist Lili Elbe and her queer and trans contemporaries in 1920s Europe to the limited, harmful perspectives that filmgoers were shown in The Danish Girl.

The connective fabric we need to see why ‘gender is a spectrum’ and ‘trans women are women’ are both true at the same time is a cornerstone of what trans people know about their own and others’ bodies, helping to explain why they’ve experienced the dissonances that they have; to most cis people who haven’t taken the time to listen, it’s invisible.

Let’s take the time to listen, and make space for trans people’s words and knowledge to reach further when we can.

Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR: 88 abstracts, 14 chapters, 3 years…

I’m writing this from the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies annual convention where three years ago I travelled just after sending out acceptances and rejections for chapters people had proposed for a volume I was editing on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, last year I chaired a panel with several of the contributors meeting for the first time to present research from their chapters, and this year some more of us will be meeting just as the book is published in hardback and paperback on 18 November – so yes, there is still time to use it for your spring-semester classes.

Historians and other scholars of gender in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 20th Century, especially during the state socialist period, already have several excellent edited volumes at their disposal, where scholars specialising in many different countries have been able to combine their own specialisms into saying something wider-reaching about simultaneously one of the most intimate and one of the most public topics in politics and history.

Ours is a volume that emerged at a time when historians of state socialist Europe have been striving to put the region’s connections with the rest of the globe, not just the West, into the centre of analysis; when questions about women’s agency and activism under state socialism are live controversies; when research on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pasts and presents is both expanding and embattled; when ways to think about gender in its intersections with other kinds of oppression are ever more accessible and ever more necessary; when narratives of inevitable progress in social equality or political freedom looked ever more shaky even before the US election campaign that overshadowed our volume’s run-up to publication.

It would also be published in a series where most works are on Western Europe and North America and where the task of showing the complexity of the region(s) we study, balancing the similarities of their historical experience with pan-European and global lenses that show them to be much more than a marginal periphery, was both an opportunity and a responsibility.

The 88 abstracts I received when I invited chapter proposals in autumn 2013 covered East Germany to Kyrgyzstan, the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries to the present day. Selecting the chapters was as close as I’ve ever come to a three-dimensional jigsaw: the volume needed balanced coverage across the century, without over-representing any one country; I can’t have all my interwar chapters based on Poland (let’s say) and all my state socialist ones based on Czechoslovakia; if I take this innovative chapter proposal here, I’m going to have to turn down that one elsewhere; my own research is on the Yugoslav region, so I’ve got more proposals about there than anywhere else, and I’m going to have to turn more of them down; and why did everyone have to publish their ground-breaking work on that topic last year?

And then a law criminalising the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ went through the Russian Duma.

Three years later, we have a volume of fourteen chapters which will offer specialists exciting new research by emerging and established scholars, and teachers of European /20th-century gender history ways to incorporate Eastern Europe and the USSR into their syllabus. 


Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR has a ‘long’ 20th century, beginning in late Habsburg Bohemia with Cynthia Paces‘s chapter on ‘Czech Motherhood and Fin-de-Siècle Visual Culture’. Throughout the book, I’ve tried to balance excitingly new research topics with original approaches to themes which have been at the core of gender history since it started being written. Cynthia’s chapter on Czech materialist nationalism is a great example of the latter, and points to comparisons with imperial and anti-colonial feminisms at the same time which I hope others will be more able to take further because of the suggestions here.

The next chapter, Olga Dimitrijevic‘s ‘British-Yugoslav Lesbian Networks During and After the Great War’, draws together two separate lesbian history-making projects to reveal a connection that I’d simply never heard about before I read Olga’s abstract: the relationships between Scottish Women’s Hospitals volunteers who travelled to Serbia in WW1 and women on the Yugoslav avant-garde art scene, particularly the painter Nasta Rojc. Olga had discovered the SWH connection while researching Rojc for the first volume on Serbian and Yugoslav gay and lesbian history, and retraces a link that eluded even the lesbian British historians who have written the queer relationships and gender non-conforming performances of SWH volunteers into Britain’s lesbian past. 

What excited me on reading the proposal for Jo Laycock and Jeremy Johnson‘s chapter on ‘Creating “New Soviet Women” in Armenia? Gender and Tradition in the Early Soviet South Caucasus’, meanwhile, wasn’t just how it could extend the scope of the volume beyond a metropolitan-Russia-centric view of Soviet gender history but also how much its questions about constructing ‘ethnicity’ and ‘tradition’ resonated with themes in the study of south-east Europe. If today’s ‘area studies’ often keep the Balkans and the Caucasus apart, a view from the late 19th century Ottoman Empire – or from 21st-century historians trying to reassess the late Ottoman period on its own terms – would see them as much more part of the same region – a lens it’s become much easier to see through since working with Jo and Jeremy.

