Autumn 2018 Programme Announced

We are pleased to announce our programme for Autumn term 2018! We will be kicking things off next week on Monday 29th October with Hsin Hsieh’s paper “The Divine Queer and the Non-Divine Women: Marginalized Female Characters in Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus on Stage and on Screen” in OWH G12.

This will be followed on Monday 19th November with our first Screen Series: Aging Sexuality in Contemporary American Television Comedy in OWH G08. We will be watching clips from Grace and Frankie, Jane the Virgin, and Black-ish before having an informal discussion group chaired by Film, Theatre and Television’s Anna Varadi.

Finally, we will hear from Beth Rebisz from the History department, who will be presenting “The ‘Finished Products’ of Maendeleo ya Wanawake: Britain’s Attempt of Social Engineering Amongst Kenyan Women, 1952-1960” on Monday 10th December in OWH G12.

All sessions will begin at 4pm, in Old Whiteknights House (Graduate School). Please check the room number as we will be in a different room for the Screen Series. All are welcome, and registration is not required. We hope to see many of you there!



The ‘Finished Products’ of Maendeleo ya Wanawake: Britain’s Attempt of Social Engineering Amongst Kenyan Women, 1952-1960: Beth Rebisz

For our final meeting of 2018, the GSRN welcomed Beth Rebisz, a 2nd year PhD researcher from the Department of History here at Reading. Beth’s doctoral research examines the international humanitarian responses to counter-insurgency campaigns fought in Kenya, 1952-1960, and is particularly interested in exploring the roles of European and African female welfare workers in this context. Her paper focused on Maendeleo ya Wanawake, an organisation whose name means “Women’s Progress” in Kiswahili, and was set up in 1952 by the colonial administration with the aim of the “advancement of African women”.

Beth began by placing this organisation within the context of the Mau Mau conflict, when nationalist Kenyans attempted to overthrow the British colonial government and expel European settlers. This uprising was met with a brutal backlash by British authorities, and led to the detainment of Kenyan people within emergency villages. These villages often housed women and children, as men were mostly detained in work camps. A process of rehabilitation, known as the ‘pipeline’ was put in place, which individuals had to progress through before they were deemed fit to re-enter society. Within these villages, Maendeleo ya Wanawake was created.

Beth argued that the colonial administration of Kenya utilised Maendeleo ya Wanawake to quash nationalism, through incentivisation and rehabilitation, and under the guise of encouraging a notion of “self help” among the Kenyan women within these villages. The classes ran by Maendeleo ya Wanawake, and with the support of the British Red Cross Society, focused on domestic duties, such as cleaning, washing and caring for infants, sewing, crocheting and cooking typically British recipes, reinforcing a British colonial ideal of women’s role in society. Leaders of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, usually white British women or specially selected loyalist Kenyan women, were trained to reinforce Western expectations of women within the Kenyan communities. Beth showed us a questionnaire given to trainee leaders, which reinforced the importance of eating on tables rather than the ground, and of fresh flowers in the house to “please the eye”. Kenyan women were incentivised to participate in classes; by joining they could access resources for their homes, childcare, prizes, and could even become village leaders, a role which they were paid for. Beth argued that whilst these initiatives were celebrated and claimed to be providing opportunities for African women, they were undoubtedly a tactic for the social engineering and rehabilitation of women who had ties to groups involved in the Mau Mau movement.

Beth further argued that this could be seen in the signs of disengagement amongst Kenyan women which were recorded in the papers of the colonial administration. Women walked out of educational films, and resisted attempts by the Maendeleo ya Wanawake leaders to teach them songs in English only. Whilst these were mere glimpses of resistant activity, recorded in British archives, Beth explained that she hopes to find more evidence of Kenyan women’s attitudes towards these classes through oral history research in the coming year. Beth concluded by reinforcing the significance of the colonial administration’s purposeful neglect of Kenyan women’s own identities, cultures and community structures. Since independence, however, a new Kenyan-led Maendeleo ya Wanawake has thrived and now works for women’s equality.

We welcomed many new faces this week, and lively discussion was certainly sparked. Thank you again Beth for an engaging and intriguing paper, and we are glad you found it beneficial for your research!

