Affect and the Office

By Kate Gilchrist
Much has already been written about the comments made by Nobel Laureate scientist Tim Hunt about his experience working with female scientists at the World Conference for Science Journalists in South Korea on 9th June. He has been widely castigated for his sexist, heteronormative and discriminatory remarks. He swiftly resigned from his various posts as honorary professor with the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences and at the Royal Society. While he has since apologized and claimed the comments were made as a ‘joke’, the whole episode, and the reaction to it, has revealed some interesting gendered ideas about the workplace.

Just in case you didn’t catch the full story, here is a brief recap. Hunt was speaking at a session, ironically sponsored by some of Korea’s leading female scientists and engineers, where he stated that although he didn’t want to ‘stand in the way of women’ within science, he was in favour of single-sex laboratories for three reasons. He said that working alongside women in the lab was bad because: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

So, say we take him at his word that Hunt was joking. He nevertheless in the process of telling his ‘joke’ demeans women by referring to them as ‘girls’, placing them in an infantilized, non-professional position. Furthermore, the fact that he makes these comments in just about the most public place possible (a gathering of journalists), to an international delegation (who could easy misinterpret such nuances) speaks volumes as to his sense of superiority and inability to view his comments from a another’s perspective. To think that he (in his position as a male scientist, speaking to a room filled with leading female scientists about their advancement within the field) thought it could be suitable to joke about such matters, and broadcast it to the international press demonstrates this inherent sense of confidence, superiority and lack of foresight. Even if, as he claims he didn’t consciously appreciate how his comments would be received, the very fact that he didn’t demonstrates how entrenched and internalised these sexist attitudes are.

Whilst his comments also directly reinforce a heteronormative view of the world, assuming as they do that all relationships within the lab would be heterosexually orientated, it is his comments on crying and emotion which I’d like to focus on. The most prominent response, which represents many, came from a predictable source. London Mayor Boris Johnson swiftly weighed in on the matter by picking up on the comment about crying. To quote Johnson, as reported in the Guardian:

“Sir Tim Hunt was doing what he had done all his life – pointing out a natural phenomenon he had observed. …. Johnson said it was a scientific fact that women cry more readily than men, citing the work of Professer Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, and maintained that it should not be an offence to point out a “gender difference”.

Johnson finished by calling for his reappointment at UCL and the Royal Society. I find it breathtaking that a politician in such a prominent, highly influential position such as the Mayor of London can get away not only with repeating such comments but supporting and reinforcing them. There have been no calls for Boris’ resignation, or even a retraction, despite the fact that he extends gender discrimination beyond the scope of the science industry and into every workplace in the country. Actually, Johnson’s claim that women cry more in the workplace has been refuted by the very same scientist he referred to. Professor Ad Vingerhoets has counteracted that his most in-depth study into the matter found that men were more likely to cry at work.

But this brings me to a wider point. Frankly I don’t care whether men or women cry more in the workplace. I don’t think such gender-binary reinforcing debates help any of us. I think that it’s the devaluing of crying, similarly feminised emotions such as empathy or anxiety – or indeed any emotions ­– in the workplace which should be addressed. The idea that we become some kind of entirely objective, rational, non-feeling, almost mechanised creature as soon as we step into the office is essentially the embodiment of some kind masculinised ideal of a rational, unemotional, wholly ‘logical’ being. It’s nonsense that we are ever completely cut off from our emotions – even a state of dispassion or disinterest is still a form of emotion. Meanwhile mild displays of masculinised emotions such as anger or determination, pride or (suitably orientated) aggression are celebrated in certain (unsurprisingly masculinized) workplaces such as the trading floor. The film The Wolf of Wall Street is a case in point – workplaces, like any other social location, are emotionally driven. I’m not saying we should all be crying non-stop at work, I’m saying we should realise that no-one ‘removes’ or erases or blocks out all of their emotions when they are at work and the idea that we can or should is bizarre and unnecessary. We are emotional, social beings, and the denigration of ‘feminised’ emotions, in contrast to the celebration and elevation of masculinised emotions, wherever it occurs, should be called out for what it is.