The tensions between similarity and contrast that run throughout the volume are encapsulated by Jenny Kaminer‘s ‘Mothers of a New World: Maternity and Culture in the Soviet Period’, which returns to the theme of motherhood first explored in Cynthia Paces’s chapter on Bohemia, but in the context of the radical transformations the Bolsheviks sought to achieve in Soviet private and public life, and through the changing priorities of Stalin, Khrushchev and the late Soviet leaders. Jenny uses popular literature to illustrate how the roles of ideal Soviet mothers were imagined at all these moments, suggesting limits to how far historians can generalise about gender policy even in one country, let alone the whole region. 

Katherine Jolluck‘s ‘Life and Fate: Race, Nationality, Class, and Gender in Wartime Poland’ takes on the harrowing, necessary task of explaining how gender, as well as race, ethnicity, nationality and class, determined the experiences of Poles and Jews exposed to both Nazi and Soviet persecution between 1939 and 1945. As the allusion to Vasily Grossman’s novel of WW2 in Katherine’s title suggests, this is an unflinching chapter, without which our account of the 20th century would simply not be complete.

Another chapter on the Second World War, Kerstin Bischl‘s ‘Female Red Army Soldiers in World War II and Beyond’, covers a topic which both in historical research and in Russian society has been a subject of growing interest since the end of the Cold War. Beyond the stories of individual war heroes such as the sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko or the famous ‘Night Witches’ fighter pilots, Bischl shows how the stories Russian women have been able to tell and have heard about their service have themselves changed within shifting Soviet and post-Soviet memory politics. 

The last chapter on the interwar/WW2 period (though not limited to that), Erica Fraser‘s ‘Soviet Masculinities and Revolution’, exemplifies one of the objectives I had for the volume from the very beginning – to create ever more dialogue between studies of gender in this region and elsewhere. Using the concept of ‘revolutionary masculinities’, well-known in Latin American studies of Cuba and other revolutions in the 20th century, and studies of how the French revolutionary regime thought of itself as a ‘band of brothers’, Erica reassesses how later Soviet authorities as well as the Bolsheviks imagined leadership and revolution. I couldn’t have framed my own introduction to the volume in the same way without this chapter, and its approach informed me as an editor as I encouraged authors to bring out latent transnational comparisons and contrasts in their own work.

The volume then turns to state socialist rule in Eastern Europe, beginning with a chapter on ‘Gender and Youth Work Actions in Post-War Yugoslavia’ by Ivan Simic – whose first paper on Yugoslav Communist adaptations of Soviet gender ideology I’d had the pleasure of hearing earlier in 2013, without having any idea it was actually his first. Yugoslavia would emphatically develop its own interpretation of Communism after 1948, when Stalin ejected it from the Soviet bloc; in 1945-8, the period at the centre of Ivan’s chapter, it was perhaps the most enthusiastically Stalinist of all Eastern European Communist regimes, and the chapter both traces how Yugoslav Communists made sense of Soviet policies and picks up what are now recurring themes of health, youth, modernity and the body.

Judit Takács, in her chapter on ‘Listing Homosexuals since the 1920s and under State Socialism in Hungary’, uses her discovery of an astonishing document in the Hungarian national archives – a list of suspected homosexuals, attached to government correspondence during the Second World War about subjecting minorities to forced labour – to point to continuities between, on the face of it, three very different political systems in Hungary: the late Habsburg period, the authoritarian ‘Regency’ regime which went on to collaborate with the Third Reich, the even more brutal Arrow Cross regime of 1944-5, and state socialism. Police practices of surveilling, listing and blackmailing gay men, Judit suggests, did not differ appreciably from regime to regime, and some are even likely to have persisted after the decriminalisation of sodomy in 1961 – an argument that complicates any neat division of 20th century history into periods based solely on political regimes.

The most everyday, domestic, intimate aspects of life under state socialism – which reveal how far Communist regimes sought to reach into their subjects’ private life – are the subject of Maria Bucur‘s ‘Everyday: Intimate Politics under Communism in Romania’. Drawing first on her own experiences growing up in Communist Romania, then on a large oral history project she has been conducting for some time with Romanian women, Maria shows how oral history and the ‘Alltagsgeschichte’ (everyday history) approach can illustrate the workings of Communist power and the ways that individuals tried to navigate endemic scarcity and hold on to private space. One of Maria’s own volumes on east European gender history, co-edited with Nancy Wingfield (Gender and War in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe), was a key work for me in thinking about how I wanted to frame this collection, and I’m delighted that she suggested this chapter for ours, which is a product of intergenerational as well as international exchange.

