On Monday 13th November the network was delighted to welcome University of Reading PhD candidate and sessional lecturer Anna Varadi from the Department of Film, Theatre and Television to present her research on the Netflix series GLOW and the (un)tame bodies of the show’s female wrestlers. (If you are currently watching, or intend to watch GLOW, please note that there will be spoilers in this post).
Rocking a ‘Girls just wanna have fundamental human rights’ t-shirt, we knew the GSRN was in good hands with Anna! Introducing the subject of her analysis, Anna outlined the premise of GLOW, a 2017 Netflix series fictionalising the creation of an American television show of the 1980’s, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Due to the depiction of feminist issues within GLOW, analysing this program presents opportunities for Anna to see how a return to the past can both clarify and complicate our contemporary, and future, feminist goals.
One such issue, still central to feminist goals, is that of the female body and the control that can be exerted over it. Anna played the network a clip from the pilot episode of Ruth and Debbie at an aerobics class. On noticing that Debbie was lactating, Ruth alerted Debbie to what is taken to be an embarrassing situation, and provides Debbie with a jumper to hide the visible signs of her lactation. It is at this point that Debbie says the line which Anna has taken as the title of her presentation: “I’m a fucking bovine mutant”.
Anna conveyed this scene as depicting the ‘leaky female body’, stemming from the idea that female lactation is associated with a lack of control. This is supported by Noortje van Amsterdam’s analysis, that women struggle with their “ungovernable bodies”. By self-referencing as a “bovine mutant”, Debbie frames lactation as an unnatural, alien process. This is strongly juxtaposed with the scene portrayed, as a gym class is often where women may go to gain control over their bodies.
Another feminist issue the aerobics scene illuminated for Anna was that of Ruth regulating Debbie by pointing out her lactation, and instilling a sense of embarrassment. Drawing on Alison Winch’s concept of the ‘girlfriend gaze’, Anna highlighted how this scene supports Winch’s critique of post-feminism and ‘girlfriend culture’. Whilst proponents of post-feminism might argue that women are active subjects of girlfriend culture, Anna demonstrates how women excerpt control by regulating each other.
Anna stressed the significance of the 1980’s setting as it stands as the last pre-postfeminism phase in time. On reflection of other shows which portray a previous time frame, such as Madman, Lynn Spiegal noted a “postfeminist nostalgia for a prefeminist future”. Anna notes how the 2017 GLOW has moved away from accepting postfeminism and has embraced a more activist approach. GLOW strongly contrasts with programs such as Sex and the City, a distinctively postfeminist program in which women are dependent on men, and more contemporary feminist programs such as The Handmaid’s Tale, which is expressly feminist in its vision.
At this point, Anna introduced the idea of the male gaze, in contrast to the girlfriend gaze. The next clip that Anna played depicted Debbie and Ruth fighting, or wrestling, on Debbie’s discovery of Ruth’s affair with her husband, followed by a clip from the final episode in which Debbie engages in wrestling during the filming of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
Anna argued how these clips invoke the male gaze, particularly in the first of the two clips, in which the male gaze is a fantasy sequence of a hypersexualised version of reality. Throughout the clip, the aesthetics of reality and fantasy are strongly contrasted. The sexualised fantasy of the fictional director portrays the sexual exploitation of the women of GLOW, but also, the very clear visual woman on woman fighting represents a clear extension of the ‘girlfriend gaze’ or ‘culture’, with women regulating and exerting control over each other’s bodies.
The second of the two clips portrayed Debbie reasserting control over her own body. Anna argues that this scene represents a woman’s space, whereas the sexualised fantasy scene of the director was a clearly male dominated space. Whilst Debbie’s new found control over her body represents an important shift in the program, Anna argued that this scene is used to demonstrate how, despite the supposedly feminist success in this gaining of bodily integrity, feminist issues of the 1980’s prevail in contemporary society. Anna suggested that the shifting of the lens, between present day GLOW visuals, and the grainy visuals of the 1980’s fight clips, is used to symbolise the coincidence of feminist issues in both time frames.
To illuminate the coincidence of past and contemporary feminist issues further, Anna introduced to the network a later scene which centred on Ruth’s abortion. The temporal gap was important to Anna in her analysis due to the increasing portrayal of abortions in present day media, such as Girls and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for example. Media narratives, Anna explained, are important to societal perceptions of abortion, and with that in mind, the framing of the abortion scene in GLOW, appears to be a positive one. Ruth asserts control over her body through wrestling, and in deciding whether she wants to proceed with the termination, Ruth says “I am a wrestler”. The control that she gained through wrestling, informs her decision and allows for further control.
