On failures to understand what ‘free speech’ does and does not mean: Starkey again

First, a disclaimer. I have nothing against right-winger journalists. In fact, like everyone with a smidgeon of social conscience, I find them fascinating.

Oh, who am I kidding? I find them smug, self-interested curmudgeons who tend to have a worryingly shallow grasp on basic logic. As demonstrated in the Telegraph by one Jemima Lewis. I’m sure she’s generally a lovely warm-hearted woman, as her sneering column about students’ youth (some of my students are considerably older than she is) and their, erm, genderfluidity, suggests. But I read her piece on the Starkey controversy with my eyes more or less continually rolling.

All of this sneering at ‘the youth’ was in aid of Lewis’s bigger point, which was a half-baked defence of something called ‘free speech’. Apparently, we all have the god-and-Dave-given right to speak on promo videos for the University of Cambridge. Any attempt to prevent us from doing this is now to be known as ‘censorship. As my colleagues commented over on twitter, this is a delightful, surprisingly radical offering from the right-wing press: no doubt the same freedoms will shortly be rolled out, allowing me to write Lewis’s column, appropriate her salary, and throw my toys out of the pram if anyone objects. Not so?

Oh, shit, wait, do I need to undergo some kind of process, whereby the Telegraph would actually, like, decide whether or not to publish what I write? Do you think they might even, sometimes, commission me to write a piece and then decide not to publish it after all? Picture me making a Sadface (TM), in the manner of the Young People.

Teasing aside (and it is this truly ridiculously overblown definition of ‘censhorship’ and ‘free speech’ Lewis is working with), what got to me about Lewis’s piece was this claim. Acknowledging that Starkey has overcome obstacles to achieve his current position of considerable privilege, she notes in apparent shock:

“But being gay, disabled and working-class is no longer enough to appease the gods of intersectional correctness.”

It’s good to know the Telegraph is such a bastion of support for LGBT rights (bashing of genderfluidity aside, perhaps).

What Lewis fails to understand is that there is a distinction between a person who speaks as an individual – however rudely or ill-advisedly – and one who is speaking as a representative of a wider group. Starkey has perfect right to express his opinions as a private individual. He has the right to express his opinions as an academic, and I feel fairly strongly that he should be free to do this despite what he’s said in the past about race, gender and class. I’ve written about this issue before. What Starkey does not have is the automatic right to represent the whole university as their spokesman. Patently – and I’m gobsmacked a woman intelligent enough to write for the Telegraph can’t understand this – this is not a ‘right’ that can be interpreted as ‘free speech’, or we’d all have promo videos in our names floating around. If Starkey’s representation seems likely to alienate staff, students and potential students because of the racist and misogynistic views he’s put forward, then surely, we should choose to give that ‘voice’ to someone else?

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Open Letter: David Starkey Does Not Speak for Cambridge University

Last week, I wrote about my shock and anger in finding that the current University of Cambridge campaign, ‘Dear World’, is presented by David Starkey. Starkey is portrayed as the official voice and face of Cambridge, representing students, faculty, and staff, as well as the research and teaching in which we participate. It is deeply disturbing that a man who has made numerous racist and misogynistic comments should represent us.

My colleague has now written an open letter, here.

If you are a Cambridge student, member of staff, or alumna/alumnus, please consider signing the letter. Anyone interested in signing can respond to us (notstarkey@gmail.com) with the email heading ‘Starkey’ and the body of their message containing their full name, departmental affiliation, and whether or not they’re staff or students (undergrads or postgrads) or alumni (who should include their year of graduation if possible).

I would be very grateful to anyone willing to share and promote this letter – we need signatures to demonstrate how utterly unacceptable this is, and how poorly Starkey represents our community. Feel free to retweet, share, and reblog.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

‘Dear World’: David Starkey does not speak for Cambridge University on Race or Gender

A few weeks ago, I heard about the ‘Dear World’ campaign, a campaign by the University of Cambridge. I heard that it was designed to publicise the amazing research different academics and faculties pursue. It was designed to get people excited, to make them feel inspired, to show them why what we do matters. It would – so the person who told me about it, buzzing with excitement – give a voice to all of us junior researchers and all of the diffident senior academics who never quite managed to explain our work.

But then, I watched the video introducing it, and my heart sank. The opening few minutes will show you why. The video opens with a classic classroom scene; a voice – humming with vibrato like a badly-tuned cello – orates the words of the title: Dear World. And onto the screen paces David Starkey, in character as a crusty professor beside a dusty chalk board, frowning furiously at the viewer. He intones, as if it were a line of Hamlet, a question that is unblushing use of REF jargon: ‘How do you measure the impact of a university?’

