The Trans/forming Feminisms: Media, Technology, Identity Conference was held at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, on November 23-25, 2015. Twitter IDs were @transfem15 and #tf15. There was a large variety of papers, and while I didn’t agree with every viewpoint presented, I found every session that I attended interesting and added considerably to my knowledge about current trends in feminism in general and in this part of the world. The following are some notes from the conference.
The conference organizer, Rosemary Overell, opened by saying that we should be generous to our own challenges and boundaries while we were there and that capitalism wants us to feel disempowered, like we’re at the end of things.
Transgress, Translate, Transcend, Transform? Criminalized Women and Creative Writing – Keynote by Associate Professor Tracey McIntosh, University of Auckland
McIntosh began by asking, How does prison work as an ideology? It relieves us from having to think about issues of racism, sexism, etc. (from Angela Davis). It’s a naturalized part of our social landscape but remains invisible. 51% of all prisoners in New Zealand are Maori. This is the most well-known social statistic in New Zealand (after sheep). 65% of all women in prison are Maori.
She goes into prisons and prisoners give her approval to share their stories and tell everyone what they’re going through and have gone through, but she wonders if they know who she is telling (i.e., the room full of us at the conference), that people will be analyzing it and seeing them as victims. As people who live under constant scrutiny and surveillance know, to be fully known is to be fully vulnerable. They want to know, Does mainstream society have to give up the sex, drugs, and money? Why do they tell us that we have to give it up?
McIntosh discussed the transformative power of the creative writing that they do and show her, often in the form of poetry. The power of memory through the power of narrative offers alternative ways of reviewing events. [I noticed that the power of the poems she was reading that were written by these women evoked more emotion and carried greater weight than the statistics she was also reading could.]
She told us how women know how to navigate the prison environment, but the outside world is very different. A girl might go in at 13 and come out at 21, too young to qualify for the self-care housing, and having no experience using an ATM or doing grocery shopping. She has no connections, and housing is a major issue for those trying to get out on parole. Also, everyone expects her to be the same as she was when she went in, although she has changed.
Female Dominated Narratives, Online Fan Culture, and the Gravitation Towards Jupiter Ascending – by Täg Hooper
Hooper discussed how the film Jupiter Ascending received bad buzz and was considered a flop, even though it did break even. It was criticized for using the trope of the Chosen One, even though many other films for men have it (Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc.). There is a 37 to 2 male-female film reviewer ration in the New York Times according to Meryl Streeps’ 2015 study. Rotten Tomatoes also skews toward male reviewers and its reviews are even featured on illegal torrent sites. Jupiter Ascending’s review percentages on Rotten Tomatoes are 22% critics vs. 51% fans, a larger disparity than is usual for the site [looks like this might have changed in the meantime. The studios are reluctant to put money toward female fantasy in science fiction, so it does matter that the androcentric reviews turn off filmmakers to take a ‘risk.’
‘I Will Go Down with This Ship’: Gay Slashfiction as a Manifestation of Women’s Eroticism – by Jean Sargent-Shadbolt
Sargent-Shadbolt is researching fandom communities dominated by women. She gave an overview of slashfiction as a genre of fan fiction that specifically includes sexual or romantic relationships (the first example being Kirk and Spock from Star Trek). Fan fiction is a grassroots, DIY medium (zines, comic conventions, the internet). It raises issues of who gets to decide what are the right kind of stories. Traditionally, it has not been women, people of color, the LGBT community, and other marginalized groups. Reboot, retelling, and homage stories are okay in the mainstream, but fan fiction is delegitimized. She is using analytics to determine the most read and popular fan fiction.
