Juliet Watson lectures in adolescent health and welfare at the Centre for Adolescent Health, University of Melbourne. She is currently completing her PhD, which explores young women’s experiences of intimate relationships while homeless. Her research interests include violence against women, young women and structural inequality, and feminism.
Volume 27, November 2012
The 2012 AWGSA conference, hosted by the University of New South Wales commenced with a keynote presentation, ‘Intervention, Academia and the Case of Sexualisation’, by Professor Feona Attwood from Middlesex University (UK). This presentation, which examined the complexities of sexualisation in contemporary society, and the lively discussion that followed this session and continued throughout the conference, clearly demonstrated the intricate and contested landscape which we, as feminists in academia and beyond, must negotiate. This set the scene for the exciting array of feminist and gender scholarship that followed, all of which prompted fresh ways of considering what feminist interventions look like and that will no doubt continue to be deliberated upon beyond the three days of the conference.
Other keynote speakers included Juanita Sherwood, who spoke about the experience of Indigenous interventions at a family and community level in Alice Springs, and Kath Albury, who presented on the development, delivery and evaluation of an ethical sexual conduct programme, ‘Playing by the Rules’ that was produced with the National Rugby League. Both speakers demonstrated different types of feminist interventions making evident the need for a diversity of feminist voices and applications that recognise the significance of structural factors such as race/ethnicity, class, sexuality and dis/ability, as well as gender, for effective engagement and societal transformation.
Parallel sessions were arranged according to a variety of themes with the interdisciplinarity of gender being reflected through papers that intersected with other fields of scholarship such as history, cultural studies, media studies, literary studies, sociology, political science, health, postcolonial studies, indigenous studies, transnational studies and education. This breadth of application accentuates that groundbreaking work is being done by feminists in a range of environments, and is not just isolated to gender studies departments, and also demonstrates how interventions occur across multiple sites through research, education and praxis. I will seek to provide a sample of the many themes that emerged at the conference and apologies in advance for not commenting on the numerous other excellent papers that were presented.
Sexualisation was a theme that continued throughout the conference and was explored in a variety of ways. Specifically, Sue Jackson (in collaboration with Tiina Vares) presented empirical research through video diaries recorded by girls which challenged the idea that ‘tweens’ do not critically engage with consumer and celebrity cultures and in doing so problematised notions of girls as cultural dupes. This was clearly demonstrated by a young participant stating in her video diary that was shown to us, when looking at an idealised image of femininity, ‘Nobody looks like that!’
There were a number of papers that addressed gender inequality and oppression in the workplace. It was interesting to note that while gaps in pay remain the public focus of inequality in the workplace the research that was presented displayed far more complex patterns of domination and marginalisation. Jessica Crofts reported on research conducted through the Life Patterns project which found that young women draw on neoliberal discourses to explain disadvantage in the workplace. Using a different lens, Abigail Powell (with Kate Sang) provided a Bourdieusian analysis, with a focus on symbolic violence, to explain persistent gender inequality in the construction industry. And Dean LaPlonge discussed the ‘Mining for a Safer Masculinity’ project and the innovative approach of applying queer concepts of gender to a hypermasculine industry in order to change how gender is performed.
The topic of female desire was addressed in different ways and was particularly present in examinations of the cultural phenomenon that is the erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey which was the subject of several papers. Among these, Anthea Taylor examined reactions to the novel through communities that are developing through online fan and anti-fan sites while Tanya Serisier looked at reviews of this text and how, among other things, it has been dismissed as mommy porn with the implication that desire and motherhood are somehow incompatible.
A noteworthy feature of this AWGSA conference was the significant presence of papers addressing sexual assault. Suzanne Egan discussed the increasing presence of trauma theory in the counselling practice of sexual assault services in New South Walse and how this is being negotiated by feminist practitioners. The impact of labelling through medical interventions was also addressed in papers by Lisa Hodge and Danielle Hanisch, Sarah Wendt and Nicole Moulding. Emma Jane raised awareness of a newer form of sexual violence that has emerged through the advent of digital media. She named as ‘E-bile’ the sexual assaults that are targeted at women and perpetrated by trolls in cyberspace. There was also a lunchtime session organised for workers in the field by the Centre for Gender-Related Violence at UNSW
The role of women in politics was addressed in two complementary papers addressing recent circumstances in France. Bronwyn Winter argued that ethnic minority female politicians in France are not merely elected representatives but are required to represent and perform race and gender. Correspondingly, Laetitia Vendrenne explored the impact of the rule of parity which has been present in France since 2000 requiring equal political representation at elections and why this has only been semi-successful in increasing women’s political representation. Women’s changing roles in both public and private life were tackled from another angle by Marg Henderson who provided a critique of the recent mini-series, ‘Paper Giants: the Birth of Cleo’ in which she illustrated how feminism is being taken up in popular culture in new ways, in this instance with the addition of humour.
Gender and sport was examined from a variety of positions. Kim Tofoletti applied a transnational feminist lens to the Iranian film ‘Offside’ to consider how representations of female sporting fans and the intersection of race and culture can be challenged. Nicolas Chare looked to the work of Judith Butler to examine how the female sporting body was represented in the media during the 2012 Summer Olympics. And Annette Bromdal explored how the intersex body is located within elite sport and is subject to regulation according to contemporary medical understandings of sex and gender.
The conference marked the occasion for two book launches: Moroccan Idyll by Jeanette Hoorn and Making Postmodern Mothers: Pregnant Embodiment, Baby Bumps and Body Image by Meredith Nash.
Special mention must also be made of the AWGSA PhD prize which offers a wonderful recognition for outstanding work in the field of feminist and gender research and is offered every two years at the AWGSA conference. The recipient of this prize was Anitra Goriss-Hunter with an honourable mention for Amy Shields Dobson.
Finally, our warmest thanks are offered to conference organiser Zora Simic and all those who assisted her, including those who volunteered their time in bringing us a stimulating and thought provoking conference. Kim Toffoletti commented to me that the AWGSA members are ‘her people’ and it is at these conferences that as an academic she feels most at home. I wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments and I am sure many others concur. While AWGSA represents a wonderful networking opportunity it is also a place where new friendships are made and old ones are renewed. We can now look forward to reconvening in Melbourne in 2014.