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Me performing at Tribal Revolution, June 2015. Photo by Carrie Meyer.

I attended the Woodhull Summit on Sexual Freedom last weekend, and while there, took part in an excellent workshop on shame led by sex educator Charlie Glickman. As I was taking notes and live-tweeting as much of Glickman’s fantastic content as I could, I began to notice some points of overlap between shame resilience techniques and the way I teach dance.

The first point of overlap is that when we’re talking about shame, we can discuss not only what it is and how it feels, but also how it looks on the physical body. Glickman defines shame as the sense that one is a bad person, and that shaming oneself or others is often destructive, but it can also lead to positive outcomes, such as giving one an incentive to not do certain unhealthy things again. Yet the discussion of shame can go much deeper than emotion & reaction; we can also talk about the physical behaviors that embody shame.

This is where it gets really interesting to me, since I’m a huge fan of discussing embodiment. According to Glickman’s research, shame gets embodied through:

  • Looking away or breaking eye contact
  • Physical disconnection
  • Closing off one’s heart or slouching
  • Silence

If anyone has seen Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about posture, you’ll know that she basically substantiated through research a correlative relationship between posture and performance. People who hold confident “power postures” perform better on all sorts of tests and by all kinds of measures, and people who do the opposite do worse. The lower-confidence, less-powerful postures all align with shame embodied states.

This is where teaching belly dance comes in. Specifically, I teach American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, wherein posture is supremely important. We borrow a lot from flamenco, which accounts for some of our uplifted posture, and ultimately, much of the dance form’s overall aesthetic emphasizes lifted lines, which you can see in the photo of me performing that’s at the top of this blog post. By merely teaching this dance form, and by constantly reminding my students to maintain their posture, I’m helping them with a small mental hack to improve their emotional states. It might be a tiny thing in the context of their lives, and I don’t have peer-reviewed research to back this up, but I believe that I’m doing something to combat shame-induced posture and thereby contributing a little bit of positivity to my dance students’ lives.

The second point of overlap has to do with my teaching practices. There are a number of things that feed shame, such as unspoken rules, bigotry, and unhealthy hierarchy. Guess which things I don’t allow in my dance classes? I make all of my classroom rules explicit, and I do so with gentle humor, like when I correct someone’s “I can’t!”speech to a phrase of “I can’t…yet.” (example: “I can’t shimmy!” “If you’re going to say ‘I can’t’ remember to throw a ‘yet’ in there, so you can’t shimmy yet, but you will.”) I don’t let my students get away with body-shaming statements, even when they sound completely innocuous because they’re so dang common in our culture. I encourage an open learning environment by constantly asking if they have questions, and always making it safe to ask, or to take time for self-care, or really, anything they need.

It might sound like I run a loosey-goosey dance class but believe me, my dance students learn. They drill. They achieve really wonderful things. I try to tell them how proud I am of them, in blog posts like this one and in person.

I’ve felt shame in the dance classroom before, and it’s no fun. I try to structure my dance classes in such a way that my students will rarely go to that place, and if they do, hopefully we can work through it together to get somewhere useful. As Glickman noted in his presentation, not all shame is bad; it can be an adaptive response, depending on how you handle it and what you draw from the experience of it. It’s my hope that if shame ever surfaces in my dance classroom, we’ll work with it and through it together.

The final point I’d like to make is that shame is about disconnection, and its opposites (love, growth, healing, and community) are about connection, emotional and otherwise. My teaching style encourages a sense of trust in the dance classroom: in fellow students, in me, and in the wonderful improvisational dance language we practice together. In a broad sense, my hope is that by teaching a style of dance that gently pushes students into connecting with one another through eye contact and trust (because as a follower you have to trust the leader giving the cues for the next move, and when you lead, you have to trust the followers to be synced up with you), I’m paving the way for connection rather than disconnection, for empathy and love rather than shame.

I know that the sense of connection I found through tribal dance has benefited me in innumerable ways, including saving my life during a rough patch. This discussion of shame vs. connection is still a little abstract, and again, I don’t have empirical studies to back me up here. But when I see my dance students returning session after session and sticking with the style, I see them blossoming and incrementally becoming more trusting of each other when they dance, and more confident in general.