Beth GSRN Tweet

The Gender and Sexuality Research Network will reconvene in the Spring Term – we will be posting a new programme very soon, so keep an eye on the blog and our Twitter! We hope you have all had a restful winter break, and a very Happy New Year from us all.

The Divine Queer and the Non-Divine Women: Marginalized Female Characters in Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus on Stage and on Screen – Meeting Report

We kicked off our Autumn programme this week with Hsin Hseih, who is in her fourth year of her PhD in the Film, Theatre and Television Department here at Reading, and who gave a fascinating paper based on her research on the work of Peter Shaffer. In her paper Hsin explored the idea of a “divine” queer masculinity, and the marginalisation of female bodies in Shaffer’s works, Equus and Amadeus. Hsin began by tracing the legacy of queer theatre, from the disruption of theatrical forms after the Stonewall riots, through the works of John Wilmot, Oscar Wilde, and Malcolm Scott, to the trope of the “problem” of homosexuality in mid-century works such as A Taste of Honey and Staircase. Turning to her case study of the work of Peter Shaffer, Hsin focused on the trope of two male leads in Shaffer’s work, specifically in Amadeus and Equus. She explained how often these two characters fulfilled roles loosely based on Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy; the Apollonian, more mature and ordinary man (Salieri in Amadeus and Martin in Equus) is challenged and intrigued by the often younger, Dionysian, extra-ordinary character (Alan in Equus and Mozart in Amadeus). The narratives revolve around these relationships, as the two male leads are shown engaging in highbrow “divine” talk, such as the meaning of art, or in Equus, Alan’s psychological state following his blinding of several horses. Hsin argued that throughout Equus, horses are shown as godlike, and can be seen as symbolic of a divine masculinity. In Amadeus, Mozart is seen as godlike in the way he is presented, and fulfils a similar role. The Apollonian characters’ attempts to understand the godlike Dionysian characters challenge their sense of self, as they wrestle with understanding these alternative masculinities.


Hsin’s main focus in this paper was to question the role of the marginalised women in these narratives. As she demonstrated through clips from film adaptations of these two plays, women are shown as undesirable, even repugnant, and inherently of a lower intellectual class than the protagonists (Constance in Amadeus and Jill in Equus). Their relationships with the protagonists are seen as secondary to the relationship between the two men, and in scenes in both films, are shown being openly and aggressively rejected when they attempt to seduce one of the male leads, reinforcing the centrality of the “divine queer” i.e. the core relationships of the two male leads. Hsin argued that whilst an inherent misogyny provides an easy explanation for the marginalisation and even stereotyping of Jill and Constance, a more nuanced analysis of these marginalised female bodies was needed, which prompted a lively and constructive discussion.


Thank you for kicking off the new GSRN series Hsin, and thanks to all who attended. We will be reconvening on Monday 19th November at 4pm, in Old Whiteknights House G08, with a screening of clips from Jane the Virgin, Grace and Frankie, and Black-ish, before discussing representations of aging sexuality in contemporary American television comedies, chaired by Anna Varadi. We hope to see many of you there!

CfP: GSRN Seminar Series 2018-19

The Gender and Sexuality Research Network is now accepting abstracts for our seminar series taking place in the upcoming academic year (2018-2019)!

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, LGBTQ+ rights, as well work conducted from masculine and non-binary perspectives.

Our regular seminar series will start in October and is provisionally planned to take place during term time on Mondays from 4-5pm at the University of Reading. The format will be 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 and include your 250-word abstract and title, name, department and preferred seminar date in the email by the end of 30th September 2018.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Faye and Amy

How do Men’s Magazines Talk about Penises? – Meeting Report

On 26th February 2018 the GSRN was excited to welcome to Reading Dr. Craig Owen, a lecturer in the department of psychology at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham and member of the St. Mary’s own Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster. Drawing on his research expertise in gender and masculinity, and a recently published paper of his in the Journal of Health Psychology, Craig presented his research on how men’s magazines talk about penises.

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Craig started by introducing the idea that the penis and masculinity are intimately connected, as is clear when we consider the very word ‘manhood’. When we consider male behaviour and how that links to the penis, gendered norms of male stoicism and risk-taking can be understood as bearing on the way in which men access, or withdraw from, their sexual health needs.