Tensions/Triggers: Trigger Warnings Panel Discussion with Rebecca Stringer and Catherine Dale
Stringer said that the panel was inspired by the increasing number of articles on trigger warnings, which can be written or verbal descriptions of content designed to alert people of the potential for retraumatization for those who have PTSD or prior trauma that might come up. Students use them for mental preparation, not blocking. Stringer said that her students want topics on the lecture syllabus to be aired, and that there is a difference between being triggered and feeling sad or upset. Some academics have resisted because they feel constrained, their authority challenged, or their spontaneity hampered. She has taken to calling it “content forecasting”. The critics of political correctness in the 90s are the same ones or sound like the current critics of trigger warnings. It plays into the neoliberal sense of personal responsibility to see students as emotionally dull. PTSD has historically been a contentious diagnosis, especially for the U.S. military with regards to Vietnam veterans. Students are used to warnings online and then wonder where they are in the classroom. The internet has set their expectation for them. She challenged us not to respond with the same brutal reluctance as the U.S. military.
Dale spoke of a generational divide in an article in The Atlantic saying that U.S. students are too coddled, that they’re there to be educated and can check out books beforehand [think this is the article]. Anything could potentially be associated with trauma for someone, so all we can do is flag the most egregious, like sexual assault. Overell added that showing care is feminized in otherwise masculine, rational discourse in the university, and how dare marginalized people push back against this. Stringer told how in one class she had students get together at the beginning to create Class Norms, a collective agreement, which she wrote up and got feedback on to make sure everyone was on board with it. One example was that the class agreed it was okay to leave during a movie if a student were upset. 98% expressed positive viewpoint on the safe space concept after the class finished. Two students felt too safe and coddled.
The discussion opened up to the crowd, and various topics included:
- There is a danger in allowing people to leave, because the most likely to leave university are certain groups, and the university could become a boundary that they don’t want to cross back into.
- An accountable space is a better term than safe space, because there is no safe space.
- One student wanted a warning for yet another theory text that didn’t have any people of color.
- The phrase “overrepresentation of Maori” can do violence every time it’s said, as it reinforces the grim statistics of Maori in prisons.
- Using warnings can lead to exceptionalizing certain content or invoking the power of suggestion to show that something is special when an instructor doesn’t want it to be.
- Some of the resistance by California universities is to the neoliberal push of the consumer-student viewpoint (ex: have to protect students because they’re consumers). It has been top-down, not coming from students, with the potential for lawsuits.
- Why now? Possibly because of the siege mentality for kids who were 4 years old on 9/11, or the immediacy of images with the internet.
- Media studies has been doing content warnings for a long time.
- Maybe it’s part of the affective turn in the Humanities, where there is an acknowledgement that it is more than a cognitive response (trauma).
The Novelty Factor: Finding Your Voice as a Woman in Comedy – by Rosie Howells
Howells didn’t consider herself a woman comedian at first. But she soon discovered that most comedy archetypes were created by men for men. It can feel stale and strange for a woman to play, even though she can (ex. party animal). She likes just writing humans and not assigning a gender, but it doesn’t work for every story. She has been criticized for writing too many women, but also men. She feels a responsibility to write more funny roles for women because men historically haven’t, and there is a drought in opportunities.
Discharge is an all-female troupe now in Wellington. It has been called sexist for being all-female, even though all-male groups like Monty Python aren’t. The group allows her to play a bully and explore issues of gender with other women. Women often have to write their own parts. For example: in male comedies like The Hangover, men are shown as complex with multiple roles (cool one, funny one, geeky one) but the woman is a token and only represents her gender. Bridesmaids is one of few counterexamples. One of their shows is 28 Days which is a take on The Crucible and menstruation. They try to look at a joke from all sides and know that if it offends one of the group, it is likely to offend 20 in an audience. Critics look for meaning more closely with an all-female troupe. Howells’ version of activism is showing that women can be funny.
During the Q&A, people asked if gender-blind writing were actually possible. Howells discussed how stand-up comedy is a really harsh environment with a lot of fragile masculinity at play. Someone asked if comedy needs trigger warnings so audience can choose more carefully or avoid shows – rape culture and rape jokes are apparently common in New Zealand comedy.