Sometimes people remark on how I do such disparate things in my life – writing, folklore, sex education, dance – and this is one example of how everything ties together. I went to a sexual freedom conference, attended a fantastic panel on shame, and realized that my dance teaching style is implicitly geared toward removing shame from the dance classroom in order to foster connection, confidence, and caring. How cool is that?!

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Ack, I’d meant to post more this month. But this month turned into moving (which involved a multi-state roadtrip to accomplish family and furniture goals all in one go), plus facing the academic job market, plus traveling to New Orleans for the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting (which was a blast, as expected).

So I’ve been busy.

But I’ve also been thinking about where we stop, where we set our goals, where we declare ourselves complacent. For me, as a feminist, that’s a touchy issue; I don’t know if we’ll ever satisfactorily determine the extent to which men and women are different or the same. Nature and nurture are notoriously difficult to entangle. So part of the issue is: when should feminists stop demanding equal rights for women? What if we find out that there are, in fact, ways in which men and women are substantially different so we can’t really aspire to equality in certain sectors to begin with?

I don’t tend to take that argument very far, as I think we can aspire to a ton of equal rights sorts of things while core similarities/differences remain unresolved. Such as, ya know, eliminating sexual violence and rape and lack of access to contraceptive rights. Basic stuff.

However, Laurie Penny’s post on feminism and gratitude really resonated with me. She writes about how

Women have made enormous strides in the past hundred years, yes, of course we have, but let’s get beyond this idea that we’re supposed to be grateful that some of us are now permitted a warped sort of equality in a fundamentally unequal labour market. We have no reason to be grateful. We have every right to want more. We have a right to want everything, including not being morally and financially attacked by bigots in government with a business agenda every time they want to distract attention from their own fuckups. We have every right to demand more than this.

Yes, yes, and yes. Being told to be grateful for how far we’ve come is a derailing tactic, as well as an implicit threat. I am cheerfully ungrateful in the face of everything we have left to accomplish.

This, I suppose, is a nice lead-in to the harvest holiday season. I spent most of yesterday talking about Halloween with my folklore class, but we also discussed the wheel of the year and how seasonal change affected (and continues to affect) agricultural societies. Harvest holidays are especially prominent and widespread, because people use them to mark the time of the year when they have enough to eat, and have to work hard to pull in the last of the crops before the winter comes.

So gratitude has been very much on my mind lately, between folklore topics and personal ones (we live in a nice place; we have food; we have supportive friends and family).

But I refuse to be bullied into being “grateful” for how far women have come. The day when someone can legitimately pull that is a long way off in my view, unfortunately.

In the meantime… yay for autumn and colored leaves and pumpkins!


I’ve been turning this post over in my head for a few months, and now seems like a good time to make it.

I am not accused too often of being an “angry feminist,” but it still happens from time to time. As though that is such a terrible thing to be; worse than a greedy capitalist, or a dishonest politician, or an unapologetic rapist. As though it would be better for me to not be angry or not be feminist, but be something else instead, even if that something else is also a negative trait.

This Tiger Beatdown post on angry-feminist-shaming really resonated with me. In it, Flavia writes: I refuse to be boxed in the simplified category of “ranter” because I am angry. Because this anger makes me “difficult”, it makes me “alienating”, it makes me “impossible to deal with” and I should just accept that certain things just are.

Anger drives us to action; anger keeps us from being complacent. Yet it is a really charged thing for women to be angry, since in many cultures, women are not supposed to get angry. There is no safe way for us to unleash our passions. In folklore, literature, and history, we see the dire consequences of women getting angry: Medea, Snow White’s (step)mother, the doomed Amazons, the Maenads. There is little cultural space for women’s anger. We are supposed to swallow it and, I don’t know, transform it into milk chocolate hearts and rainbow bird’s nests. Or better yet, not feel it at all.

This excellent (but potentially triggering) post at Fugitivus talks about the conditioning women undergo to be pleasant and agreeable in every.single.interaction of their lives, and how given that context, it’s unsurprising that “if you accept those social interactions as normal and appropriate in your day to day life, there is absolutely no reason you should be shocked that rape occurs without screaming, without fighting, without bruising, without provocation, and without prosecution. Behavior exists on a continuum.”

