Conference Report Back: South East Women’s Studies Association Conference 2010-Columbia, South Carolina

After a full day of plane-transfers and incidental airport touring, my fellow cohort, Mel, and I land in Columbia, South Carolina for the South East Women’s Studies Association Conference. This year’s theme: Cultural Productions, Gender and Activism. This year’s keynote speaker: Judith Halberstam (!!!!!! be still my heart!).  As we get off the plane, I am struck by the baby-size airport (my background in airports informed mostly by my six years in Chicago, battling the likes of Midway and O’Hare), and the palm trees that line the bright, white corridors. Oh. And: the rocking chairs.

Mel says, as though she had just spotted a three-headed zebra, “Oh my gosh, Raechel, look!”

My eyes follow her pointing finger, and I behold the sight of white, wooden rocking chairs hanging out alongside pretty standard airport seating. My response matches hers, as I too stare as though I am also witnessing a three-headed zebra. In grand movie-like fashion, my head remains turned while my legs keep walking, and I end up charging full-body into an innocent passerby.

“Sorry! I’m so sorry!” I sputter an apology, “but, the rocking chairs! I….we’ve, we’ve just never seen anything like it!” The man gives a half-snicker as Mel and I head on our way.

We take a free shuttle to the hotel, and are greeted by old ladies in ornate gowns heading in and out of the lobby. Later we find out that we—a couple of rough-around-the-edges, urban feminists—are sharing this South Carolina hotel with the Daughters of the American Revolution. We check-in with a tremendously friendly blonde woman with a southern accent that meets the standards of my admittedly problematic Southern stereotype-hungry ears, and rush off to see the keynote speech at the University of South Carolina, just four blocks from the hotel, where the conference is being held.

KEYNOTE PLENARY: “Shadow Feminisms to Gaga Femininities” by Judith Halberstam

I could spend pages gushing about Halberstam’s charm (and dashing handsomeness), but I will try to stick to summarizing the content of what was certainly one of the best keynote talks I’ve had the privilege of attending. Halberstam begins by calling out the illogical associations we make under the guise of politics. She references Leo Bersani to talk about the arbitrary coalition of “Lesbian and Gay,” which assumes that just because these two groups are attracted to members of the same sex means that they would have similar politics. “We’d never assume the same of heterosexuals…That because two people happen to have other-sex orientation that they would have the same politics,” she notes.

judith "jack" halberstam. so hot. so brilliant. win/win.

She then delves into her conception of “shadow feminism,” which is greatly informed by black feminism, religiousity, and the work of Gayatri Spivak. Shadow feminisms utilize masochism, she says, as a different point of subjectivity, and reject the colonialist undertone of Western feminisms. Here, Halberstam cites Spivak in her discussion of bride burning, and asks why it is that Western feminists see projecting a colonial agenda on to “Third World” women as somehow empowering.

It is here that Halberstam turns to “her favorite feminist film…..’Chicken Run’.”  This animated film is, she says, overt, blatant Marxist propaghanda, but it is a Marxism that articulates itself through feminism (both liberal and shadow feminism).  The plot of the film (which I have not yet seen) is about chickens that organize and rise-up against the farmers who intend to kill them. Ginger, our Gramscian organic intellectual, organizes the revolution, proclaiming: “We die free chickens, or we die trying!” She highlights the character Babs, whom she sees as an exemplar of a shadow feminist, who replies to Ginger’s statement, with “Are those the only choices?” This looking outside the binary (death or freedom) is important for shadow feminism.

At this point in the talk she makes a statement I don’t necessarily agree with (but I still love you Judith/Jack!). In defending Babs’ looking for a third option, Halberstam says that sometimes that third option is inaction. Drawing from Direct Action tactics from Civil Rights of “going limp” when being arrested, and also slave narratives that point to roaming around fields and not doing work as a source of empowerment, Halberstam asserts that it is not always the pragmatic outcome that matters; that emancipation can be “a moving about….roaming as the ontological experience of freedom.” For me, this individual, non-collective “everyday resistance” is important, certainly, but troubling if it becomes a substitute for collective, organized action.

Halberstam then discusses shadow feminism in relation to two novels: The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek and Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid. Both of these novels, she says, points to the conclusion of misery (no happy endings for slavery, says Kincaid), and the “unbecoming” inherent in shadow feminism.

