Reevaluating Young Women’s Love of the Selfie: TEDx Galway

Reevaluating Young Women’s Love of the Selfie: TEDx Galway

 

When I got an email from my students last October asking if they could nominate me to do a TEDx Talk, my immediate reaction was ‘hell, no.’ As a broadcaster and lecturer, I’m more comfortable than most at dealing with public speaking but the TEDx format is a specific type of beast. No notes, no script; a live audience, yes, but not one you can volley with. It’s just you, on a stage, talking for up to 18 minutes about your big idea with no where to run and no where to hide.

I said ‘yes’ to the nomination because I believe in the power of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quip about doing something every day that scares you. Doing a TEDx Talk, I figured, would be my quota of being scared filled for the year. Anyway, there was no guarantee I would be accepted – until I was.

On February 6th, 2016, I stood on the stage of the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, and spoke about my PhD research, which examines young women’s engagement with the selfie. A PhD is a knotty and sprawling piece of work so I focused on a small but I think significant finding of mine: how Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of women and narcissism in The Second Sex can help us better understand the appeal of the selfie to young women today.

The idea of the TEDx Talk format is that you finish by issuing a ‘call to action’. Mine was simply that instead of dismissing young women’s engagement with the selfie as narcissistic and self-objectifying, we should be striving for a deeper understanding, keeping in mind that female representation in our cultural, political and social institutions remains a work in progress.

I would never have gotten this opportunity if it wasn’t for my students from the MA in Gender, Globalisation and Rights at NUI Galway. This talk is dedicated to them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who’s Afraid of Gender Theory?

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.

Read: On Radclyffe Hall, Judith Butler & ‘The Well of Loneliness’

hallradclyffe2

 

“…we’re all part of nature. Someday the world will recognise this…”

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness

Recently the universe conspired that I would be reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness while preparing to give a lecture on Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble revolutionized gender theory when it was published in 1990.  Hall’s novel caused a quasi-revolution of its own upon publication in 1928, albeit for different if not entirely dissimilar reasons. Hall’s frank depiction of lesbian desire had the British chattering classes foaming at the mouth with indignation and the book was subsequently banned.

By today’s standards The Well of Loneliness is a terribly tame affair, far from the obscene and corruptive force early 20th century moral guardians considered it to be. Although Hall’s writing can be sentimental (she does like to ponder, at tedious length, on the wonders of the natural world and religion) there is no denying the bravery in her depiction of protagonist Stephen Gordon and her plight, which cut close to the bone of Hall’s personal experiences.

Throughout The Well of Loneliness, Hall explains Stephen’s predicament – a biological female but manly in appearance, who desires other women – as that of an ‘invert’, a now discarded term coined by sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to describe a man ‘trapped’ in a woman’s body or vice versa. The reader sees Stephen struggle to find acceptance and purpose in a society which shuns her. Even her own mother, the delicately feminine Anna, ultimately rejects her daughter to whit Stephen replies, ‘…I forgive you, though whatever it is, it is you and my father who made this body – but what I will never forgive is your daring to try to make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me.’

Today, thanks to the work of gender theorists like Butler and countless campaigners and activists who refused to accept heteronormativity’s stranglehold, more and more people are waking up to the realisation that gender is not the neat little binary we are socialised to believe it to be.

Butler’s assertions that biological sex is constructed via gender, that gender is a phenomenon, not a fact, which creates what it names and requires constant repetition to maintain its illusion of authority and naturalness, strike at the heart of Stephen’s predicament. Through her, Hall draws our attention to the subtle yet effective ways gender reinforces itself in our lives, regulating and policing our behaviour right under our noses. As Stephen observes while still a child, forced to play with a little girl she despises, ‘Violet was already full of feminine poses; she loved dolls, but not quite so much as she pretended. People said: ‘Look at Violet, she’s like a little mother; it’s so touching to see that instinct in a child!’ Then Violet would become still more touching.’

Stephen’s incredible wealth allows her to relocate to Paris and it is there that she finds true freedom and love. Unfortunately, back in the real world, the types of resources and let’s face it, privilege which allowed Stephen to be her true self were afforded to very few. For example, her governess, the long-serving, long-suffering Puddle, has hidden her own Sapphic desires in order to survive, a fact that makes her hugely sympathetic to Stephen’s struggle perhaps at cost to her own. If The Well of Loneliness reminds us of anything in the present day, it is that while great strides have been made to loosen gender’s grip, for many those strides came much too late and for others across the world, they have yet to come at all.