Female spree-killing, sex, and celebrity: The case of Joanna Dennehy

joanna-dennehy-press-1Knowing that my latest book is about murder and gender – or, more specifically, about a particular narrative of modern identity and individuality that has made possible the figure of the Western “recreational murderer” – lots of people have drawn my attention to the recent case of Joanna Dennehy.

Dennehy is a 32-year-old British woman who enlisted her apparently enthralled male lovers, Gary Stretch and Leslie Layton, to be her accomplices in the murders of three men, Lukasz Slaboszewski, Kevin Lee, and John Chapman. (See here.) Dennehy’s documented taste for sadomasochistic sexual practices (see here) has added to the frenzied media interest in the case, and has led to the production of some dubious psychiatric diagnoses, which I plan to write about elsewhere. Dennehy is both statistically unusual and discursively rare in being described as a female recreational killer whose apparent motives for committing her crimes were sexual sadism and thrill-seeking.

Yet, one Facebook interlocutor recently pointed out to me that cases of women committing multiple killings similar to Dennehy’s – typically “masculine crimes” – seem to be on the rise and are certainly in the public eye at the moment. (The case of the “Craig’s List Killer”, 19-year-old Miranda Barbour, springs immediately to mind.) While two do not a trend make, it is interesting to wonder if the Zeitgeist is in some way enabling the emergence of a new kind of female murderer. My approach to this problem, then, is historically and culturally, rather than psychologically, oriented. (I am not interested in individual psychological motivation, but in the social-historical conditions that produce the figure of the murderer as bizarrely aspirational, and that make it available to certain classes of person, in certain situational contexts.)

In The Subject of Murder I argue that, in modern Western culture, the murderer has the status of exceptional individual. This goes back to the Romantic/ Decadent idea of the “artist-criminal”, in whom creativity and destructivity are two sides of the same coin. Of course this idealized, semi-fictional figure of potency is implicitly white and male (though his sexual identity is often portrayed as fluid, alternating between heterosexual hyper-masculinity and an ambivalent homoeroticism). Thomas De Quincey, Oscar Wilde, and Jean Genet have all waxed lyrical about the genius-murderer and the trope of murder-as-art in literary and aesthetic-philosophical writing.

In our contemporary culture, this grandiose murderous exceptionality takes the form of celebrity, as David Schmid has compellingly argued in his 2005 book, Natural Born Celebrities. “Murderer” is a celebrity identity, as seen in the wealth of press attention that is brought to bear on infamous killers, and the aura that accrues to people, and even to things, close to those killers. The phenomenon of “murderabilia”, objects and artworks created or previously owned by infamous killers that have a highly collectible status, is one manifestation of this. The attention-seeking behaviour of many serial killers reinforces their visibility. Many killers at large have sent taunting letters to the police and press, such as David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam”, active in the USA in the 1970s. In other cases, such as that of the Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe, in the UK), letters have been sent by others pretending to be the murderer, increasing the visibility of the case and speculation around the identity of the killer. And, tellingly, this was a trend popularized by the first “celebrity serial killer” at the historical moment of efflorescence of the popular press – the still-unidentified  Victorian murderer, Jack the Ripper. (That the mass press and the serial killer are products of the same age is far from a coincidence.) Once caught and imprisoned, notorious killers can also keep up a high media profile. “Moors Murderer” Ian Brady’s recent appeal to be transferred from high security mental hospital to prison, his claim that he had revealed the whereabouts of a victim’s body in a letter to his mental health advocate, and his much discussed hunger strike, are good examples of this. (See my post on Brady here.)

It will be noted that all of the names above are male. It is not, of course, the case that there have historically been no female killers, but media and culture have not tended to represent murderesses in the same (ambivalently heroic) terms that they have used to represent men who kill – and that men who kill can then take up as a badge of identity. Prominent female killers of the past century have included Myra Hindley, Rosemary West, and Aileen Wuornos, all of whom killed violently, and (in the cases of the first two at least), for sexual motives. However, the first two names are notable for being one half of celebrity murderous heterosexual couples (Myra and Ian; Rose and Fred), and both women were  vilified in much stronger terms than their male partners, whose sexual violence was, in each case, seen as an aberrant but intelligible extension of socially sanctioned masculinity.  Similarly, Wuornos, as that very rare type of killer, a lesbian lone-wolf, stalking her male victims under the guise of selling sexual services, attracted vitriol and hatred from press and public, and an extremely harsh punishment relative to male perpetrators of similar crimes. (She received multiple death sentences, despite the defense presenting mitigating evidence of childhood sexual abuse, and mental illness.) Some coverage of Joanna Dennehy’s case has discussed the difficulty society has in accepting violent women, and has posited that Dennehy, as a sexually adventurous, hedonistic spree-killer, presents particular problems to the codes of representation that are available for describing women who kill. (See especially Elizabeth Yardley’s intelligent commentary in The Guardian. Avoid the comments if you wish to retain any sort of faith in the critical thinking skills of the reading public.)