One reason I chafe at the negative connotations of the “angry feminist” label is that it’s meant to police women’s behavior. Because if being an angry woman is clearly unacceptable in our society, being an angry feminist must be a billion times worse.

Another reason I dislike the stigma is that I don’t actually see being an angry feminist as a bad thing depending on what you are doing with that anger. I totally do not mean this to turn into a judgment of how those feminists are doing it wrong but these feminists are doing it right; rather, I mean that anger can be an intensely destructive emotion, and that shit will consume you if you let it. Which is not helpful for anyone, really, unless self-destruction does something unique or desirable for you.

But here is the thing: when feminists are angry, we are angry about oppression. We are angry about women’s (and indeed, men’s) options and identities being limited and defined by patriarchy, religion, laws, culture. We are pissed off that being born with a certain set of genitals means you are far more likely to experience sexual assault, to be denied health care coverage, to take a pay cut for the same work.

And our anger is frequently tempered with empathy. Feminism is a collective movement. You gain empathy by realizing that yeah, it also sucks for people who are both like you and unlike you. That opens you up to awareness that oppression happens on many axes, not just gender/sexuality, but also ethnicity, religious identity, immigrant status, nationality, class, and so on.

When you start to think about oppression and you start to realize how much it sucks to be oppressed, you generally don’t want to inflict those same feelings on others. This is where I’m going with the empathy thing. And while bell hooks has said this way more eloquently than I ever will, this is why feminism can and should intersect with multiple anti-oppression stances, and why all forms of oppression are related.

I think this, ultimately, is why the idea of the angry feminist is so threatening in a contemporary mainstream American/Western context: because the oppressors can’t understand a way of being angry that does not involve doing violence to others. Since that is how they work, by keeping others in check through fear and control. It’s power-over rather than power-with, to borrow a term from Starhawk.

But many feminists (and again, it’s such a broad movement that it’s hard to generalize about) understand that being oppressed–for gender or anything else–really blows, so we channel our anger into challenging oppression, not redirecting it onto whoever’s lower on the totem pole than us. We comprehend the destructive effects of displaced abusive anger and instead strive for transformative passionate anger.

Not that we’re perfect and get it right every time; I still feel helpless, and I still fight losing battles on the internet with people who are turned off by my anger so I really should adopt another tactic but I don’t because this shit is so raw, this being told I am less than human and don’t deserve sovereignty over my body. I am trying to do it better, to be more compassionate, to channel my anger into something useful and not wallow in rageful depression or lash out at potential allies.

This is why I don’t back away from the term angry feminist: I think it can teach us many things. It can be used to start conversations, or to end them, if the idea of an angry woman is so alien as to point out irreconciliable differences that it’s not worth bashing your head against. We do need some amount of self-preservation instincts to keep up this fight while life goes on around us, after all.

I hope that someday we won’t even need the term anymore: that women will have socially acceptable access to the same range of emotions as men, and that the idea of feminism will be something taught in history classes since it’ll no longer be necessary once gender-based oppression is banished forever. Yeah, I can keep dreaming. But I like my anger with a dash of optimism.

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In order to give y’all a glimpse into what it is that I do as a folklorist, I thought I’d share an essay that I wrote for a specific purpose (an application I’m very optimistic about) and have since revised a little. In it, I had to convey what we do in my field and some avenues of research I would like to pursue. Since it was for an application, it’s structured a little differently than my normal writing style, but as I was also trying to describe my scholarship to non-folklorists, I’m hoping it will be interesting and intelligible to my readers out there on the internet. Here goes.


The concept of folklore as traditional and expressive culture is fundamentally intertwined with the notion of power. Folklore has been defined as artistic communication in small groups and as creativity in everyday life. As an academic discipline, folkloristics shares boundaries with anthropology, sociology, linguistics, literature, ethnomusicology, religious studies, and gender studies, among other fields that share our orientation towards group behavior, artistry, language, belief systems, social life, and narrative. Power weaves in and out of each of these ideas, for social life is structured by hierarchies dictating who has access to which resources and roles. Narratives depict the process of gaining the power to control one’s life. Artists have historically thrived under the patronage of the powerful—but artists also subvert dominant paradigms by illustrating inequalities.

