Foucault's Daughter

DR ELEANOR TAMS: RESEARCHER – WRITER – EDITOR

Eleanor Tams – My name’s origins #1 Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor Tams_ eleanora-aquitaine

#1 Eleanor of Aquitaine

Whenever I ask my parents how I got my name, my Dad always brings up Eleanor of Aquitaine. I doubt that, on the day of my birth, in a newly built hospital amongst the hills of West Yorkshire, Mum and Dad were thinking of that regal figure from the middle ages. But I like how she has found her way into the myths and stories of how I came to be an Eleanor too.

And what an Eleanor she was! According to her BBC Biography,

‘Eleanor was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, she would go onto become queen-consort of France and later queen of England.’

That I have a French queen as a namesake is apt, because my grandma’s grandfather (my great great grandfather) was French himself. My sister is keeping that French heritage in our family, as  our ancestor’s  surname – Regnauld – is her middle name. And maybe my love of France and the French language (not to mention a certain French Philosopher), comes from somewhere deep in my familial background too.

I think, (though of course, I’m not the only authority on it), that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s strength and power is another reason I suit her name, and she mine. When I write and express myself (usually online) as  Quiet Riot Girl , I am no shrinking violet am I?.  However much people employ digital dualism to try and separate me from QRG (or rather to link us but in a ‘split personality’ Jekyll and Hyde way), the fact is we are one and the same. I am proud of the battles I have fought, in my QRG armour, against the worst excesses of feminism in particular. Whether those battles are lost or won, only history will decide.

Returning to history, for that is where Eleanor of Aquitaine resides, I was interested to find that historical novelist Christy English, is a big fan of the medieval queen. Christy describes herself (as all good fans would, if they were honest), as ‘completely obsessed’ with Eleanor of Aquitaine.

In a round table discussion about right royal women from the past, Christy goes on to say:

Eleanor of Aquitaine, my hero, became Queen of England in 1154. I often wonder if anyone other than her father ever had influence over Eleanor. To me, she seems like a woman who lived by her own rules.

As someone who  ‘lives by her own rules’, but who, though he may not always realise it, also respects and admires her old Dad a great deal, I am happy to be an Eleanor after Eleanor of Aquitaine.

A final nugget I have picked up in my initial, brief research into my oldest namesake, I found that Eleanor of Aquitaine was a patron of poets and writers (as well as all that Crusades stuff!). I don’t have many financial resources to offer as patronage to my favourite writers. But as a writer myself and a  supporter and editor of other scribes, I am delighted to learn that ‘Eleanor Tams’ has a historical claim to writing, reading and championing both.

More on Eleanor of Aquitaine here:  http://www.alicemariebeard.com/law/eleanor.htm

http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine2.html

Christy English’s website:

http://www.christyenglish.com/

Written On The Body: New titles from Punctum Books, by Jonathan Kemp and Jean-Paul Martinon

all-fours

Image: All Fours by  Matthew Stradling (1998), Oil On Canvas.

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‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the queen’ – The Smiths  ‘Nowhere Fast’ 

‘To define is to limit’ – Oscar Wilde  A Picture of Dorian Gray (in Kemp, 2013:71)

Punctum Books  , an independent open access publisher, describe their work as ‘spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion’. Two new releases: The Penetrated Male by Jonathan Kemp and The End of Man by Jean-Paul Martinon  certainly live up to the billing. I am already a fan of Kemp’s work. His debut novel London Triptych, about masculinity and (homo)sexuality in three different eras, is well worth a read.

This time Kemp, who also lectures at Birkbeck university, and Martinon, of Goldsmiths, are exploring similar themes in a more academic format. Kemp’s book is adapted from his PhD thesis. Martinon presents some personal philosophical ‘provocations’. Both authors embark on a project that is dear to my heart: challenging the gender binary and the assumptions behind it. They question why ‘man’ is always placed in opposition to ‘woman’, ‘masculine’ against ‘feminine’, ‘active/strong’ as the antithesis of ‘passive/weak’. And both writers attempt to come up with some solutions to the problem of gender, some alternative and radical ways of understanding our bodies in the social (and textual) world.