Bahar Mustafa: #istandwithyou

Liberation movements will continue to struggle if the language we are using has completely different meanings to us than to everyone else. To succeed we need to start by explaining our language – and stop assuming that everyone we’re interacting with has, or should have, an in-depth understanding of the academia of gender and race. Bahar – #istandwithyou.

By Lindsay Riddoch

I was first introduced to the Bahar Mustafa saga by friends from Goldsmiths who had seen the invite to the event politely asking those who were not women (or non-binary people) of colour not to attend. My friends were saying that this was ridiculous – lefty student politics gone mad. I said that I didn’t agree: that as a white woman I wouldn’t want to be in an organising space for women of colour. That my presence there may make it more difficult for people to express their grievances – in the same way that I find discussions of sexual assault more difficult when there are men in the room. I have every other space in the world as a white person – why shouldn’t they have theirs? I don’t think this means I can’t be an ally, or that ‘he for she’ doesn’t have a place in feminism, but that there is a point at which I can get involved and it’s after they’ve decided what their aims are, what their struggle is. My place as an ally, so far as I understand it, is to stand by women of colour on the issues they choose to campaign on – certainly not to be at the meetings where they are deciding on these issues.

Little did I know when I was having this discussion with my flatmates in the safety of my liberal-gender-and-race-theory-aware flat that this very discussion was about to explode in the national media. From the Huffington Post to the Guardian to the Daily Mail, everyone seems to have an opinion on Bahar. First on the original invite, and then on her use of the hashtag #killallwhitemen. Suddenly everyone in the playgroup who has the luxury of hundreds of toys to play with, wanted the one toy that another kid had. I would really love to know which white men were so keen to attend this meeting to the point that they felt that writing to the national press and starting petitions was a reasonable response. Moreover I’m fascinated to know how they cannot see the irony of the way they have been hounding a woman of colour online. I don’t know what led her to close her twitter account but the frequency of rape threats sent to any woman who puts herself in the public domain gives me a pretty good idea of what kind of experience she may have been having. Yet people are confused as to why she may want a space they cannot access.

I am not going to claim that the #killallwhitemen wasn’t a bad PR move. But this girl isn’t a PR professional. She’s a student union president who is doing her utmost to support equality and diversity at Goldsmiths University. Up until a month ago no one cared what she wrote on her twitter feed, and why would she suppose that this would suddenly change? A petition has been circulated calling for her resignation based on an alleged contravention of the EU convention against incitement to genocide, and the police have been called to investigate. Yet no huge petitions, no national media coverage and certainly no police have been involved in the problems on Goldsmith’s campus that lead to Bahar calling this meeting. Only when a strong, articulate woman of colour makes an obviously ironic, if of poor taste, joke ‘threatening’ the holders of almost all the power in the world are these kinds of forces mobilised. This makes me angry to my core, but more than that it makes me feel for her. As a white person I feel responsible, to some degree at least, for other white people’s actions when it comes to race. I feel an unbearable level of rage and a massive desire to find her and tell her – I’m with you.

More important than my deep-rooted anger, however, are the differences between the discussions in my flat and those in the wider media. I am usually under the assumption that the words I use are understood by those around me. We have a communal understanding of the labels applied to different situations, and what those labels represent. Yet watching Bahar try to defend herself to the media has made me realise how I can’t always assume that to be true. I agree with Bahar that people of colour cannot be racist against white people – because racism involves an inherent power dynamic based on a history of oppression. Similarly women can’t be sexist. Now that doesn’t mean these groups can’t be discriminatory, prejudiced or even just horrible people. It doesn’t even mean that they can’t be active contributors to oppressive structures. But it does mean that those, heavily loaded, words aren’t the right ones to describe them. As Bahar put it “I, as an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender, And therefore women of colour and non-binary genders cannot be racist or sexist as we do not stand to benefit from such a system.
“In order for our actions to have been deemed racist or sexist, the current system would have to be one which enables only women and people of colour to benefit economically and socially on such a large scale and to the systematic exclusion of white people and men who for the past 400 years would have had to have been subjected to colonisation. Reverse racism and reverse sexism are not real.”