In Anna’s analysis of some media responses to she noted much praise for GLOW’s portrayal of Ruth’s abortion. A small selection of media outlets, often from more conservative sources, were more critical in this regard. One such article from the DailyWire included the following critique:
“I hoped GLOW would be the one show feminists would not taint with their shrewish agenda.”
One possible, and appeasing, reply to this, is that GLOW is set in a different time, but as Anna stated at the start of her presentation, such reflections on the past can both clarify and confuse our contemporary and future feminist goals. Anna compares the 2017 portrayal of a 1980’s abortion with the highly contrasting portrayal of a 1960’s abortion in the 1980s film, Dirty Dancing. In the latter film, the abortion was shrouded in connotations of unsafe and unclean clandestine abortions, representing the feminist issues of the 1980s, whereas in GLOW, the abortion scene is framed in a narrative of control over one’s own body.
A huge GSRN thank you to Anna for her captivating discussion of GLOW, the 80’s, and all things feminism. It was truly insightful and we want to wish her luck in the continuation of her research. Thank you as always to all those who were able to attend and contribute to a lively Q&A!
The Gender and Sexuality Research Network is now accepting abstracts!
Our seminar series of 2017-18 has got off to a flying start this Autumn term, and we want that to continue with that momentum into the Spring and Summer term. We already have some excellent speakers lined up with their cutting edge research. Due to a high level of expressed interest, we are looking to bring more seminars to the series.
We are an interdisciplinary research group based at the University of Reading which provide a supportive and collaborative space for those whose work or interests include aspects of gender, sex, sexuality and the body to share ideas and stimulate discussion across disciplines. We are keen to hear from as wide a variety of perspectives as possible, welcoming the submission of abstracts from all disciplines. As it is our aim to offer an inclusive platform covering the full spectrum of gender and sexuality beyond traditional binary constructions, we encourage the submission of abstracts addressing, amongst others, issues of femininity and feminism, LGBTQI+ rights, as well work conducted from masculine and non-binary perspectives.
Our seminar series runs on Mondays from 4-5pm at the University of Reading in the Edith Morley Building. The format is a one-hour session with space for a twenty-minute paper followed by a Q&A. We offer a supportive environment where researchers can present works in progress or finished pieces. If you would like to take part, please contact us at ReadingGenderSexuality@gmail.com and include your 100-word abstract and title, name, department and preferred seminar date (within either the Spring or Summer term) in the email by the end of 22nd December 2017.
We look forward to hearing from you!
Faye and Gareth
The paradox of the peacekeeper and perpetrator is one that blights the hugely positive impact of the global humanitarian efforts undertaken by UN personnel and humanitarian agencies in conflict and post-conflict settings. The sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of children living in some of the most challenging environments, by those entrusted as peacekeepers, is a reality faced by many. Children in these contexts are often vulnerable to rape and sexual violence, with some experiencing the denial of food, water, clothing and medicine for the purposes of sexual exploitation, by those entrusted with the provision of such aid. Whilst the vast majority of peacekeepers and aid workers do not engage in such misconduct, a minority do. It was the actions of this minority that was addressed by the panel of experts at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 6th November 2017 in their discussion: Peacekeeper or Perpetrator? Safeguarding children from sexual abuse.
The panel included a number of experts including the inaugural Victims Advocate for the UN, Jane Connors; Professor of Law, Conflict and Global Development and Director of the Global Development Division at the University of Reading, Rosa Freedman; and Director of Keeping Children Safe, Sarah Blakemore, amongst others.
A key theme throughout the panel discussion was the primary importance of adopting a victim centred approach when addressing this conduct. Whilst the complexities of the legal frameworks and jurisdictions was emphasised by Freedman, the centrality of victims within these frameworks is paramount. Further complexities arise in light of the multiple actors that are often involved in conflict and post-conflict settings. Freedman stressed the need to consider the problem in a wider context than that of UN peacekeepers. An overly UN-centred focus is unable to fully address the SEA of children.
Blakemore suggested that that the involvement of multiple agencies and governments operating within the field can give rise to a power imbalance which isn’t unique to the UN peacekeeper and child relationship. A holistic consideration of the wider network of humanitarian agencies, and other forms of civilian UN and governmental staff is required. The power imbalance which engenders the opportunities for exploitation and abuse should be kept in mind, whilst maintaining the centrality of victims and survivors.
Freedman and Blakemore discussed their fieldwork in Liberia, undertaken to identify the best practices of peacekeepers and civil society in tackling the SEA of children. Keeping Children Safe had previously created a Toolkit of International Standards, addressing policies, people, procedures for safeguarding, and accountability. An important driver in creating this toolkit was the need to engender a culture of accountability, and to understand the risks that children face. Keeping Children Safe researched SEA within Liberia after the toolkit had been adopted, and documented its reduction in recent years.