In what is perhaps my favorite part of her talk, Halberstam sees “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” as an example of shadow feminism, and also a solution to the trouble with straight masculinity. She explains that a major theme of TFMF is for the main character, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), to “learn to live without [his] tail,” which was apparently cut off by a farmer in the beginning of the film. Later in the film, Mr. Fox decides that “detachable is better than attached” (when he gets a strap-on, er…detachable tail later in the film). This obvious dildo metaphor, Halberstam says, “releases him from the phallic burden.” In addition, it is only after Mr. Fox loses his tail that he is able to fully accept his gay son. Wins all around.

Halberstam tries to reconcile the trouble with straight women by problematizing Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him!. Apparently the premise of this book is that feminism is an epidemic for the single woman, one that has made her too picky to find a husband. Gottlieb says women need to settle, because being married to a man you’re not attracted to/in love with/whodoesntmakeyoulaugh, etc. is better than not being married at all. Clearly, Halberstam disagrees.

Halberstam closes her talk with a brief foray into “Lady Gaga Pheminisms,” which she clarifies go beyond Lady Gaga the individual, and are more about Lady Gaga as an idea.  We watch a short clip of the infamous “Telephone” video, which Halberstam sees as a productive blur of subject and object.  She says that Gaga is creating a new image for feminism, one that embraces gender ambiguouity  (even though Gaga confirms her genitalia status in the video) and inarticulateness (Halberstam points to the stuttering Beyonce).  I have a feeling this analysis would have been a lot more in depth, but, unfortunately, she ran out of time.

•    Joshua M. Abrams, Kansas State University: “Mapping the Transsexual Narrative: Identity and Medicalization in Michael Dillon’s “Out of the Ordinary.” This paper interrogated the transsexual narrative via the life of Michael Dillon, the first female-to-male transsexual. Abrams uses medical records of Harold Gillies, Dillon’s doctor, to assess the biography as political.
•    Mel Elizabeth Lesch, University of Kentucky: “Transgender Student Issues and Higher Education.” Lesch gave a pragmatic account of incorporating trans-resources and education into university Student Affairs programs. Lesch covers all the important bases, including: gender-neutral bathrooms, trans housing, trans added to the list of protected statuses, etc. All of this was pretty basic, but it was fascinating to hear from someone who explained she was attempting to do this at a school where exorcisms are performed, and where people “pray outside of gay student’s dorm rooms” (to pray the gay away, obvs). It was a good reminder for me, who works with queer culture in an urban context, that challenges outside of universities in major cities are a very different queer ball game.
•    Richard Nunan, College of Charelston: “Identity Politics and Tranny Ambivalence at the Movies.” Nunan gave a very thorough critique of critiques on the following trans and queer-themed films: Boy I Am, Chasing Amy, Transamerica, and The Crying Game. He explores themes and problems such as the depiction of trans figures as deceptive, disciplining (via “gatekeepers”) of trans and queer figures in films, trans as being explained as either genetic or a result of dysfunctional family or psychology. Nunan also touched on what it meant for non-trans folk to direct these films.