Can we really argue, then, that Joanne Dennehy is a representative of a new type of female murderous subject, who employs the same grandiose self-stylization and press attention-seeking tactics as her male counterparts? There is certainly evidence that Dennehy boasted she was seeking to become a “famous serial killer” at least two years before committing the triple murder. (See here.) And, she described herself, while on the run, as “Bonnie” of Bonnie and Clyde, suggesting strong identification with available cultural representations of female criminality. (See here.)  Like the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who conceived their high-school shootings in advance as a media spectacle, and like Stephen Griffiths, the Bradford “Crossbow Cannibal”, who was a criminology student fascinated by the figure of the serial killer, Dennehy was undoubtedly tapping into the same available cultural repository of criminal myth-making as many male killers before her.

So where does Dennehy’s type of murderous subjectivity come from? We might conclude by drawing a parallel with the ways in which what is known as “raunch culture” has been embraced by some women as a (dubious) badge of empowerment in a post-feminist age. This idea was introduced by Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005). Levy argues that the rise of the FCP, who is just as likely to appear in a strip club in the role of patron as of performer, has contributed to the erasure of the feminist struggle and to making invisible intersecting, class-based, power imbalances. Female Chauvinist Pig culture co-opts a very narrow definition of “power”, based on aping valorized, typically “masculine” behaviours and roles, and showing that (some) women can access and benefit from those roles too. As Levy points out, these exceptional women achieve their agency in contradistinction to, and at the expense of, other “lesser” women, rather than by raising up the collectivity of women as a group. Perhaps, by analogy, a form of violent, antisocial self-stylization is becoming more available to those women who find themselves on the margins of social acceptability, and who seek to make a name for themselves in a culture obsessed with fame and exposure. It may be that the search for infamy offered by the label of “serial killer” is increasingly the antisocial, shadow alternative to seeking pop fame on The X Factor, or the hyper-visibility of glamor-modeling, for socially disenfranchised women of the twenty-first century, who see individualistic forms of male violence celebrated, and who want a piece of that celebrity for themselves.

Gender trouble in the academy


Painting of a Woman. Source: Alami

When lunching in London a few weeks ago with an American colleague over here on a research trip, I found myself without a good answer when she asked me, “What has happened to all the women’s studies programmes in this country?” It is true that there are few remaining named programmes of this kind, yet gender, sexuality and feminist studies are still widely taught under the auspices of more traditional degree programmes throughout UK higher education. But I have been wondering ever since that conversation about the effects of the erosion of their distinct academic identity on students and researchers in these areas.

Widespread in US academia since the 1970s, numerous women’s studies programmes were later established in UK universities, the first named programme being the MA in Women’s Studies, established in 1980 at the University of Kent at Canterbury. In the 1990s, the concept of “women’s studies” was criticized by some post-structuralist academics as being too narrowly concerned with female identity, and therefore ignoring broader issues that impact on, and intersect with, sexism (such as cultural expectations of masculinity and the stigmatization of non‑heterosexual, non-monogamous, disabled and trans* people).

The discipline then underwent the partial transition to “gender studies”, aided by the widespread influence of the work of US-based feminists such as Judith Butler and trans studies scholars such as Susan Stryker. In a parallel way, the academic study of sexuality moved from a focus on “lesbian and gay studies” towards “queer” (the branch of theory that, after French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality, views identity categories as socially constructed fictions). Within both the academic fields of sexuality/gender studies, and the activist communities concerned with similar issues, rigorous debate has centred on the ways in which identity politics might be balanced with analysis of how different types of oppression intersect with each other. As a result, the lines between women’s studies, gender studies and sexuality studies are far from clear-cut, and all three encompass many methodological and theoretical differences.