We then cut to a breathy series of female voiceovers, tumbling over each other eagerly, one of which suggests we could look at ‘the number of students who have led countries’. I couldn’t help but think of Cambridge’s – and Britain’s – part in empire-building. I winced to hear Starkey talk of ‘friendships that span the globe’, still more to hear him approvingly label an image of black men and women ‘having bigger ideas in Africa’ … as if Africa were a single country, in need of salvation at the hands of a largely white university half a world away.

My image of Cambridge University doesn’t have much room for David Starkey. Starkey is notorious for his misogynistic belittling of women who work in my discipline, and it’s in that context I first noticed him. But he’s also pushed the boat out with gratuitously racist remarks, which are a matter of public record, and perfectly well known to Cambridge. Why on earth is he the spokesperson for any sort of campaign – still less one that claims to be altruistic?

In my lectures, I don’t talk as much about racism as I wish I could. I do lecture a course on Middle English romance, and in that course, I talk about the ways these popular medieval fictions generate and perpetuate bigoted stereotypes – misogynistic, racist, disablist, xenophobic and Islamophobic, amongst other things – in forms that have endured to the present day. I find this course hard to teach. The first time I delivered it, last year, I limited by topic to misogyny: there, I felt on firm enough ground to discuss these texts from a personal perspective, to bring in what had always been left out in my own experience of Cambridge English Literature, to open up space to recognise rape myths and victim-blaming, to identify the tropes of the Bad Mother and the deviant sexualised woman. But I also found that, more and more, I was looking at the ways these texts dealt with race. And, while I’m a white woman who has little business lecturing anyone about racism, I found I couldn’t ignore it. I had students in my lectures who were frowning or nodding, asking questions or emailing me, trying to get a grip on what this literature they were reading was telling them about the way European and British culture has represented men and women who looked like them.

And there were too few of these students in my lectures. There were too few of them at Cambridge.

I felt that I had to talk about the gaps in the course they study, about the biases that keep us looking at literature that smooths over Britain’s history of racism, and Europe’s medieval culture of racism, which leaves a legacy right up to 2015. I had to show that the same tired old images of blackness and Judaism, the same images of foreign ‘Others’ and violent invaders and benefit-grabbing immigrants, have been the stuff of popular fiction for centuries. So, this year, I came back wanting to find a way to talk more honestly about race. I came back, and pretty soon I read about a black Oxford Rhodes scholar who was repeatedly refused entry to his college by gate keepers who assumed he must be a workman or a tourist, not a student. I read about a student here at Cambridge who was mistaken for one of the few other black women students in her college. I read about the death threats issued to my colleague, simply for publicising academic research that demonstrates the importance of black cultures in medieval Europe. It’s not my issue, but I felt angry, and I feel more angry now.

Much of the ‘Dear World’ Campaign is wonderful, and could make us all so excited to be here. But Starkey’s voice is all over it. The video implies that Starkey’s racism and misogyny can be swept under the carpet. It implies that, so long as a carefully-selected group of women and of people from ethnic minorities are shown, smilingly delivering snippets of voiceover interwoven with Starkey’s patrician tones, it’s all ok.

It’s not ok.

This video perpetuates an image of educational hierarchy, with Starkey pinning us with his gaze, breathing professorial authority, speaking sonorous RP … teaching, for goodness’ sake, using a chalk blackboard, like a relic of the good old days when closed scholarships kept Cambridge for the better class of young gentleman. Women, and people from ethnic minorities, are allowed speaking parts – but all subsumed under Starkey’s authority, their words splinted up into quick quotations pressed into service of an image that’s as much about Starkey the revered academic, as it is about the Cambridge University I know and work in.

Starkey concludes the video with all the simplicity of a speaker who has never had to question his own profound privilege. As the montage of cutting-edge research intercut with enthusiastic young students comes to a close, he orates “… and that is how you measure the impact of a university”. I beg to differ. I doubt there’s any one way to measure the impact of a university – unless you’re interested in cheap metrics and gimmicky attempts to pre-empt REF 2020 – but certainly, one way would be to stand beside students and faculty who’ve been insulted by racist comments, and to respond to this video: Dear World, no, David Starkey does not speak for us here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments

Meryl Streep’s T Shirt, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Body, and Plural Narratives of Oppression


Quotation is a tricky business, and so – as I’m about to remind myself as I’m beginning a new term teaching – is interpretation of words written far in the past. Connotations and implications that were once so obvious they didn’t need spelling out, become dated and obscure within a surprisingly short time – and if you whittle a quotation down to a few pithy words, or a single bold statement, you’re basically leaving it standing out there shivering, wondering where all the comforting context went. And this is a particular problem with feminist quotations, which seem to be subject to a kind of massed, retrospective contempsplaining effect, as everyone rushes to tell long-dead feminist women what they really meant. For example, I’ve seen de Beavoir’s famous dictim, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” interpreted as a powerful attack on the idea that women are oppressed due to their reproductive biology. And it makes me wince every time, because women’s words deserve to be read in context, not snipped down to the smallest space possible, like a photoshopped model’s unrecognisable body in Vogue.