In our increasingly imagine conscious society, Craig argues that the penis can engender fear and anxiety when it comes to sexual issues. The lack of penises on display generally, in tandem with the vast number of homogenised penises on display in porn, most notably characterised as large and constantly erect, give space for anxiety in relation to the penis to grow. Men increasingly feel pressure to be concerned with the appearance of their genitals, with signifiers come from many sources, for example Gillette introduced into their marketing the supposed desire of women to be with a man with ‘trimmed’ public hair.

Whilst signifiers are everywhere, Craig decided to focus his Foucauldian discourse analysis on men’s magazines as these act as unique cultural sign posts, focusing on GQ, Attitude, Loaded and Men’s Health magazines. What emerged from his analysis of the articles relating to the penis in these magazines were two distinctive types of discursive practices: a ‘laddish’ discourse and a medicalised discourse. Whilst there was a clear celebration of the penis, what was visible in both were discussions which invoked fear and anxiety around the penis. Fear was omnipotent in both discourses.

In the ‘laddish’ discourse, the penis was celebrated as the ultimate symbol of masculinity. Cartoon depictions of the penis were used in the magazines to reinforce an ideal of the penis as large and desirable to women. Certain male, notably white, celebrities were celebrated due to speculation that they had large penises. Within this celebration the penis was often compared with ‘tools’, framed as mechanical pieces of equipment which ultimately sets men up to fail due to the reality of the penis as a soft body part.

The medical discourse was seen by Craig as attempting to counter the infallible, stoic image of the penis propounded by the laddish discourse, and did so mostly in reference to sexual intercourse with women. The medical discourse stressed that the anatomy of the female body meant that women did not require a large penis to be satisfied by sex with a penis. What the medical discourse stressed was that a penis should be beautiful, using studies to evidence that heterosexual women preferred men with trimmed public hair.

For Craig, the medical discourse represented healthism and neoliberalism at work, with individuals stressed to target their bodies and to undergo penis surveillance. Many of the articles featured stories of deformed penises, or penises broken in the process of sexual intercourse, often using examples seeking to ‘other’ the individuals who experienced these issue, often on the basis of race or nationality. The sequence that was often used within this discourse was one of symptoms, diagnoses, treatment, and longer-term management. In effect, the penis became a machine for sex that needed constant surveillance and management.

Whether premised on inadequacy of penis size and appearance, or on penis vulnerability to injury and deformity, fear was a central theme identified by Craig within both the laddish discourse, and the medicalised discourse which seemingly countered the masculinity issues within the laddish discourse. This evidences a key issue with how health issues are addressed, particularly relating to men’s health concerns and the issues of masculinity that arise in relation to this.

A huge GSRN thank you to Craig Owen for giving such a thought provoking and engaging talk, and for facilitating such a lively question and answer session. We are very pleased to have established a link with the St. Mary’s Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster and look forward to building on this in the future. Thank you as always to both the committed and new members of our network for always bringing such interesting perspectives and enabling such interesting discussions.

The publication of Craig’s article ‘How Men’s Magazines Talk about Penises’ in the Journal of Health Psychology can be accessed at the following link: For more information about the St Mary’s University Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster visit:




How Do Men’s Magazines Talk about Penises?

The GSRN is happy to have Craig Owen, from the department of psychology at St Mary’s University, presenting his research on how men’s magazines discuss penises.

Do join us in Edith Morley 175 4-5pm for what I am confident will be a fascinating presentation followed by Q&A. As always, discussion are likely to continue at the SCR!

Abstract: Constructions of masculinity have shifted and changed but the central role of the penis has remained firm. The messages men receive about their manhood is apparent in articles in men’s magazines. We conducted a discursive analysis of the ways in which penises were discussed in four market leading UK titles: Loaded, Men’s Health, GQ and Attitude. Two broad discourses were identified, termed Laddish and Medicalised, both of which create fear ridden spaces where men are bombarded with unachievable masculine ideals and traumatic examples of mutilated members. This may have implications for how men approach their sexual health needs.