Today, variations of all of these branches of study are taught within UK universities. But, as my lunch companion’s query suggested, very few institutions offer undergraduate degrees in them, or have departments with an undergraduate population named after them. And, at postgraduate level, the struggle to ensure the survival of such programmes can be intense, stressful, and seemingly never-ending for those who convene them. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn from a colleague the other day that the University of Hull has a named BA programme in gender studies. Yet the “find your course” application on Hull’s website made no mention of it; I only found it later within the department of sociology’s pages. The common practice of incorporating taught elements of women’s, gender or sexuality studies within a traditional discipline means that the flavour of the subject will differ vastly from university to university, depending on the (humanities or social sciences) department within which it is housed. Thus, it is not easy to define quite what women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in the UK context currently is or are (or indeed to determine whether one should properly use a plural or a singular verb).

And this identity crisis exists too for those of us who research and teach in these areas. My degrees were in modern languages and continental philosophy and, throughout my academic career, I have always had a modern languages department code on my payslip. But when people ask what my academic specialism is, I usually answer “sexuality and gender studies”. And when I was promoted to a readership within the French department at Queen Mary, University of London in 2005, I chose the wording “Reader in French Discourses of Sexuality” to describe my specialism (a “brand” I have carried with me to my subsequent chairs at the universities of Exeter and Birmingham). My academic title, then, reflects the very hybrid identity many sexuality and gender studies scholars have, by necessity, to adopt. I feel I need the “French” in there to show where I come from and where I “belong” in disciplinary terms, but the part of the title I care about is the second half. Indeed, beyond being methodologically influenced in my research by the work of Foucault, much of my published work has nothing to do with French per se.

So, is this dual or multiple identity that many scholars of women’s, gender and sexuality studies feel forced to adopt an advantage or a burden in the academic marketplace and workplace? Jason Hartford, a doctoral graduate from the University of Oxford, who also works on queer theory from a modern languages perspective and who is currently seeking his first permanent post, opines that: “there being no structural recognition of the subject to speak of among university departments, it remains very difficult to market yourself as an emerging sexuality studies scholar unless you have another specialism (or two or three) that does have a department named after it.”

Where programmes and modules in sexuality and gender are not contained within more traditional departments, they are instead often affiliated to staff research networks or centres that (nominally) straddle disciplines, schools and colleges. In such organizational situations, the delivery of provision often relies on the goodwill and personal passion of colleagues whose teaching for the cross-departmental MA or MRes may not be recognized in department-based workload allocation models (especially if they are not from the department – usually that of the centre’s director – that bureaucratically “owns” the programme and centre). Senior managers are often keener on the idea of interdisciplinarity, as the buzzword du jour, than on ensuring that those whose research and teaching is properly interdisciplinary are enabled to pursue it straightforwardly within the institutional infrastructure. Similarly, many colleagues report that, while such networks and centres are encouraged, there is seldom any financial investment from institutions to help them flourish; centres are typically expected to generate their own income – and to make a profit for the university – from the outset.

In some institutions, programmes may not even be harnessed to existing research centres with a hub of staff. One graduate, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: “I did a master’s in women’s studies at [an elite UK institution] in 2009-10, and although the cohort and many of the teachers were inspirational, the university’s support for the programme was dreadful. There were no permanent or full-time members of staff devoted to it: everyone involved managed it by carving out a space from their other jobs.” She also commented that: “the curriculum seemed to only reach up to 1995, when the course had been founded, with no mention at all of anything happening since then […] and was very much white-Western-middle-class focused — little content on the developing world, or intersectionality, or on any kind of activism other than through a historical lens.”

While the organization of some programmes may be less than ideal, the national reality is that many programmes and modules in the field are being withdrawn altogether. And, whereas the graduate cited above complains about the absence of intersectionality (the consideration of how axes of oppression such as sexism, racism, classism, homophobia etc., interact) in the white-women-centric curriculum of the programme she studied, elsewhere it is feminism itself that is perceived to be missing from the study of social institutions and justice. Phil Hubbard, Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Kent, told me that: “Sociology at University of Kent used to be one of the leading centres of women’s studies thanks to Mary Evans, Jan Pahl and others. But we’ve cut our gender and women’s studies PhD programmes, as well as undergraduate modules, so we teach class, race, embodiment and health in our sociology and social sciences undergraduate programmes with little formal teaching provision in gender or sexuality. It’s very sad.”

Despite the problems of institutional organization that can impact upon the student experience of learning women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in the UK, graduates of these subjects are vocal about the significance of the subject matter and the value of their studies. I issued an invitation on Twitter, when preparing this article, for graduates to send me their impressions of their degrees, and many of the responses I received focused on the benefits of the critical-thinking skills taught within such fields both for their own sake and for their application in activist and professional spheres.