I’m thinking, as you may have guessed, of the slogan printed on T Shirts, worn by Meryl Streep to promote her new film, The Suffragette. Streep, and the T Shirts, have been the subject of a feeding frenzy, with commentators piling on to express their shock and to point out that the word ‘slave’ is, erm, kinda liable to evoke racist connotations.

Which it is. If you’re looking for an explanation, I couldn’t put it better than Charline Jao, writing in The Mary Sue: “I personally subscribe to the idea that “slave” and “slavery” should not be used outside of referring to the structural violence of treating the body of another as commodity.”

However, there’s more to the unfortunate slogan than that. If you’re reading this in from outside the US, you may not know that ‘rebel’ in that context has a specific connotation, which is still fresh in a lot of people’s minds: ‘rebel’ Confederate flags, signifying allegiance with the defeated South in the Civil War, are still flown in some US states, and they’ve come to be associated with White Pride and entrenched racism. (Disclaimer: not my circus, not my monkeys, please don’t yell at me if nuances of this strike you as simplistic.)

In that context, the juxtaposition of ‘rebel’ with ‘slave’ suggests racial conflicts, and – don’t get me wrong – I’d wince to see someone wearing this T Shirt without realizing that’s one way it might be read. But that’s the problem with snappy, soundbite quotations: they don’t come with context. A fuller quotation gives a little more of what Pankhurst said, and I’ve seen it reproduced in several debates on this issue:

“I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”

This does help: at least you can see here that Pankhurst is talking about women, specifically. But we really need the full context. Friends of mine immediately noticed that there’s a tendency to assume UK struggles for equality followed the same pattern as those of the US, both legally and polemically. Katharine Edgar points out that – broadly – in the UK the main discriminating factor within the category of women (and men) who were allowed to vote was economic. Until 1918 (men) and 1928 (women), people had to have a certain amount of wealth in property, in order to be allowed to vote. Obviously, this functioned as a form of covert racial discrimination, but not an absolute ideological racial barrier. Black men were able to vote before white women, and it’s even been claimed that the first black man to vote in England, Ignatius Sancho, was born in 1729, well over a century before the US Civil War.

Why does any of this matter? After all, the presence of a few individuals who evade widespread discrimination hardly suggests that the UK was some kind of haven of racial equality (and I wouldn’t want to argue that). And it seems clear to me that pretending the Suffragettes were some kind of time-travelling secular saints who floated free of all the bigotry of their era, is absurd.

But it’s also – I think – absurd to treat this as a problem with Pankhurst’s speech, rather than with the way her quotation reads, taken out of context and placed on a T Shirt in 2015.

When Pankhurst made her speech, slavery labelled as such was illegal in the UK, but, within that relative (very relative!) legal freedom, women’s bodies had been commodified within Pankhurst’s lifetime. Indeed, when she married in 1879, the legal act that would make it possible for married women to own property – that is, to be financially enfranchised – was still three years in the future. The famous campaigner Caroline Norton, who died just a couple of years before Pankhurst’s marriage, had managed to stir up public sympathy when her husband refused to divorce her and also claimed her earnings as his property, leaving her unable to earn a living and banning her from seeing her sons (which was also his legal right). Lower-profile women, naturally, lacked both the influential friends and the wealthy context of Norton, and faced stark choices between starvation, prostitution, or resigning themselves to the ownership of their husbands (with legalised marital rape). Slowly, women like Norton and Pankhurst were beginning to challenge the structural violence that treated them as non-persons, as individuals whose earning power and legal rights were controlled entirely by men.