The run-up to the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe figures in this book through Anna Muller‘s chapter on ‘Masculinity and Dissidence in Eastern Europe in the 1980s’, which uses the writings and letters of male Polish political prisoners in particular to offer new insights into the dissident masculinities of late state socialism and even, bearing in mind the careers of many ex-dissidents after 1989, to draw connections between the ideas about gender formed in opposition movements during the 1980s and the impact on gender relations that postsocialist politics would have. The transnational history of imprisonment is another emerging area in modern history, and reading this chapter made me think for instance of studies of masculinity and imprisonment in Northern Ireland; here as elsewhere in the volume, fresh connections between Eastern Europe and other regions start emerging all the time.

By asking ‘What is Political in Post-Yugoslav Feminist Activism?’, meanwhile, Adriana Zaharijevic both gives an overview of how the collapse of Yugoslav state socialism, the impact of ethnopolitical violence in Croatia and Bosnia, and the effects of more recent global financial crises affected women’s movements in the Yugoslav region, and makes a suggestion that earlier volumes like this simply could not have made because less time has passed: the postsocialist period, which scholars in east European studies have been so used to debating as the present, might already be over. Whatever might follow it – Adriana suggests the present period might be defined by the political logic of neoliberalism – today’s movements would be well advised not to lose sight of the radical insights of their predecessors just because the state and big financial donors might be better predisposed towards women’s movements than they used to be.

Maria Adamson and Erika Kispeter, writing on ‘Gender and Professional Work in Russia and Hungary’, adapt the comparative methodology of a well-known work in east European gender studies, Éva Fodor’s study of women and the workplace in Hungary and Austria, to directly address the problem of how far conclusions based on evidence from the USSR can automatically be extrapolated to Eastern Europe. Behind the state socialist ideal that posts in professions such as law and medicine should be equally open to women and men, Adamson and Kispeter find divergent experiences across the national borders and even changes of policy and practice within them, suggesting what level of depth is necessary for solid comparative work. 

My own last chapter for the volume, ‘Transnational “LGBT” Politics after the Cold War and Implications for Gender History’, covers a set of political and social struggles which took further turns even as we were compiling the volume, with foreign responses to state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia in Russia often highlighting the kind of simplistic West/East divisions that east European scholars of sexuality, such as Robert Kulpa and Joanna Mizielinska, had already been criticising – just as global queer studies has often done from postcolonial perspectives. Centering struggles for trans recognition and health care as well as struggles for sexual rights in this post-Cold War period brings into view a question that historians of gender non-conformity before the 1990s would also do well to consider: how do historians know the gender of their historical subjects, and how do we do justice to the constructions of gender and sexuality that were present in subjects’ own place and time while accounting for the presence throughout history of people who today might be called trans?

I feel confident in saying that no previous volume on east European gender history has integrated sexual diversity and gender non-conformity with the breadth of this one: rather than just having ‘the LGBT chapter’, queer ways of being appear in multiple ways across the century, as of course they have. We could have had even more. As well as regretting the many excellent proposals I had to turn down because they were harder to balance into a table of contents or closely matched a proposal I knew I needed to include because of another innovation it had made, the field of east European and post/Soviet gender studies has developed even further since the end of the 2000s that I’ve heard so many excellent presentations at ASEEES and other conferences and thought ‘If only they’d done this research a couple of years earlier it could have been perfect for the volume’. If I were planning the volume now, there are more themes I’d want to seek out somebody to cover – in particular, I wish now the volume had had a chapter on race and the ‘global Cold War’, and there’s a much wider range of people working on this than there used to be.

In the meantime, I hope everything this volume does achieve will inspire historians of gender inside and outside the region to ask some new questions; to carry on connecting Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR with how their colleagues study gender around the rest of the globe; and to suggest how knowledge and theory about gender relations grounded in evidence from the region can also inform studies and understandings of gender politics elsewhere. 

‘That’s all because you asked this great toy question’: Cynthia Enloe and how to historicise anything

In the spirit of spontaneity that impressed me about the piece I’m about to quote from in the first place – possibly one of my favourite answers from a Q&A after a public lecture, from a talk by the feminist International Relations scholar Cynthia Enloe that the University of Westminster, where she gave it last month, kindly recorded and put online.

