Melissa Welshans (November 2014)

Melissa is a PhD Candidate in English at Syracuse University and is currently working on her dissertation The Many Types of Marriage: Gender, Marriage and Biblical Typology in Early Modern England. Melissa’s research is concerned with issues of gender and sexuality in early modern England, especially as it pertains to the institution of marriage. In her free time Melissa practices her nail art skills and snuggles with her husband and their two cats.

To read read and comment on her posts individually, use the links below:

Unruly Instruction: Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Unruly Woman (14 Nov 2014)
Leave your Message, not your Trash (21 November 2014)
Get your Hands off my Boobs: Mansplaining and (Gay) Male Privilege (1 Dec 2014)

 


Unruly Instruction: Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Unruly Woman (14 Nov 2014)

Dunham1

Hello world! It is a pleasure to be the blogger this month for Metathesis and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on a few different topics with our readers. Don’t forget—if you like this blog YOU, TOO could be a contributor. Check out our CFP here

For my first post I thought I would share a (very) condensed version of a paper I presented at Syracuse’s annual Future Professoriate Program Conference in Spring 2013. Last year, a colleague of mine (and, full disclosure, editor of this blog) organized a panel on “embodied pedagogy” and invited me and a fellow colleague to participate. I had never deeply considered the term “embodied pedagogy” before, yet a recent course evaluation had me questioning my physical presence in my classroom and its relationship to my pedagogical strategies. On an evaluation for my British Literature survey course, a student responded to a prompt to “comment on the quality of instruction in this course” with this remark: “She reminds me of Lena Dunham if she were a professor (This is a huge compliment).”

What was I to make of this?

Given my own research interests, I often discuss topics related to feminism and gender within my courses, possibly linking me with the self-proclaimed feminist Dunham.(For one of many examples of her discussing her feminism, you can read excerpts of her interview with NPR’s Terry Gross.) Yet I could not shake the feeling that, along with the contents of my course, my very body was enabling this comparison.

For in addition to her feminism, Dunham is also often discussed in terms of her physical appearance. A brief scandal erupted when New York Times writer Ruth La Ferla commented on Dunham’s “pulchritude” (a word associated with fatness) in relation to Dunham’s appearance at the 2013 Emmy awards, and it is perhaps no surprise that the artist’s rendition of this very photo which recently appeared above a critical essay of Dunham seems to exaggerate, among other features, her weight:

Horrible

 

Dunham herself has suggested that one of the most positive aspects of her show Girls is its refusal to hide the bodies of “women who are not a size 0” or restrict them to weight-loss driven plotlines . Dunham’s feminism is linked, for many critics, reviewers, and fans, directly to her body and her refusal to cover it up.

Like Dunham, I am frank about my feminism. And, like Dunham, I occupy a body that does not easily fit into the Western ideal of beauty. What caused my student to compare me to Dunham, I believe, is best described by the scholar Kathleen Rowe in her book The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (1995)

Taking Roseanne Barr (among others) as a primary example, Rowe argues that women who refuse to bend to the will of patriarchy are ‘unruly.’ Specifically for Rowe, an unruly woman is characterized by her inability or unwillingness “to confine herself to her proper place.” She is often “excessive or fat, suggesting her unwillingness or inability to control her physical appetites,” speaks in an excessive “quantity, content or tone” and “makes jokes, or laughs herself.”  Her behavior might even be “associated with looseness and occasionally whorishness” and she is often perceived as a woman on the margins of polite society. I would argue that Lena Dunham, like the subjects of Rowe’s book, challenges patriarchal authority through her unruly behavior. Indeed, the recent outrage over some of her admissions regarding previous sexual experiences in her memoir Not that Kind of Girl underscore my point.

Now what does this all have to do with “embodied pedagogy?” From the tone of my voice and gesticulations to my dress size, my body’s unwillingness to be bound by patriarchal norms of femininity underscores the feminist commitments of my pedagogy. My insistence on voicing feminist challenges to patriarchy, particularly in a potentially unlikely class like a British Literature Survey implicitly codes my pedagogy as unruly for it refuses to limit conversations about gender to sanctioned academic spaces such as our Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Coupled with my occupation of a fat body, I signal as excessive and uncontained. By being a loud, large, female graduate TA who espouses explicit feminist concerns, I embody my feminist pedagogy. Thanks to Kathleen Rowe, I have a lens through which I might understand this at first perplexing, but now flattering, student response.