Ladies, a table? Or Do I go Hungry? – by Catherine Dale
Dale discussed the term ‘lady’ and whether or not it will continue to be used as a term between girl and woman. The theory from Althusser is around hailing in the street: when someone is hailing and you turn around to respond, you are recognizing that it is you being hailed (theory of interpellation and 9/10 times the right person will turn around). There is no blank slate before you choose lady or woman, but you can have resistance to your subjection. Bathrooms doors are even inconsistent in how they describe themselves. The more demeaning the job, the more likely it is to use the term lady to raise workers up a status (ex. cleaning lady); there is no garbage gentleman [except in an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia!]. Margaret Thatcher was known as the Iron Lady, but the protesting miners were not called ladies because ladies don’t protest or cause a fuss.
She showed the lyrics of Tom Jones’ “She’s A Lady” and a clip from the show Girls where three young women try to figure out who the ladies are that a text is talking about. One believes they are all ladies, while another disputes being called by that term. There is a Fill in the Blanks quiz online by Debbie Cameron where you have to choose woman or lady, and it is fairly easy to tell which one sounds right. For actions done to bodies, the word is usually woman. People now say they’re using the term ironically, for friends who aren’t polite or nice, but are they actually being subversive? It depends on who is using the term.
Artistic and Nonviolent Resistance in Micronesia: Maga’håga (female leaders) versus the United States Military in the Mariåna Archipelago; or, #OurIslandsAreSacred: Indigenous Resistance and Digital Activism in the Mariåna Archipelago – by Sylvia Frain
She explained that her title changed post-fieldwork and that her work there was the first time a researcher went to participate with them rather just study them. The Archipelago is a key area for TPP compliance for the U.S. and Department of Defense. The complex language used in military documents (like euphemisms for bombs) is difficult to go through, and the public is only given three minutes for comments during session hearings. Looking at a U.S. military map, one can see that they carve up the world into zones of responsibility. A girls’ Catholic high school made a video about protecting the island, and the issue has also made it into the John Oliver show.
Rethinking Feminism in the Face of Intersectionality – by Nikki Aaron
Aaron has done research in India on the devadasis, part of the untouchable class/caste. They dedicate young girls to the goddess Yellamma/Renuka. Sex work is better income than manual labor. Oral histories have been lost, so we don’t really know their past as possible courtesans in previous times. They are reduced to using the language of NGOs regarding morality and told to marry. Are they empowered or exploited? Feminists try to show them as having agency as single women, whereas a couple documentaries like Sex, Death & the Gods and Prostitutes of God show them in need of a white savior. It is problematic to see women as a group with one need when different women may see it as their own best interest to refuse some forms of agency.
Resisting Methods: Doing Research With, For, and On Social Movements – by Massimiliana Urbano
Urbano conducted six months of fieldwork across Italy and critiqued the consent form process as protecting institutions from liability though it is supposed to protect the participant. It reveals the power imbalance between researcher and participants and prevents intimacy; it also reflects the institutionalization of research. There is no follow-up with consent forms.
“Of all the Continents in the World, Asia is the Gayest!” Some Notes on Queer Asia as Method – Keynote by Audrey Yue, University of Melbourne
Yue spoke of the transnational turn in sexuality studies. It sees a need to examine intersections across nation-states rather than within. It doesn’t privilege psychoanalysis. It questions the institutionalization and internationalization of area studies (Asia Studies, New Zealand studies, etc.). And it must consider cultural difference as well as sexual. Yue referenced a lot of books and the case study of Trans-Singapore. Apparently Singapore subsidizes gender reassignment surgery (although it criminalizes homosexuality) because it prefers normative gender to in-between.
Slutwalk Melbourne: Negotiating Feminisms, Organizing Feminists – by Jessamy Gleeson
In covering Slutwalk Melbourne, the mainstream media happily use the term slut but emptied the march of its political content and instead said it was buying into the patriarchy. One quote was that a half naked woman as a form of protest is different from a half naked woman pandering to the male gaze. It is frustrating when academics research SlutWalk without giving activists an active voice and then calling it a “postfeminist masquerade.” A 2014 article only looked a publicly available social media and included trolls who were called collaborators and examined the number of hits even though some posts are deleted. Gleeson said that there were other legitimate critiques of Slutwalk that she would rather spend time on, as opposed to dealing with questions about whether or not they are feminist. The problem is that other academics will build on this article and reinforce the bad data. In Slutwalk, some claim the word slut while others don’t. The term is loaded, especially for women of color. It does respond to local incidents, like the murder of a girl in Melbourne and police officer’s comments that women shouldn’t walk alone in the park during the day. The independent media is much better at coverage.
Beyond Violence, Victimization and the Penal State: Empowerment Pathways for Female Incarcerated Students – by Jenny Ostini
Ostini said that the female incarceration rate has doubled in Australia recently. Their focus is on transformative education because there is a link between domestic violence, incarceration, and educational disadvantage. The academy has rhetoric of community involvement and community justice, but it mostly comes down to citations and the h-index. Most prisoners haven’t completed Year 12 secondary schooling. They are pushing digital literacy in prisons by loading ereaders with not just textbooks but novels. They work on academic preparedness and career aspirations (why would someone be interested in knowing math if they’re going to be a truck driver). Teachers have to be reaccredited every six months to be able to teach in prisons; there is a continually shifting political landscape when government changes. She noted that education can be dangerous for some women so there are issues around this.
Reconsidering Utopia: The Dialectic of Sex and Contemporary Feminist Activism – by Stevie Jepson
Jepson discussed Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012) who was critiqued for biological essentialism and offered a science fiction vision of society (test tube babies) in the women’s rights movement in the U.S. Her book makes strong feminist demands in the last chapter and contains an interesting chart of sex, class, and culture. Firestone believed that revolution must be flexible and open. One example was the Pill which combined activism and science/technology. The ultimate goal was androgyny. Instead of thinking that utopia is fruitless, feminists should see utopia as a way to think about feminism. Jepson mentioned David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope and a new collection on Firestone: Further Adventures of The Dialectic of Sex.
Living the Experience in the Public Domain: New Media and Public Perception of Women in Malaysia – by Rohana Arrifin
Arrifin discussed the changing nature of images of women in politics in Malaysia. Now they always have headscarves. This is known as the Arabization of women’s image (headscarves, long robes, etc.). The Obedient Wives Club has 600-700 members and believes that if they learn first-class prostitute skills, their husbands won’t stray. It is a big joke that the prime minister is controlled by his wife who is seen as more domineering and does not conform to all of the conservative trends. Conformity, conservatism, and patriarchy are the order of the day now.
Women as Men and Men Made by Women: Transgressive and Transforming Images of Beauty of 19th Century Qajar Women in Iran – by James P. Mirrione
Mirrione looked at 19th Century Persian dynastic history and the changes that have occurred in what is acceptable. It used to be acceptable for men to have young boy lovers in addition to wives; colonial influence changed that. The moustache on women was an image of beauty. Once photography came, control over dress and women tightened. In pre-1979 revolution Iran, the flag was a male lion with a female sun behind it; women were supposed to be pure for the nation. Today, the scarf is not a cultural symbol but a means of control. While young women may not understand the orthodoxy, they have to cover up regardless. Even a picture of Adam and Eve in literature anthologies is considered scandalous. Mirrione is interested in how women perform in the paintings, photographs, etc. because everything is ultimately a performance.
Patriarchy, Women, and Islam: Narrative Framing of Sisters in Islam – by Tha Era Yousef
Yousef discussed the dual court system of Sharia and civil courts. If you are born in Malaysia, you are Muslim and not allowed to convert. There was a fatwa (religious ruling) issued against Sisters in Islam NGO on July 31, 2014, and the coverage in the media is biased based on each outlet’s readership. In Malaysia, the Hindu and Buddhist past is not acknowledged and Hindu sites have been destroyed. 60 percent of the population is Malay, which means one must be Muslim, speak the language, and practice the culture, and the Malay race is institutionalized in the constitution, even though the constitution does have religious freedom.
