Who’s Afraid of Gender Theory?

vintage woman with arms in the air

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Emer O’Toole’s debut ‘Girls Will Be Girls’ for the Irish Independent. What I enjoyed most about the book, aside from O’Toole’s chatty style and unfailing honesty, was the accessible manner in which she weaves gender, performance and sociological theory with personal experience to illuminate the ways binary gender limits our lives.

I’ll admit: ‘gender theory’ and ‘accessible’ are words not often featured in the same sentence, unless the sentence also contains an expletive and a frustrated looking emoji.  As someone who has lectured in the field and who knows on a personal and intellectual level how transformative such knowledge can be, one thing I still grapple with is the perception that these ideas are too difficult, too navel-gazing, to serve any useful purpose outside academia.

This perception is not new and it is certainly not helped by the style of some academic writing, which can reduce even the most hardened scholars to slack-jawed befuddlement. Having said that, I find that so much of the gender theory I’ve been exposed to, both inside and outside  university, actively informs my activism and my feminist identity in an empowering way. Most importantly it equips me with the political weapons – to steal a term from Laura Mulvey – I need to navigate a hostile society that would much rather I just sit down and shut up.

Academic writing styles aside for a moment, lets consider the idea that gender theory/feminist research is removed from the real world. In fact, a hallmark of this kind of research is often an appreciation for the lived experience of subjects, that is the practise of acknowledging and respecting the humanity of those you are studying. The insights of Kimberle Crenshaw, Judith Butler and Laura Mulvey – just as an example – are all drawn from the real world. Crenshaw writes about women struggling to access domestic violence shelters in California, whose lives and choices are shaped by intersecting inequalities. Butler talks about the violence and hate directed at bodies and desires which fall outside the ‘norm’, while Mulvey looks at the treatment of women by one of the West’s most powerful cultural institutions, Hollywood cinema. The language used may be clunky, the theoretical lens complex, but the motivations are rooted entirely in the real.

The development of new knowledge, research methods, and models of critical reading have long been central to the feminist project, plotting a course towards liberated societies and challenging the patriarchal hegemony that has silenced women for centuries. It’s a mammoth job, an imperfect job but a vital one and much work remains to be done. Hell yes academic writing can be stale and obtuse but not all feminist/gender researchers write in that manner (hurrah!) and for those who do, there are excellent resources that break their ideas down in fun and informative ways, like this.

Thanks to the internet and to books like O’Toole’s there have never been more resources available to help feminists of all eras and stripes get to grips with whatever strand of theory appeals to them. While the latest papers are often pay-walled many of the key texts from second wave and third wave are just a Google search away. No one needs an MA in Gender Studies to appreciate powerful ideas clearly explained or to use them. Yes, it takes time to read and research this stuff. Not everyone can can find that time or access the internet freely while struggling to feed themselves and meet the responsibilities of a daily grind. However, if you can, it’s a solid investment in yourself and in your feminist belief system. In the end, knowledge is power and us feminist gals need all the power we can get.

It Girls, Powerful Women & Media Culture: Why Women Can Never Simply Be

marilyn as clara bow

Recently on RTÉ 2FM, I chatted to Ryan Tubridy about about the resurgence of the It Girl, a term and phenomenon that first emerged in the 1920s. The original It Girl, Clara Bow, became a global superstar, embodying a free-spirited, seemingly authentic, sexy-but-not-scarily-so charm which tallied perfectly with the hedonism of the era. The demise of the Roaring Twenties and the arrival of Great Depression led to the implosion of her brief but spectacularly bright career. Clara battled mental health demons for the rest of her days, stemming from horrific childhood abuse at the hands of an unstable mother who tried to murder her in her sleep and an alcoholic father who raped her. She remarked, somewhat prophetically when one considers the It Girls who followed later like Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, ‘a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.’

In the decades that followed the term was used intermittently, resurfacing with a vengeance in the late 1990s after a seven-page New Yorker profile anointed the then little-known-outside-of-NYC-fashion-circles Chloe Sevigny the It Girl du jour. At present, the It Girl mantle is slapped on notable females from widely varying fields, many of whom are grown women rather than girls, with well-established, hard won careers which are at odds with the kind of transitory allure implied by the label. For every Paris Hilton there are It Girls winning Oscars, heading up NGOs and reporting from war zones, rather than quaffing champers with Daddy’s credit card and a teacup-sized dog stashed in their oversized, over-priced handbag.