My scholarship seeks to illuminate the ways in which folklore and power interact in social life and art, utilizing concepts of identity, belief, creativity, and access (strategies of gaining power) to guide the research process. These connections have not been properly investigated, due in part to the perception of folkloristics as a discipline with primarily festive and joyful topics. This could not be farther from the truth: there is folklore mourning death and dying, just as there is folklore celebrating birth and life. Sick joke cycles and urban legends mock current events and thus provide insights into a society’s collective anxieties, while traumatized refugees and rape survivors work through their experiences narratively.

However, another reason that the intersections of folklore and politics have been underexplored is that folklore and politics do indeed sometimes mesh well, too well, creating discomfort in both scholars and laypeople. For instance, the Nazi regime sanitized folklore in order to indoctrinate their followers, and this has contributed to the cautiousness with which German folklorists must proceed today. Alternately, oppressed nations have used their folklore as a rallying cry, as proof of shared identity and political legitimacy. Examples include the importance of the epic Kalevala to Finnish national identity, and the significance of folksong, folk dance, and national dress to the Estonian nationalist movement (Valk 2010). On top of all of this, scholars are not “supposed” to be political; we are not supposed to be activists, but rather, detached observers and analysts. The reality is, however, that merely choosing to turn one’s attention upon a topic is a political choice.

Much of the scholarship on folklore and power is indebted to the feminist movement. Feminist theory began to trickle into folkloristic research in the 1960s and 1970s (Jorgensen 2010). Feminist folklorists affirmed that the generations of mainly male folklorists primarily documenting men’s folklore rather than women’s folklore resulted in a skewed picture of the discipline (Young and Turner 1993). The study of women’s folklore is thus a corrective endeavor, to address the imbalances of power on an academic level.

Feminist folklorists also recognize that the exercise of power shapes folklore on multiple levels. For instance, an entire scholarly volume was devoted to the practice of “coding,” whereby a non-dominant social group must hide and subvert their messages in order to escape detection and punishment. Examples of women’s coding in folklore range from domestic disrepair to subversive quilting (Radner and Lanser 1993). Coding occurs in other contexts, and is but one instance of the ways in which power and folklore inform one another.

Theoretical Background

Power was, indirectly, a concern of early folklorists such as the Grimm brothers, who collected German folktales in a cultural context where Germany was not yet a nation-state and where Napoleon threatened German identities and proto-nationalist agendas. However, as discussed above, folkloristic works that explicitly address power are a fairly recent phenomenon.

One of the seminal works addressing the relationship of identity and power in folklore is Richard Bauman’s “Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore.” Bauman’s examples, drawn from genres such as taunts and jokes that bridge the communicative spaces between social groups, demonstrate that folklore is a response to and is inextricably wrapped up in the relationships among groups of people with differing access to control over their circumstances (Bauman 1972). Bauman’s essay initiated a shift in folkloristics towards performance as an orienting model. Rather than focusing on the folklore text, scholars began studying the context in which the text was situated, some going so far as to claim that there is no originary text, but instead that folklore is emergent, created in performance (Bauman 1984).

The shift toward performance helped illuminate many of the ways in which power structures folklore events. Patricia Sawin is one of Bauman’s students and one of the few folklorists to apply the power-oriented gender and identity theories of Judith Butler to performance theories of folklore, arguing that comprehensive studies of folklore and power must begin “by looking for evidence of a power imbalance and ask how the esthetic event impinges on and plays out for the less powerful participants” (Sawin 2002, 55). In her work with traditional singer Bessie Eldreth, Sawin demonstrates that “esthetic performance is a central arena in which gender identities and differential social power based on gender are engaged” (48). In other words, folklore performances—which range from song-singing and story-telling sessions to kinesthetic events such as folk-dances and festivals to the creation and consumption of material culture like holiday foods or customary garments—are fraught with power. Power can be contested or reinforced within a performance, and the power at stake need not be gender relations, but could also be ethnic or national tensions.