•    Mia Fischer, College of Charleston: “Constructing Masculinities: The Portrayal of Fatherhood in Dexter.” Fischer explored themes of masculinity in “Dexter,” including: fatherhood, good v. evil (post 9/11) via “The Code of Harry,” fratricide as a disruption of the patriarchy, Oedipal moments, “from Cad to Dad,” reinforcement of class statuses (Dexter as patriarchal head of the household). Ultimately, Fischer argued, “the dichotomous representation of gender” reflects a crises in masculinity.
•   Melody Hoffmann, University of Minnesota: “The Activism of Scraper Bikes.” Hoffmann gave a compelling and brilliant account (srsly! not just because she’s my roomie!) of a group of black men in Oakland California who have created their space in bike culture. Scraper bikes are a DIY project that result in flashy, decked-out bicycles, often adorned with stereo systems, candy wrapper-themed wheels, color coordinate, and are inspired by scraper cars. Hoffmann asserts that the formation of men is a counter-hegemonic force in that it provides a space for the empowerment of black men. Part of this means that these men “perform masculinity” in ways that are often sexist and pompous, but Hoffmann explains, this can be read as a means of “passing.” She cites Alexander who explains passing as a source of survival for black men who do not get the privilege of power in mainstream society. Hoffmann then explains how this is also an example of “biketivism,” in that it involves “communication, identity, pleasure, tool for critique.” Hoffmann wisely let the founder of the scraper bike movement, Tyrone Stevenson, “have the last word” of the presentation, clearly checking her positionality as a white women researching a community of color. In the clip she showed, Stevenson admits, “Without scraper bikes, I’d be dead or in jail.”
•    Lora Kotti, University of South Carolina: “Norah Vincent’s Masculinity Crises: Backlash in Self-Made Man.” (AKA: MY FIRST EXPERIENE OF BEING OUTRAGED BY A PRESENTER). Kotti provided a critical book review of Norah Vincent’s book about a lesbian who dresses up and “lives” as a man for year, founding her analysis on Foucault and Butler. Kotti argues that the book is a failure in the lens of gender scholarship, since Vincent performs her man-role as a “stereotypical, animalistic man,” one Kotti believes should not be perpetuated. The fact that Vincent attends strip clubs and encourages her new men-friends to do so too is Kotti’s main point of contention with this book. Because, she states in the panel, “strip clubs are bad! For men and for women!” Kotti seems to have no problem with the fact that Vincents’s “pretending” to be a man de-legitimizes and trivializes FTM trans experiences, only that Vincent’s male-performance is not her definition of a feminist. Furthermore, during the Q&A, Kotti states that she “feels bad for the men and women that Vincent went out on dates with, because they thought they were going out with a man, but it was really a woman!” Once again, Kotti’s transphobia shines through in her thoughtless comments. Unable to not respond to this enraging presentation, I asked her that if she truly felt that strip clubs dehumanized women, how she could justify calling a stripper’s work “bad”? “Coming from a labor background, I think it’s more dehumanizing to not acknowledge these women’s work as potentially empowering….I just think a more sex-positive reading of this book might be possible.” Kotti agreed that it would be possible, but not from her, because, she told me: “I’m not a sex-positive feminist. I don’t think there is anything empowering about shaking your stuff around ::jiggles breasts and rolls her eyes::.” Okay. Agree to disagree.
•    Jen Litton, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. “Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Masculinity and the Male Body: How Men’s High Fashion Advertisements are Reshaping Society.” Litton’s presentation offered a really insightful look into the objectification of the male body in high-fashion ads. Throughout her presentation, a slideshow rolled behind her showing shocking images of mostly/entirely nude men (with Adonis-like bodies) being victims of violence from other men or women. Litton makes the good point that objectifying men the same way women have been objectified is not the solution, as these images can also perpetuate violence, especially against gay men.

•    Rachel Cook, Georgia State University. “Off the Record: African American Hooters girls and Popular Perceptions of Black Female Sexuality and Representation.” Cook works at the “Black Hooters,” as she and her primarily African American co-workers call it., in Georgia. She is in the process of writing her thesis on her experience as a black Hooters girl, and used this conference presentation as an opportunity to present some of her observations. Cook discussed the many methods of everyday tactical resistance she and her co-workers utilize to survive the often unpleasant work. For example, Cook says she and her co-workers are supposed to ask customers if they want a small glass of beer or a “Big Daddy” glass, but, she refuses to play into that, and instead asks if the customers want a “large” glass. Cook also specified several categories of Hooters girls-types, including: College Girls, Model Chicks, Camera Ready Girls, Lipstick Girls, Corporate Girls, Grand Opening Girls, Mommy Club, and Girls Next Door. She had some very insightful things to say about negotiating these categories as women of color, and how they weren’t allowed access to all the same things white women are. Cook admitted that she was in the early stages of this work, but the presentation was engaging and I hope to see her research filled out and published sometime in the future.
•    Aretina Hamilton, University of Kentucky. “Who Gonna Check Me boo?: Race, Gender, Sexuality in Bravo’s ‘The Real Housewives of Atlanta’.” Hamilton gave a compelling critique of TRHoA, first giving an overview of the disciplining of black women’s bodies in society. She cites Patricial Hill Collin’s who says that black women must present as middle-class before being able to be considered respected (and also sexual) bodies (compared to the animal sexualization of poor black women).  She shows clips of some of the Real Housewvies, and focuses specifically on Sheree, who she sees as an object of spectacle for reality TV.  She also notes the white woman on the show, Kim, exemplifies “eating the other” by fetishizing her black friends (complimenting their skin, saying that Sheree is “the black version of  [her],” and being a black woman in a white woman’s body, etc).  Hamilton convincingly shows us how reality tv sells images and hegemonic understandings of blackness.