Underneath The Covers

Me being me, I lingered longer than other readers might, over the cover images of the two books. They both feature beautiful depictions of naked male bodies, so you can understand my pause. The cover of Martinon’s book is dedicated to a wonderful painting by Jacques Louis David: Male  Nude Known As Hector (1778). The model strikes a rather louche pose, one arm behind his head, his body splayed out over a piece of cloth, protecting him from rocks beneath. In the place where his penis might be there sits a fleshy ‘flower’, that reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe‘s work. This painting is arresting now; imagine how it might have been received by a late eighteenth century viewer?! The use of this image hints at what is to come in Martinon’s writing: an examination of masculinity that always reminds us of its interruptions, what some may term the ‘feminine’ or the Other that constantly undermines ‘man’ as a stable identity.

male-nude-known-as-hector-1778

A more contemporary piece of art adorns Kemp’s book, again alluding to the themes within.  Matthew Stradling’s painting All Fours (1998) presents a male nude on his hands and knees, possibly in an act of submissin. In some ways its a strong, muscular, ‘masculine’ body, in others it is exposed and vulnerable. His face is not visible and our eyes (well, mine!) are drawn to his arse as it points upwards towards the top right hand corner of the frame. The picture is spread over both the front and back covers of the book, so the body hangs over the spine as if it’s on a hook.

penetratedmaleAs for what’s underneath the covers, I don’t think I can quite do either book justice here. They are both challenging and full of ideas so that my head was buzzing with thoughts and questions for a while after finishing reading. So rather than attempt a dissatisfying discussion of all the themes and ideas involved, I am going to focus on one concept/aspect of each book.

The beguiling ‘neuter’ in JP Martinon’s The End Of Man

Martinon takes himself and his own body as a key subject of his book. It may seem an unremarkable thing to do, but in academic writing, it is very rare for scholars to put themselves in the picture so overtly. There is often a ‘detached’ distance between them and that which they write about. I think Martinon and Punctum are brave to take such a personal, embodied approach to the study of masculinities, sex and gender. In describing himself waking up after an afternoon doze, Martinon introduces us to his concept of the ‘neuter’ a point at which the human (male in his case) is ‘pre’ sex and gender, a body in space and time.

Martinon writes:

‘It is neuter. This does not mean that it has been neutered. It started neuter. It plays and works neuter and the same can be said when it is eating, drinking, or relieving itself. There is no moment that can be pinpointed as being ‘not-neuter’. Even when it sleeps , it remains neuter. And when it wakes up, like it does now on a lazy summer afternoon, it is still neuter, even with its hard-on. It never ceases to be neuter, even when it is weak or about to die. How is one to understand this odd neuter’? (Martinon 2013: 15).

Later he identifies the body, waking up on ‘a lazy summer’s afternoon’ as his own:

‘Dispersing, I become a sexed body… ‘I’ experience something unprecedented: a caress. This caress is not masturbatory yet.  The hand hasn’t reached the erection; the mind is still else-where.  This caress that is taking place between parts of the body: a bicep by the ribcage or an open hand peacefully resting on a breathing stomach for example’ ( Martinon 2013: 29-30).

I really like this notion of the neuter. Later passages of the book describe how, on getting up and going about his day, he will ‘immediately fall into a cliche’ – of masculinity, of gendered performance (Martinon 2013:47). But his body in its dozy, half-awake state is not yet ‘masculine’, he is not quite a ‘man’ in the way we have come to (mis)understand that loaded word.

Martinon stresses that his neuter is not the neuter that is presented, for example in some (e.g. German) languages as a third option in addition to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. He explains:

‘Going against its well-known etymological origin, this neuter will not be understood here as what is ‘neither this not that’, ‘neither one nor the other’. To refer to this etymological origin assumes the following question: if it is neither this nor that, then ‘what is it?’ The reference therefore assumes the possibility of a third option: a flaw or relief from the proposed alternative: this or that. But as will be shown, this neuter is not a third option or an interpersonal ‘one’ and it cannot be understood as the question that leads to the third’.

