Dr Camille Nurka is a sessional lecturer and tutor in the Gender Studies program at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include postfeminism in popular culture and, more recently, the female body in public, the gendering of emotion, and female genital cosmetic surgery.
Volume 27, November 2012
The incredible breadth and variety of scholarly study at this year's conference is certainly testament to the strength of commitment that that Women's and Gender Studies in Australia has to interdisciplinarity. The 2012 AWGSA conference featured a stunning array of arresting and provocative papers from a wide range of perspectives, producing collaborative, exciting, challenging and, at times heated, dialogue between those working in fields as diverse as social policy, sociology, philosophy, cultural studies, history, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and the biomedical sciences.
Part of the success of the conference was the theme itself, 'Interventions', which spoke directly to the racialisation of gendered policy efforts on behalf of the federal government aimed at Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. Juanita Sherwood's eloquent appraisal of the failures of the NT Intervention reminded us of the importance of paying attention to local voices when we think about what ‘gender' might mean across different frameworks of knowledge, but especially that its meaning is never racially neutral. As I listened to Sherwood's keynote speech and the questions that followed, I was given cause to reflect upon the weight of colonial whiteness that representations of 'gender' carry—particularly when they articulate with discourses of the ‘family'—in serving to define and position Indigenous people as both dependent (on the patriarchal state) and unable to lay claim to the moral values implicit in the concept of the ‘family', which is a central institution by which individuals become transformed into national citizens. These relations of force are then embedded within the policy language used to support them. As Sherwood suggested, it would be difficult to resuscitate the concept of ‘intervention' for future deployment in the Australian context in any productive sense because it is now so loaded with the ethical and practical failures of state regulation of Indigenous lives.
The interest in majoritarian discursive regimes determining the boundaries of articulable subjectivities, and especially genders, was also dealt with in Feona Attwood's lively analysis of prevalent discourses variously expressed as pornification, raunch culture, or sexualisation. Although, as feminists, we may have sympathy with arguments that critique the sexualisation of culture, Attwood warns us against embracing this new terminology too hastily, without critically working through its homogenising tendencies. The difficulty that this current paradigm poses for theorists and activists doing women's and gender studies is that problematically cannibalises feminist politics. As a powerful new norm against which the commitment to gender is measured, such a discourse actually works against the radical potential of its own position by eradicating feminism from its scene of articulation through the process of ventriloquism. In other words, as a catch-all discourse, ‘sexualisation' comes to represent a host of social ills which may or may not have anything to do with gender equity. One of the things Attwood brought home to me was that sociological interventions which seek to navigate the quotidian responses to these broad discourses are imperative if we want to understand the limitless variation in the ways that everyday people take up, respond to, or challenge the demands of discourse.
It wouldn't be overstating the case to suggest that every paper given at this year's conference creatively engaged with negotiations of discourse in some way. Many of the papers that I attended were aware and respectful of the resources that audiences bring to their interpretations of cultural products. For instance, the panels examining internet interventions had a wealth of audience-generated material upon which to draw due to the interactive nature of the medium. Jane Carey's paper, ""Science—It's a Girl Thing": Or, when a "feminist" intervention goes wrong and YouTube Gets It Right', dovetailed nicely with Attwood's claims about the discursive erasure of feminism from discourses purporting to be feminist. As Carey suggested, the production of panic in relation to the participation of girls in the sciences problematically erases the presence they do have. But it's especially damaging when public policy promotes an interventionist narrative that genders women in science so thoroughly that it only serves to reinforce women's alienation from the discipline. In the panel on EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey with Anthea Taylor and Tanya Serisier, online readers and critics of the books took centre stage as active creators and negotiators of meaning. We were encouraged to think about the fluidity of female sexual fantasy as a working through of reality, as well as the ways in which fan discourses produce a dialogic space for the exploration of female sexuality. Analyses such as these demonstrate women's and gender studies scholars' unwavering commitment to providing a platform from which ordinary women can speak, and also that internet culture has intervened in academic practice in highly profitable and enriching ways.
One of my favourite panels of the conference engaged with its subject in precisely this way by presenting a live dialogue between performers and researchers in burlesque. It came as no surprise that this particular panel was well attended! In this session, performer Imogen Kelly provided an impressive overview of the emergence and diversity of the neo-burlesque movement, and Saphron Hastie took the opportunity to expand upon Kelly's local knowledge through a sociological exploration of performer narratives. Performer and theorist Lola Montgomery used Alphonso Lingis to close the distance between subject and object in order to broaden the feminist interpretation of the burlesque performer's relationship both to her audience and to her embodiment of the sexual persona. It was fascinating to learn of the intra-generational differences within the burlesque community that contrast radical and self-reflexive styles of performance with other imitative and arguably less inventive approaches. To this end, the distinctions that performers themselves had made between burlesque theatre as artistic expression and strip tease as vulgar commercialism carried a classed dimension which was made visible by the differences that demarcated performer assessments of what constituted creative or banal theatre. In this sense, theorists and practitioners of women's and gender studies are well versed in effectively engaging with the multiple axes with which gender intersects.
The many other excellent examples of rigorous scholarship—such as Jacinthe Flore's interrogation of asexuality; Emilie Auton's examination of doctor-patient ethics in sexual health; Marg Henderson's refreshingly optimistic textual analysis, in which, for once, postfeminist revisionism isn't the bad guy; Kate O'Halloran's treatment of queer/feminist conflicts; and Honours student Briony Lipton's impressive debut with her work on generational conflicts within feminism—have convinced me that while gender studies in the academy is still precariously positioned as a marginal discipline, our commitment, passion, and defence of our work as vital to intellectual inquiry is alive and well, and crucial to the continuation of feminist theory and activism in Australia.