There are two things that bother me about the way I’ve seen this controversy play out in the media and in discussions. One problem – which is common to an awful lot of feminist issues – is that we’re being encouraged to treat feminist foremothers as if they must be discredited, as if we should expect them to act as if they’re perfect citizens of 2015, not ordinary women living in their own times. Feminism, in other words, is everyone’s punchbag. The other problem is that, in judging Pankhurst according to the rhetoric of US racists, we act as if there’s only one possible narrative of equal rights, only one way in which human beings have understood intersecting oppressions. That’s damaging, because it imposes a false sense of inevitability onto history. It prevents us from looking at history and learning from it, because we’re too busy assuming that oppression – and fights against oppression – have only ever followed one sequence and one narrative, the same in the UK as the US and as everywhere else. That’s just a tiny step away from naturalising narratives of oppression, and imagining they could only happen in one way, as if we as a species are predestined to be oppressive bigots. And if we do that, then we’re erasing all the work the suffragettes did – that Pankhurst did – in insisting that oppression is not natural and is something we can fight on multiple fronts.

We need to make space to listen to far more of women’s history, far more of women’s feminist writings, not to shout them down or pin them to the narrow narrative of oppression that’s often all the history women and minorities are allowed to claim.

Update: This is a thought-provoking piece on the Suffragette movement and the racial dynamics of its members.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Roger Fuckbythenavel and the Strange Case of the Queer Deer


Christmas cards, available at the Fitzwilliam Museum Shop. Image from Cambridge, Fitzwilliam MS 254, f. 10r (detail).

Browsing in the Fitzwilliam Museum shop last week, I found this image in the selection of upmarket Christmas cards. It’s charmingly medieval and vaguely reindeer-like, and no one else seemed to think it was out of place in the nice display of highbrow Christmassy gear. But I’d like to believe that the sinister cult responsible for the rainbow over Dublin last May was in on this one, because these, as you see from the matching masculine antlers, are queer deer.

Let me explain. Way back in the summer, I went to the EEBS conference in Oxford, where Kathleen Tonry showed parts of the illuminated manuscript now Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335. It features a pair of be-antlered deer who seemed to be whispering intimate secrets to each other as a hunter hidden in the bushes peeked at them like a fifteenth-century flasher. Since only male deer have antlers, I figured this was a particularly subversive homoerotic and cross-species take on the romantic trope of pursuit, and I got halfway through planning out a very erudite paper on the idea of queering the objectifying gaze that was studded with references to Wyatt and George Boleyn, Dame Juliana Berners and the genderqueer hawks of medieval lyric, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s steamy hunt-and-homosexuality subplot.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335, f. 57r (detail). From 'The Master of Game'.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335, f. 57r (detail). From ‘The Master of Game’.

Then I came to my senses.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of queer deer. On the quiet, I enjoy the way they’re hidden in plain sight, in the middle of a fairly conservative, William Morrisey, white middle-class Christianity type of display. I also like the surprise factor that you get from thinking about a medieval image from a modern perspective. There’s a long-standing popular belief that medieval culture is a mish-mash of chastity belts and sighing ladies, kneeling knights straight out of pre-Raphaelite painting and a vague sense that them Dark Ages folk were illiterate, superstitious and dull. This popular belief doesn’t have room for the idea of queer deer – let alone queer humans, or even any kind of sexual activity not heavily policed by church and state – because it suits us to imagine medieval England as a particular kind of oppressive, sexually repressed regime, a neat historical parallel to Islamic fundamentalism.

A recent bit of news demonstrates how tightly we cling to that image of medieval England.

Someone recently proposed a new candidate for the first English usage of the f-word – it’s a hot topic – in the name of one Roger Fuckbythenavel, who was outlawed in 1311. Dr Paul Booth, suggests, perhaps rather wishfully waving one hand towards the REF impact agenda, that the epithet might have come about as a form of medieval ‘revenge porn’, put about by a fed-up ex-girlfriend wanting to mock poor Roger’s clumsy technique. I quite like this discovery, not so much for the swearing or the tendentiously topical gloss, but because it lends weight to a homoerotic reading of a romance I work on, where men are constantly thrusting things suggestively at each others’ middles. I’ve been suspecting for some time that the word ‘navel’ had a whole lot more euphemistic connotation than it ought to, in that text. Euphemism is hard to prove in the absence of suggestive eyebrow-raising from a live audience, and so I’d like to think this discovery might be a tiny hint about fashions in innuendo, as well as formative fucks.