I really like this shattering of the gender binary and of its third, either/or/neither option. It reminds me of some of the problems I have with the categories of ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ (in addition to ‘straight’ and ‘gay’, ‘male’ and ‘female’). Whilst they initially seem to be stretching, challenging the gender and sexuality binaries of gay/straight, male/female, they actually could be seen to reinforce them. And also put bisexual and trans people in that unhappy ‘no man’s land’ between the either and the or.   I think Martinon is conceding that this wonderful ‘neuter’ might not be able to survive social life currently, but I see it as a symbol of hope. I hope I am not reading him wrong, but maybe Martinon is saying that if in their ‘natural’, sleepy, human/animal state, bodies can evade, challenge, discard ‘gender’ then maybe one day they might be able to do so whilst actively living (and making culture). A girl can but dream.

The ‘revolutionary anus’ of J Kemp’s The Penetrated Male

‘Hocquenghem argues for anal pleasure not as a specifically homosexual activity, but as a way of undermining all sexual categorisations’ (Kemp 2013: 8)

Jonathan Kemp’s book consists firstly of a literary analysis of some interesting modernist texts. These include Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), Baudelaire’s 19th c essays collected in The Painter of Modern Life, Genet’s Querelle of Brest (1947) and Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). But what makes the book ‘pass’ the PhD test of producing ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ is the way Kemp both applies and critiques ‘Queer Theory’ (e.g. Foucault, Bersani, Deleuze, Barthes). In doing so he presents ‘the penetrated male’ body in representation as a radical way of dismantling the well-worn assumption that a ‘penetrated’ male body is necessarily ‘feminine’. Here I am going to look briefly at Kemp’s commentary on Joyce’s Ulysses. Because, as Kemp says, ‘if Genet buckles that metaphor [of the penetrated man as 'feminine'], Joyce will be seen to tear it to pieces’ (Kemp 2013: 164).

ulysses_430

Kemp writes:

‘Ulysses is a prime example of how the body, when it emerges within discourse, often does so in explicitly or scatalogical ways. It is as if these two functions were, by virtue of their supposedly secretive or private nature, outside of the public law of language; as if out of sight is out of mind held true for the body. Or, as if the tabooing of certain words not only excised them from so-called decent or proper language, but excised the very body parts  and functions to which they refer. To refer to them thus implies discursive impropriety or indecency’.

Ulysses was published in the early 20th century to the horror of many. I am reminded here of Anthony Burgess’s marvellous book of Joyce appreciation/criticsm: Here Comes Everybody (1965). Burgess describes how Ulysses was first thought of as a ‘dirty’ book. Although it is now considered a literary ‘classic’, Kemp’s observations about certain words, topics and expressions being ‘taboo’ is still relevant in 21st century, ‘sex obsessed’ culture. Nowadays some heterosexual people are enjoying anal pleasure, for example. But is this kept ‘secret’ on an individual level? In my article entitled  We need to talk about bumming, I described feeling unable to discuss my own adventures in (hetero) anal with my straight friends. And, whilst gay ‘liberation’ has moved on in leaps and bounds since Joyce’s time, it can be argued that contemporary ‘gay’ culture, which validates ‘respectability’ via e.g. marriage and parenting, reinforces some sexual taboos and puts actual (homo)sex back in the shadows.

Maybe this is partly why I found Kemp’s unearthing of Joyce’s ‘dirt’ so refreshing. He says:’Joyce does not present his characters at stool, or micturating, masturbating or copulating, simply in order to shock, but to present life more fully as it is lived. As Joyce himself remarked, ‘if Ulysses isn’t fit to read, life isn’t fit to live’ (cited in Ellman, 1982:537)’. (Kemp 2013: 171)So I think Kemp takes the view that one of the ‘radical’ aspects of Joyce’s Ulysses in the context of sex and the body, is that it presents humanity in all its glory, and does not sanitise sex or elevate it from other bodily functions. This is in part what made the book so unpalatable when it was first released, even for literary types.‘The disturbing quality of what HG Wells called Joyce’s ‘cloacal obsession’ is indicated by most critics’ dismissal or avoidance of it, as if to talk about shit were tantamount to playing with it, as if there were no space, no difference at all, between words and things. Carl Jung called Ulysses the ‘backside of art’ (cited in Heath 1984) while Ezra Pound urged Joyce to remove most of the scatological references. John Gross avoids the subject altogether, claiming ‘at this hour in the day there is nothing new to be said on such a topic’ (Kemp 2013: 172)

