Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Historians of sexuality on my Twitter timeline today have been discussing this post at Notches on the ‘Gay American History @ 40′ conference earlier this month, which Rachel Hope Cleves writes was marked by ‘passionate, and often painful, disagreement’ around the question of – and the implications of asking – how historians define the category of ‘lesbian’.
Cleves summarises the unease that she felt this question provoke as follows:
That disagreement did not finish with the close of the panel but continued through to the conference’s very end, and expressed itself along three related axes: anger about the historical erasure of lesbianism; distrust of the aggressive historicism applied to the category of lesbianism; and fear of the loss of lesbian identity within a trans futurity.
I was on the other side of the ocean from the conference and have never worked on the history of sexuality in the USA. I have, on the other hand, had to think about my own historical practice and the approaches I’d give to others through a number of projects recently, including editing a volume on gender history in 20th-century eastern Europe and the USSR (which has gone into production now!) and carrying out some pilot research on student perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusivity in their teaching (this was the background to it – I now need to write up the report).
Reading the Notches post gave me some initial thoughts as a teacher and conference organiser, and some wider thoughts as someone who also faces the responsibility of writing about people in the past whose lives involved diverse sexual practices and gender non-conforming behaviour, for readers and students whose own time is marked by struggles over the same things. (Is it necessarily ‘aggressive’, for instance, to want to historicise a category of identity?)
(I should say first of all that I’m younger than many of the conference delegates would have been and didn’t suffer from the historical erasure of lesbian identities in the same way as many older women; I also have a much more ambivalent relationship with the label, which I’ll say a bit more about as I go on.)
One of my first thoughts, as it should have been for anyone who might organise a conference or session where this could come up, is: what would I have done if this had happened at my panel.
The summary of the conference alludes to a number of unpleasant incidents, including one where a cisgender (not trans) gay activist reopened a bitter disagreement he had had with the transgender studies in general and the trans historian Susan Stryker (the keynote speaker) in particular. (Stryker, as Cleves notes, describes the background in her essay ‘(De)Subjugated Knowledges‘, part of the Transgender Studies Reader she and Stephen Whittle assembled in 2006.)
What would another historian who was trans – a PhD student in the history of sexuality, say, knowing they would need to launch themselves into this subfield’s disciplinary community in order to gain an academic job or recognition – take away from the discussions they witnessed, the summaries they read, or the ‘tension directed by older lesbian-feminists against younger trans masculine people’ that Cleves describes as ‘palpable’ throughout the conference?
How did panel chairs respond when any of this happened? What expectations about the atmosphere of the conference had organisers set out at the beginning, or as the event unfolded, or even in a pre-conference code of conduct (a practice which is still much more common at technology or fandom conventions than academic events)? How far was the ‘possibility that [lesbian and trans] affinities might overlap’, as Cleves writes, able to be heard beyond the appeal that Jen Manion, a trans and lesbian-feminist historian of early America, made at the beginning of their presentation?
I can’t know the answers to any of those questions (and they aren’t questions which arise just from this one conference and its incidents). They will play on the minds of trans and non-binary scholars who might attend similar events, especially those whose position in the academy is most precarious. As organisers, we need to show through our actions that they’ll be welcome.
Cleves also tries to understand the atmosphere ‘within the context of the historical denials of lesbianism, and the historicist erasures of lesbian continuities, that have left many feeling under assault’ – even within the history of sexuality, which (perhaps especially in studies of the USA?) has been dominated by studies of gay men.
(Cheryl Morgan writes at more length here, in her own response to the conference report, on the trans-exclusionary narrative that trans men’s possibilities for expressing their own identities has put the future of a lesbian identity under threat.)
Perceiving that there has been an ‘aggressive form of historicism directed by academics at the category of lesbians’, Cleves writes:
I wonder, as do many others, why writing about lesbianism in particular elicits such agonized concerns over historicism. I know from my discussions with non-academic audiences and readers that many lesbians, old and young, find meaning in connecting to historic predecessors. It hurts to hear that those women who forged lives together in the past, often at enormous cost, aren’t really yours to claim.
Anyone whose teaching has systematically or even accidentally created opportunities for gay, lesbian, bi, trans students – or students subject to social inequalities in any other way – to find out more about a marginalised past should understand the power of connecting with a history that includes you after all, even if they haven’t had to search for such a past themselves. There’s more than one reason why the hit film about gay life and the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s Britain was called Pride.
The liberatory, thrilling effect of reading that in the past as well there really were people like you, when you’ve had to struggle just to be recognised and accepted like that in the present – breaking against you like a huge reshaping wave when you least expect it in the corner of a library, the middle of a lecture, or scrolling through seminar readings on a crowded train.
(Mine were during my Masters, mostly; balancing on a window-stool in the old ULU cafe, looking out at a street that went pitch-dark by 5 pm, listening on at least one occasion to a mix-tape of post-Milosevic Serbian pop-folk.)
