The extract you sent in focused on French Literature. Why is it that literature particularly interests you?
Literature can give you a way of understanding your own situation, of making sense of your experiences, of validating them. It is interesting just how well it maps, particularly when you consider that the books I was studying were by no means modern. These were 2nd wave feminist works.
You talked about the different roles of men and women in literature in your extract, how did this appear in the works you studied?
There is this definite binary opposition between the natural, beautiful ‘woman’ and the rational man. I realised in a conversation with my professor that I fit in this binary because I took French literature and philosophy for my undergraduate. Literature and languages are seen as slightly feminine. This was definitely true in my experience, in French literature my class was made up mostly of women and nearly all of the lecturers were women. In contrast Philosophy is very male heavy and in most of my lectures I was the only girl.
When you’re doing a joint degree and you are traveling into each discipline and you can have these starkly different experiences. Literature is quite free and feeling based, it’s a ‘nice’ subject and you openly discuss your opinions and feelings with the class. In Philosophy no one cares about your opinion, feelings are understood to obscure reason and truth rather than being a different or valid way of doing things.
All my Philosophy tutors were male and as a subject, at least in the way it is taught in the UK, it is very rational with a very logical argument structure and clearly not a space in which you can use metaphor or intuition. It is as a subject clear and cold. It is scientific in its approach but that is just so stupid! It is useful to have emotion, to talk about how a work makes you feel just the same as it is in literature.
The binary definitely seems to be quite gendered. Women are typically thought of as being emotion and men rational, which would be fine but the rational gets valued more highly in this environment. Emotion is seen as ‘nice’ but less valued.
But they are interrelated, not separate, you are as much drawing an opinion on something in philosophy as you are in Literature. Have you ever seen the Richard Lynn film Before Midnight? It’s an interesting film and in the final scene you have this binary, with the rational man telling the women she is being emotional and mad when she accuses him of being cold. It’s a reoccurring split.
Would you say that it could ever be true for a man to claim he is being unemotional?
I do not think it is just a male female total binary. There are women and men that do not fit that role. Philosophy which is dominated by men teaches a more neutral style and claims that the less emotional your tone the more true and less biased your argument. However, you are not being any less neutral, we are all bias. We all take a position regardless of our tone. It’s irritating. It’s like when you’re arguing with a sibling and they accuse you of being emotional, it just winds you up more and then you cannot convincingly say you are not being. But being emotional is not a bad thing. Have you spoken to other people in the study about the Arts/ Science split?
I explain that we haven’t talked about that though we have discussed the importance of emotion in academia.
Ah interesting. I think we have to be careful though, you are always bound to think that what you experience is normal. I am sure what we think of as a binary is actually much more complicated. There will be exceptions but I do think that it is partly true that girls are more creative. It is damaging though as science and ‘rational arguments’ are seen as more valuable and therefore make more money, with a nice arty degree it is so hard to get a job.
Do you think that women are taught to be more emotional or it is something they innately feel and expect from themselves?
It is really hard to see if it is something that I am doing to myself or someone to me. Playing a gender role feels natural – to cry seems feminine. I think there is an argument to be had that women are more readily more emotional because you are allowed to be. This really would’nt be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that it is downgraded as a way to present your attitude. Your accused of not being able to think straight, of being in an emotional eddy. You can’t be conveying anything of meaning because meaning is crowded out by emotion – or so we are told. This might be an exaggeration of the pressure put on me, but this is how it feels.
In a lecture four men might stand up and talk and I want to make a nice point and I really want to say it. however; it might not fit with the standard way to engage rationally and clearly, so it seems silly in contrast. I can feel like what I want to say is childish, it’s based on my opinion and not explicitly on concepts and others names. It is most likely me being too aware of my own position as the non-rational thinker. So maybe it is an internal block more than other people’s pressure. It is really a frustrating internalisation.
Could you tell me more about your MA?
I found it interesting to look at how women talk to men. How women are often being used as a mirror to that man’s ego. They are a listener an affirmer and not active. Theorists such as Freud have considered energy as a liquid and as such through interactions you can become drained by the person you are speaking to. So in these novels it is all about him and the harem of women surrounded him with love and this male protagonist is just drawing the energy out of them.
I think this maps onto social reality. Men are more likely to be indulged by those who gather around them. I don’t think I do that to any woman, I don’t suck up to them. Throughout history, literature and in real life women are not given as much attention to speak, emphasis is on how they look or dress not on what they are actually saying. In my life, in academia you rarely meet a woman labelled a genius. Then even in our own friendship group, we talk about boys as brilliant. In a conversation I am having men very often dominate even if what they are saying is not interesting. There is a self-confidence to take to the floor, to monologue that is often the space of the male. So, you can see in real life and literature and there is this strong parallel theme of being drained by the male.
How should we cope, and learn?
We should be honest about the interesting correlation between being a genius and being a dick. When we teach authors and poets we should not just show them as brilliant we should recognise the appalling ways they treated people, especially women around them.
Do you think it is changing and that women are having more agency in conversations?
I don’t know, it is so hard to tell, you have an impression of a conversation – a cognitive bias which is always confirmed once you have that belief. I want a ‘sisterhood’ with women being nice to each other. What you like listening too tends to be listening to men. Speakers, something about voice, maybe because you got used to it when you are younger. I felt like it was true. At parties and in seminars. I have realised and now I am changing it.
When you notice the problem, then you become empowered and you can speak you can act differently.
I felt that men draining women in conversation was true so I made an effort to change it. I sought out women who I found admirable, I try to speak out more. So I have made a change through personal choice. Before I arrived at Oxford I did some research into finals results from previous years. I discovered that men always did better basically, by about 5% and I though that that is odd and emailed college. I was worried as I am a good student and did not want to do worse because of my gender. The university are working on a report, it will show that during term time women do just as well, however; in the final two weeks with exams women did worse. I spoke to different people and they all came up with a different hypothesis though no one knew exactly why; women struggle less with the pressure, they talk less in class and so don’t develop their ideas as well. It was all vague.
If you could guess, what do you think the answer might be?
I think that university rewards self-assurance – confidence and even mild arrogance. Fearlessly speaking out is not something I do. I think that is gendered.
How did you get interested in sisterhood?
Belle Hooks. American feminist. Wrote a book ‘Feminism is for Everybody.' She has a qualm that Feminism is mostly white women, collaborating with white men. That it is characterised by illiberal self-interest. We need to be wary to have a feminism that is intersectional– now it is elite and glitzy and Emma Watson esque. The thing I took from the work most though is ‘sisterhood’ women for women. Women internalise sexism and prejudice and then there is this enemy within. Women are mean toward other women, they put each other down in collaboration with men. Sisterhood is simply being nice to other women, don’t comment on their weight, don’t label them as‘crazy’ – language like that is undermining women and the female agenda.
What do you want to see from the Feminist movement?
Don’t read too much into people’s reactions any time you cause some kind of disruption. I am trying to speak louder and people have reacted badly. Well, screw them – I don’t care in boring them. Be confident, do it and do repeatedly. Make that the norm! Be as active as possible speak up in classes, seminars! Move into your own interest, hijack. Active engagement and sisterhood are the things I want from the feminist movement.