Enloe, who’s been publishing on war, peace and women’s lives since the 1980s (after beginning her career studying the politics of armed forces’ ethnic make-up, which she freely admits these days she isn’t satisfied with because she hadn’t yet understood how to take women’s lives seriously in International Relations research), was one of two or three feminist IR authors recommended to me in the first lecture of an ‘International Relations 101’ course I crossed over into from my BA History during my first year at LSE, when the lecturer – probably Professor Chris Brown, whose own research didn’t touch on gender at all – was explaining what we’d be reading in the one week on gender that this intro module had. (In fact, most courses in UK universities used to run all year so it occurs to me that was probably in my first week.)

I’m quite sure what propelled me at 18 to the library to look up Enloe and Jean Bethke Elshtain (whose book Women and War I also found out about at this point) was mainly the thought that reading about women and war was likely going to throw up some histories of gender-non-conforming women and where else in my International History syllabus was I going to find out about those. (Elshtain delivered in this respect with an introduction that began with a story about her childhood identification and disidentification with Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc; I’m from the generation that would either be beginning their war-and-gender books with a story about Milla Jovovich’s performance as the same, and/or a story about those first few paragraphs of Elshtain.)

What I found, and didn’t realise I was looking for because most of my syllabus wasn’t even suggesting it was there, was a lens that Enloe develops through books called things like Bananas, Beaches and Bases – and keeps up through the late Cold War, post-Cold-War and we can’t be in the post-post-Cold-War already can we? – for magnifying how apparently trivial objects, or spheres of life that seem completely disconnected from war, are actually linked into systems of thinking and feeling that make war, militarism and gender-based oppression possible at some very deep levels – a manifesto for overthinking that I didn’t know I needed but that has been helping me make sense of the world around me ever since.

I’ve already written on here about (and am still doing work inspired by) why it works so well when Enloe asks in Maneuvers, about a can of pasta shapes made to tie in with Star Wars, ‘How do they militarise a can of soup?’

What I like about this Q&A answer – which runs to almost 900 words, I realised once I’d started to transcribe it – is how it distils arguments I’ve read Enloe make over the space of whole book chapters into the kind of fluidity or clarity that… does not characterise me when I talk about my own research in public at the moment. (There’s the one of me who digresses, there’s the one of me who can’t even finish a sentence, and, usually, the one of me that misses a step I’ve known about so long I take for granted, so that the whole thing falls down in front of anyone else.) Obviously someone at Enloe’s career stage has racked up thousands of hours more practice than anyone at mine, but as I start loping into that ‘early mid-career’ point (and what on earth is that) I worry that that’s only going to get worse not better the greater the range of things I start to know.

Here is Enloe cutting across International Relations theory, cultural history (I’m reminded of Graham Dawson’s work on British boys’ identification with militarised play post-WW2, which I also need to write about at some point), international economics, education research, fashion theory, asides that transform how listeners think about things they might have taken for granted, and questions that coming researchers could develop into whole books or PhDs even over and above the ones there already are, when an audience member asks her a question about toy soldiers:

Do you know that the first toy soldiers which were lead, lead soldiers, you can still see them in museums – they were made to train elite boys in monarchical systems at an early age about their duty as a future soldier for the regime. So militarised toys, and that socialisation of boys into the naturalness of soldiering, or at least the admiration of soldiering, starts very very early. And here again, women as mothers oftentimes feel that they really are responsible for their sons growing up to be quote normal boys, whatever that is, are the ones who take the boy by the hand down the aisle with the military toys. And the military toys are usually right next to the dump trucks. You know, that is the masculinisation of play can look very unmilitarised. You know. How many little girls really play with dump trucks? Well, dump trucks are great. They’ve got all those moveable parts and you can mix the… you know – but somehow, at that early age, dump trucks are thought to be a boys’ toy, versus any child’s toy. I love dump trucks. Because they’ve got all those moveable parts and you can make up games and stories and…

The big toy companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, they’re major companies, if you – you know, you all have very different aesthetics around your curiosities. Not everybody wants to study a playgroup, although that would be a really good thing to do. If you watch pre-school teachers trying to take the gender out of play, even though the gendering of play has started at home. Or you find the playgroup is very gendered, and a well-meaning mother or father is then trying to de-gender the play when the child comes home. But if that’s not really where your research skills or your research tastes lie, take on a big toy company, and do a history of GI Joe. I mean, did anyone here have a brother or oneself that ever had a GI Joe toy? Ta-da. […]