This is how I picture Roger Fuckbythenavel. Don't ask me why. Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century. Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

This is how I picture Roger Fuckbythenavel. Don’t ask me why.                                            Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century.
Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

Yet, there is a special circle in Hell for people who dash into the comments sections of articles to dribble their confidently-asserted idiocies all over the internet, secure in the belief that the world is waiting with bated breath for those same urban myths every other idiot has just posted, and I knew this discovery would bring them out. Kate Wiles, who’d shared the link on twitter, had also linked to her old post ‘On the Origin of Fuck’, which rattles through the common misconceptions about the term:

“One origin story for fuck is that it comes from when sex was outlawed unless it was permitted explicitly by the king, so people who were legally banging had Fornication Under Consent of the King on their doors, or: F.U.C.K. But obviously that’s wrong. As are all of the other nonsensical acronyms floating about (anything ending in Carnal Knowledge uses words which wouldn’t be used until AFTER the contents of this blog post). So if you do believe any of that, stop it. Stop it right now.”

She includes a discussion of the term ‘windfucker’, a nice Anglo-Saxon-influenced name for a kestrel unaccountably overlooked by Hopkins when he was writing The Windhover, and points out that the term originally meant ‘to strike’ or ‘to beat’. But, despite reeeaaallllly detailed and patient explorations of different uses of the word and different theories, her comments section is full of people falling over their keyboards to rush in and reinstate the myths she’s just busted. When that article went viral, Wiles reposted it on the Huff Post, and, delightfully, some idiot zoomed in to accused Wiles of ‘stealing’ a published piece and reblogging it. Commentators who accept the idea of male-dominated, officially-documented authority that lies behind the F.U.C.K. myth don’t seem to recognise any professional expertise behind a blog by a young female historian like Wiles.

I mention all of this because – predictably – the same thing’s happening on the new article. There’s the classic pompous idiocy (“I guess the author has never read the Canterbury tales (@1387) wherein Chaucer used the word (The Miller’s Tale) …”), which manages to be wrong in at least two ways as well as pretty funny (the Canterbury Tales, that arcane and little-known text). There are a couple of comments by people who obviously haven’t realised reading medieval handwriting is something you get trained to do, and not a matter of squinting hard and making things up (well … ok …). And obviously, there’s a zillion repetitions of the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge bullshit (and its variants), of which my favourite is this:

“Fornrication Under Consumation of the King !!! Only the King could give permission to fornicate. Women wore Chastity belts when the spouse went to war and was gone for long periods of time. Then the King would have the belts removed.”

It’s unfair to pick on random people, I know. But I am picking on it, because the issues with this persistent set of confidently-asserted myths are pretty revealing. Chastity belts are one of the images of the medieval that never seem to die. At best, they’re literary devices or symbolic objects, until the Victorians come along and decide that the image of maidens locked into iron belts perfectly fits their somewhat fetishistic idea of medieval womanhood. There’s a strange, nursery-rhyme innocence to the idea that the king would relate personally to each of his subjects (all 2.5 million of them), and a rather more worrying lack of anatomical plausibility (hundreds of women, locked into metal belts for months and years, might just possibly struggle with basic biological functions, not to mention getting gangrene from metal rubbing against skin). Suffice to say, these are misconceptions that aren’t just implausible – they’re downright absurd.

But it’s what they say about ideas of authority and freedom of expression that I’m interested in. In this re-writing of medieval England, the king is absolute ruler, literally and physically controlling his subjects’ sexuality. His surveillance is so complete, so meticulously recorded in writing, that it has given us our foremost swearword. It’s an image of medieval England that couldn’t possibly have existed, one that draws on immensely more powerful and overt methods of control and legislation than any medieval king ever had. People cling tenaciously to this image of masculine totalitarian control.

Medieval practices of gender and sexuality undoubtedly were policed, just as ours are. But much of that policing was – just as ours is – carried out indirectly, through habits of thought and action far more subtle than a king’s command and far less visible than a written order. My ‘queer deer’ are so unthinkable – so incomprehensible to whoever selects the cards for the Fitzwilliam – that we assume, automatically, that they must be a modern interpretation imposed on medieval imagery. And yet, we accept the ahistorical – multiply ahistorical – idea of the medieval woman, bound into her chastity belt and constrained by the order of her king – because that image of controlled feminine sexuality fits our image of the medieval period, as an image of queer sexuality cannot. Why is that?

My ‘queer deer’ are currently sitting on my desk, and I’ll definitely send some of them out as Christmas cards this December. Sadly, the reason for their paired masculine antlers is most likely quite mundane. As the repetition of the image across several manuscripts shows, it’s not unusual Fitzwilliam MS 254 is a bestiary, written in Latin in the early years of the thirteenth century. It illustrates the word ‘cervus’ (‘deer’), which is related to the word for ‘horn’ – so etymologically-correct deer have to have antlers just like snails have knights and lions have St Jerome. We moderns – thinking of couples of animals as automatic sexual pairings, like Noah counting creatures into the Ark – are probably alone in reading a bit of cervine neck-nuzzling as quasi-sexual. But – as penalties laid down for lesbian nuns, as records on medieval women seeking divorce, as stories of medieval men marrying forbidden women indicate – we’re not alone in suspecting medieval England of being more than a totalitarian regime, and perhaps even a place where queer deer could roam free.