The It Girl persists in a modern context for a number of reasons, key among these I would argue is the simple fact that she sells. In an age of dropping advertising revenue and a 24 hour news media increasingly taking its cues from online, the need for cheap, readily available content is unending. Slapping the It Girl label on a youthful, successful and attractive girl/woman is handy way of generating buzz, ensuring links gets clicked or a glossy mag gets purchased. It Girls work fantastically well on social media, particularly the likes of Instagram and Tumblr, which capture the kind of lifestyle envy these girls/women inspire in ordinary folk. It Girl social media accounts are also easy to plunder for the aforementioned cheap, shiny content. Just like in the 1920s, everyone wants It, even if they’re not entirely sure what It is.

It Girl, as you may have gleaned, is far from a straightforwardly positive label. As Helen Anne Peterson notes in an excellent Buzzfeed article on the term’s re-emergence, christening someone an It Girl is perhaps ‘the ultimate backhanded compliment’.  In doing so, editors and journalists acknowledge the subject’s accomplishments but package them in a palatable, cosy way for consumption, keeping things quirky, flirty and fun, while neutering anything truly transgressive or – God forbid – political. In christening a girl/woman It, editors and journalists trap high profile girls/women within the term’s limitations. No one by reason of their humanity can remain an It Girl forever and ‘girl’ is still, to our shame, used pejoratively, as something weak-limbed, passive and non-threatening. It is interesting too to note the proliferation of the term at a time when women are asserting themselves through feminism once again, demanding to be heard and seen, making their presence felt in male-dominated realms as never before. In this context, the It Girl label is a handy, inoffensive little box to usher uppity women into, so their aspirations and rights-demands don’t overwhelm their ability to look sweet in a pretty dress, which is of course paramount at all times.

As an aside, it’s been interesting to research the It Girl phenomenon during the week unphotoshopped images of Beyoncé and Cindy Crawford were leaked, when Kate Middleton’s grey hair became a talking point and actresses took to the red carpet during awards season, pleading to be asked about something other than what dress they were wearing. Almost a century after Clara Bow turned the world on in the film It, we are no closer to simply letting women be. Western culture and media is still preoccupied with finding ways to put women in their place, to diminish their power, to punish them when they overstep boundaries that are written in shifting sands. The treatment of high profile women is a warning shot to all women. To dismiss such events as media storms is to underestimate the power culture and the institutions which create it exercise over our lives and sense of self. Culture is the soup we swim in and its toxic elements demand our critical engagement. It is only by challenging and interrogating what we are exposed to that we can begin to change it. And change it we must.

Photo: Marilyn Monroe as Clara Bow, Life Magazine, 1957, Richard Avedon

50 Shades of Hypocrisy, Irish Style: We Can Talk About Dirty Films But Not Our ‘Dirty’ Secrets

designLast week I took part in a radio discussion about the impending cinematic release of 50 Shades of Grey. I was not an obvious candidate. I haven’t read the books (I like my erotica Nancy Friday style) and find the cultural hysteria around them and the film unsettling, even depressing on a bad day. The subsequent chat would not have been out of place in an episode of that famed Irish documentary series Father Ted, part ‘careful now, down with this sort of thing, wink, wink’, part ‘Jesus Jim, we can’t be going to that – what will the neighbours say? We’ll get the DVD instead.’ I used the term ‘dirty film’ far too many times. I felt like I was trapped in a Carry On nightmare of crass innuendo to which I unthinkingly contributed ten-fold by blurting out, ‘well, this will be massive exposure for Dornan, in terms of his career.’

Jesus, Mary.

Scanning Irish news sites afterwards I realised this tittering-school-kid tone is almost ubiquitous wherever 50 Shades is mentioned. The troubling facets of Anastasia Steele’s and Christian Grey’s relationship (and there are many) are rarely referenced but whips, handcuffs and naked male torsos sure are. On the other hand, the lusty Irish women who are supposedly responsible for pre booking 55,000 tickets  are treated with a patronising sneer that is as snide as it is snobbish. Crap films get released every week but a potentially-crap film aimed at female audiences? Well, that’s the absolute worst.

Our childish frenzy over such a notoriously sex-centred popular phenomenon says a lot about Ireland’s relationship to sexuality, none of it inspiring. Despite the long shadow cast by Catholicism, our culture today is sex-saturated. We watch it, read about it, we talk about BDSM and vibrators on morning radio. But unlike so many other countries in the West and elsewhere, we lack the basic maturity and yes, backbone, to treat the messy, unpredictable consequences of human sexuality the compassion and nuance they demand.

Newspaper pages away from the 50 Shades coverage are the latest reports about the on-going heartache and irreversible damage being caused to Irish women and those who love them by the 8th Amendment. We giggle about 50 Shades, then look the other way when someone raises the unforgivable lack of sex education in our schools. We raise our little girls on fairy tales in which a handsome prince saves the princess, making her his forever and ever. Then we ridicule grown women for being drawn toward what they’ve always been told to be, towards the floaty white dresses, towards the beauty that never fits quite right or lasts like you’d like it to, towards the man who loves her so much he could kill her.