I love this notion of the way people can treat words as if they were the thing they represented. It goes quite a long way to explain why we have all got so screwed up by ‘gender’. Words such as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘male’, ‘female’ have been somehow taken and treated as accurate, whole ‘signifiers’ of whole populations of hugely complex and diverse human beings (and indeed animals). No wonder we’re in such a mess!

Kemp discusses elegantly and clearly why Joyce’s Ulysses can be seen as a ‘way out’ of this bind of gender, and gendered language. In refusing to automatically ascribe ‘femininity’ to the penetrated male body (specifically Bloom’s body in the book), Joyce uses it as a symbol of something different, something new, a departure from the binary. Kemp identifies this ‘departure’ as being possible in and expressing ‘Modernism’. He says:

‘Joyce’s modernism allows for a certain queering of masculinity that doesn’t try to avoid or erase the body’s penetrability; but rather uses it to critique gender dimorphism in interesting ways’ (Kemp 2013: 172).

This ‘modernism’ does of course evolve and morph into ‘postmodernism’ and many of Kemp’s ideas, that emerged from reading Ulysses, are still relevant today in the fully fledged postmodern era. You will have to read Kemp’s book (and ideally Ulysses itself – I confess I only managed up to about page 40 when I tried) to find out more about those ways in which Joyce ‘critiques gender dimorphism’!

The Limits Of Queer Theory (and of this review)

Both Martinon and Kemp refer to and also critique Queer Theory in their new publications. Kemp is critical of how writers such as Bersani and Lacan, even whilst wanting to challenge the gender binary, revert to presenting penetrated (and sometimes even homosexual) men as inherently and unavoidably ‘feminine’ ( Kemp 2013: 1-14). Martinon is concerned about how Queer Theory sometimes forgets itself and its own aims of diffusing and dispersing ‘theory’ and gender, and falls back on limiting definitions. He puts it succinctly in a footnote:

‘Queer Theory ossifies us because it rarely acknowledges that the term ‘queer’ cannot be defined in advance. Queer should always be a term that resists hypostatization and reification into a proper normind status. The only way queer theory can retain its credibility as a tool for thought, is if it always begins with this resistance against definition’. (Martinon 2013: 70)

Some of my own criticisms of Queer Theory are explored in my 2011 novella, Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls. I think I would need more space and time to revisit my position in the light of Kemp’s and Martinon’s observations. I would also be interested to look at my favourite ‘hobby horse’ in the field of masculinities: metrosexuality, in relation to these two Punctum publications.

But I think I have gone on long enough for now, and really the main point I want to make is how much I enjoyed reading these exciting and challenging additions to existing writing on that slippery and fascinating subject of masculinity. I am a woman, of sorts, and my interest in masculinities is of course partly to do with my love of men (including their bodies). But also, as a woman of sorts, I have thought and learned a lot about myself as well as men through reading on this subject. I am proud to add Kemp’s and Martinon’s books to my shelves and my thinking.

To finish I will leave you with an extract from a poem by Don Paterson, which sprung to mind in my Punctum reading. The poem is, of course, called ‘Buggery':

and though I know it’s over with
and she is miles from me
I stay a while to mine the earth
for what was lost at sea

as if the faces of the drowned
might turn up in the harrow:
hold me when I hold you down
and plough the lonely furrow.

You can buy both titles (including in ebook format) direct from Punctum books:

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All Fours by  Matthew Stradling (1998) featured here with permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Abstract: Are you looking at me? The tumblr generation’s ‘metrosexual gaze’

 

 Taxi Driver  was released in 1976, two years after ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema, Laura Mulvey’s seminal paper was published (Mulvey 1974). The gaze, in particular the ‘male gaze’ has been scrutinised from many angles over the three decades since (Bristow, 1993; Augsburg and Gutfreud 2011, Evans  and Gamman 1995). And a ‘female gaze’ has been identified and championed by some, critiqued by others (Tams 2012).

The iconic scene in Scorsese’s film, where Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle stares at himself in the mirror/the camera, pointing a gun in his combat gear and asking nobody in particular ‘you talkin’ to me?’ is the starting point for this paper. Because I argue here that in 21st century culture, which is dominated by social media platforms such as tumblr, youtube and facebook, rather than looking at and ‘objectifying’ women, young men are far more interested in examining and displaying their own and each other’s bodies. The ‘tumblr’ generation (Tams 2012) (including people of all gender identities) seems intent on looking, in both figurative and real mirrors, at itself. And it invariably likes what it sees. This paper uses masculinity in social media as a focal point in this context, because it is the ‘man as object’ of the gaze, especially the gazes of heterosexually-identified men, that is not acknowledged adequately in the literature or in common parlance (Tams 2011). Thus looking at Taxi Driver using the ‘metrosexual gaze’ we see a much more ‘passive’ and self-admiring Travis than before, demanding to know, not if we’re talking to him, but if we’re looking at him. This scene marks the early stages of a revolution in masculinity and mediated gender identities as a whole.

This is an abstract for a conference paper I will be giving in the Spring.

Elly Tams ‘Gets A Life’

Elly Tams

‘Get a life’ is a common put-down, especially online. It is one I have received on a number of occasions. The suggestion is that you are a waster, a loser, and probably sat alone in a darkened room with only the internet for company. I have never liked the connotations of the phrase, or the way it is used maliciously. So I was struck by the tweet above, which succinctly sums up all my misgivings about the ‘get a life’ insult.

One of the problems with ‘get a life’ is it seems to reinforce the notion of digital dualism. As Nathan Jurgenson and colleagues have explained, ‘digital dualism’ is the way in which many people (maybe all of us at some point or other) present ‘online’ existence as a separate sphere from ‘RL’ (real life). So when people say ‘get a life’ they can be making out that those in need of getting a life, are spending too long online, and don’t have much else going on in their lives.  ‘Get a life’ can be part of the set of narratives which constructs trolls, those ugly, sad creatures who have no friends and who get their kicks from ‘abusing’ people on the internet. There is sometimes an inference in people’s comments that ‘trolls’ don’t actually have ‘lives’ at all, like ‘normal’ people do. So you can’t hurt a troll’s feelings, because they don’t have any. And you can’t make a troll’s life difficult or unpleasant by what you say and do to them, because they don’t have one. They need to ‘get a life’ before they can be treated like full human beings.

This kind of terminology bothers me because it makes life, and ‘getting’ life fit very narrow confines. And it seems to give people the opportunity to define what someone else’s life is, and what its value is. But life is valuable for us all. I also object to how ‘Get a life’ demonises people who at some point in their life or other, rely on online connections for most or many of their social interactions. Is that such a bad thing? In the 21st century ‘social media age’? I think not.

I’m particularly aware of the ‘get a life’ brickbat at the moment. I have recently done what we all have to do at certain points in our lives, and I have got my proverbial shit together. After being self-employed for a long time (and for some periods unemployed)  I have now got a ‘proper job’ working as a researcher for a UK university. I also have had a book review published on the blog of an academic journal, Gender and Education (www dot genderandeducation dot com).

And I’ve been  dealing with issues relating to my Mum’s severe degenerative multiple sclerosis, that means she now lives in residential care. Recently which has boosted me a lot, I’ve got back in touch with a few very special longstanding friends, and made some equally special new ones.

But do all these things really mean I have ‘got a life’? Do they secure me as a ‘normal’, functioning, happy member of society?

I don’t see it like that. One reason is I have always struggled somewhat with the role work plays in my life. Without going into too much detail, I think I can sum up a lot of my ambivalence about career and paid work with the Philip Larkin poem, Toads:

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

In other words, ‘work’ can take over and become the bane of our lives, rather than something that makes us feel good about ourselves and our social status. And even when we get a lot out of work, sometimes the way it adds to or takes away from that social status is still problematic. You know that awful question at parties and social gatherings: ‘What do you do?’ and no answer seems good enough.

Also when I am working, especially full time (which this new job is), I sometimes resent not being able to do all the things I enjoy when I have enough spare time to do them! It is no coincidence that I wrote and published my novella last year, when I didn’t have much Work with a capital W on.

However, 42 years into my so called life, though I may not have discovered the  answer to life, the universe and everything, I think I am able to get work and other aspects of life into perspective. One other thing I have done this year that I consider a very valuable part of  my personal development is taking up tai chi. The martial art is backed up by thousands of years of philosophy, that indicates how life’s meaning and health is not to be found in ambitious pursuit of work and career, but in a much more holistic and ‘mindful’ discipline of mind, body and soul.

Again I turn to someone else who sums this sentiment up far better than I could. As the Flaming Lips put it, ‘all we have is now’.

I will remember that mantra when I am on holiday for two weeks, starting in the next few days. And  I will try and remember it when I am back and looking for ways to get through the working week without getting too strung out.

And, for those of you who are wondering if my ‘getting a life’ involves continuing my internet adventures, of course it does. But even online I will strive to remember that the moment is everything. I’m being here now.

Songs Of Innocence and Experience – Review of Gender and Education Journal

Songs Of Innocence And Experience: Review of Gender and Education Journal, Special Edition On ‘Sexualisation Debates’

Gender and education, Volume 4 No.3 May 2012 Special Issue: Making Sense of the Sexualisation Debates: Schools and Beyond. Guest editors: E Renold, M.J. Kehily and D. Epstein

The Bailey Report, subtitled ‘Letting Children Be Children’ was published over a year ago. This UK Government-commissioned ‘review’ of the ‘sexualisation’ of children through consumer culture, media, music and fashion received a mixed reception from parents, teachers, sex educators and academics at the time. The very concept of ‘sexualisation’ which implies an unwanted, premature ‘sexuality’ imposed upon children by various nefarious adult groups did not sit easy with me when I first heard about it. So I was very interested to see a whole edition of Gender and Education journal dedicated to the subject, sometime after the ‘controversy’ over the Bailey Report had died down.

Fragments, Findings, Feelings

The subject of ‘sexualisation’ is made complex, charged  and dense, by the fact it relates to sex and sexuality. Thankfully the editors at Gender and Education do not try to produce a comprehensive analysis of the subject. They wisely present their collection as a set of ‘fragments’ of research findings, discussion and analysis, about a very fragmented and wide-ranging topic.

The context and history of ‘sexual cultures’ is neatly introduced in the editors’ introduction (p249-254) with lines from the 1974 Philip Larkin poem Annus Mirabilis:

‘Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty three

(which was rather late for me)-

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.’

Throughout the journal edition there is a careful consideration of tensions  between sexual ‘permissiveness’, as Larkin hints at by alluding to the contraceptive pill being made widely available in the 1960s, and sexual ‘conservatism’ which is illustrated in the poem by the reference to the banning of the novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These tensions are explored in relation to policy, culture, consumerism, and the experiences of young people and children themselves. This edition of GEA provides something which was so blatantly missing from the initial reactions to the Bailey Report – interviews, discussions with and participant observation of children and teenagers in schools and social settings. MJ Kehily (p255-268) and J Ringrose and E Renold (p333-343) ‘fill in the gaps’ in discussions of sexualisation with rich and rigorous data and analysis.

In addition to articles based on empirical research in schools and other settings, and analyses of policy and culture, the editors include some more personal, reflexive pieces by researchers in the field of education, sex and gender. Of these I particularly enjoyed reading ‘What I heard about sexualisation: or conversations with my inner Barbie’ by Sara Bragg (p311-316). The author deftly intertwines an account of her research observing girls who attend ‘pampering parties’ at a hair salon, with her responses to sexualisation discussions in the media and academia, and her moving account of the ‘body image’ crisis she has had since suffering from a brain tumour that left her face sunken and slipped out of shape. Bragg’s writing reminded me that even though feminists often say ‘the personal is political’ it is still relatively rare for academic writers, even feminist ones, to reveal really personal and emotionally challenging experiences and the effects they have on their thinking. As an (important from my point of view) aside, I was also delighted to find this collection of essays very readable. Having been out of academia for a few years now, my tolerance for turgid academic prose is low. This journal edition kept me interested, and turning the pages!

Innocence Spoiled or Lolitas At Large?

One of the key tensions in the issue of ‘sexualisation’, particularly of girls, is between discourses of ‘innocent childhood’ and the idea that (girl) children can actively seek out sexual attention. This tension can turn into a contradiction. As the editors put it:

‘ girls’ heterosexual agency is simultaneously acknowledged, where girls’ sexual knowing, consuming, preforming and servicing is used as evidence of the [sexualisation] phenomenon, and denied, in the production of a passive girl subject whose innocence and experience of being sexual is understood as prematurely induced’.

Making reference to the work of Valerie Walkerdine, MJ Kehily er, teases out some of this contradictory discourse. She writes that ‘Lolita’, the precocious young girl character in Nabokov’s novel is still a pertinent symbol of the conflict between perceptions of girls as sexually knowing and as innocent victims of a predatory adult sexuality. Lolita reminds us of the allure girls possess, particularly for older men. As Kehily observes, the ‘Daddy Girl’ dynamic can be understood from a Freudian perspective as ‘fetishistic, a desire that prompts and stands in for the act of intercourse.’ But also from a Foucauldian point of view, with ‘the regulation of sexuality as an adult domain bound by rules of age and consent creates the conditions for incitement and transgression, ways of talking and acting that proliferate and enlarge  the very things they seek to deny. Foucault considers the sexuality of children to be central to educational initiatives, having an impact upon pedagogic practice, the organisation of the student population, and the architecture of school buildings’. Kehily notes that ‘both theorists share a conceptualisation of childhood sexuality as present, active, and consequential in the temporal biography of young lives’ (p262-3).

I agree, but I think all the writers in this journal edition might have paid a little more attention to the ‘Daddy of psychoanalysis’ and his insights into childhood sexuality. Freud  argues that ‘infantile sexuality’ expresses itself very early in a child’s life, when it is about two or three years old. The essays in this collection only consider girls as ‘sexual beings’ from school age.  And one of the fascinating but also very difficult to explore aspects of Freudian analyses of childhood, is that the period Freud identifies as so crucial to a child’s sexual development, is one when children’s language and social functions are underdevolped.

It is also worth noting that  the authors in this journal edition are rightly somewhat critical of the notion, promoted by groups such as Mumsnet and their ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign, and historically, by the ‘purity movement’ (p 269-284) that parents should limit the effects of ‘sexualisation’ on their children by controlling strictly what they watch, buy and think about. However they don’t clearly acknowledge Freud’s observation that actually it is parents who create and develop ‘childhood sexuality’ in the very first place, via the Oedipal Complex (or at least some form of parent/child psychodrama). My readings of Freud have led me to be pretty sure that the ‘family romance’, though, as Larkin has pointed out, it is likely to ‘fuck you up’, is the only route to ‘sexualisation’ in its most basic, and base terms.

Boys In The Shadows

In their introduction the editors tell us: ‘[Cindi] katz writes about the hegemonic figuration of the child ‘at risk’, a luminous discourse in the sexualisation debates that lights up the girl child, but leaves the boy child in the shadows’ (p251). I would have liked this edition of GAE to have ‘illuminated’ boys and their experiences and accounts more than it did, to have taken boys out of the ‘shadows’ that sexualisation debates put them in.

Two linked areas of study covered in this collection that would have benefitted from a much more careful consideration of where boys stand in the ‘discourse’, are ‘objectification’ and ‘sexual violence’. A dominant feminist ‘line’on objectification is that women are the ‘objects’ of a predatory, ‘male’ gaze. This gaze relates to sexual violence, many feminists argue, because the culture in which men are encouraged to see women as ‘sex objects’ justifies and reinforces attitudes and behaviours including sexual harassment and sexual violence by men against women. Though some of the authors here do criticise this feminist ‘line’, and overall the message from this edition of GEA is ‘it’s complicated’, they don’t go far enough for me!