Linnea Sandström Lange, an alumna of the London School of Economics’ MSc in Gender, Policy and Inequalities, said her degree equipped her with “a whole different layer of analysis and understanding, without which you cannot work against injustice”. And Laura Theobald, who read a BA in Women’s Studies at the University of Redlands in the US and is currently a student on the MA in Women’s and Gender History at the University of Nottingham, agreed that her training made her “critical of the world”. She finds this critical faculty useful in her role as a postgraduate officer at Nottingham, which partly involves advocating from an equality and diversity perspective on behalf of students. Where comments on these programmes were less favorable, two criticisms were raised numerous times. One was the lack of space given to masculinity studies in the curricula of “gender” (rather than specifically “women’s”) studies programmes. The other was the insufficient attention paid to the fraught relationship between women of colour and Western feminism. The overwhelming consensus from my informal Twitter poll, however, is that current and past students are calling for more comprehensive, up-to-date, relevant, and properly funded provision in areas of study that they perceive to be of great value — and that are instead being underfunded and cut.


Painting of a Woman. Source: Alami

So is the picture the same in other anglophone countries? Expert in the history of sexuality, Ivan Crozier, a Senior Lecturer in the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh, and currently seconded to the University of Sydney, Australia, reports that, although provision in sexuality and gender studies is being cut in Edinburgh, his history department at Sydney has an honors course and a graduate seminar on the history of sexuality, while several other undergraduate courses have sexuality and gender-specific lectures. “It’s a very different climate for that kind of study here,” he says.

And Susan Knabe, an Assistant Professor jointly in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, reports that while gender studies programmes at Guelph and McMaster have recently been closed, her own institution’s programmes continue to recruit well. “The introduction of a gender studies component in high schools this year [in the province of Ontario] will be very helpful in making folks more aware of gender/women’s studies before they arrive at university,” she adds.

Given education secretary Michael Gove’s reputation for conservatism – exemplified by the new history curriculum he has developed with Simon Schama that all but eliminates the study of contributions made by anyone other than titled, white, British men and a handful of noble-born women – it is extremely difficult to imagine such an addition being made to UK school curricula. But it is precisely because we are witness to an increase in social divisiveness in education, as in many social policies, that young people in the UK more urgently than ever need to be taught to think critically about how power works with regard to categories of sex, gender, multiculturalism, race, (dis)ability and socio-economic class.

Evelyn Torton Beck wrote in an article on the role of feminist education in 1990 that “women’s studies is at the centre of a revolution whose aim is nothing less than the transformation of the university”. But, as a scholar who believes that teaching is a form of activism, I would agree with the graduates quoted above and argue that what is taught and written in the academy can lead to social transformation. And this is why the disappearance of so many programmes in women’s, gender and sexuality studies should be a cause of concern to us all.

A slightly shorter version of this piece first appeared in the Times Higher Education on 20 June 2013. (Link here). It is republished here with their kind permission.

“Intersectionality” is not a dirty word; “austerity” is. Reflections on an evening at Conway Hall.

"To Thine Own Self Be True" - Conway Hall, London

“To Thine Own Self Be True” – Conway Hall, London

Yesterday I attended the New Statesman-sponsored panel discussion at Conway Hall, London, titled “What is the most important issue facing feminism today?”. Speakers were: NS deputy editor Helen Lewis; writers Laurie Penny, Bim Adewunmi, Juliet Jacques, and VJD Smith; Vagenda magazine collaborators Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter; and, in the chair, Caroline Crampton, the NS‘s web editor.

More details about the event and participants can be found here.

[Disclaimer: I was taking notes on a brand new iPad, with which I have not completely got to grips. My typing averaged about one word per five minutes and I see today that many of these “words” are actually iOS auto”correct” gobbledegook. This will, therefore, be very far from a full and thorough report of the debate of the live-tweeting kind. Rather, these are my impressions of the event, the issues it raised, and what I took away from it more broadly. Any inaccuracies in the reporting are, it goes without saying, the fault of Apple inc.]

I arrived at the event with some firm reservations about the framing of the debate in terms of the “most important issue”, since I am as over-saturated as the next feminist reader/ writer/ academic with zero-sum premises. I have seen too many discussions in both meat space and the comments sections of blogs degenerate into self-righteous spats over why somebody is worrying about [insert feminist issue du jour X], when [feminist issue du jour Y] is obviously so much more crucial. So the title of the event had caused me a certain amount of eye-rolling. Yet, what was probably most interesting for me about yesterday’s debate was the fact that many of the panel members argued and presented in ways that effectively worked against the divisive “pick one issue” framing and reflected thoughtfully upon this kind of rhetorical gesture.