The best practices that were taken to reduce SEA in Liberia were identified by Blakemore as the following:
- Formalised risk assessments.
- Transparent reporting mechanisms that included visibility of the UN’s Secretary-Generals zero tolerance policy on SEA. This process was most effective when it could be tracked, and survivors were updated on the progress of the report through to potential disciplinary action.
- Vetting during the recruitment process. The lack of birth registration continues to be a challenge within this context.
- Training of personnel, particularly specific training on child safeguarding.
- Clear codes of conduct, including policies on personal boundaries. In Liberia, UN staff wore badges promoting the Secretary-General’s Zero Tolerance of SEA policy.
- Clarity in signposting where reporting should be made.
- Social outreach. This involved public communications aimed on promoting SEA prevention. In Liberia such outreach occurred by way of radio and newsletters.
Blakemore was pleased to report the progress that was made in Liberia. This positive message was made clear by the photography exhibition that was on display during the panel discussion. Images of child appropriate posters and UN staff displaying the zero tolerance badges dotted the room, allowing the audience to appreciate from a visual perspective the positive steps made to tackle such an abhorrent issue. Whilst Blakemore stressed that continuing challenges remain, such as the timely addressing of reports, the hopeful case study of Liberia demonstrates the achievements that can be made when those in leadership roles are willing to spearhead a top down strategy.
Connors spoke on the progress made within the UN system itself, pointing to the paramount importance of obtaining the political will of member states. In her role as Victims Rights Advocate, she has seen the product of anti-SEA efforts within the UN. This included the establishment of a special advisory board, the creation of a formalised victims assistant procedure, an incident reporting form aimed at reducing the number of interviews victims are subjected to, which was first piloted in the DRC, a circle of leadership consisting of 57 member states, a voluntary anti-SEA compact agreed upon by 71 member states, and the creation of a ‘no excuses’ card carried by UN personnel.
As Victims Advocate, Connors ensured that victims and survivors were at the centre of her discussion, stressing that the aim of her role is to amplify the voices of victims. In discussion of her first field trip to CAR, Connors reflected on her experiences working with survivors of SEA, all of whom were aged 13-16 years when they were subjected to abuse. The priorities that survivors may have in overcoming their ordeals may not always align with our expectations, with women that she spoke with placing their focus, less on issues of accountability, and more so on developing their own lives and moving forward. This reminds us of the importance of not substituting the judgment of victims with the judgment of experts, which Connor stated is a continuing problem. Hence, victims must be heard, and victims must be informed, when any process or procedure is ongoing, of any updates or outcomes.
Timothy Brown spoke from the perspective of a UN Peacekeeper from the UK armed forces, whose role includes that of Gender and Child Protection Advisor. Brown sought to address the patterns that arose across many instances of SEA, identifying commonalities between perpetrators. An important factor in cases was often battle fatigue, including the lack of medication such as malaria tablets. What is important in countering this, Brown explained, was first, stressing that children are first and foremost children, even in dangerous situations, where the use of child soldiers may occur. Second, the engagement of command authority. Finally, the reinforcement of the sole standard of conduct expected from UN personnel. Regardless of the background of the peacekeeper, there is one culture within UN peacekeeping operations. As Gender and Child Protection Advisor Brown had taken steps to strengthen anti-SEA efforts within peacekeeping forces by way of enacting a central policy, enhancing education, particularly in relation to child soldiers and moral expectations, and organising a conference specifically on SEA. For Brown, moving forward and furthering efforts requires greater gender mainstreaming within troops, by having more women within military operations. Further, greater civilian support is required, as the ‘military cannot mark it’s own homework.’
This event, organised by Rosa Freedman and the University of Reading, with the support of the ESRC, the AHRC, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, demonstrated the wealth of expertise and effort that is currently at play in tackling such inexcusable violence towards some of the world’s most vulnerable children. Whilst this reality may reveal a dark side to what is intended to be humanitarian action, the research and the implementation of solution finding policies and procedures gives us great hope for the future of peacekeeping. Throughout the panel discussion, gratitude and recognition was paid to the overwhelming majority of individuals working within the field as part of UN peacekeeping and NGO humanitarian agencies who uphold the rule of law, and seek to do good in incredibly challenging circumstances. The progress made in Liberia, through implementing Keeping Children Safe’s International Standards Toolkit, is something that is hoped to be replicated in other conflict and post-conflict settings.