  • Beliefs about power are an inherent structuring element of folklore because of the fact that folklore is circulated amongst groups of people whose lives are shaped on a daily experiential level by power. Thus any study of folklore must begin with a contextual accounting of the types of power—economic, gendered, racial, class-based, colonial, religious, and so on—that inform the groups from whence folklore springs and wherein it circulates.
  • Every genre of folklore, from nursery rhyme to festival, is structured by power relations and will thus display some aspect of those power relations in their content, context, form, and/or function. However, since folklore does not always show a direct relationship with reality (e.g., fairy tales alter the real world by adding magic), the nature of the relationship with the power sources of the society may be artistically distorted. Therefore, one aim of this project is to note the differing relationships between folklore genres in how they address the distribution of power in society.
  • Genres of folklore that explicitly address power relations will be particularly charged and creative in how they deal with the roles and rituals associated with power. For instance, folklore about gender roles, such as courtship rituals or jokes about sex, will be especially emphatic in their framing of identity. The more a genre is infused with roles of power, the more I expect to find creative strategies making it socially acceptable to address the topic of power, which is frequently taboo as power obscures its own discursive workings (Foucault 1972).
  • The connections between beliefs about and access to power, as well as the creative strategies for debating and displaying power, will thus be visible to the analyst of folklore and identity, even if these relationships take different forms among different groups and between different genres.


Historically, folkloristics has incorporated methods from both the social sciences and the humanities. Our discipline’s concern with the expressive aspects of social life makes it necessary to consider the quantitative and qualitative methods available. Culture is patterned—hence involves numbers and the relationships between them—but culture is also subjective, something that is experienced and felt in both conscious and unconscious ways. Thus, scholars of culture should incorporate both quantitative and qualitative methods where possible.

Folklore materials are generally flexible and adaptable in their forms. Unlike a literary work that is fixed in print once published, folklore materials display variation and multiple existence as part of their defining characteristics (Dundes 1999). For example, it is not uncommon to see legends and jokes that were once oral traditions now being transmitted by email and SMS, while folktales and fairy tales are transformed into films, books, poems, and games. The inherent instability of folklore makes it essential for researchers to be comfortable with a number of tools, methods, and theories.

In American folkloristics especially, there has been a divide between literary and anthropological approaches to folklore (Zumwalt 1988). As my training has been primarily in America (though I’ve benefited from the mentorship of numerous international folklorists), I have the ability to balance and negotiate these complementary research modes.

As I plan to investigate a number of genres, so must I be prepared to utilize various methods to examine them. I will use literary analysis and methodologies from the digital humanities (such as computer programs that allow for advanced text analysis) in order to study genres such as fairy tales and epics that have primarily existed in print in recent years. For those “living” folklore genres such as folk dance, belief, and gendered behavior, I shall utilize fieldwork methods (e.g., participant observation). The anthropological principles of ethical practices and reflexivity inform my fieldwork practices. I always emphasize studying folklore in its cultural context and treating the materials as respectfully as possible.


As my introduction and literature review demonstrate, my project addresses a gap in existing scholarship and thus makes a new and significant contribution to cultural knowledge production. While there are many ways to study folklore, placing power at the forefront of this investigation makes for an exciting and relevant research project. Though I am most drawn to genres such as dance and narrative, the multifaceted and timely hypotheses I propose here give me the flexibility to explore various folklore genres and folk groups depending on which avenues seem the most fruitful, as well as which topics will be conducive to collaboration.

With wars and economic crises afflicting numerous societies today, it is increasingly important to understand how power works, and how power structures both cooperate with and disrupt local traditional cultures. Understanding the dynamic interrelationship of power and folklore will help illuminate conflicts as well as the potential for their resolution in social microcosms and macrocosms.


Bauman, Richard. 1972. “Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore.” In Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, eds. Américo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Austin: University of Texas Press, 31-41.

Bauman, Richard. 1984 [1977]. Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

Dundes, Alan. Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Foucault, Michel 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Jorgensen, Jeana. 2010. “Political and Theoretical Feminisms in American Folkloristics: Definition Debates, Publication Histories, and the Folklore Feminists Communication.” The Folklore Historian 27: 43-73.

Radner, Joan N. and Susan S. Lanser. 1993. “Strategies of Coding in Women’s Cultures.” In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Cultures, ed. John N. Radner. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1-29.

Valk, Ülo. 2008. “Folk and the Others: Constructing Social Reality in Estonian Legends.” In Legends and Landscape: Articles Based on Plenary Papers from the 5th Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium, Reykjavik 2005, ed. Terry Gunnell. University of Iceland Press: Reykjavik. Pp. 153-170.

Valk, Ülo. 2010. “Folklore and Discourse: The Authority of Scientific Rhetoric, from State Atheism to New Spirituality.” In Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science, eds. James R. Lewis and Olav Hammer. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 847-866.

Young, M. Jane and Kay Turner. 1993. “Challenging the Canon: Folklore Theory and Reconsidered from Feminist Perspectives.” In Feminist Theory and the Study of Folklore, eds. Susan Tower Hollis, Linda Pershing, and M. Jane Young. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 9-28.

Zumwalt, Rosemary Lévy. 1988. American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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I am a teacher, scholar, feminist and performer (among the other identities I shift in and out of). One of the common threads that runs through all these roles is the desire, and even the necessity, to critique and thus transform. But when you’re critiquing someone’s dancing, someone’s writing, or someone’s political stance, how do you go about it positively, in a way that makes people receptive to it (or at least doesn’t turn them off from the very first words you say)?

One dancer I respect told me that she always praises a dance student before going on to offer criticism (as in, “That was a beautiful shimmy! Now make sure you stay in posture and hold your arms at shoulder height”). That helps a student be ready to receive the criticism and take it to heart in the way it was meant: as a tool to aid in growth and progress, rather than as an insult or an attempt to take someone down a notch.

At conferences, if I see a paper I really don’t like because I think the scholar doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I try to open with something nice before I go on to my criticism (for instance, “I thought your connection between X and Y tale types was really clever. However, I think you may be a bit off base in focusing on the origins of motifs that we can’t verify with empirical research…”). Not that it always works; I’ve had people go into rude-defensive mode, but at least I tried.

As a feminist, I’m aware that it can take a lot of positive reinforcement to reach a woman through the layer of negativity that we tend to accrue in our culture. Sometimes it takes a while to get someone to accept a compliment—and I mean truly accept it, not just smile and nod while thinking “But I’m actually still doing the whole move wrong, and I’m fat, and I’m not as young as the other girls in the class.” This is unfortunate, and I’m hoping that creating more safe spaces for women to, for instance, take up belly dancing for the sheer joy of it will help.

I wasn’t always this way; people who have danced with me know that I tend to be extremely critical of myself and of others. But I mean it in the best possible way; I assume that everyone is as ruthlessly disciplined and intent on self-improvement as I am. I’ve since learned that this is not true, and that not everyone wants to hear about every little thing they did wrong in a choreography, or every little thing I think could’ve been better in an essay. I still think that my ability to be incisively critical is one of my strengths, since I have a highly trained eye when it comes to both intellectual and aesthetic pursuits, but I’ve learned to keep a lot of my thoughts to myself unless asked to share. I’ve seen, firsthand, how important it is to boost people up before you tear them down (or act in such a way that they perceive it like that). I’m stubborn so it took a while for me to recognize this, but I’m here now. And I also, along the same lines, try not to say anything unless I have something nice to say, which is hard since I tend to be blunt, but oh well.

So  now, because I truly believe that it’s both important and effective to offer creative, positive, or constructive comments/suggestions before moving into the negative, destructive, or super-critical stuff, I’m figuring out how to implement it in the rest of my life.

For example, as a pro-choice, sex-positive feminist, I am not thrilled with how so many American religious conservatives want to not only outlaw abortion but try to restrict access to birth control and sex education. This, when our country can’t even seem to take care of the children that already exist: malnutrition, poor literacy, and other physical and social health issues plague our young. So… why not address this issue (the constructive part) before trying to take away people’s choices and access (the destructive part)? I mean, why not throw all those resources into trying to help the needy citizens of our country instead of legislating against, shaming, and sometimes even committing acts of violence against the people who provide access to and obtain abortions and birth control?

That is the political feminist portion of this post, and I know that not everyone will agree with me here (for instance, you could argue that saving the life of a fetus is a more constructive act than trying to help an impoverished child, prisoner, or mentally ill person, though I’m not quite sure how that logic prioritizes a not-yet life over an existing life). But what I hope people get out of this post is the will to reexamine your rhetoric, intentions, and actions when you interact with people. Could you go about something more constructively or creatively at first? Could you do something to inspire confidence in someone rather than insecurity?