I am now even more delighted by the queer deer cards, because the fantastically learned G. H. Finn (@ over on twitter) has this brilliant update. When I saw the card, I figured the modern card-maker must have thought these looked vaguely like reindeer, hence, Christmassy. But I put that thought mostly to one side, as I know for the medieval artist, they’re not probably not reindeer. 

Finn points out, though, that unlike the common British species of deer the artist might have seen, horns aren’t a marker of sex difference in reindeer – except during the winter, when male deer lose their horns but female deer do not. As he sweetly puts it, this means ‘Rudolph must be female’.

And it also means that my Christmas-card identically horned deer may not have been queer deer for etymologically-minded medieval artists, but they’re certainly lesbian reindeer for us.

Posted in Uncategorized | 21 Comments

The Self Evident Truth Project, Lily Rose Depp, and the Never-Ending Media Fuckup of Discussing Women’s (Bi)sexuality

You know how they all like rainbows. All of them.

Bisexuals all like rainbows. All of them. Also pink. And the more esoteric varieties of macramé. That’s how you can spot them.

My friend just posted this piece, which ostensibly praises Johnny Depp’s daughter, all of sixteen years old, for the way she “just came out in a pretty inspiring way”. The tone of ‘pretty inspiring’ strikes me as remarkably patronising: ‘OMG, like, a teenage girl could be inspiring! It’s sooooo cute, and I’ve never heard of Malala Yousafzai!’ As my friend observed, this article is basically sleazy gossip dressed up as LGBT activism. Lily Rose Depp has, apparently, been part of an instagram project featuring photos of people who identify as anything other than completely straight. Now, don’t get me wrong: that’s lovely, and awesome, and the message is brilliant. It’s always a good thing to remind people not to assume heterosexuality. And this is a nice, celebratory way of doing that. I like it a lot. What I don’t particularly like is the way the article frames this particular ‘story’ (if you want to call it that). The journalist, Ashley Percival, writes:

“Lily … is yet to speak about her sexual orientation in her own words, or clarify where she considers herself on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning and Asexual spectrum.”

Now, first off, Lily isn’t actually required to speak ‘in her own words’, instagram being a visual medium. She’s not being coy. She’s participating in a project that’s visual. But, just by phrasing it this way, Percival makes it sound as if Depp is keeping something from us, or (hint, hint) perhaps as if she’s not quite sure of herself. In contrast, to say she’s “yet to … clarify where she considers herself” implies that the sixteen-year-old has a fixed idea of her sexual orientation (did you, at 16? Good for you). It implies it’s her human duty to explain to us where on that spectrum she is. Which, to me, rather misses the whole bloody point of talking about a spectrum and making an instagram project welcoming everyone on said spectrum without distinguishing, but what do I know? The point is, this combination of sly insinuations that a teenage girl’s sexuality is entirely our business, combined with the subtle hints that Depp might be unsure of herself, form a familiar pattern. And Percival’s conclusion follows that pattern, in case we miss what’s being implied here:

“In recent months, Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart and Miley Cyrus have all spoken about their sexually fluid orientations, after beginning relationships with women.”

Have they really? I had a google. Stewart and Cyrus have both said things along those lines, but what about this?

“My sexuality is not a phase. I am who I am” – Cara Delevingne, Huffington Post, 17/7/15.

Remarkably, this doesn’t look like ‘fluidity’ to me. Nor does it look particularly as if Delevingne decided this ‘after beginning relationships with women’.

Another Huffington Post article – they’re not coming out (snurk) of this well, are they? – lambasts Delevingne for, erm, seeming to like men and women and therefore not being a very good lesbian. Delevingne, who’s expressed her sexuality in the most concrete, ‘don’t tell me who I am’ terms, gets slapped down for it. Partly, this is purely economic, like the trash media’s treatment of Jennifer Aniston’s shockingly long period of being a happily unmarried woman. It’s good for magazines to sell endless cycles of speculation about heartbreak and marriage; it’s boring to suggest that she might just be enjoying life. So too here: if we can run non-stop ‘is she or isn’t she?’ stories, so much the better. But there’s something else going on. In the Guardian a few days ago, Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote a piece titled ‘Not Gay, Not Straight, Just Thinking Outside the Box’, which managed to use the term ‘bisexual’ just once. In the context of the phrase ‘bisexual or bicurious’.