As I watched Bahar’s attempt to explain this nuanced concept to the media at large it dawned on me – she isn’t engaging with an audience schooled in gender and race politics. She wasn’t talking to people who had a shared understanding of labels, in the way that she, and I, had got used to.

Similarly as soon as I saw the hashtag I understood it to be an ironic, power-reclaiming device against the ‘feminazi’ taunts often thrown towards feminists – particularly those who are non-white. Taken outside of the circle of feminists and activists who I surround myself with though, it has been seen as incitement to violence, a completely inappropriate use of violence, which is never funny. The national media isn’t blameless in this faltering understanding. More effort can, and should, be made to understand the meaning of words as meant by those who use them. More effort should be made to fairly represent those fighting against immeasurable imbalances of power.

However Bahar, and all of us who stand with her, also need to think about how to overcome those barriers. Through no fault of her own, Bahar has become an unfortunate symbol of how far we still have to go in explaining to people the structural inequalities in power – both in terms of race and sex. This shouldn’t be a fight that Bahar has to take on her own. As a white person it is my job to explain to my friends, family and anyone else who I come into contact with why exactly she can’t be racist. To do that I need to take the time to explain what racism actually means, to accept their initial scoffs and looks of disgust. Because what is needed is a complete re-understanding of what words like ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ mean. We need to explain that these concepts are about more than offensive words, or doors closed in faces – they are about entire structures of power. To do this we need to be willing to start every conversation by explaining our terms – by ensuring a common language. Liberation movements will continue to struggle if the language we are using has completely different meanings to us than to everyone else. To succeed we need to start by explaining our language – and stop assuming that everyone we’re interacting with has, or should have, an in-depth understanding of the academia of gender and race. Bahar – #istandwithyou.

Gender and Fashion at the Met Gala: Power, Ideology, and Culture

By Hana Shaltout

Film and fashion are closely tied together, and trends are often created through both simultaneously. It is no surprise that the Met Gala is often called the fashion equivalent of the Oscars because that night has been known to produce some really interesting ensembles. There is also always an ensuing media ruckus about best dressed, worst dressed, and so on. However, this article is more focused on what fashion as a medium means in relation to the world today in terms of culture, and particularly US/UK celebrities .

To briefly introduce the event, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announces a theme that those attending are encouraged, though not necessarily obliged to, abide by and the theme reflects the exhibition that takes place inside the museum itself. This year, the theme was “China: Through the Looking Glass”.

Several bloggers and writers have voiced anxiety about cultural appropriation and orientalism at the Gala which, to be fair, is not entirely an unfounded claim. While the curators and experts behind the exhibition have pointed to the fact that the West’s fascination with China rests on a reproduction of China that is more imaginary than real, I wonder what it is like to represent a ‘real’ China. Is that even possible? The point here is: what does the Chinese-themed Met Gala tell us about gender and culture?

Part I: Gender, Culture, and Orientalism/Postcoloniality

In Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Elizabeth Wilson, a scholar on fashion from a sociological perspective, tells us that: “Fashion is obsessed with gender, it defines, and redefines the gender boundary” (p118). This becomes particularly prominent as we remember that costumes were crucial for silent movies: “Clothing can reinforce a film’s plot, theme, or mood and act as a metaphor for a certain character type. This was especially important in silent movies, where costume could be mobilised to say something about someone as a replacement for speech itself.” (Paul Jobling, “Border Crossings: Fashion in Film/Fashion and Film,” in The Handbook of Fashion Studies, p174). This was definitely the case at the exhibition, which combined film clips from various eras to augment the dresses and fashion attire on display, and was completely gendered. Other than the exhibition itself, there is no doubt that the articles and pictures of the Gala portrayed gender stereotypically. I wonder if different ways of dressing would even be “allowed”? All the men wore tuxedos, and almost all the women wore dresses (there were a few who wore trousers and tops).