I won’t be going to see 50 Shades in the cinema (surprise, surprise) but I know I’ll still hear about it, in crushing, minute detail, especially the ‘wild’ sex scenes. ‘What does this film’s massive popularity say about Irish women?’ the media will ask and hordes will rush to answer. You see, in Ireland we can talk for as long as you like, as openly as you like, about dirty films but not our ‘dirty’ secrets. When all the smut and stifled giggles are pushed aside, therein lies the real shame.

Listen / Read: The Antidote to January

Prague Charles Bridge

The dream of living in one of Europe’s old cities is one I have harbored for a very long time. I’m not picky. I’ll take Paris (of course) but Amsterdam and Berlin have their charms too. My longing becomes particularly pronounced at this time of year, when festive celebrations have given way to the bloated gloom and deflation of January. This year, fortuitous timing had me reviewing the latest travel memoir by Dublin-based Australian author Rachael Weiss, entitled The Thing About Prague, for radio and print. Weiss, a brave romantic soul, casts off her old life in Sydney with the aim of creating a new one in the picturesque Czech capital, a place she vividly depicts with large servings of warmth and humour.

Life being what it is, things don’t go according to plan but nevertheless, one has to admire Weiss’ chutzpah in a world were so many drift through life without ever truly seizing it. After finishing The Thing About Prague I haven’t quite backed my bags and renounced my present life just yet but who knows what lies ahead, dear reader. Who knows.

You can listen back to my review on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena here or read my piece in the Irish Independent here.

Image: Prague: Charles Bridge in the Mist by Roman Boed on Flickr. Creative Commons License. 

The Digital Self : Anaïs Nin & Our Internal Lives in the Internet Age

fragmented self image

My first proper introduction to Anaïs Nin’s work occurred when I happened upon a tattered copy of her journals in a second hand bookshop. Until that point, the only writing of hers I’d encountered was the oft-quoted observation, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ Young though I was, the insight of those words – which, since the advent of the internet, have spawned many a cheesy ‘motivational’ meme – stuck with me.

The rational, structuralist mind presumes a knowable, evidential truth: if we logically and clinically examine a situation, we can arrive at a clear consensus. There is comfort in this approach. It provides a kind of order that our lives lack and a sense that something is knowable, amongst all the chaos. However, our collective reality, if such a thing exists and can be considered to be ‘shared’, is a mishmash of understandings, interpretations, presumptions, all tainted by human fallibility. For all that empathy allows (and it allows a great deal), we can only ever see things as we are  and how we are determines how things appear to be. As a consequence, our vision and the reality that flows from it is incomplete. Truths are not absolute, they are specific, context-driven and oh so messy, just like the selves we harbour within us. To make sense of our lives however, and in order to exist in the world and in society, and in order to change the world and society, we have to buy into, sometimes strategically,  ‘absolute’ truths, problematic though they maybe. It’s a messy, messy business we are all doomed to struggle with.

A piece by the consistently excellent Brain Pickings, In Defence of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down A Harper’s Bazaar Profilerecently got me thinking about Nin’s insights in a modern context. The piece references Nin’s infamous diaries, specifically an entry which explains the motivation behind her decision to decline a profile with Harper’s, a hugely popular publication. According to Nin, her decision stemmed from an unease and an unwillingness to be pinned down or explained away, as if the complexities of her creative being – and by extension, anyone’s creative being – could ever be fully realised or described outside of the internal terrain and the dangers of trying to definitively capture or spotlight these precious parts of ourselves for consumption or recording while we are still evolving. As Brain Pickings creator Maria Popova so beautifully puts it, ‘the anguish of having one’s sincerity mistaken for pretense, and above all the agony of being fossilized while still growing.’

Would the fluidity that characterises the internet age – the constant churning of information and opinion, the ease at which ideas and work can be created, shared and altered – have appealed to Nin or would she have balked at the so-called freedom afforded by the likes of social media, allowing us to create our desired selves (or should that be ‘brands’?) within strict parameters? Or would Nin, like Jaron Lainer, see such technology as regressive, demanding we reduce our identity to a carefully mediated/manipulated ‘image’ that acts as little more than a shopfront, obscuring if not downright denying the complexities of true self, a phenomenon which is so fragmented, so influx it is beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated computer program or social network.

Perhaps this remains the point. For our all gadgetry, for all our digital bells and whistles, technology cannot, as yet, replicate the vast, messy oceans within us, capture our multiple selves or remedy the flawed truths that define the human experience. And even if someday it could,  would we really want it to? As Nin might ask, where would be the adventure in that?

Photo Credit: michmutters via photopin cc