Bisexuality is not inherently more ‘fluid’ that homo- or heterosexuality. I doubt your average bisexual person is attracted to more people than your average lesbian or straight woman; I’ve met plenty of lesbians and straight women who have much less of a narrow ‘type’ than some bisexuals.

Why am I wittering on about this? Well, it’s a nice outlet for my irritation. I do find these articles irritating, and I do think implying a teenage girl has a duty to ‘clarify’ her sexuality to anyone is repellent, and I do want to shake the next person who writes a puff piece subtly implying women who date women do it because they’re waaayyy confused in their tiny ladybrains.

But it’s more than that. Focusing on the individual – as the media does with young women celebs – tends to obscure the wider structural issues. If we make out that Depp’s sexuality is a nine days’ wonder she ought to ‘clarify’ to us, then her project illustrating the normality of that sexuality is undermined. If we insist on lumping together Delevingne, who represents herself as distinctly un-‘fluid’ in her sexuality, together with other women who comfortably uses that term, we’re doing a disservice to all of them. On this blog, I almost always end up talking about how women are silenced, how women’s voices should be heard more often and more clearly. But here, for once, I’m glad I’m talking about a silence. Depp doesn’t have to ‘clarify’ her sexuality – to herself, to anyone else, to the public or in private – because the project she actually chose to spend her time on is making the visual point that this sexuality doesn’t require any explanation. As the organisers of the project point out, it’s a Self Evident Truth.


Jem Bloomfield just commented on twitter (correctly) that in this sort of context, ‘fluid’ tends to mean ‘amenable to male desire/gaze’. This is a commonly acknowledged point about the way popular stereotypes of bisexuality are gendered (bisexual men are not usually seen as ‘fluid’ but as ‘closet gays’). But it also reminded me of the network of images I have in the back of my mind when people talk about ‘fluidity’ in the context of sexuality and gender, and why I have such a kneejerk reaction against the term. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – which I studied, and loved for A Level English – there’s a beautifully balanced architecture of binary oppositions associated with the eponymous lovers: Rome and Egypt, military and romantic, pragmatic and sensual … and, of course, land and water. Cleopatra’s whole being is fluid sexuality; her downfall is her watery failure to stick to her guns.

I love this play, and I love Cleopatra, who I’d strongly argue (pace Mrs Young, and thank you for putting up with me) is the hero of the play. I also love the reading, which I didn’t know of at the time, of her handmaidens Charmian and Iras as lesbian (or bisexual?) lovers. But Shakespeare, like other men before him, is associating female sexuality with fluidity in a distinctly negative way. Fluidity is both slippery and passive: it lacks firm presence and it washes away. Ultimately, like Egypt, it allows itself to be invaded by Roman masculinity; like water, it is defined by the solidity around it, not by its own presence. In this respect, then, when we stereotype bisexual women as ‘fluid’ in their sexuality, we’re buying into a wider stereotype of all female sexuality as defined by (male) heterosexuality and in need of masculinity to control it and give it boundaries. Thanks, but no thanks.

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor, She’d Kick Judith Butler’s Arse

The Toast just published a piece titled ‘If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor‘, and it’s awesome.

In general, The Toast is awesome, and particularly their medievalism, and particularly their medieval feminism, so, really, you should go read it and you should not be surprised it’s awesome. But, for once, it’s also wrong like a wrong thing. Laura Moncion speculates:

“If Julian of Norwich were your professor, she would be good friends with Judith Butler. Sometimes you would hear their uproarious laughter coming from Julian’s office. You’d peek in and find both of them in front of the computer, watching cat videos together.”

No. No, this is Not Right.

Judith Butler, you see, writes pretentiously dense musings on gender which (I strongly suspect, if only I could ever concentrate for more than three seconds on her tortured use of the English language), boil down to ‘let’s write “epistemology” more often and make sure we don’t exclude any men from the feminism’.

Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, living in a tiny cell and in a culture where you write things out longhand, rewrote her entire book in order to make it clearer. Judith Butler is the sort of person whose rewritten introduction to Gender Trouble is so obfuscatory it requires its own explanatory notes.

Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, if Margery Kempe applied to be her grad student, would leave you in no doubt of the power relationship. She’d have Margery meet her for coffee and she’d let Margery fangirl at her, and she’d write her a list of books to read. And Margery would go away thinking they’d had a real meeting of minds, but she would also instinctively know never to send Julian her rough drafts at 11pm with I just sorta wanted to know what you think of this emails. Julian would write quietly professional references for Margery.