Do we have to share identity labels with our historic predecessors to recognise ourselves in them, them in ourselves, and put our roots down in the present through a historical continuum that has contained both us and them?
Maybe I won’t change the mind of anyone for whom the category and identity of lesbian has been the word they’d never heard before, the secret until suddenly joyous word, that explained everything unreconcilable about who they are. It wasn’t, for me; in my own communities ‘everybody knew’ what a lesbian was in the early 1990s, and in fact ‘everybody’ probably knew more about what a lesbian was than ‘lesbians’ did, whoever they were, even as I went to ridiculous, painful and damaging lengths not to be one.
Once I’d made it quite undeniable that it did apply to me, I used it, mostly too explain a complex of inclinations and disinclinations that seemed to (I’d later understand they didn’t have to) go together. I might use it today as a clumsy approximation of the wriggle-room I find there is on both sides of the axis of desire (who I am; who I’m attracted to) that ‘lesbian’ today – for me – seems like it might fix tight.
But I’m more ambivalent to it now, compared to 20 years ago, because the language and concepts I had available then were based on there only being two genders (I didn’t even understand bisexuality then, and said some hurtful things to bi classmates at university before I did). That means I’d explain my own gender and sexuality differently now, compared to then. And that’s just changed even in my lifetime. Different categories I might or might not belong to are available, compared to 20 years ago; and even figuring out which ones don’t apply to me, once I know about them, gave me finer-grained ways to interpret my own identity.
I’m still not aware of a word that captures all the things I know now about how I relate to gender and how that relates to the genders and gender expressions of the people I’m attracted to, for the even more specific category I sometimes see reflected back at me. The best I can say (and how different even that feels to half a lifetime ago) is that at least I know, even if I can’t fully express, the combination of things there ought to be a word for.
This is a very different account of gender, sexuality, language and identity than would come from a woman for whom ‘lesbian’, from the moment she first heard it, always sounded unquestionably right. I don’t want to take her history of identity formation away through explaining more about mine.
Though both of us would be part of the same historical moment – this frustrating, contingent, still sometimes exuberant early 21st century that future historians of sexuality will try to piece together.
For a long time, including most of the time I was at university when I had the most opportunity to find historic predecessors, I did think ‘lesbian’ was the only category I could fit into. I was engaged in lesbian history-making then even if I wouldn’t say that I am now. But even when I thought that was the only feasible category there was to belong in, I remember looking for experiences like mine, or practices I might have shared, more than identities – hints and traces of the combination of characteristics that I was coming to understand had something to do with identity and desire as I experienced it. Some of those feelings of liberation, I’m not the only one who felt or did that, through reading historical writing came from books with, on the face of it, nothing to do with lesbians at all.
The question of how historians write about people who might come down through the sources as ‘gender non-conforming women’ but who might have described their identities as transmasculine or non-binary if they’d had access to the language and worldview of early 21st century English-speaking queer movements has been confronting gender historians and historians of sexuality for some time.
I’m thinking particularly here of the more complex cases where evidence about a person’s life is ambiguous or scarce. When even sources in a subject’s own time were already representing him as male, as can sometimes be the case, it seems clear to me that writing him into history as a lesbian would erase what the evidence itself tells us about his past.
Nan Alamilla Boyd’s 1999 essay ‘The Materiality of Gender’ (also reprinted in the first Transgender Studies Reader) observed that (p. 74):
Both lesbian and transgender communities look to the past to recuperate individuals who proudly or cleverly lived outlaw sexualities or genders. However, because of the slippage between sexuality and gender, lesbian and transgender communities often spin usable histories around the same figures.
Boyd suggested that lesbian history-making in her own field, late 19th/early 20th American history, had based its understanding of who could or could not have been a lesbian on ‘birth bodies’, incorporating people with extensive histories of self-presentation as men while implying that trans women would never be able to fall into the category of lesbian.
Applied with this assumption (I don’t want to suggest that it always is or has been), even as ‘lesbian’ creates identification with the past for some readers, for readers who already know they are not women yet have had to struggle against a woman’s identity being imposed on them, the same category cuts off their access to the same thrill of connectivity with the past that lesbian history, hard-won, has offered many of its other readers.
Indeed, for a trans male or non-binary reader, ‘lesbian’ in his or hir own history of identity formation has often been a category that invalidates, when unwillingly applied to him or hir and to others like himself or hirself.
The same identity term that emancipates a woman for whom it means love and solidarity can be and has been, within another set of power relationships, an instrument of violence when it removes rather than sustains someone’s autonomy. The difference is in who claims which identity through language and who takes whose away.
What can historians do, then, about historical subjects whose gender they find hard to determine?