(fyi, I was tempted to make a bunch of jokes about constructionism vs. deconstructionism for my academic readers, since I’m a huge social constructionist and find deconstruction to be passably interesting, but I’ll spare you!)

It basically comes down to this: do you want to create or inspire, or tear things down? There’s certainly a time for both, as when tearing down harmful institutions such as slavery or fascist governments, or in times of personal metamorphosis, but I think we need to examine our motivations in which types of actions we begin with. Since I’m folklorist, I’ll remind others: you win more flies with honey than vinegar.

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Again, normally I save the sex posts for MySexProfessor.com … but this is a little more, hm, shall we say, political than my blogging there tends to be.

What sparked this rant? This Feministe post about an American Christian evangelical group that is sending missionaries over to Thailand to “save” the bar girls there.

I don’t even know where to begin. Go click on the link and watch the video if you have the stomach for patronizing, classist, colonialist, sexist propaganda.

First? It is beyond me how a bunch of American, privileged-enough-to-travel-to-Thailand women can claim to understand where Thai sex workers are coming from. How can they talk about morality and sin when these women are working in the sex economy in order to survive? How dare these privileged American women project their sexual norms onto women from another culture, and women who are most likely disadvantaged at that? What’s their solution – are they going to pay for the Thai women to come to the US, learn English, and learn vocational skills? Because anything less than that is bullshit. Anything less than that is a misinformed (at best) attempt to tell other people to prize morals over food. And anyone who tells you that has probably never been hungry or poor.

Next: these women are saying masturbating is a sin. NO. NO. NO. I cannot believe there are still doctrines that say that. Becoming acquainted with your body can only be a good thing. It will only benefit your future partners (or partner if you’re saving yourself for “the one”) and your children and your community. Your body is not sinful. Your body is just your body. It just is. It’s a part of you. Like, maybe you shouldn’t masturbate so much that you rub yourself raw or miss important commitments. Moderation in everything, my dears. But seriously. People who say that masturbation is wrong should be taken to fucking court as far as I’m concerned BECAUSE THEY ARE WRONG. We have empirically proven that it’s normal and healthy. Even bloody Fox News agrees on this.

(if I believed in hell, I would say that there is a special hell reserved for people who tell teens that masturbation is immoral and sinful, just as I think there should be a special hell for people who instruct schoolchildren that abstinence is the only way to go because condoms don’t work and will give you diseases anyway… but since I don’t believe in hell, I can only hope that these people become enlightened enough to realize that they’re inflicting unnecessary harm on young minds)

Finally, the “When I’m With My Daddy” song playing in the video, along with all the He/Him/Christ stuff? Is downright creepy. It is patronizing and creepy to show these young women subjugating themselves to Him and His stuff and so on as the only way to deal with sexuality. Would they make a video showing young men doing the same? Nope, that would be deemed homoerotic. It’s uncomfortable for me to watch these young women saying how pure they feel because of Him, how cleansed of sexual anything… and yet they’re in a position to “rescue” other women who are quite possibly undergoing trauma these girls have never imagined?

I’m all for the message of acceptance in the video, and that message in Christianity in general. When people fulfill the teachings of Christ, I think that’s awesome. But I find this evangelical brand of Christianity offensive, patronizing, and creepy. Like, how is this not about controlling women’s sexuality? I just… ugh. I need to go cleanse my palate now that I’ve gotten this rant out of my system.

(I’m not trying to imply that all of Christianity is creepy, and I hope I haven’t given that impression… but y’all need to reevaluate what you’re doing if some parts of your religion come off as creepy to non-Christians, especially if you’re an evangelical religion, which I gather Christianity is)

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This Chronicle article by Emma Thornton tells a familiar story: a female academic is told she appears “too confident,” observes that a lot of the upper echelons of academia are overwhelmingly male-populated, and ruminates on the emotional labor or “women’s work” that female academics invisibly perform.