Judith Butler is the sort of person who would take on Margery Kempe as a grad student and talk about her to you in your supervisions, so you ended up knowing more about Margery’s sex life than you wanted to know, and wouldn’t be able to look at Margery over coffee because Judith would have told you about that embarrassing time at the departmental party when John and Margery were having a bad time. Then you’d see her pop up on facebook telling Margery she’s questioning the practice of masculinist oppression with her new relationship status. She’d encourage Margery not to bother redrafting her thesis. Just hand it in! Tell them the letters are not shaped or formed like other letters, but self-constructed in a dialogic matrix of anti-universalising commentary on being and becoming! Margery would never get a postdoc and would languish on the fringes of academia wondering where it all went wrong and whether Judith really meant it that time they both got tipsy and Judith admitted yes, sometimes I think it might just be the patriarchy that’s the problem too.

But the main thing (as anyone who works on medieval religious culture knows) is that Julian, and Margery, and Richard Rolle, and pretty much anyone who was writing at all, makes Judith Butler look about 600 years out of date. Butler’s big issue is gender essentialism, by which she means, what does it mean to be a ‘woman’, who gets to be in that category, how is it socially constructed and why does it continue to be an important concept.

You might expect that Julian, writing in late medieval England, would think about gender as a binary thing, an innate and fundamental difference between men and women. You do find bits of her work where she associates femininity with the body and the emotions, with nurturing and caring. Christ, writes Julian, is mother-like in that Christ “ is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh”. Christ took on ‘sensuality’ – not the modern word, but the medieval word meaning senses, feelings, capacity to experience bodily and emotional life – and this act of mercy towards humanity is a maternal act.

But Julian doesn’t just imply that the loving and nurturing elements of life are innately feminine. In medieval interpretations of sexual reproduction, the female role is simply to carry and nourish the foetus – medieval science taught that the actual spark of human life, the soul itself – came from the man. This basic axiom gives rise to a web of misogynistic implications, from the idea that creative genius is innately male, to the idea that women are vessels for life rather than active participants in its creation. You shouldn’t underestimate the impact of it: it’s the idea that lies behind contemporary anti-abortion rhetoric and the pervasive belittling of intellectual women alike. And Julian utterly rejects it.

I … accepted the fact that our substance is in God; that is to say that God is God and our substance is a creature in God. For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and preserves us in himself; the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are enclosed; the lofty goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us.

We are enclosed in the Father, we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit. The Father is enclosed in us.”

Here, Julian is trying to get at what Butler would call epistemology: the study of the truth of things. But her image of enclosure is maternal – she’s explaining the relationship of truth to human understanding in terms of pregnancy, of containment of one body within another enclosing body. And yet, you notice that while God is imagined as a maternal figure who encloses humanity and gives meaning to humanity’s understanding of ‘substance’, of human nature, humanity is also pregnant with God, enclosing God, sensing God as a woman feels the kicks and movements of a foetus in the womb.

This is part of Julian’s highly radical imagery of space, which famously includes her vision of the entirety of creation pictured as if it were a tiny thing, the size of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand. But, while her ideology of space is radical because it invites us to confront our ideas about magnitude, it’s also radical because it forces us to think about how somatic experience measures what we think about truth and gender. Julian’s experience is deeply rooted in her female body, and the language she uses to grapple with epistemology is something like a questioning version of écriture féminine, female writing. She imagines God as female and male, and human struggles to conceptualise God as a process that overspills the cultural boundaries of masculine and feminine activity. But she’s also incredibly simple and direct about the limits of understanding, and that’s where I think she and Judith Butler would never see eye to eye. Julian knows when something is too big a concept to reduce, and she doesn’t try to speak around the issues.

I’m not seriously trying to argue that Julian of Norwich can be separated from the profoundly misogynistic world of late-medieval England, or that she invented gender fluidity, the concept of performativity, or any other buzzwords of the Judith Butler fan club. The point, really, is that the idea of challenging a fixed, static, binary model of gender is, in itself, a piece of ahistorical arrogance on the part of scholars. Medieval interpretations of what we might call ‘gender’ or ‘sex’ or ‘gender identity’ are hugely varied, hugely nuanced, and hugely incomprehensible to us now. We can find ideas that seem to confirm our prejudices – stereotypes of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ – and we can find ones that seem, excitingly, to suggest twenty-first-century sensibilities trapped in genderfluid, queer, non-binary medieval bodies. But we’re being wise after the fact. Before we start assuming it’s new and exciting to ‘trouble’ stable conceptions of gender, we need to question whether it’s already been done.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments