Relaxed alertness… and big brother.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email blast from Tomorrow’s Professor, a great newsfeed I’ve been following for about 15 years, that discussed “relaxed alertness” as an optimum state for teaching and learning. The post is an excerpt from the book 12 Brain / Mind Learning Principles in Action: Teach for the Development of Higher-Order Thinking and Executive Function by Renate Nummela Caine, Geoffrey Caine, Carol McClintic and Karl J. Klimek. As it explains,

People in a state of Relaxed Alertness experience low threat and high challenge (Caine & Caine, 1991/1994, 2010). Essentially, the learner is both relaxed and to some extent excited or emotionally engaged at the same time. This is the foundation for taking risks in thinking, questioning, and experimenting, all of which are essential to mastering new skills and engaging higher-order thinking.  In this state the learner feels competent and confident and has a sense of meaning or purpose.

I’ve long been an advocate of “low stakes” learning; this means, essentially, that I try to put students at ease in the classroom, and I encourage failure in minor stuff as a route to success in the bigger things. My experience as a student (not SO long ago…and I try to return to learning whenever I can, to stay fresh and empathetic) was one of constant panic around the possibility of failure; that panic produced results, sure, but it also meant I literally threw up before essays were due and tests written, out of the terror of messing up FOREVER.

A big part of me doubts that the throwing up part needs to be correlated to the succeeding part; certainly, failing a test or an essay won’t ruin your life, and it is on us as teachers to remind students of this every day.

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So seeing this TP post in my inbox reinforced for me my pedagogical belief system: I cultivate low stakes (most of the time), encourage students to speak up even if/when they are wrong, and I try to model error as a way of discovering the correct (or a better) answer. Cheering inside as I read, I passed the message on to some of my colleagues who also think actively about teaching and learning strategies; I was in the moment also uplifted by having read some wonderful letters of support from former students (I’m going up for promotion right now) who reinforced for me the value of the low-stakes-high-energy approach in the classroom.

But – …

(There’s always a but.)

One of my colleagues – though supportive and loving as always – nevertheless helpfully reminded me about the politics underlying the “relaxed alertness” approach to teaching and learning. As she wrote to me,

It concerns me somewhat … that pedagogy talk is increasingly becoming counselling talk, which is tied inextricably to “therapy culture,” which is tied inextricably to neoliberalism’s refusal to recognize that individuals are not solely responsible for accommodating themselves to the direction the world goes in: maybe the world could make some changes and not expect the individual to compensate for the world’s flaws….

 

And she’s not wrong. When I dug deeper into the post I’d received from TP, I discovered this moment in the piece, connecting “relaxed alertness” to “resilience” and “self-efficacy”:

Resilience and self-efficacy have a great deal in common. Resilience refers to the ongoing, deep capacity to bounce back from failure or setbacks. People who struggle against enormous obstacles, say, to survive by struggling to find their way back from being lost in the wilderness, have resilience. The term often is used to describe students who survive poverty or abusive environments. Resilient kids survive and thrive despite the odds (Gillham, 2000; Reivich & Shatte, 2002).

Students with resilience (see Davies, 2002) are likable; they have social skills and are socially competent, have coherent moral or spiritual beliefs, have problem-solving skills, are self-directed, and have a sense of autonomy…

(All emphases my own)

There’s a problem here: on one hand, yes, “relaxed alertness” in the classroom means we are all invested but not overly so; we all can talk without the stakes getting too much in the way (and making us feel sick). If somebody goes offside, that’s fine; the larger conversation includes us all and we all know our value within the community, and the value of our risk-taking contribution.

BUT, on the other hand, if relaxed alertness is meant to cultivate “resilience” and “self-efficacy”, and if the latter two are explicitly connected to the bootstraps-pulling-up that we associate with libertarian independence, then we are in danger of arguing that a low-stakes, shared, empathetic classroom environment is – or could, or SHOULD – work in the service of a neoliberal reality in which everyone is supposed to learn to be resilient because nobody else is, or should be expected to be, around to help.

UGH.

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What we’ve got here is a classic Catch-22. We all, I think, want to teach our students to be active and engaged but not SO invested that they panic and deflate (or worse). But few of us, I imagine, would advocate that we are teaching our students to become resilient in the face of a world in which governments’ abilities to support the citizenship properly are decimated, and it’s every-person-for-themselves… and yet, the rhetoric I quote above suggests that’s a desirable, and somewhat inevitable, outcome. (And frankly, the current US presidential debate suggests it’s a necessary precaution, too.)

I have no resolution, no answer to offer here. But I’d love to hear others’ thoughts. Is “relaxed alertness” something to cultivate, or to be wary of? For me, I’d like to do the former, and yet also explain to my students the logic of the latter, in “teachable moment” fashion. To demystify the strategy while I use it, I guess.

But maybe that’s too much to dream of… or maybe there is no longer any getting outside the text of neoliberal realities. Although that’s an outcome too depressing to contemplate.

On an uncertain note,

Kim

 

…and then, we performed the syllabus!

We are back at it with a vengeance: classes resumed at universities across Canada just over a week ago. And we all know what that means:

Far and wide, professors were performing The Syllabus Show.

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You know, The Syllabus Show! It’s where we hand the course outline* to our incoming students in the first class of the term, and then proceed to do one of three things:

  1. Ignore the syllabus altogether – insisting students go home and read it with a magnifying glass, committing all the important dates to their diaries and all the rules and regs to memory – and jump right into The Course;
  2. Take the class through each section/sentence/carefully-crafted phrase with punishing focus, boring all living creatures in the classroom to near-death in the process;
  3. Speak to only the most important information (assignments; schedule; textbook list) using some cheeky technique designed to make The Syllabus Show just a bit less tedious.

I’ve never done #1 – I just cannot stomach Course Content Proper on day one. (I live in denial.) I’ve done #2, specifically early in my career, when I knew no better – and I nearly put myself to sleep, never mind the students. Number 3 was my stalwart for ages; I replaced “Kim Reads The Syllabus To You” with “Kim Offers Her Top Ten Tips for Getting an A” until I realised I was using that basically as a cover for reading the syllabus to them.

In the last few years I’ve gotten a bit more creative; my favourite Alt Syllabus Show, until this September, featured me dividing up the outline and asking pairs or trios of students to explain it back to the class, with the most important information highlighted. This technique allowed me to give in to the inevitable – whatever I’m doing at the front, on the first day nervous students are reading their damn syllabus, of course they are! – while also modelling the kind of active learning students could expect in the weeks ahead. As a bonus, it allowed me to get a fast read on what kinds of readers the students were: if they couldn’t pick up the key bits in the syllabus, I knew to be prepared when we started in on Henrik Ibsen (dour Norwegian playwriting hero) or Michel de Certeau (French wanderer-philosopher).

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(In my imagination, the dude on the left is de Certeau, and the dude on the right is Ibsen.)

Then, this year, in the week before school started I got a tremendous idea from my friend Charlotte Canning, a theatre historian at UT Austin. Via Facebook, she revealed that she had gotten the students in her undergrad course to perform the syllabus for one another.

As in: they made the syllabus into a script and turned it, fast and furiously, into a piece of improv theatre.

Sheer genius!

Think about it: The Syllabus Show is, already, a “show” of sorts – just a genuinely important and yet utterly boring one. Why not give in to the subtext and put it, literally, on its feet?

I sent Charlotte an email query asking for the basics; she sent me back the simple Powerpoint slides she’d created for the first day.

The logistics were easy. First, divide the syllabus into small chunks or “sides” (this term comes from Shakespeare’s era; it means the individual scripts actors received, with just their cues and lines on them); I opted for about 1/2 page per side. In class, divide the group quickly into teams of 3-4 and give each team their “side” separately from the syllabus proper (which, obviously, they also need). Ask them to work quickly: start by introducing themselves, then read the side; decide what information is most important and needs to be communicated, and then figure out a scenario to stage it. Brevity is the soul, here: given the constraints of a first class and the fact that, to be fun, this task has to keep moving, I gave each team only 8 minutes to talk and devise, and 2 minutes to perform.

I opened the class with five minutes of basic but key information (I’m Kim; this is Theatre Studies 2202; are we all in the right place? Etc.), then gave them their course outlines and told them they were to tuck them away in favour of what I was giving them next. I said we were going to perform the syllabus; after we all acknowledged how absurd and also totally awesome the idea was, I numbered them into teams and set them on each other.

Instantly, the room was buzzing. This was the opposite of the first-class norm: total energy, smiling faces. (Way better than blank stares and glowing smart phones.)

The time constraint panicked everyone, of course, but it also concentrated their focus. After eight minutes every group had about a minutes’ worth of performance to share, and though they ranged in quality there were some outstanding, memorable gems. I’ll never forget the team that “yada yada-ed” plagiarism (I haven’t laughed that hard in a while)! But my favourite was the piece on “participation”. It began as invisible theatre, with the two performers pretending to fudge each other’s names and programs (TOTALLY convincing – they had me); they then adopted the personae of two very typical undergrads (the outgoing know-it-all and the shrinking, shy, anxious one) as they demonstrated – embodied, in fact – what “participation” means to each. Slam-dunk.

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I would never do that. Nope. Never.