 


 

Leave your Message, not your Trash (21 November 2014)

Welshans 21.cover

On a frigid yet sunny day in January 2014, I happened to find myself a couple of blocks away from the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. I was in the capitol visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library for some research, and had arrived early in the morning for a long day of archival exploration (or, let’s face it, geeking out over old books). As the day went on and I occasionally stepped out for food or sunlight, I slowly realized what else was happening that day on the Hill. It was a special year for the March—the 40th anniversary—and thousands had managed to show up despite the 10-degree weather and recent city-stalling snowstorm. I myself am avidly pro-choice (and have been since I read The Cider House Rules in high school) so I will admit I was less than pleased to find myself among the throng of pro-life advocates. But I tried not to begrudge them their right to free speech, and instead went about my day just hoping that by the time I exited the archive for my evening commute, the hullabaloo would be over.

When I finally left the Folger, the march had finished and individuals were making their way out of DC. Yet what remained in their wake was the trash. Heaped in garbage bins up and down the streets were mounds of signs, flyers, stickers and other protest paraphernalia from that day’s rally.  I first encountered the one below on the corner of 2nd and C street, SE, a block away from Independence Avenue. As I continued making my way to the Capitol South Metro stop, I came upon a large, discarded mass of signs apparently left by protestors afraid or unwilling to take them into the Metro station. There, gleaming under the setting winter sun, they lay discarded. As I made my decent down the escalator, I could see signs and flyers littered across the tiled floor, soaked in snow and mud from the previous day’s snowstorm; an overall-clad metro employee worked diligently to pick up the signs and place them in an already overflowing trash can.

Welshans 21.1

I am positive that the amount of trash left by this protest is not unique.  In fact, the conservative internet was abuzz with critiques of similar trash heaps left behind by climate protesters in New York City in September. Those critiques highlight the apparent hypocrisy of a protest which championed environmental stewardship, yet left masses of trash in its wake.  Upon seeing the litter left by those attending the March for Life, I was taken aback by a similar sense of hypocrisy. A mere two weeks before the protest, Pope Francis had delivered his New Year’s Address to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps which included, among other things, a critique of “the throwaway culture.” This culture, wherein individuals frequently throw away “food and despensible objects” with impunity, upholds the value system that encourages women to discard unborn fetuses like food waste, the Pope claimed.

In this same address, the Pope also noted that “the greedy exploitation of environmental resources” is also a “threat to peace,” and that Catholics are called to pursue “policies respectful of this earth which is our common home.” In his New Year’s address Pope Francis called for an end to a culture of excessive trash and an increase in environmental activism. On that January day, I could not help but read the streets around me, littered with the snow-soaked signage of that day’s protest, as symbolic of the contradiction between the protestors’ message and its aftermath. If the individuals present were protesting the “throwaway culture” that can lead to abortions, they were doing so in a way that no doubt provided local landfills with an influx of trash.

The current protestors in Hong Kong have been praised, among other things, for their demonstration of environmental stewardship. As one protestor told the New York Times, “In this protest, we want to show our citizenship and our will to have a democratic government. Although this cleanup is a small thing, it is something that shows the values that all Hong Kong citizens should have.” For demonstrators in Hong Kong, their commitment to reducing conspicuous waste underscores their activist commitments; they see the connection between environmental rights and human rights.

Whatever the protest, it is worth considering the message conveyed by protest paraphernalia both during the active protests and after. The trash left by those marching against global warming in effect fueled the right’s criticism of the movement. Similarly, I could not take seriously a march that championed the sacredness of life, yet seemed to care so little for the planet on which future lives will live—or the lives of those who would spend over-time hours restoring the city to its pre-march condition.  Yes, posters and signs are an effective means of communicating a message at a particular moment in time. But it behooves us to consider where those signs end up when we are done.

 


Get your Hands off my Boobs: Mansplaining and (Gay) Male Privilege (1 Dec 2014)

ert6o

In my previous blog posts, I sought to demonstrate the way in which the critical thinking skills I have developed from the Humanities aid me in understanding the world in which I live. From my students’ teaching evaluations to the trash I see on the street, our daily experiences are open to interpretation through critical reflection. My final post offers a similar reflection on a personal experience that demanded critical consideration.