All speakers at the event ensured that this was a valuable and truly insightful discussion, which I felt very lucky to have been able to attend. So a big thank from me for hosting a brilliant showcase of such inspirational research to everyone involved. The University of Reading’s GSRN will be keeping a close eye on the work that follows on from this event, so if this is something that you would like to know more about, please do get in touch! You can also find out more about Keeping Children Safe at the following link: https://www.keepingchildrensafe.org.uk/
From one half of your GSRN Coordinator,
The second seminar in the GSRN seminar series was delivered by none other than network coordinator Faye Bird, who engaged a larger-than-usual audience with a talk on gendering of international discourse on ISIL-Daesh. Being such a high-profile topic on which everyone is familiar, but rarely an expert, the talk served as a rare and valuable insight into a how a law-centred approach to this discourse can take into account new documentation outside the arena of commercial publications and political speeches. Faye suggested that the existing news media narrative in the Western world, whilst sensationalised, also portrays the sexual violence committed by these groups as delineated by strict gender roles, with ‘barbaric’ male perpetrators, female victims and Western male ‘saviours’, despite a far more complex picture on the ground. She proposed that we can significantly enlarge our understanding of this discourse through a qualitative linguistic analysis of the UN Resolutions dealing with ISIL and ‘sexual slavery’ in the region.
Faye prefaced the talk by showing how the atrocities committed by ISIL are sensationalised and promoted most actively by the group itself. UN Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura highlighted this in 2015, when she stressed that the tactic of highlighting the most brutal aspects of crimes against women were a way of ‘institutionalising sexual violence’ and ‘advanc[ing] key strategic objectives (Bangura 2015). This ‘institutionalisation’ is key for the faction’s claim to state-hood, as is the way their own portrayal of their violence becomes a form of propaganda, echoing Chris Weedon’s claim that ‘language becomes an important site of political struggle.’ (Weedon 1987).
The talk then moved to the concept of the ‘hyper-masculine’ and the female victim. When politicians such as George Bush comment on how the ‘fight against terrorism’ is a ‘fight for women’, they fall into the discursive pattern described by Gayatri Spivak of a ‘white men…saving brown women from brown men’. (Spivak 1999). Faye pointed out that this binary ontology is problematic both theoretically and factually: in feminist poststructuralist discourse ‘females always adopt multiple subject positions […] it is far too reductive to constitute women simply as victims of male oppression’, a position borne out by the multitude of roles women in the region actually play in sexual violence.
Turning to the opposite end of this scale, Faye suggested that this ‘hyper masculine’ world view is ‘entwined with Sunni fundamentalism, supremacist ideology […] and ethno-sectarian hierarchy’ (Ahram), but that while this is indeed a ‘distinctive form’ of the hyper-masculine, it is not entirely ‘unique’, as Barack Obama had described it in a 2014 speech. Not only are similar acts of sexual violence committed by other groups, but they are even occurring in the same conflict, and against different demographic targets. What makes an act supposedly unique is in fact it’s prominence or visibility, a case which is particularly acute in the case of the ethno-religious Yezidi group.
The well-documented violence against the Yezidi was characterised in media discourse (examples included Metro, The Daily Mail and the Mirror) by an emphasis on ‘sex slaves’ and sensationalised language, privileging the suffering of victims for the most prominent exposure. Faye showed how even in UN Human Rights Council statements this gendered image of what constituted a ‘slave’ did not take into account boys who were effectively enslaved by forced military conscription, or other acts of violence against women who were not targeted for purely sexual reasons, as in the case of mass executions for women over 60.
Faye introduced the concept of ‘Hyper-Visibility’ to describe the Yezidi’s cultural position in the Western world, a term developed by Christine Allison, Veronicas Buffon and Laura Sjoberg. ‘Hyper-Visibility is ‘an insistence or “excess” of visibility, which overloads with signification the object that has been represented […] the object becomes therefore transparent, disappearing behind its broadcast image.’ (Buffon and Allison 2016). Behind the fetishized and symbolic violence against the Yezidi, a host of other crimes exist in a state of relative occlusion, eventually falling into the general backdrop of the conflict and becoming characterized as ‘normal’ or routine aspects of war.
It is in the legal documentation of the UN itself that Faye expects to find semantic patterning which reflects the differing levels of visibility for war time sexual violence as well as a structure of hierarchical gendering. She anticipates that code-expressions including ‘sexual violence’, ‘sexual slavery’, ‘ISIL’ and ‘Yezidi’ will occur at times when ‘state forces’, for example, will appear infrequently. She begins her qualitative analysis of these UN resolutions this year.
We wish Faye the best of luck with her research and thank her greatly for this fantastic, insightful, and relevant seminar.