Gender, Media and Generation: Writing and ‘sh*tting’ on tables
Last Friday I went to the inaugural workshop of the Gender, Media and Generations Network that I had helped to organise with Tori Cann, a PhD student at UEA and the driving, imaginative force behind the network and last Friday’s highly successful event. In this blog I give my reflections on the day and highlight key themes that emerged from the day and that seem pertinent to the CIRCY network and the field of childhood and youth studies: intergenerational and interdisciplinary dialogues, feminist genealogies, youth celebrity culture and spaces for feminist intervention.
The network: intergenerational dialogues
Tori set up the GMG network primarily for postgraduate students at CHASE, which is a consortium of 7 universities in the South East of England, including Sussex, Goldsmiths, Kent, Essex, The Open University, the Courtauld Institute and the University of East Anglia. Tori envisaged the network as a space for students and researchers to have conversations about gender and the media across generational and interdisciplinary boundaries. As she stated in her introduction to the day, researchers often stick to their generational silos so that youth researchers end up talking mainly to just youth researchers, despite the fact that there is much to be learned from dialogue that crosses these generational boundaries.
Having listened to this call for intergenerational dialogue and having seen it being put into practice at last week’s event I am reporting back to CIRCY as part of my attempt to keep this dialogue going and to keep thinking outside of the ‘childhood and youth’ silo that dominates my own PhD research and the work that we do at CIRCY.
The workshop: 2 keynotes, 2 panels and writing on tables
The GMG workshop was divided into three parts; a morning session focussing on research on media representations of gender and generation, which was kicked off by a keynote talk from Yvonne Tasker; an afternoon session on media audiences and impact which started with a second key note by Beverley Skeggs, and a final workshop session on methods for researching media, gender and generation during which delegates clustered round tables armed with fabric pens to write down their thoughts on the table cloths we laid out for them to scribble on.
Each of the sessions moved across generational and disciplinary boundaries, using a range of media texts and research methods. In the morning session we explored contemporary tween popular culture in Melanie Kennedy’s paper on celebrity and selfhood in tween TV dramas, took a look at the young women’s celebrity memoirs in Hannah Yelin’s paper, before turning to the figure of the spinster in mid-twentieth century cinema, as Claire Mortimer introduced us to the performances of Margaret Rutherhood in her role as the asexual, unruly older woman.
In the afternoon session we started in 1930s Britain with Lies Lackman’s analysis of the Payne Fund Studies on ‘movie made children’ and the historical attempts to understand the impact of cinema on children’s taste, values, behaviours and perhaps what we might now conceive as their ‘transitions’ to adulthood. Then we travelled to 1940s West Germany to see and to hear Irene Noy’s account of the impact of Mary Baumeister’s sound art, before moving to 1990s Britain where Jane Traies’ research on audience responses to the lesbian TV documentary ‘Women like us’ made visible the invisibility of older lesbian women in the media.
A paper: Gender and class crimes
Hannah Yelin’s paper showcased her research on young female celebrity memoirs, using Jade Goody and Paris Hilton’s published accounts to think through ideas about gender, class and the performance of an ‘authentic’ celebrity self. Yelin reflected that both young women were publically trashed for their lack of talent and their trashy appearance – the big full-on look that demands attention and that fails to perform the restraint that is appropriate to middle class femininity. To be inviting is the crime. They ought to attract the gaze without trying.
As Yelin and others have reflected contemporary ‘postfeminist’ culture is white and middle class by default and girls such as Goody and Hilton who cross the borders of white middle class femininity are chastised most harshly. Bev Skeggs pointed out during the subsequent discussion that in the reproduction of middle-classness, reward is firmly attached to education and to labour. Melanie Kennedy’s paper developed these ideas further showing how young female tween stars have to have a career and a high level of education in order to accrue value and demonstrate that they have ‘achieved’ their celebrity selfhood. The ‘problem’ with stars such as Goody and Hilton, as Yelin’s paper showed, is that they proudly have no talent and the reward of wealth, fame and success cannot be attribute to education or to hard work. Therein also lies their crime.
Two keynotes: feminist genealogies
The two keynote speakers both reflected on their own careers as feminist academics, using their reflections to think about feminist genealogies, what we inherit and what we forget. Both Yvonne and Bev looked at the ways in which we emerge as feminist academics from different historical moments – moments that Bev Skeggs argued we have to know and understand in order to survive. For Skeggs, the moment was the 1970s, Althuser and Gramsci, – social theorists that PhD students now could choose to obliviously ignore. With reference to the contemporary moment, Skeggs warned of the need to be cautious about the ways in which performativity gets taken up in feminist theory and suggested that we need to put it, along with governmentality, to one side. The concept of governmentality only works, Skeggs argued, for those who are invested in it. Most people are not the subject of governmentality, she suggested but are challenging it in so many different ways. Skeggs argued that instead that we need to look at the gaps between what people say and what they do and to focus on the ways in which power works through ambivalence and contradiction. The concept of the ’self’ allows a sense of coherence to emerge that cannot account for the ways in which people reveal themselves as unstable subjects. Categories of identity and selfhood may have great political importance but we need to question their analytic purpose. For a feminist inheritance, Skeggs pointed us towards Dorothy E. Smith, and Janice Winship , now here at Sussex, who was writing in the 1980s about the ways in which the call to individualism was also a hail to a coherent self.
The methods workshop: Writing on tables
The discussion throughout the day was rich, but it was during the methods workshop that there was space to delve deeper and to think about what these analyses of gender and generation in the media might mean for our own research and for future feminist academic practices more broadly. Here, delegates picked apart what we mean by ‘generation’ and how it differs from ‘age’ and reflected on the ways in which generations get pitted against each other obscuring the fact that there are multiple generations that acquire recognition, and responsibility in dialogic and relational ways.
The workshop and wine reception: Time to ‘sh*t’ on tables
Delegates also voiced the feelings of inadequacy and doubt that they experience in relation to their research and their position in the ‘academy’ and wondered to what extent these feelings are gendered and classed. Further we considered how we can negotiate and voice these doubts in the current academic climate.
Bev Skeggs reflected, as she and Yvonne had throughout the day, on the changing role of feminists within academic institutions and shared Stuart Hall’s reflections that in the 1980s feminism ‘crapped on the table of cultural studies’. During the workshop Skeggs commented current academic pressures and frameworks demand that we are very product orientated making it much less common for us to write difficult to write, as she suggested feminist academics did several decades ago, to make a political intervention or because we have something to say. The discussion at the workshop and at the wine reception afterwards suggested that this group of feminist researchers and academics had much to say – in particular about how new and old generations of feminist researchers can find ways to move around in academic and public spaces – ‘sh*tting’ on tables.
This got me thinking about the kinds of tables CIRCY might want to go and ‘sh*t’ on and about how we can (and do!) create spaces, both in and outside the ‘academy’ for enabling dialogue across disciplines and generations? The current Space Invaders project – in which we are asking children and young people to make short films that communicate to adults how they use new media technologies– seems like a good place to start. The films will form the basis of a public event in May at the Brighton festival and whilst I’m not expecting this to be the place where we crap on tables, it could be a great opportunity for us to create a space for intergenerational dialogue and public debate.