But it is not just how fashion relates to gender, but how the theme of China was portrayed through the Gala. Wilson also tell us that we can understand fashion “as a cultural phenomenon, as an aesthetic medium for the expression of ideas, desires, and beliefs circulating in society…fashion may then be understood as ideological” (Wilson, p9). And from my own analysis, ideologically speaking, the attendees conjured up a whimsical mix of ancient-imperial-1920s-fantastical China; in sum, a China that was not “really” present temporally or spatially. We can see this in Sarah Jessica Parker’s headdress and Rihanna’s yellow robe. This is not to say that doing that is “negative” or “bad,” since, as a themed event it is highly likely that imagination would take over “reality.”

There are a number of points I want to raise. The first came from reading through the comments on some articles, where people had said that China doesn’t need to be treated as a child whose feelings could get hurt because someone wasn’t portraying it accurately. These kinds of comments really made me aware that I should not embark on a “I’m-Going-to-Save-China-from-Orientalism” crusade. We should not speak over or for others. The other really important point comes from Rey Chow’s amazing chapter, “Where Have All the Natives Gone?” which is something I recommend everyone read. As a cultural studies scholar who is also postcolonial, Chow smashes the idea of authenticity. There is no “authentic native” or even “authentic” moment in time. Authenticity, just like the “native” is a construct of scholars and historians. Trying to find either can be just as bad as colonialism (!).

Okay. So now we have established three things:

  1. Fashion and film are inextricably linked; a “reciprocal border crossing… enabling fashion to reproduce itself in the image of film and vice versa” (Jobling, p170) and that fashion and gender constantly influence one another in a dynamic and complex process.
  2. Orientalism is really important and we should not undermine practices of stereotyping and cultural appropriation, but neither should we act like we have all the agency and ability to speak for others.
  3. Trying to find, and replicate authenticity –whether through fashion or exhibitions –is futile since our interpretation of history is always a construction already, according to Chow.

Part II: Capitalism

Then what does the Gala signify? We can answer this through Wilson: “Fashion speaks capitalism” (p14) and “Hollywood certainly made glamour into a mass commodity” (p100 in “A Note on Glamour,” in the journal Fashion Theory). If the Gala is not about finding an authentic China and replicating it, but rather about fantasy, imagination and costumes, then we can turn to capitalism to understand more about the symbolic meaning of the Gala.

Without going too much into the theories behind capitalism, I am going to briefly conclude the article by analysing this meme:

rihanna

My main argument is this: media, fashion and culture, broadly speaking, have the capacity to uphold norms. These can be norms about gender, about culture (e.g. what we think of China), about sexuality, and so on. This is not to say that this is always the case, just that the capacity is certainly there, and has been used before. The reason that the meme, which is influenced by the Hunger Games, is so striking is that it shows two separate worlds, where on one hand, there is wealth, power and on the other, struggles for power (to say the least, and I know am doing this half of the meme gross injustice).

Chris Rojek, another scholar on celebrities and capitalism tells us that: “Capitalism requires consumers to develop abstract desire for commodities… The compulsion of abstract desire under capitalism transforms the individual from a desiring object into a calculating object of desire… Fashion… provides consumers with compelling standards of emulation.” (Celebrity, p187).

Fashion is not trivial, and trying to see the Met Gala only through the surface will not show how deeply celebrities, fashion, power, wealth, gender, culture and so on are complex systems that are all interrelated. The Gala, symbolic of capitalism, creates a desire to emulate fashion, for example, but it is also capable of obscuring two things. The first is that the gala can mask the fact that interpretations of history are constructions, and authenticity and “native” Chinese things are always mediated through that interpretation. The other is that it obscures power relations or struggles for power.