Craigs Poster

Meeting Report: Breaking the Taboo: Menstruation in Maïssa Bey’s Bleu blanc vert and Marouane’s La Jeune fille et la mère

University of Reading teaching fellow Maria Tomlinson gave a talk on the 23rd January at the second meeting of the GSRN this term on two Francophone Algerian novels Bleu Blanc Vert (Maïssa Bey, 2007) and La Jeune Fille et la Mère (Leila Marouane, 2007). Both novels centre young women growing up in Algeria, Maria focusing on the aspects of the narratives that offer a mediation on some of the domestic and social tensions that arise though reactions to menstruation. In particular, she suggested that the novels offer a critique of  menstruation currently characterised as a cultural taboo in the region by anthropologists, and indicate that education and self-reflection independent of familial circles are potentially crucial factors in establishing generational changes of attitude.

Maria began by discussing the fact that some media and social media outlets (such as the Huffington Post) described 2015 as the ‘Year of the Period’, after hastags such as #happytobleed and #periodsarenotaninsult were widely shared. In the summer of 2014, however, French photographer Marianne Rosenstiehl had helped to blow the cover of societal silence around menstruation in France with her daring Paris exhibition La Malédiction, which included multiple images of models on their period with visible blood. Maria suggested that the range of images and emotional tones suggested an affinity with Gayatri Spivak’s critiques of second wave feminism’s supposed universalities of the menstrual experience.

This trend itself was partly a response to high-profile instances of derogatory and discriminatory comments and actions directed at menstruating women: Maria highlighted the fact that in 2015 several Hindu temples in India banned women from entering during their menstruation period to avoid the holy sites becoming ‘polluted’. Maria suggested that in addition to the stigma of ‘dirtiness’, the ‘shame’ of menstruation is powerfully linked to the fact that in many cultures period blood is what Jane Ussher calls ‘the great unseen’, whose visible presence confers a sense of guilt.

In the Maghreb, where these novels are set, menstrual anthropologist Nadia Guessous’ research has shown that this ‘pollution’ is specifically associated with a concept of ‘dishonour’. Fascinatingly, her research also suggests that this ‘dishonour’ can come from other sources of flowing blood – particularly when associated with the loss of virginity. In Bleu Blanc Vert, Lilas is a young woman living in Algeria who at one point in the book’s 30 year chronology (1962-1992) goes through puberty and shares the experience of her first period with her mother. These first few drops of blood are seen by the mother as a traumatic event: the mother does not explain the significance of the blood, but instead uses the opportunity to issue a warning about the dangers of sex and the shame that comes with the loss of virginity. This conflation is more dramatic in La Jeune Fille et la Mère, as the mother of this novel’s female protagonist, Djamila, has been training her daughter to be resistant to attempts on her virginity from a young age.

The role of the extended families in these menstrual narratives is crucial in framing female sexuality as an inconvenience that needs to be tackled and hidden, especially when compared to young boys. Any discussions of periods or menstrual blood in Bleu Blanc Vert must be done solely in the presence of women, and Maïssa Bey has set out these dialogues in a cold and pragmatic manner. However, when the rite of passage concerns male sexuality, such as when the boys are circumcised at a young age, the entire household erupts into unified celebration. Maria suggested that certain impersonal French constructions found in the scenes of female sexuality, though not the male may be seen as evidence that this divide is a wider societal one in the Francophone world, beyond the book’s narrative of the experiences of a particular Algerian family.

Maria concluded by suggesting that a role is partially mapped out for secular education as a ‘way out’ of controlling family structures. Djamila in La Jeune Fille et la Mère has competing plans for her sexual life mapped out for her by both parents, with her father arranging a young marriage for her (that she does not want), and her mother trying to expose her to a wider education (which she is also uneasy with) to allow her to experience a supposedly better life than she herself read. However, Lilas in Bleu Blanc Vert finds a medical book about menstruation and therefore accesses knowledge about herself from an outside source, and via her own agency, suggesting that this independence may be a key factor for a young woman’s engagement with potential processes of de-stigmatisation.

It was very good to have Maria, who founded this network, back in the seminar and presenting, and be exposed to such an important topic through a non-anglophone lens. We thank her for her excellent talk and look forward to perhaps one day reading her translations of these novels, which some of those attending would no doubt love her to do!