Characterizing this women’s work, which she calls “cuddle work,” the author writes:

…women were expected to do, and did do, more of what I call the “cuddle work” of academe: reassuring worried students, listening to problems, taking time outside of classroom and office hours to offer help and support. And as long as I’ve been in academe it’s seemed to me that women attend to their “school” work with a conscientiousness detrimental to their research. Too many women devote hours to committee concerns and go out of their way to make sure other people’s needs are met as soon as possible—to a degree that plays havoc with their own careers in an academic world that has forgotten that educating is its primary goal.

Women are raised to say yes, to help people, to be pleasant, so academic women must overcome a lot of social conditioning in order to turn down constant requests for help and focus on their own research. It’s really disheartening to realize, however, that a lot of labor we’re expected to do is invisible and unpaid; in addition to the nurturing we perform on campus, there’s probably unpaid domestic labor waiting at home.

As it’s become so prevalent, I forget where I first encountered the idea that academics really need a wife at home to take care of all those daily-life tasks, but the sexism inherent in many university roles is well described here. And here is an enumeration of how many advantages an academic woman loses when she has children; it’s enough to make me want to tear out my hair with frustration, and I haven’t even 100% decided whether I’m having kids yet.

However, I’m completely with Thornton when she talks about complicity and infiltration as a strategy to subvert:

I’m willing to tone down my confidence if it might get me a job, because I need to put food on my table and pay off my student loans, and because I believe infiltration is a powerful tool. But once I’m in the door I intend to be as confident as I naturally am, and as expectant, and I hope to encourage other women to be the same way.

This is one of the reasons I really want to land an academic job now that I’ve finished my PhD; I want to be a role model to women and other minorities, and I want to help open the door for others like me.

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Yes, you read that right. Last night in conversation with some of my international colleagues, I used the word “douchebag” to describe an unsavory person, and then I had to explain what it meant. I have always been annoyed at the implication that a douche (or douchebag, or my favorite, douche-nozzle) is a bad name to call someone because of its proximity to women’s health, and worse yet, to vaginas.

However, I am heartened to know that the practice of douching is actually quite bad for vaginal chemistry, so calling someone a douche is, from this perspective, actually a comment on what a terrible idea it is to artificially introduce substances to one’s vagina in the misguided search for cleanliness (when in actuality most vaginas have self-regulating ecosystems, and are thus quite healthy and clean even if there are some secretions and  the like). So when I apply the word douche, or any of its variations, to someone, I am critiquing the misogynist assumption that women’s vaginas are unclean.

For an explanation of some of the science behind douching, see Kate Clancy’s blog post about douching practices among sex workers in Nigeria. There’s some really interesting stuff about racism and colonialism, too.

By far, however, my favorite part is this:

“it’s hard to not place lime juice douching within the spectrum of cultural practices enforced to control women, from female genital cutting, to diets, to cosmetics, to scores of other ways women alter their bodies to fit a culturally-sanctioned norm. And just as we can demonstrate the ways in which women may choose these practices, or find empowerment in some of them, I don’t know that it is really possible to parse out a woman’s agency from the institutional inequities that increase her chances of making certain choices. That is, a woman may choose any of these actions and be well aware of the benefits and consequences, but she is still aware of, and sometimes constrained by, a culture that dictates both.”

Yes, yes, and yes. Feminism has always maintained an active dialogue about agency – where does it come from? How do we obtain and exercise it? And while it’s lovely to think that all human beings are automatically granted agency simply by virtue of our subjectivity (another tricky concept), our choices are always made within the context of the groups we inhabit, both institutional/official and folk/vernacular (not to imply an exclusive dichotomy). Our cultures constrain us even as they permit some sorts of agency and choice within their confines. We don’t even know what an individual looks like outside culture; for while individuals may consciously reject some aspects of a culture, that same individual was irrevocably shaped by her culture, to the point where it may be impossible to disentangle the threads of identity formation.

I think this is a deeply uncomfortable concept for feminists and other activists to sit with and think about, especially for those of us who are Westerners and have been brought up with the “you are a unique snowflake” brand of individuality. I think the best we can hope for, right now at least, is to point out cultural norms and constructions when we see them, in order to expose the ideologies that hide as “natural.” Perhaps, when faced with the realization of how much of culture is constructed and naturalized, people can expose a little more wiggle room in order to explore and make choices?

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