The event began with the speakers highlighting one or two issues that, for them, seemed especially pertinent. These ranged across the need for sex education for young people with an increased focus on consent, and the importance of unlearning of the ways children are presented with the idea of what is “gender-appropriate” — points I absolutely endorse. But the issue that came to the fore and provoked the most discussion among the panelists was that of intersectionality — that term that has been so hotly debated in social and news media in recent weeks and months, raised by Juliet Jacques and Bim Adewunmi. Juliet spoke eloquently about her experiences of identifying as transgender and then undergoing sex reassignment surgery, and of the male-dominated, gender-normative medical establishment. But she emphasized that she also benefited from a series of privileges, including white educational privilege. She talked about the importance for feminism of identifying the opportunities we have, as well as the oppressions we face, and of being aware of the massive role played by social class in the lives of women, a point picked up by Laurie Penny, who asked “has feminism failed working class women?”. She insisted that we cannot talk about either feminism or labour relations adequately without acknowledging the gendered division of labour. Citing the statistic that 92% of single parents are women and have sole responsibility for childcare, she underlined her point that class is too often sidelined in discussions of feminism, and that feminism is then blamed for not fixing things for working-class women, creating an unhelpful impasse and alienating from feminism some of the women who need it most.

Bim expanded this discussion of class by talking about the ways in which her experience as a black feminist intersected with her experience as a working-class child growing up between Lagos and East London. She also explained that as a writer who is passionate about film and television she is consistently confronted with the absence of adequate representations of a range of ethnic faces and bodies onscreen, pointing out that the popular series Friends featured only two black guest characters in the course of its long run and that both were introduced with the same storyline. She pointed up that many of us have the luxury of not noticing the default white subject we see in our media and in our midst (only a handful of non-white people raised their hands from the audience when she looked around for “brown faces”). I cheered internally when Bim passionately and convincingly stated that the principle of intersectionality is not an academic luxury or irrelevance, and that one feminism simply cannot fit all.  This led to a productive discussion of the importance of writers, teachers, and academics finding ways to  introduce the (rather straightforward) principle behind the jargonistic term “intersectionality” to a range of readerships and audiences who may be educationally unprepared for this kind of discourse, or simply too tired to read bell hooks or Judith Butler at the end of a long working day.

With Helen Lewis, the discussion turned to the continued naturalization and erasure of sexual assault culture. She used the example of the Julian Assange case to illustrate the way in which rape is downplayed when the offender is a powerful white man by means of the obfuscating rhetoric of “bad sexual etiquette”. She made the striking point that women are often no more than “collateral damage” when men are seen to be doing important (leftist) work.  The crucial question of intersectionality returned to this discussion of rape culture with Bim’s intervention describing how she chose not to take part in Slutwalk despite being broadly in sympathy with its aims, since brown female bodies and black straight female sexuality connote things in culture over which she cannot easily “take control”. Questions of the prevalence of sexual assault and rape are complexified once we take account of class and race. The US statistic that one in four women will be raped increases significantly when we take non-white women as our demographic.

Another pertinent discussion point for me was the question of whether it matters that there is infighting within feminism. While it can be frustrating, I agreed with Bim’s point that we should not be unduly concerned by conflicts, since these issues matter to us and many of us are rightly angry. Feminism is the only political movement in which everyone is expected to get along because we are women. I have long been angered by the idea that we are naturally empathic, pacifistic, care-giving gentlefolk, which strikes me as the worst sort of essentialist stereotyping and a reproach from within the ranks to be “nice girls”. This is nothing more than another form of insidious internalized misogyny.

Many of the speakers talked about the realities of being a woman with a media presence and of being considered too loud and strident simply for having a strong opinion while female — which is intensified if one has a strong opinion while female and black, or female and trans. Laurie talked movingly of the rape and death threats she has received over the years. But all acknowledged the responsibility, despite these odds, that those with a public media platform have to represent the range of issues facing women.

Were I to be asked the question that was posed to the panelists: “What, for you, is the most important issue facing feminism today,” I would probably answer (after a long rant about why I don’t think that’s the most helpful question to ask, naturally) that the vitality of feminism is dependent upon our robustly resisting the tendency, so prevalent in the neo-liberal worldview of the 21st century, to reduce every issue to the level of individual choice and to conflate the critique of social institutions with condemnation of people who, for whatever reason, may benefit from them. To wit: the moderator of a certain feminist Facebook group that I intermittently peruse recently noted her concern because the comments of a queer-identified member of the group suspicious of the enthusiastic embracing of the institution of marriage by gay friends had caused a number of married heterosexual women to pronounce themselves “offended” and leave the group in a huff. When (in this case white, middle-class, heterosexual) people become so defensive about the choices they have made in their own lives that they feel sufficiently offended by any criticism of pro-patriarchal and eminently conservative institutions that they leave a discussion, critical politics have given way to knee-jerk defense of lifestyle choice. A feminism that plays down the importance of how power relations operate within and across social structures risks being distressingly toothless as a political praxis. It was heartening that the old saw “every choice a woman makes is a feminist choice” did not raise its all-too familiar head once at the New Statesman event. Perhaps the self-evident impact of current “austerity measures” in the UK will restore class, race, and other structural analysis to a more prominent place on the British feminist agenda than has been visible in recent years. If last night’s discussion is a barometer I am — cautiously — optimistic that this may be the case.

It’s a wonderful life … for the obediently heteronormative.

I watched It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) this afternoon. It’s a yearly ritual. My companion and I, who avowedly “don’t do Christmas”, make these little concessions: It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. A Christmas Carol on Christmas Day. And though we harrumph our way through them, like the consummate curmudgeons we are, bemoaning how cringingly annoying Tiny Tim unfailingly is, a tear nevertheless pricks at our eyes at those points in the narrative that are designed precisely to manipulate all but the most hardened viewer, touching on our collective weak spot for beautiful lies about hope, kindness, and personal redemption.


George and Mary: happily married.

Towards the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence (Henry Travers), the “angel class 2” questing for his wings, shows a suicidal George, played by a young Jimmy Stewart, all the horrors that would have befallen his small home town of Bedford Falls had he never been born. Bedford Falls is now renamed “Potterville”, after the corrupt Plutocrat who, in this parallel world, absent George’s friendly family business, has a monopoly on the townspeople’s accommodation and debt. George’s little brother, who went on be a decorated war hero in Bedford Falls, instead died at the age of 9 in Potterville, because George was not there to save him when he slipped into an icy lake. The old druggist, Gower, for whom George worked as a boy, is an outcast who has served time in jail because there was no young George to stop him accidentally dispensing poison to a customer in a grief-stricken state on the day of his son’s death. But finally, when Clarence has revealed bombshell after bombshell, and he has told our hero “you see, George, you had a wonderful life”, and our eyes are as wet and stinging as they can get, he drops the ultimate piece of bad news about the alternative, George-free world of Potterville. “What happened to Mary?” George asks, of his wife (Donna Reed). Clarence is loth to tell him. Clarence demurs. “I’m not supposed to tell you…,” he protests. Finally, however, he speaks the fated words: “She became an old maid”! The horror on George’s face is an absolute picture.


The very worst fate for a woman: she’s an old maid!

Then we see the Pottersville version of Mary. She is a librarian; her hair is pulled primly back; spectacles are perched on her nose. She hurries from the library, clutching her bag to her chest, brow furrowed, visibly beset by nerves: a picture of curdled, sexually unsatisfied femininity. When a desperate George approaches her with the words “I’m your husband”, she screams, completing this portrait of hysteria. Without having benefited from contact with the healing properties of a man’s penis and undergone the female duty of maternal labour in its literal and figurative senses, Mary has met the very worst end that can be imagined for a woman in her society: being alone and working for a living.


“All by myself. I don’t want to be all by myself. Any mor-or-ore…”

It’s around that point that the tears in my eyes dry right up and a feminist grimace quirks my curmudgeonly upper lip. It simply won’t do to think “well, the film was made in the 1940s; things are different now…”. For the message the film delivers at this point is not so far from the message of noughties mainstream films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), which opens with single girl Renée Zellweger at Christmas, alone in her flat, singing drunken, desperate karaoke (Jamie O’Neal’s “All by myself”) in her pyjamas, and ends with her embracing Colin Firth in just her knickers and sweater in a swirling snowstorm, her face a picture of blessed relief at the dreadful fate she has escaped. The invidious message has really not passed away from our culture as it should have done. What is that message?

It’s a wonderful life… for the obediently heteronormative!


Yuletide greetings, Sex Critical readers. May your chestnuts roast, may your pudding flame, and may your critical edge not be blunted by the saccharine of the season.