The Barbie phenomenon, and the GI Joe phenomenon, these are globalised toys. They are made in very particular parts of the world. So if you’re interested in the globalisation of production, go find where really popular toys are made. Find out what you can reveal about the gendering of toys in the production of them, the masculinisation or feminisation of them, the marketing of them… So you’ve got a lot of different tastes in what really strikes you would be interesting to do as research. Find the level, in this case, from the everyday play, to the international production of toys, find some place to come together with your tastes and reveal it. Mattel is the producer of Barbie, and Barbie now has a couple of very spiffy military uniforms, a dress air force uniform. And you can cite exactly when that happened, exactly when Mattel’s toy designers decided that Barbie would be more attractive if one of her outfits was a military uniform. It wasn’t at the beginning. You can historicise anything, and when you historicise something you find where decisions are made. And when you find where decisions are made, you reveal politics. That’s one of the reasons to ask historical questions.

The Gap – by the way, I ask these questions so that you all write about them and then send them to me. That’s really what I’m doing here. The Gap introduced camo. Do any of you have a camouflage tank top, or a knapsack, or a pair of sneakers, or is this too embarrassing to ask? Did any of you once? Right, there you go. All right. But camo – and now it’s abbreviated to camo so that it won’t sound so militarised. That was the fashion industry that did that. They took ‘camouflage’, in garments, and then abbreviated, so most of us would forget it’s really about being invisible so that you can shoot somebody. That’s what camouflage is about. I mean, why do firefighters wear bright red? Because they want to be visible. Right? Camouflage is to be invisible. The Gap corporate designers, and marketers, made a very specific decision, in about – I used to know this for sure – about 2001, that they would introduce camo into their fashion line. Then they made, the next year, a decision to introduce camo into their Gap for Kids. But children actually don’t buy clothes in the kids section of The Gap. Mothers do. So every child, and I’m always – this is terrible, you get infected with this and you just see it everywhere – but when I see a child with a little camo outfit on, I wonder what – I really want to know. I truly want to know. What was she thinking? But, I mean, truly. What is she thinking? That it’s just a beautiful pattern? I mean, why not checks? Because The Gap’s profit depends on her making some association that she thinks that camouflage is a cute outfit for a child. So look for decisions. And the way you look for decisions is to watch something over time that didn’t exist, and then watch when it does exist, and then ask who made what decision when. And that’s all because you asked this great toy question.

My transcription, so my errors, and certainly my line breaks (don’t rely on this as a citation), but about as clear an exposition as possible of what Enloe has called in her later books a ‘feminist curiosity‘ – an eye so well acclimatised to the problems and structures Enloe wants to reveal that an everyday detail like a clothing pattern or the arrangement of a supermarket aisle sets off a cascade of I truly want to know, and full of subtle reframings like her description of the purpose of military camouflage (how much more often do you probably hear about it as there to prevent soldiers being shot, rather than to hide them so that they can shoot somebody?) – the analytical turns that have started making me wonder what a feminist aesthetic curiosity applied to such cultural and everyday dimensions of international politics might be.

And this is only a spontaneous answer to an audience question after the talk she’d planned to give – a lecture where she sets out the taken-for-granted, normalised (but in no way inherently normal) ideas about danger, protection and gender that make it so easy for societies, universities and people to start becoming militarised – and that make those beliefs so difficult to unmake, at least without being able to look underneath the surface of things like this…

‘A place calling itself Rome’: Coriolanus, military masculinities and a feminist aesthetic curiosity

This post originally appeared at the International Feminist Journal of Politics blog on 20 September 2016, accompanying my article ‘”Ancient Volscian border dispute flares”: representations of militarism, masculinity and the Balkans in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus‘ (International Feminist Journal of Politics 18:3 (2016): 429-48).

In the first duel between the two feuding generals who serve as protagonist and antagonist in Ralph Fiennes’s cinema adaptation of Coriolanus, a bloodied Roman commander in grey-green digital camouflage uniform, bulked out by tactical pouches, radio equipment and the personal paraphernalia of US forces’ urban combat in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, confronts the leader of the barbarian Volscians, a bearded paramilitary in plain green fatigues whose irregularly dressed and lightly equipped forces resemble countless still and moving images of fighters from a very different yet equally ‘post-Cold-War’ conflict, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

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The contest between Coriolanus, the Roman war hero who turns away from political acclaim to fight alongside the very barbarians against whom he won his battle honours, and Aufidius, the Volscian leader who moves from admired adversary to counterpart to the agent of Coriolanus’ death, is a historical rivalry from the early stages of Rome’s wars with the Volsci in the 5th–4th centuries BC, adapted into a tragedy by William Shakespeare, and understood by Fiennes (both director and star of this 2012 adaptation) as a narrative that purports to reveal timeless truths about men and war.

The materiality of the film’s production design, on the other hand, could hardly be more time-bound: not only are the identities of each army and polity conveyed through resemblance to forces from a different newsworthy war, but Fiennes and his production team visualise the competition between the two men through directly opposing two military masculinities, the combat soldier of the post-9/11 War on Terror (representing a state that US liberals have been likening to Rome since its founding days) against the paramilitary of post-Yugoslav ethnopolitical conflict, as pictured in news photography including Ron Haviv’s famous ‘Blood and Honey’ series.The choice to make the film on location in Serbia and Montenegro meant that ruined post-Yugoslav locations in Belgrade, Pančevo and Kotor add verisimilitude for any viewer who remembers news images from the Yugoslav wars, as sites supposed to have been devastated by the Roman–Volscian conflict – even though the destroyed hotel where Coriolanus and Aufidius fight their first duel is none other than the (now refurbished) Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade, which owes its ruins not to either side in an ethnopolitical conflict but to a NATO air strike during the Kosovo War in 1999.

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Archival news footage from (on almost every occasion) the Yugoslav wars (one early riot scene contains a clip from a protest in South-East Asia; none of it comes from the war in Iraq) further localises the action in not so much the material Western Balkans but the imagined space of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ into which one of the two most prominent Western discourses about the wars transformed the Yugoslav region.

The blurring of ‘found footage’ and scenes staged and designed in resemblance to it sees, in one exposition sequence, Gerard Butler’s Aufidius and three other Volscians cheering and waving rifles as they drive into conquered or liberated territory, above the rolling headline which gave my International Feminist Journal of Politics article the first part of its title: ‘“Ancient Volscian Border Dispute Flares”’. The caption does not give us the ‘ethnic’; alongside these images juxtaposed with concepts of ancientness and territory, it does not need to.

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With the built environment and the thematics of exposition situating the film’s imaginary space so much more within (a certain Western construction of) the Yugoslav wars than within any post-9/11 conflict – and with a Serbian costume designer, Bojana Nikitović, and the Serbian actors portraying several supporting military characters contributing their own awareness of the aesthetics of the Yugoslav wars – the chief means of distinguishing the Romans and Volscians becomes the aesthetic differences in the embodied military masculinities of each side.

Indeed, the psychological narrative of Coriolanus’ rivalry with and admiration of Aufidius – which will end in Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome – is visualised through the transformation of Coriolanus’ and Fiennes’s own militarised body into a persona that several UK film reviewers independently likened to ‘a Balkan warlord’.

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Coriolanus’ death at Aufidius’ hands, after his wife and mother have persuaded him to make peace and return to Rome, thus becomes simultaneously the resolution of the tragedy, the blade finding (as Fiennes explains in his director’s commentary) ‘its place of penetration’, and Fiennes’s imagination of a ‘weird ancient tribal blood rite of embrace and sadness’ (the hero slain by his dualistic rival yet again?) – a homoerotics given thematic unity by the enactment of ‘ancientness’, killing and tribalism in a ‘Balkan’ setting.

Coriolanus, the film, reached nowhere near as many viewers on release in 2012 as blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises or The Hunger Games; however, like both those films in different ways, the aesthetics of its design depend on the evocation of resemblance to (and sometimes direct incorporation of) images from recent conflicts to incorporate narratives about the nature of war and violence in the present or recent past into the texture of a speculative setting.

Such evocation in Coriolanus primarily occurs through the conjunction of material space and the costumed, performing body. Much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not therefore be contained at all in the elements of audiovisual narrative, such as dialogue and story, with which researchers accustomed to written texts who study popular culture may be most comfortable. Similarly, much of what this adaptation can tell scholars of international politics would not be perceptible at all without applying a ‘feminist curiosity’ (to quote Cynthia Enloe) and a ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ (Cynthia Weber), to start perceiving how its constructions of war and violence are constituted by ideas about gender, masculinities, desire and the body.

The combination – what we might call a feminist aesthetic curiosity – could reveal much about the continuum between representation and imagination, mimesis and speculation, through which creators, spectators and even military institutions produce and contest ideas about violence, gender and war.