Sex Work in Industry and Academe: Feminist Porn – keynote by Constance Penley
The Feminist Porn Book (2013) was the first to bring together feminist porn producers and scholars. The porn/sex wars began in the 1980s. Feminism being channeled into the attacks on pornography was one of the worst things to happen to feminism and a big setback that absolutely divided women. Penley has been teaching a class on pornography since 1993 and is working on a book on how to teach it. She said religious organizations can no longer rely on moral attacks on pornography so are relying on university studies and research to make their case, so they don’t like books like hers that don’t help their cause. The Citizens United Against Pornography in Santa Barbara had as its only credentials that they had never watched an R-rated film. Teaching pornography is a good exercise in academic freedom. There is an epistemological shock at discovering that porn isn’t what people think it is (ex. she introduces Deep Throat on the first day of class). Once you’re in the realm of popular culture, everything is impure anyway. It’s the class that keeps on teaching because students go on discussing after class. Porn parodies have been criticizing Hollywood since 1923’s Casting Couch, and are not getting more violent, unlike Hollywood films. Her students are some of the few people on the planet who have historical and theoretical basis to be able to discuss and critique pornography.
Women’s Studies: Here to Stay – by Hilary Lapsley
The Women’s Studies Association Aotearoa New Zealand has accusations of essentialism thrown around a lot at it. But it has played a key role in the development of feminism in New Zealand, and its contributions have yet to be researched. There is a lot of opposition from young women to women-only spaces at conferences (women fought hard for that right). When issues of intersectionality get raised, she notes that women were trying to deal with issues for Maori and women of color, but capitalism ended up coopting many middle-class white women. They do now have a Maori name: Pae Akoranga Wahine. Lapsley has misgivings about how good digital is compared to real-life interactions and community. During the Q&A, the question was asked: does Gender Studies water down political potential for women? There doesn’t seem to be opposition to the term feminism in the same way as women’s studies. Postmodern theorizing is not very accessible to a lot of women. The question for the future is how can Women’s Studies stay vibrant?
Walking the Knife’s Edge: Self-defense, Victim Blame, and Empowerment in Neoliberal Times – by Bell Murphy
Murphy discussed the Women’s Self Defence Network, Wahine Toa. Sexual violence is bad in New Zealand: 1 in 3 women report unwanted, distressing sexual contact (vs. 1 in 10 men). Of 10% reported, only 13% of those result in conviction. Rebecca Stringer’s book Knowing Victims (2014) talks about how now it seems victimization doesn’t so much happen ‘to’ someone as arise from the self through personal responsibility. Ex. SafetyChick.com. There is a slippery slope between safety tips and victim blaming which has long been known by feminists. Offering self defense classes is controversial in this climate. However, structural solutions take a long time, whereas feminist classes boost people in a matter of hours. Study showed 50% reduction in campus rapes. Murphy referenced Jocelyn Hollander (2009) in that agency does not equal responsibility.
Dispatching Patriarchy one tweet, blog, and Facebook entry at a time? – Keynote by Sandra Grey, President of Tertiary Education Union
Grey said she would be using social movement theory and its intersection with ICT (Information and Communications Technology) for her talk. Her world has become dominated by her cell phone, but she doesn’t use PowerPoint because she doesn’t want technology driving teaching. There is less and less space in the room with people and more online (some Vice Chancellors are also pushing this). She referenced Celeste Liddle’s writing on 22-year-old Ms. Dhu’s death. Grey writes on the New Zealand women’s movement and comes under fire for saying that from 1990-2010 there has been no broad-based women’s movement in New Zealand. Can ICT help create one perhaps?
Some ways the Web might help include allowing people to mill and form collective identities online. It enables people to make a personal appeal to invite their friends to join them in a cause. It can change public narratives. Information bubbles are problematic, so you have to find a way to shake people’s consciousness using targeted campaigns (like other groups use babies or whales instead of sharks to promote their cause). Kiwiblog by David Farrar l is the most read political blog in New Zealand. Clever ads (like the Equal Pay campaign) can be picked up by mainstream media and stick in people’s minds. Even in a union, equal pay is not at the top of the agenda. Around 30% of New Zealanders have university degrees. Grey reiterated that the Web isn’t as open and transformative as we think, since it is controlled by capitalism, so we have to go in with our eyes wide open.
During Q&A, it came up that strategic essentialism is sometimes the most efficient way to get things done. For example, at some point, women have to pick up one issue and support it. What is not helpful is the phenomenon of out-lefting the left, as in people condemning others for not being a good enough feminist, etc. Issues brought up by audience members included the activist work of the academy being outsourced to students who already have limited resources, the right coopting the language (reverse sexism, racism, etc.), and problems with using corporate tools like Facebook to organize. One alternative is Riseup.net.
Women in Politics session – Shirin Brown and Rohana Arrifin
In New Zealand, there is around 30-35% representation of women, but officers are still largely men. Australia is apparently now requiring people to take a local government class before standing. Brown suggested that being used to academia and its processes made her better positioned to deal with the bureaucracy in local government in Auckland. She saw standing for local council as helping her community. Arrifin noted that politics is power and can bring about changes. It was brought up that India requires 30% quota to be filled by women, but it ends up being wives and daughters of politicians rather than just anyone. The private sector still is vastly underrepresented by women (12% for New Zealand companies). Being a mother can have all kinds of benefits and skills in a job (motivated to get things done with less time, motivated for the sake of their children) and yet employers still discriminate. Brown said that because women already have the experience of being Othered, they may be better able to have empathy and listen to other viewpoints in government. They need to learn how to fundraise and campaign, and name recognition is important. Even if a woman is the “token woman”, she can use it as an opportunity to have a seat at the table and speak up. It was noted that the University of Melbourne is starting a program called Pathways to Politics.
Digitized Domestic Violence: Technology Violence is a Feminist Issue – by Jenny Ostini
There is a lot more violence than is captured by the term “domestic” violence, including cyberstalking, bank accounts hacked, social media harassment, etc. This exertion of control (violence) is increasingly taking place online. Ostini noted that abuse in cyberspace can be as damaging as in real life. One can be a Luddite, but they will be missing out on looking for jobs, banking, government claims that have gone online, etc. She is interested in plans to use big data to map where domestic violence is coming from to aid police. She emphasized that we should build a digital toolkit instead of just telling students ‘no’; all they hear is blah, blah, blah, no and do not get the information they need to be aware. She mentioned a Digital Champion program and working group on Respectful Relationships. We can help out by not criticizing or judging other women online and using the Golden Rule, as well as supporting people who get into trouble (we all make mistakes) and avoiding the pack mentality of the internet. We should talk about privacy settings and how students can change them. We should emphasize that sharing a password is not a token of love. Also, if you are being harassed, screenshots are evidence that can be taken to police.
Back to the Future: A Story of Women’s Rights in India Traced through Time and Cyber-space – by Gurleen Khandpur
Khandpur discussed the rape cases in India that have gone viral and compared them to what happened in previous cases. It took a lot less time for action to happen after the Delhi rape case because of social media as compared to the case from the 1970s. India has 75% rural population with not much access to the internet. Part of the huge response was because young educated Indians saw themselves in the victim. Meanwhile, in the recent Park Street rape case, Suzette Jordan, a single mother of two, did not receive the same response. Since she was out drinking, she was supposed to feel ashamed and people did not rally around her in the same way.
The conference concluded with a gathering of everyone in the main room where we had the chance to give feedback and discuss some of the ideas that came up over the past few days. I thought it was a good way of closing and giving people an opportunity to voice their thoughts about ways to improve in the future. Hopefully there are more feminist conferences during my time in New Zealand — the Women’s Studies Association is supposed to be having their conference next year I believe.