Judith/Jack Halberstam’s essay ‘Unlosing Brandon‘, critiquing accounts of trans men’s lives including Brandon Teena and the jazz musician Billy Tipton, framed the interpretive problem (p. 48) around a principle that has something to offer historians even if they disagree with Halberstam’s interpretation of the evidence around those men’s particular lives:
I will be asking here what kind of truths about gender we demand from the lives of people who pass, cross-dress, or simply refuse normative gender categories. None of the transgender subjects whom I examine here can be definitively identified as transsexual, and none can be read as lesbian; all must be read and remembered according to the narratives they meticulously circulated about themselves when they were alive.
What I take from this passage, held in tension with my puzzlement over why it might be hard to identify Teena or Tipton definitively as transsexual given the evidence historians do have about their lives, is its emphasis at the end on the work of historical interpretation: what is historians’ knowledge, derived from a collection of evidence, actually based on?
If this is ‘aggressive historicism’ when we ask it about the category of ‘lesbian’, I’m guilty of it – but from the point of view that any category is a container that humans have come together to construct, and we ought to be able to understand and historicise what holds it together.
I started writing about gender and sexuality in the first place in order to get at how those social identities intersected with my first specialism, identities of ethnicity and nationhood (which, like gender-and-sexuality, are two linked but still distinct categories themselves).
My question when teaching and then writing about a past more distant then the 1990s, where ethnicity and nationality – in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere – were publicly understood as categories and identities, has always been: how do we know someone’s ethnic identity in the past, and how do we know whether ethnicity meant the same thing to them as it would now?
South-east European history is one of many fields where population movements, historic religious conversions, and multi-ethnic everyday forms of belonging have left regions, territory, heritage and people open to being claimed by competing national movements, each with historical narratives that could seem to back them up.
Even for the late 20th century, some scholars (like Chip Gagnon or Dubravka Zarkov) suggest that ethnicity started being made to matter in late Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav society more than it had done – a precondition for the Yugoslav wars to have mass participation and support – because of how revisionist intellectuals, Slobodan Milosevic and others in reaction hardened ethnic boundaries through the media by emphasising ethnopolitical division and fear.
Even when we can determine a person’s cultural and linguistic affiliation accurately – if we have ample evidence of what language they chose to write in – this wasn’t necessarily the same kind of attachment to a political entity and to dominant accounts of that country’s values as it would more likely be today – if only because of the very historically specific relationships between religious collective identities, rulers and societies earlier in European history.
How do I know whether an individual in 16th-century Dalmatia – let’s say, in the spirit of this post, one I never encountered in the literature but could have done, in the image of Anne Hathaway as Viola in Twelfth Night – saw themselves as a Croat, an Italian, a Venetian, a citizen of the republic of letters, or anything else?
A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Croatian nation would have one approach. A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Italian nation might ascribe a different ethnic identity to our Dalmatian while still agreeing with their Croatian counterpart about how far historians can trace ethnicity back.
A deconstructionist historian – like John Fine, who called his last book When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans – would write with less certainty altogether.
My own approach to ethnicity and nationalism is firmly anti-essentialist – which informed how I planned and organised the introduction to the Yugoslav Wars I published last year. My final chapter shows how scholars of culture and language have ‘denationalized’ south-east European cultural histories, but in doing so meets an ethical tension that runs throughout the book:
[A]utomatically choosing a specific nation as one’s unit of analysis could obscure developments that are difficult to study through a single national lens […] How far, however, could the project of ‘denationalizing’ history go when writing about the Yugoslav wars, when people were killed, tortured and forced from their homes because of what ethno-national group they belonged or were assigned to?
Yet compared to my first book, on popular music and national identity in Croatia, I’ve still put something of a brake on how far I deconstruct ethnicity. I owe that to some of the Bosnian participants in the oral history project I went on to work for, who claimed space for ethnic labels in their narratives even when I hadn’t added them, and to reading trans theorists’ accounts of the disregard that deconstructions of gender and embodiment by and inspired by Judith Butler had had for the realities of trans lives.
(Talia Bettcher summarises those critiques, especially those of Jay Prosser and Vivian Namaste, here; as does Julia Serano, whose critique of deconstructionism influenced how I wrote about ethnicity and interviewing in a chapter I contributed to a volume on oral history and mass violence.)
The coincidence of reading trans feminist literature at the same time as reviewing these interviewing experiences challenged me to work an attention to marginalisation and imbalances of power more directly into how I approach the deconstruction of nationalism and ethnicity from then on.
Too much deconstruction, Cheryl Morgan writes, prevents trans people making the same connections with their past that gay, lesbian and queer historians have been able to seek and reclaim:
To start with, just because the word transsexual didn’t exist in ancient times that doesn’t mean that trans people didn’t exist. As the above (very incomplete) list of identities shows, people lived lives outside of the gender binary in most (if not all) cultures throughout history. Where we have no evidence it is probably because such people had to stay under the radar for fear of their lives.
Trans historians, like lesbian historians, fear pasts being deconstructed out of existence. Sometimes – in the case of trans men’s histories, often – the deconstructors have been lesbians.