My research and writing on metrosexual masculinity has shown that in contemporary visual culture, (young fit) men are ‘objectified’ just as much as women. As the journal editors write, we now live in ‘a heightened commercial climate in which all age groups are assessed in market terms as ‘segments’ presenting specific retail opportunities’. And the retail opportunities for men, whether it be in sports equipment, ‘grooming’ products and cosmetics, fashion or food, are huge as previously masculinity was an ‘untapped market’ in consumer capitalism. And so, if we acknowledge the objectification of men, we have to question our views about the predatory ‘male gaze’. The ‘gaze’ I have examined is not male or female, but ‘omnisexual’.

One of the ways I think boys and girls are ‘sexualised’differently by outside, adult forces is that even with the contradictory messages about girls’ ‘innocence’ versus ‘sexual knowingness’ there is a sense that girls are children who then become more sexually sophisticated teenagers and adults. The lack of discussion of sexualisation and its effects on boys, coupled with feminist concerns about men’s violence against women (e.g.M Garner p325-331), constructs boys as ‘little men’. It is as if their sexuality arrives fully formed and problematic. This idea is illustrated by the recent (and controversial) UK radfem conference 2012. There, girls and women of any age were allowed to attend but boys over the age of eleven were banned. So in that particular environment boys were treated as ‘men’ with all the baggage and suspicion that entails.

One Direction – teenage metrosexual sex symbols?

The piece in the journal by Jessica Ringrose and Emma Renold (p333-343) produces questions for me about how boys are portrayed in gender and education research. They interviewed and hosted discussions with groups of girls at a secondary school, and one of the points of discussion was the recent Slutwalks. This data is fascinating, but they did not pay so much attention to boys. The authors seemed a little impatient with the school where they conducted the research, who insisted on setting up a boys’ discussion group alongside the girls’ one they were studying. They presented this as a ‘what about the boys?’ discourse that does not acknowledge particular discrimination and sexism that girls face, and treats boys as equally deserving of attention with regards to gender issues. In ‘grown up’ feminism this is translated into the dismissive trope: whatabouttehmenz? Anyone asking questions about issues men face in gender cultures get that retort which often serves to shut them up. The two authors conclude their article saying:

‘we have to continue challenging the re-victimisation and re-shaming of young sexual girlhood and the ways in which the girl body returns again and again as the focal point of a patriarchal, moralising gaze and frequently as the only site of intervention for change. Furthermore, we argue this dynamic ends up making female sexual desires an invisible, discursive silence in school and beyond’.

I disagree with their conclusion. And I think feminist firebrand Camille Paglia would too. She was critical of the ‘victim feminism’ that underpinned the SlutWalks. Other women bloggers, myself included have also examined the SlutWalks from a critical angle and asked Does Slutwalk Shame Men? In the terms of the research conducted in schools, I’d then ask does Slutwalk shame boys? For boys tend not to have entered into the active sexual arena yet, but their reputation, as potential harassers and rapists, seems to go before them.

The articles in the journal could also be seen to be coming from quite a ‘heteronormative’ position, where boys and girls are two distinct groups, and their ‘sexuality’ is in relation to each other. This hides both trans and gender queer identities and same-sex sexuality. Although the editors say homosexuality is now ‘mainstream’ and accepted, I would suggest that for boys especially there are still situations in which masculinity is ‘tested’ using heteronormative ‘rules’.

A Thought-Provoking Starting Point

Overall I found this special edition of Gender and Education well-written, complex and thought-provoking. My criticisms of some of the perspectives and conclusions of the authors are quite strong ones. But I think their research and writing is robust enough to take my challenges. I hope this set of articles and think pieces forms a starting point for more in-depth and diverse debates about ‘sexualisation’ of children and the policy, media and social contexts in which it is produced. And I hope other researchers follow the example of these academics in placing children and their voices at the centre of the conversation.

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