•   Charlene Spearan, University of South Carolina. “Being ‘Beat’: Gender Assumptions in the Poetry of Jones, di Prima, and Swenson.” Spearan is a woman who loves poetry, and it showed in her interesting presentation on gender in the Beat generation. She shared poems by May Swenson, Heddy Jones, and Diane di Prima to discuss issues of how these poems both supported and resisted patriarchial discourses, and allowed for new conceptions of subjectivity not determined by rationality or biology. She draws from de Leuretis to discuss the concept of woman as a relational term, one utilized rather than constructed. She concludes that the poetry enabled these women to redefine “woman” through political self-analysis.
•    Kathryn Ziegler, Easter Michigan University. “Formidable-Feminity: Recognizing a Third Wave Type of Activism in Women’s Gender Performance.” (AKA MY FAVORITE PRESENTATION OF THE CONFERENCE). Ziegler gave an awesome account of third-wave feminism and the potentiality of everyday performances of subversive femininity.   She talks about “female masculine performance” as “gender-play activism,” or, performing gender in a way that challenges structures. She juxtaposes female masculinity with feminine sex-appeal, citing that these can co-exist because of the 3rd wave’s space or gender fluidity. But, she asks throughout, “can a woman performing their gender in “masculine” ways really be a feminist project?” (This is the one part that Ziegler sort of slipped for me, as she does not discuss FTM transfolk, but, in her defense, she is focused on a different type of gender play).  She unpacks how feminists of the 3rd wave claim femininity and also social power, and see sex appeal as power. Ziegler offers an anecdote from a self-defense class she takes, in which most of her class partners are very “girly” women who show up in class in tight Victoria Secret-style workout clothes and full makeup. But, she says, their practice counters this aesthetic, as they are training their bodies (through repetition and performance) to fight back against potential predators (using a “masculine” action (fighting), to fight men).  In addition, she says the class teaches how to fight in clothes that are often seen as restrictive and anti-feminist (such as heels and pencil skirts). She suggests that there is room here for an ‘embodied politics,” or, physical acts that promote change in everyday life.  Here she coins, “Girly Feminism” to discuss those in the third wave who don’t believe you have to perform a masculine gender to be a powerful feminist. Ziegler’s presentation was a lot more rich than my blurb is suggesting, but I plan to incorporate her progressive definition of the 3rd wave into future work.
•   Raechel  (that’s me!), University of Minnesota. “Doing Genderfuck: Rhetoric and Performance of the Radical Cheerleaders.” This paper explored the activist group, The Radical Cheerleaders, as an example of performative gender in practice. I analyze a performance at the 2008 Boogie Not Bombs fest, in which the Radical Cheerleaders of Chicago did the “Riot Don’t Diet!” cheer. I first assessed the performance on the basis of performance (casting, choreography, costumes), using theories from Butler, Jane Desmond, and Susan Stryker. Then I critiqued the rhetoric (parody, humor, success of “genderfuck” message, juxtaposition of feminine/masculine, liberation as a result of violent destruction, etc), using theories most saliently from Cynthia Willet’s discussion on humor as democracy.  I conclude that: 1) Integration of performance, rhetoric, action and theory, radical cheerleaders provide new means of gender-being in the world. 2)Troop creates space for non-normative gendered bodies to exist and be validated. 3) Claim spaces that act as prefigurative communities for gender subversion and anti-gender possibility. This is a very sparse summary, so if you’d like a copy of the paper, let me know in the comments!
•    Jolanda-Pieta Van Arnhem, College of Charleston. “Transform Hers: Construction of Female Identity in the Age of Cyberfminism and Community-Source Activism.” This was one of the most unique conference presentations I’ve ever seen, as graphic artist, Van Arnhem, walked us through a digital version of her design books that were created in conjunction with the Transform Her dolls. These dolls play with representations of women in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wave Feminisms, and work to subvert (and yet also reaffirm) traditional notions of the gendered/objectified body.

This was definitely one of the more worth-while conferences I’ve attended. In addition, my beautiful, partially-blue haired, tattooed, nose-pierced roommate was asked twice by folks on the street if they could “pray for her.” She asked me, “Do I really look homeless?” to which I replied, “No, but you probably look pretty gay to them.” Ah, yes. Thanks, dear South, for the hospitality, but good riddance.

4 thoughts on “Conference Report Back: South East Women’s Studies Association Conference 2010-Columbia, South Carolina

  1. Love this! Wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall 🙂 And I’m sorry yall experienced southern “hospitality” (code for policing) in such a blatant way.

  2. I should note as well, that even with all the hospitality/policing, and even though so many prayers went out in my name…I did meet a kick ass 60 yr old woman named Brenda. Brenda gave me a 2 hr run down of all the activism she does–from fucking with the evil water company to making sure men who abused her daughter are adequately punished. never would she actually call herself feminist or an activist. she was just a lady eating yogurt in the hotel lobby. oh, and she prayed for me too! -mel

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