What does this mean for historians who share an identity with others who have carried out an ‘aggressively’ historicist deconstruction?
Ethnicity and sexuality, or ethnicity and gender variance, don’t map directly on to each other as categories of identity. Ethnicity as a concept has not been marginalised throughout history in the same way as same-gender desire, even as people have been persecuted (the driving force behind much European history in the so-called ‘age of nations’) because of what ethnicity they have or what ethnicity was ascribed to them; being able to conceive of having an ethnic identity has very rarely been punishable.
But there are parallels. One is that, in both cases, anti-essentialism and deconstruction are analytical tools with the potential to emancipate but also the potential to oppress. Deconstruction can diversify historians’ understanding of the identities and practices of gender, embodiment and desire and it can limit them. Deconstruction in the face of verifiable historical evidence about the facts of an ethnic conflict can become, and appear to legitimise relativisation of war crimes.
Categorisation and deconstruction are tools; their human users apply ethics to them.
Another parallel emerges if we go back to the idea near the beginning of this post – that marginalised readers of history seek historical predecessors with their own identities to be able to access the same kind of continuity with the past that a straight or cisgender reader could already take for granted.
How far do we need historical subjects, like our hypothetical Dalmatian, to have had the same concepts of identity as ourselves in order to be able to identify with them?
With ethnicity and nationality, perhaps, not much. The meanings of ethnic identity, the importance of ethnic identity, and even the ethnic identities that people might have claimed could all be very different in past centuries compared to today. Are they so distant that it’s impossible to imagine people who held them as part of the same community, connected through time, as ourselves?
‘How do we label our subjects’ ethnicity and nationality most accurately?’ and ‘How do we most accurately describe our subjects’ gender, therefore their sexuality?’ would be at a fundamental level the same question, had the categories of ethnicity and sexuality not had different histories themselves.
And what do we do when we’re not sure? This question does touch them both.
An anti-essentialist historian of ethnicity might reject present-day place names for past territories, or construct sentences to refer to individuals or organisations rather than ethnic groups. The comparable moment of decision in writing about gender and sexuality takes in as basic a unit of language as the pronouns. How do we know which pronouns to use for our historical subjects?
A radical question if you have never had to think about which ones to use for yourself or someone else you know – but a question that turns the lens of ‘How do we know what we know?’ on to something that you previously took for granted.
(What if historians didn’t use pronouns, when they weren’t sure?)
Identifying with the past – in acquiring a collective ethno-national past, a lesbian past, a trans past, or anything else – means seeing past differences across categories that would complicate the identification. It always will.
A figure you might identify with in the past might have spoken different languages, likely practiced a religion, held very different values from yours in all kinds of ways – and yet something, across all the differences a historian could identify, still resonates to make them perceptible as someone who was like you, yours to claim.
Historical identification is – will always be – partial.
It’s an exciting and – at least in the concepts of identity that we have, today – necessary part of building up identities in the present, fighting back against marginalisation, and creating a space where you can imagine that you exist and others like you exist and there’s a continuity of that.
Yet it’s a strategic, selective kind of identification. And it always will be, because they – whoever they were, whoever she or xe or he was – were in a different historical context from us.
To a lesbian in the peace movement, where might lesbians whose passion was for military adventure sit within her lesbian history?
To a religious lesbian, where might her lesbian history accommodate a lesbian who hated the Church?
Partially, problematically; but some space would be there.
As I was thinking about this piece this morning, I happened to read M. W. Bychowski’s essay on ‘Genres of Embodiment‘ and medieval transgender literature, prefaced by an account of a transphobic incident at another conference, the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.
Bychowski writes of medieval transgender lives as ‘relics that we have forgotten how to read’, embedded as the evidence about them is in such different notions of religion and the body, and seeks ways not to erase the category of gender but to use the knowledge that gender variance exists to reframe medievalists’ perception:
Rather than demanding we set aside our history, a critical trans studies challenges us to do the potentially harder work of changing how we structure and understand our history.
The work of historical research is interpretation, holding past and present woorldviews in tension to make sense of evidence; acknowledging the limits of what we know, and the ambiguities of how we can know about it, but driven as well by whatever the historian perceives as their own responsibilities towards their present.
How trans and non-binary inclusive was your teaching? Why I’m collecting student perceptions of what their curriculum was like
How often could people who have studied humanities or social sciences say their curriculum had integrated trans and non-binary people and their experiences into the teaching? And how often do educators make sure that students have the opportunity to read work by trans and non-binary authors?
I’m collecting perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusive teaching from people who studied (or are still studying) humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any point since 2005, in order to inform the teaching I help to develop at my own university and also to help demonstrate to other universities why it matters to have a trans and non-binary inclusive curriculum, and what things in particular people who responded to the survey have seen to work well – or think need to be improved.
The opportunity to do this came up when the last stage of a teaching qualification I’m working towards at Hull (the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice) required us all to do an individual and independent research project. Although the first thing I have to write for the project is an interim report in order to get the PCAP qualification, I wanted to work towards something that could help me test some hypotheses I already had about student perceptions of trans- and non-binary-inclusive teaching, and which could inform work I want to do on helping to improve this in future.
I’m launching an online survey today which will be open until 31 October 2015 for people to respond if they’ve studied humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any time since 2005. Its focus is on what a trans- and non-binary-inclusive curriculum might be like in practice and how well UK higher education has been providing this so far (in the view of people who respond to the survey). It won’t ask you to identify your university, the subject you studied, or whether you are cis or trans. (And please don’t respond if you’re a current Hull student who I have assessment or pastoral responsibilities over in 2015-16.)
My starting point is that a trans and non-binary curriculum is important, both so that trans and non-binary students aren’t left feeling invalidated by their curriculum and also so that all students finish university better equipped to act in solidarity with trans and non-binary people.
As well as collecting accounts of how trans- and non-binary-inclusive the teaching that people remember might or might not have been – which will be the basis for making recommendations after the survey has finished – there are some more things that I hope the research will test:
- The Equalities Act 2010 obliged universities and other public organisations not to discriminate against people on the grounds of gender reassignment (though much work against transphobia still needs to be done to eradicate the barriers that trans students face in accessing and progressing through UK higher education – see the work of the NUS LGBT campaign and the ongoing campaign for a full-time, paid NUS trans officer), and the government Equalities Challenge Unit recommended universities should make sure curricula did not reinforce transphobic stereotypes – but will there be any significant difference in perceptions from people who were in higher education before 2010 and people who were/are studying more recently?
- Is updating the curriculum enough on its own to create teaching that students perceive as trans- and non-binary-inclusive – and if not, what else will respondents think needed to be done?
- Even if teaching has become more trans-inclusive in general since 2005, what has coverage of non-binary identities and experiences been like?
(I recognise ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusivity’ are words that don’t in themselves change anything about where the power to include or exclude lies – but I’ve used them in the title of the survey so that what I’m asking about will make sense in a brief way)
The teaching curriculum is only part of a student’s experience at university (and if you take the survey you’ll have an opportunity to express how relatively important you think it is compared to other areas) – but it’s the one that academic staff have the most power to change, so I hope this will complement work against transphobia in other areas of higher education that I try to contribute to as a lecturer and as the current chair of my university’s LGBT network for staff.
After the survey closes, the first thing I’ll do is to write up the project report for my qualification (this will be based on the first 30 responses if the total is higher than that), but then I want to take more action based on what the findings turn out to be:
- At my own university, I’ll discuss them with the Staff LGBT Network, the Hull University Union LGBT+ group and the University’s Equality and Diversity Office
- I’ll write them up for a peer-reviewed article which I’ll submit to an academic journal in the field of higher education, to help support other academics and students who are advocating for trans and non-binary inclusivity in teaching (when academic citations can be useful backup sometimes). If it’s accepted, this will be available through the Hull digital repository and my own academia.edu page
- I’ll liaise with some young people’s trans organisations and the NUS LGBT campaign on whether I can help work that they do, and what ways of presenting the recommendations would be most useful for them
- I’ll use my position to approach academics who might not normally think about trans and non-binary issues, for instance by giving presentations in teaching and learning streams of my subject associations.
If you’d like to be kept informed about reports or articles that I write as a result of the survey, please email me at email@example.com (whether or not you’re also taking the survey) and I’ll update you as and when they happen.
The survey itself is available at https://hull.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/transandnonbinaryhss and will be open for responses until the end of 31 October 2015 (GMT). There’s more information for potential participants on the first page of the survey so please read it carefully before deciding whether you want to take part.
In case this post reaches people who don’t usually read this blog
I’m a lecturer in 20th century history at the University of Hull and I’m also currently the chair of the university’s staff LGBT network. Most of my research is on the Yugoslav wars and their aftermath, though I also have wider interests in the politics of popular culture and nationalism and in overcoming structural exclusions that make higher education less accessible that it should be. I’m not quite sure of the best way to describe my gender identity even though it deserves to be mentioned in a post like this (I don’t feel detached from female pronouns but I don’t like people feminising my name too much), but the most accurate way for me to describe the social position my gender gives me would be to say that I’m a cis woman. Most of the research articles I’ve published are available online and I also write about my research interests semi-regularly on this blog (including a collection of posts on feminism and gender). I’m also active on Twitter as @richmondbridge.
Special issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe: ‘The Eurovision Song Contest at 60: Gender and Geopolitics in Contemporary Europe’
Call for papers: special issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest at 60: Gender and Geopolitics in Contemporary Europe‘
In the last two decades or so, issues of gender at Eurovision have become increasingly visible. Often these have related to the (stated or perceived) sexuality, gender identity or gender expression of performers, but also to a broader notion the contest is an affirmation of camp and queer, which certain host cities and broadcasters have even integrated into the hosting of the event (for instance in Sweden and Denmark).
Diverse representations of gender are not the preserve of Western European entries, however, and countries such as Serbia, Ukraine, Slovenia, Israel and Russia have sent performers who garnered attention for reasons of (claimed or perceived) gender non-conformity, ambiguity or queerness. Yet in recent years the song contest has formed a discursive space around which to discuss human rights, in particular LGBT rights, often in terms of an East/West binary.
The global economic crisis has accentuated North/South divisions in the Eurozone and impacted upon participation in recent Eurovision Song Contests. Nonetheless a purported “East/West” binary remains both tangible and topical with regard to attitudes towards sexual and gender diversity, giving rise to discussions of a “liberal West” and a “conservative East”. Such discourse crystallised in the wake of the victory of Austria’s Conchita Wurst in May 2014 with high-profile negative reactions from individuals from “Eastern” states. Contrary to this, however, the Austrian winner scored solidly amongst “Eastern” televoters.
The open access journal Contemporary Southeastern Europe based at the University of Graz is planning to publish a special issue edited by Catherine Baker (University of Hull) to coincide with the Eurovision in Vienna in May 2015 (see current issue at: http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/cse/en/current_issue). We are seeking contributions that deal with issues of gender and geopolitics at Eurovision, with particular reference to Southeastern Europe, though there is scope for some papers in the issue to have a different geographical focus.
Please send a short abstract (max 400 words) and biographical note (max 200 words) to Catherine Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org by 10 December 2014. Selected papers will need to be submitted by 20 February 2015 to allow for the completion of double blind peer review, possible corrections and formatting. (Deadlines need to be strictly adhered to in order to ensure the volume is published to coincide with the Eurovision next May).
Researching and teaching about the Yugoslav wars means that, for more than a decade, I’ve been coming into contact with horrific material on pretty much a weekly basis. During my PhD, when I spent months reading Croatian newspapers from the 1990s, I was confronted almost every day with photographs of dead or wounded bodies, or newspaper testimonies about people’s suffering during the 1991-95 wars. Some of the documentary sources and academic studies that I assign when I teach about my specialist area, likewise, can contain a level of horror that these days I take as part and parcel of my work but which might be unexpected to students learning about this moment in history for the first time.
Alternatively – and here’s where it gets even more difficult for teachers – it could be all too much like something from their own lives.
For this reason, I’ve been following the debates about whether and how teachers ought to warn students about uncomfortable topics with particular interest. There have been articles by university educators all year about requests that students at some US universities have made for instructors to warn them in advance about material which could be upsetting to read or watch, especially when it covers topics such as suicide or rape. (And please be aware, if this matters to you, that I will discuss those in some more depth as I go on.)
This academic year, Oberlin College introduced a resource guide advising teachers to provide content notes or ‘trigger warnings’ to make classrooms as inclusive as possible for survivors of sexual violence, then rolled it back after journalists and some of Oberlin’s own staff criticised it as an attack on academic freedom. Meanwhile, the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking tutors to note content on their syllabi that might have an adverse effect on students with PTSD if they encountered it without being able to adequately prepare themselves.
The thinking behind these requests is about more than students just being ‘upset’, and recognises that, after someone has experienced trauma, certain sensory reminders of what happened can (though not ‘will’) make the brain prepare to experience it all over again. The term ‘trigger warnings’ originated from online communities formed by survivors of abuse and violence, where users warning each other about the content of posts made it more possible for people in a community to have discussions with each other.
It’s existed for long enough in social media and online fandom that some students in a contemporary classroom would have known about the convention of trigger warnings in those spaces before they ever came to class – which means that in one respect the whole current discussion about trigger warnings in teaching is part of a wider context about the digital literacies and textual practices that students may be bringing to the classroom now, and there’d be a lot of scope for educationalists to think further about this.
‘Warning: this report contains flashing lights’
The Oberlin and Santa Barbara cases made national news in the USA, and commentators who already disliked trigger-warning culture online saw the Oberlin/Santa Barbara demands through the same lens. Academics who blog have been discussing them extensively online ever since: the Chronicle of Higher Education website, for instance, has featured several posts arguing that trigger warnings are a form of censorship that insulates students from having to deal with the harsh world outside, as well as posts by instructors disagreeing with them because the impact of trauma on the body deserved to be taken seriously.
However, even before this year, educators had already been confronting the problem of what to do about disturbing content: the American Philological Association, for instance, held a roundtable about teaching about rape in classical literature in 2009, and Liz Gloyn has written thoughtfully about how this has played into her teaching on Ovid. (She’s also had a teaching note on the same topic in Classical World, which has a version without subscription here.)
Gloyn makes the point that, statistically, tutors should expect that every class will contain students who have experienced sexual violence: with numbers like these, it stops being a case of ‘what if’ material like some of what I teach affects a student personally, and starts being a case of how do I anticipate and mitigate the possible impact it could have.