On authorship and authority: Writing outside of the rules

A review of Meg Barker, Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships (Routledge, 2012), Katherine Angel, Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (Allen Lane, 2012), and their critical receptions.

September 2012 saw the publication of two non-academic books authored by writers from within the academy. While generically very different, both shared the aim of bringing critical scrutiny to bear on specific aspects of sexuality.  Also, both attempted to expound a broadly sex-critical perspective to a mainstream readership perhaps unfamiliar with the language and tools used in academia and in subcultural sexual communities to define and question sexual practices, identities, and relationships.

Social psychologist and sex therapist Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules describes itself as an “anti-self-help book”. It challenges the commonly perceived need for any strict rules to govern the ways in which we have (sexual) relationships, whether these issue from the heteronormative mainstream — obsessed as it is with marriage, the market, and monogamy — or from the codas of alternative subcultures such as queer, polyamory, and BDSM/ kink cultures. Written in a friendly, nonjudgmental, often lightly humorous style, it gently encourages the reader to rethink quite radically the ways in which s/he understands and conceptualizes romantic/ sexual relationships. In a particularly brilliant passage, Barker uses her experience of place and time to suggest analogously a different way of thinking about the value of maintaining constancy within relationships, and thereby to question the universal value of monogamy and life-time commitment:

I think about my own relationship with cities. When I moved out of London, for example, I found that London and I were much better together when we were in a long-distance relationship than when we rubbed up against each other every day. Consider times of day: I used to have a relationship with the time between midnight and two in the morning: a loose, rumpled time of fuzzy edges, drunken camaraderie with strangers and greasy gutters. We broke up and I hardly ever see that time any more, but I do have a new relationship with the time between six and seven a.m.: it is a sharp, silvery grey, raw and empty time, but I am growing to love it. (pp. 110-111)

Such passages are genuinely subversive in their at once light and suggestive, yet ideologically devastating, destabilization of the dogmas by which so many live — and suffer.

Unmastered, by Katherine Angel, who is a researcher in the History of Medicine at Warwick University, is a literary memoir that attempts to describe the tensions, paradoxes and pain faced by the first-person narrator who struggles to reconcile the embodied experience of heterosexual desire with feminist consciousness in a patriarchal culture. Mixing first-person anecdotes, some of them extremely intimate, with insights from feminist luminaries and critical theorists, Angel’s text goes beyond simple confessional discourse and contributes to a longstanding, polyvocal meditation about the place of desire, the body, and hunger in female lives:

When I was a teenager, when I was small, and feeling desire — an amorphous lust, targeted at no one particular thing, and perhaps in fact targeted at myself — I wondered: where were the hungry women? (p. 120)

Angel’s closest interlocutors in this “wondering” are not, in fact, the Anglo-American feminists she cites liberally, but French writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Annie Ernaux, Marguerite Duras, and Hélène Cixous. All of these writers foreground the female heterosexual experience in patriarchy and the perceived power and punishments of female embodiment and “hunger”. (Like Angel, de Beauvoir wrote of the experience of abortion, and Ernaux of the tension between overwhelming physical love for a man and ideals of independent womanhood.) And, in the case of Ernaux, Duras and Cixous, there is also a shared predilection for experimental prose form. The blank sheets peppered only with one or two words that characterize Angel’s text (“Fuck me. Yes fuck me!” gets its own page; as does “I am so fucking hungry!”; as does “Am I pornography?”) were an innovation of exponents of both écriture féminine and the modernist nouveau roman.

I’m interested in the nature of the critical response these books have received almost as much as I am interested in the books themselves. Critical response can be seen as something of a litmus test, not always of the quality of the works under review, but rather of the extent to which a given book and its author conform to or flout conventional expectations — both generic and gendered. In looking at reviews of the two books, I have been especially interested in how reviewers respond to these two female academics writing in generic modes that are not strictly their professional “territory”.

In the case of Barker’s book, her academic credentials are generally perceived as reinforcing the value of her contribution to (or, more properly, contestation of) the self-help genre. Michael Gratzke (himself an academic) writes in one of the first published reviews of Rewriting the Rules:

The author is indeed “a therapist specialising in sexual and relationship therapy”. (She is also a senior lecturer in Psychology at the Open University). The book comes – therefore – with excellent credentials. No online doctorates here. The author is a bona fide expert in her field, not a jumped up journo dabbling with people’s feelings whilst making a quick buck.