While at the birthday party of a good friend some months back, I was introduced to the new love-interest of a high school classmate. He was a young, charming, gay man, and a pleasure to talk to. Yet, we shared one exchange that serves as the focus of this post.

A couple hours and a few drinks into the party, this man comes closer to me, and in an almost-whisper asks, “can I touch them?”

Yes, THEM. The girls. The twins. Jugs. Boobs. Breasts. Whatever you call them, this stranger had asked if he could take a hold of mine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was taken aback. But, because this man was gay, I suspected his question was one of curiosity and not sexual desire, and, because of this (and maybe the drinks), I said ok. After a light fondle (the type you might get from an airport security guard—yes, that happens), this man says to me, “you are not wearing the right bra.”

“Excuse me?” I replied, honestly stunned. Due to their size and my personality, my boobs have always been a source of conversation among family and friends. Additionally, my many years as a Lane Bryant employee eradicated any sense of taboo that might have once surrounded the conversation of mine or anyone else’s busts. I am comfortable with conversations ranging from good-natured teasing, commiseration, awe, and the useful sharing of information. But no one (and specifically no man) had EVER, unsolicited, criticized how I was wearing my breasts.

“You are clearly not in the right bra,” he continued.

“Ok,” I said, growing agitated. Not wanting to cause tension at a friend’s birthday party, I resisted the urge to smack his hand away and yell, “Who do you think you are!?” Instead, I took a different approach. I began to calmly explain to this man that I had actually been a bra fitter for a number of years at Lane Bryant. “Well, have you ever been professionally measured?” Yes, I responded, and I have measured others repeatedly (and occasionally still do with the bra fitting tape I might have from my former job).

“Well, I help my mom with her bras all the time, and can definitely tell you need a different one. They should be up here” he said, adjusting my straps to elevate my chest. I attempted to explain to him that because of my bra size, it is difficult to find affordable options and often I am left with a less successful bra for budgetary reasons. When I told him my bust size (again, something I often share without shame to friends and family) he replied, “You can’t be that size! My mom is only a [insert size], and you look the same!” To this man, regardless of what I had to say, I knew little about my own breasts or how to wear them.

I did a little lift and tuck of the girls which appeased him, and we were able to move on to a different topic. But for the rest of the night, I could not shake the feeling that this conversation was, as many academics are wont to say, “problematic.”

As I mention above, my chest is not a topic I often shy from, but it is an intimate one that is usually only undertaken with family and friends—not the recently-met boyfriends of family and friends. While this individual apparently wanted to be helpful, his delivery repeatedly undermined my own assertions about my body and its presentation, suggesting that his experience with his mother was more valid than my years of both professional and personal experience buying and selling bras.

My source of agitation, I believe, is best articulated through the term “mansplain.” To clarify for those unfamiliar, mansplaining is when a man “explain(s) something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded condescending or patronizing.” This portmanteau gained popular usage after Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times outlining instances where “Men Who Explain Things” went to great lengths to incorrectly explain information to her upon which she had written well-received books. According to Solnit, some men seem to assume they hold more knowledge than women because of (likely unconscious) gender biases. Mansplaining underscores for women that their knowledge of the world is suspect for no other reason than because they are women.

Perhaps complicating my personal experience was the fact that my mansplainer was gay. Actress Rose McGowan recently caused a stir when she asserted during a podcast interview that “gay men are as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so.” While I would never argue that gay men hold the same cultural privileges as straight men (they definitely don’t), my exchange with this particular individual demonstrated to me that gay men can indeed be guilty of wielding male privilege to the disadvantage of their female counterparts. Tim Murphy’s thoughtful piece for New York Magazine in response to McGowan’s comments considers the complicated relationship that gay men often have with women, whether through their drag performances or friendships. And, while rightly critiquing McGowan’s assertion for its homogenizing effect and lack of recognition for the supportive relationships often shared between gay men and straight women, he also observed that “Gay men are men…And as men, we carry male privilege. If we’re white and well-educated, we carry a lot of privilege.” Because the subject of my story was a man, he assumed my knowledge to be less than his own. And because this man was gay, he assumed an understanding of and access to my body that had not been established. Being gay and being male does not a boob expert make. Until you’ve worked for years navigating the absolutely bizarre brazier world both personally and professionally, get your hands off my breasts.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s