The idea of giving a heads-up about upsetting content isn’t even an internet-age invention. In the UK at least, broadcasters have been using warnings for years – for instance, alerting viewers to disturbing images about to come up in news footage. After programmes that have represented topics such as abuse, eating disorders or suicide, they generally provide information about resources for viewers who might need support after recalling their experiences while watching the programme.
Perhaps the most direct parallel to content notes in teaching is with warnings about flashing lights. (Indeed, I have to remember to give one of these in class every time I show excerpts from the opening ceremony of London 2012.) It’s more and more widely accepted that television/stage audiences need to be advised about flashing lights in performances because they can set off seizures in people who are photosensitive. This is literally a ‘trigger warning’ – anticipating a harmful consequence because of a known risk, and advising viewers so that they can use their awareness of how it affects them and decide how to manage it.
Some theories and practices of content warnings
The most recent long academic post on content notes and trigger warnings is Jack Halberstam’s, which I’ve seen being both praised and critiqued all weekend. (My own thoughts on it are going to be much more by way of critique, not praise.) Halberstam argues that accusations of speech being ‘triggering’ are used to shut down discussion, and as such are ‘neoliberal rhetoric’. More broadly, he argues that the contemporary left has been distracted by ‘identity politics’ which emphasise individual trauma and offence.
Halberstam posits a curious generation gap between his generation of queer activists in the academy and the students they teach, and ultimately suggests that the individual demand to be able to feel safe will lead communities into complicity with state power and oppression, although I have to say that at this point I struggled with the analogy: is every student really in the same structural position inside and outside the academy (where, let’s not forget, most of them are paying for their tuition) that gentrifying white gay activists have held in relation to US urban space?
(His article dismisses, in particular, trans women who have asked other queer people not to use the T-word. Yet, as Morgan Collado, a trans Latina poet and writer, explained in response to his post, ‘The t-slur is used to dehumanize trans women, specifically trans women in the sex trades, and is justification for our murder […] The way Jack frames the problem as trans women being divisive by telling non-trans women to stop using the t-slur shifts the focus off the people who are actually being oppressive, namely Jack.' It’s also worth reading Julia Serano’s response to Halberstam on the generational politics of US queer activism.)
The objection to content warnings which has given me most pause for thought is Brittney Cooper’s, which is much more attentive to the power dynamics inside and outside classrooms than many of them have been (and certainly much more than Halberstam’s has been):
[P]art of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.
But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. […] Overwhelmingly students let me know at the end of each semester that though the discussions were hard, they are glad we had them. Trigger warnings might have scared these students away from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having. And in that regard they do more harm than good. So for the sake of my students, you won’t find them on my syllabi.
Cooper is concerned that students with ideological objections to material could use institutional mechanisms to have a reading removed or cause problems for instructors. In particular, she is anxious that students could get out of examining their own prejudices and privileges by saying they had been ‘triggered’ by material that challenged them.
All this is possible, which is why mandating them could be counter-productive. But there are still ways for content warnings to be good practice, if they’re understood not as censorship but as facilitation (or even, as Andrea Smith suggests based on her work in Indigenous social movements, as part of a collective rather than individual approach to reducing harm).
Sayantani Dasgupta, a practitioner of storytelling and medicine, takes this view in explaining why she’s used them in her classes (though she isn’t responding to Cooper, but to bloggers who have objected to trigger warnings much less thoughtfully):
[P]reventing little Johnny, José, or Jamila from getting a tad misty-eyed in a classroom is not, ideally, what trigger warnings are about. With their roots in the feminist blogosphere—where writers often want to give readers warnings before discussing explicit situations of sexual violence—trigger warnings in classrooms are about acknowledging that each student has her or his own specific life history, family context, identity, body—and that these realities have an impact on how a student understands and interacts with texts. […]
[D]oes my use of trigger warnings in the classroom mean I think my students are weak? Not at all. Rather, it’s because I respect my students, and know that they all come with varied life experiences of which I know only a fraction. Who in my class has a brother who was killed in a homophobic attack? Who in my class survived a sexual assault last year, last month, last week? Who in my class fled their homeland as a result of ethnic cleansing? I don’t always know, but I do know that my students did not somehow hatch, fully grown, the moment they entered my class. Rather, they live complex lives outside of my classroom, lives which bring richness to our collective learning.
The day after I originally published this post, the therapist Meg Barker posted a long essay that tries to get beyond a binary of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ content notes and trigger warnings by thinking through what they can open up and close down:
Perhaps the main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how. The idea is that, if we provide people with a brief overview of the kinds of topics and issues they are going to be confronted with (in a novel, a movie, a lecture, or a workshop, for example), then they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to engage with it or not. Advocates of trigger warnings regard this as a form of consensual practice, and a good way of modelling, and enabling, a more consensual culture than we currently have. It is also a potential way of recognising the structural constraints around agency. Not all people are as free as others, and one key limit on our freedom are the scars left by experiences of discrimination and oppression. Trigger warnings are one way of giving people greater agency within the structural limits on this. […]
However, there is also the potential – of course – for this approach to close down possibilities as well as opening them up. One risk is that, if taken too rigidly, we start to divide the world in binary ways between the powerful people who get to give trigger warnings, and the powerless victims who require them. […] This potential alerts us again to the risks in line-drawing between traumatised and non-traumatised, oppressed and non-oppressed. Perhaps instead it points us towards recognising the inevitability of traumatic experience during a person’s life, and the complex net of intersecting oppressions in which each person is located.
I have used content notes in teaching when necessary, and would certainly encourage other teachers to think about using them, because I take the view that when they’re used as part of a holistic approach to learning they can make students more able to participate rather than less. (I don’t use the specific wording ‘trigger warnings’, because if students haven’t heard the phrase before it might distance them from thinking about what’s in the note.)
I could still put them in a more prominent place – next year, I’ll try to – and I’m still experimenting with how best to actually run the sessions on the most difficult topics.
It obviously isn’t just the Yugoslav wars where these problems arise in teaching History: anyone teaching a first-year survey course on the 20th century, for instance, will have students who are reading, hearing and seeing more detailed depictions of the Holocaust than they will have done before. Dasgupta’s reminder about bearing in mind what students and those close to them might have experienced is one that every educator needs to think about.
So what can I do?
My own starting point for thinking about disturbing material and teaching is that other people know their own personal circumstances, and the psychological and physical effects those have on them, better than I do. Yes, there could be occasions when my research and professional experience might make me aware of a piece of context around what someone has experienced that they might not have thought about already. That still doesn’t translate into me knowing better than they do about how they actually sense it affecting them.
By defending content warnings, I don’t mean to imply that certain topics are too harmful to be taught. Quite the opposite. One of the most interesting new books on post-Yugoslavia that I’ve seen this year, for instance, has been Elissa Helms’s Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. It hadn’t come out when my Yugoslavia module began last year, but in this year’s module we could potentially do more with it.
Large sections of Innocence and Victimhood are about the activism of Bosnian women who were raped during the 1992-95 war, and how war rape has been used for political point-scoring (by Bosniak nationalists, and by Western liberal feminists). I’d like students to be able to understand Helms’s argument about gender, nation and narratives about collective victimhood in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also like them to appreciate an even broader point she makes, which is that in order to understand the post-Yugoslav present we need to consider the effects of wartime violence and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism. Clearly, I’m not going to say that we can’t ever use this book because it discusses rape.
Yet if students are confronted with this material unexpectedly (and Helms’s writing is much less graphic or emotive in this respect than some of the earlier scholars she critiques), is there a risk that some of them wouldn’t be able to finish the reading or even participate in the class? That would work against my objectives as an instructor, and so I ought to do the best I can to mitigate it.
(And of course Innocence and Victimhood is only one of many books on the Yugoslav wars where this would come up. Dubravka Žarkov’s book The Body of War, for instance, is a critical study of the wartime Croatian and Serbian media, examining exactly the kind of imagery that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post; but in order to make her argument she needs to illustrate what was shown.)
The other reason I’m sympathetic to student-driven demands for content warnings is that, as teachers, we want students to be thinking deeply about what they’re learning. Being able to make serious proposals about changes to teaching means that students must have thought about what the content, structure and methods of teaching already are and how those knits together into a system of knowledge.
Last year, for instance, economics students at Manchester formed a society that called for a revised Economics syllabus with a greater and more critical range of theoretical frameworks, and SOAS students have similarly written a report asking for gender analysis to be integrated into Politics and Development teaching. To me, this is evidence of precisely the kind of critical thinking that the humanities and social sciences strive to develop, even though they’re uncomfortable situations for a department to be in.
Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism, writes that after this year’s controversies, he’s decided to use content notes in his syllabi where appropriate – not in any way to change the way he teaches, but to clarify the approach that he already has. This is the way that I’d see content notes as well, and next year I’ll probably expand mine along his sort of lines to try and say more about what I aim for my teaching to be like. The purpose isn’t to signal to certain students that some of the module content ought to be off limits for them; rather, it’s to continue to meet the stated outcomes for everybody’s learning while making the material as accessible as I can.
 This has been continuing since I wrote the original version of this post on 6 July, so some of the links in this post now point to articles that appeared after the 6th.
 In the first version of this post I linked to Liam Bechen’s response at this point as a critique of this part of Halberstam’s argument. Collado’s post has appeared in the meantime and I’ve worked it into my text because she’s someone who has been directly harmed by the slur that Halberstam argues isn’t a problem. It’s also worth reading Tobi Hill-Meyer’s response to Halberstam which provides some more context about the specific incident Halberstam was referring to in that section.