While it is no doubt the case that Barker’s sound knowledge of psychological and sociological relationship research enables her to distil complex theory and findings in an extremely reader-friendly way, the reviewer appeals to a model of authority that is quite out of keeping with Barker’s authorial voice, which deliberately and strategically undermines the value of those authority discourses that tell people how to order and organize self, sexuality, companionship, and desire. That even positive reviews of Rewriting the Rules seem unwilling to embrace this anarchic principle with regard to the role of authorship and authority is a testimony to the truly innovative nature of the project Barker is undertaking.

Angel’s roots in the academy, on the other hand, have been held against her by some critics who seem to feel that an academic has no business straying into literary writing. Talitha Stevenson, writing in The Guardian, opines:

Academics aren’t usually expected to apply themselves fanatically to writing well, but Angel, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the history of medicine at Warwick University, is not writing as an academic. As the climax to an anecdote “it was an afterthought. It wasn’t the main act. Or even an act at all,” employs the cheap adrenal thumps of advertising copy, or of Raymond Carver when he’d had too much to drink. And “Am I pornography?” is not an aphorism, even if it is printed on its own on a page. For ars this brevis, vita is not long enough.

The sneering contempt of the tone of this review suggests irresistibly the idea that toes are being trodden on, that labels are not being respected. The “rule” is that the literary writer is that professional who may legitimately, authentically, play with language, whereas the academic may only comment upon the “real” writer’s use of language. By juxtaposing Angel’s job title so ostentatiously with negative assessments of her book’s literary merit, Stevenson reveals her hand.

A more sympathetic and well-rounded review of Unmastered penned by Olivia Laing, also appeared in The Guardian. Laing acknowledges Angel’s position within the academy, but gives this a positive spin, hinting at the point I made above regarding the place Angel’s text finds within a broader genealogy of writing about desire:

Angel is an academic at Warwick University, a researcher in the history of female sexual problems. As such, her investigations […] occur within what is emphatically a larger conversation. She uses pared-down, poetic fragments from a multitude of fellow explorers – among them Woolf, Sontag, Susie Orbach, Havelock Ellis and Michel Foucault – as a way of building up a working map of sexual desire.

However, Laing expresses a single reservation about the book that I must admit I share:

Angel’s assumptions about sexuality tend toward the heteronormative and can on occasion feel a touch coercive. A statement like: ‘I was weaned on this – the hypostatised, brutal man; the yielding, deferring woman. So, by the way, were you’ might be true in terms of the dominant culture but elides entirely the subtle shadings of sexual difference. This is particularly odd when so few of the writers she draws upon […] can be categorised as entirely heterosexual.

I can imagine that many readers will find Unmastered’s overwhelming focus on white, middle-class, heterosexual, genital-focused desire and identity alienating — and these are precisely the charges that are often brought against Angel’s unacknowledged Francophone foremothers too. While I have no problem with a heterosexual female writer narrating the story of her desire, it is unquestionably significant in the context of examining the normativity of editorial decisions and publishing policy that it is this narrative of female desire, rather than a queer or otherwise non-normative one, that was chosen to be published and promoted by a major, mainstream literary publisher.

For myself, I found Unmastered most relatable and insightful when it dwelt not on the pleasures and problems of vaginal penetration, M-f bondage, or abortion — I have read of those before — but rather on the relationships of power, pleasure, and disavowal at work in professional life. Angel’s description of the jarring experience of sitting in academic seminars about pornography and being expected to reach easy answers about whether pornography is “good” or “bad”/ “educational” or “destructive”; and, moreover, being expected to divorce the emotional, physical, desiring self from the intellectual, cerebral subject of the academy is, for me, the book’s high point. This is a section in which something is beautifully expressed that I had undoubtedly experienced, but had never read nor heard articulated clearly before.

Both books provoked a great deal of reflection in me. I read Unmastered in September, and Rewriting the Rules in early October, and I have been mulling them over ever since, noticing the relevance of their insights to various current discussions and issues, and observing with interest their critical reception. In different ways, both Angel and Barker cross the threshold of the academy to spread the sex-critical word and, in so doing, they invite us to reflect not only upon the questions about sexuality and relationships that their books explicitly raise, but also on the multiple and overlapping roles of academic, author, and desiring self — roles that seem, in their interstices, to provoke consternation about the nature of epistemological authority and authenticity.

Meg Barker’s blog, in which she continues the work begun in Rewriting the Rules can be found here.
Katherine Angel’s author website can be found here.