Did performing the syllabus convey to the class the key information ON the syllabus? I highly doubt it – but that was not at all the point. And this is what I loved best about performing the syllabus: rather than me pretending that whatever I do in the first class is going to stick like glue, we used the syllabus as a tool to have fun, to begin building our shared classroom community, and to make knowing jokes out of perennial teacher-student expectations. That doesn’t mean the class won’t be held to the standards in the syllabus; if anything, I suspect performing the syllabus made my students more likely to remember the syllabus, and maybe even read it at home. It certainly made for a memorable first class for me: for the first time ever, I managed to memorise all of their names by week two.

Coincidence? Doubtful.

Kim

*A word of clarification for readers who don’t teach at universities: the course outline, at uni-level, is a legally binding document. At my school, instructors cannot, for example, introduce a new assignment half way through the course; at the same time, instructors are meant in the syllabus to state all expectations regarding absences, late assignments, classroom behaviour, etc, and those expectations thus become binding on students. The syllabus is also the place where professors say what plagiarism is, that it will not be tolerated, and that student papers may be fed without further warning through plagiarism-detection software if a teacher deems it fit to do so. You get the idea.

On costume dramas, redux: girls to the front*

(*A reference to Sophie Mayer’s terrific new book, Political Animals. Get it here. Read my review of it here.)

Last year around this time I wrote a post about enlightened sexism, framed by my viewing of the sci-fi-driven costume drama Outlander and the more straight-up bodice-ripping Poldark. (Both showed their first seasons last year; Outlander season 2 is now available, and Poldark season 2 began Sunday night on BBC.) In that post I talked about how easily I was seduced by the pleasures of both shows (hot guys! amazing views!), but also about how both, in their plot lines and also their female characters, slid an awful lot of patriarchy-as-usual into the mix. Too much, for me. The pleasure I took in their superficial attractions, I suggested, papered over this problem, and led me to become frustrated with myself – and with their writers and producers – by seasons’ ends.

I took some flak for that post from friends I admire – notably my colleague Bridget Escolme, a costume historian and lover of the costume drama genre’s complexity, and feminist film heavyweight Mayer. Both reminded me, helpfully, that historical costume drama is a genre like any other, and that means it is neither good nor bad, sexist nor feminist. Rather, it holds all kinds of potential – for politics across the spectrum; for pleasure and delight and disgust. As with any genre, it’s all about how it gets used in practice: the stories individual dramas choose to tell and the means they use to tell them.

This year, then, I’ve decided to write in celebration of three historical costume dramas currently surging among Anglophone viewers (and beyond, I expect): Outlander (yup, season 2 gets it another chance); Orange is the New Black (contemporary costume drama is still “historical” – it’s a history of the now); and Strange Empire (which has been cancelled by the CBC but given new life on Netflix).

All have strong feminist chops, and together they reveal how much historical fiction can offer feminist spectators, teachers, and students.

Mayer opens her terrific chapter on costume drama in Political Animals with commentary on Belle, the 2013 film directed by Amma Asante about a free black gentlewoman in 18th century England. She reads Asante’s use of costume drama for-and-against itself, “simultaneously drawing the viewer in and critiquing the ‘chocolate box’ style of the genre and its literary sources by revealing the bitter ingredients on which they depend” (this quotation comes from Mayer’s review of the film for the BFI, available here). In other words: while Asante’s camera revels in the styling of the period and the love affairs always central to such dramas, she finds key ways, Mayer argues, to “[intertwine] love and justice, private and public, personal and political,” allowing the film to comment on the ways in which women’s dependence on men, and black people’s dependence on white (racism), shapes but does not fully limit the lives of the characters nor the framework of the film itself.

Historical dramas always face one key problem for non-cis-male viewers: our shared human history is largely a history of patriarchy, and there’s just no getting around that. What can we do within those constraints, though? The smartest costume dramas, like Belle, charge the genre to face its limits and prejudices, and to highlight, in their complexity, the compelling stories of characters usually cast as no more than romantic interests or plot devices.

There are lots of ways to play both with and against costume drama and its patriarchal histories; herewith, three strategies I’ve noted this summer while watching Outlander season 2, Strange Empire (only one season was made, sadly), and the latest from the blockbuster OITNB.

1. Fuck the Bechdel test. 

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It’s patriarchy, boys and girls; that means lots of times women talk together about men, and it ain’t got nothing to do with romance. A much better measure is this: how large is the group of women talking together? In what depth are they talking about the issues – related to men or not – at hand? Are they given opportunities to support and strengthen one another, as well as to challenge and rival one another? (IE: to be humans together?) Basically: are more than two women allowed to speak together at a time, and are they allowed the full run of human intelligence when they do?

Strange Empire, hands down my favourite of the three shows I’m addressing here, is a feminist Western created by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik and set in the middle 19th century on the Alberta-Montana border. The premise is deceptively simple: a wagon train is attacked by the men of one John Slotter, who owns a nearby mine; only the women are left alive, and they form the fulcrum of the new town that emerges around the mine’s labour. They also, ultimately, author its demise, when they go after Slotter in revenge for the killing of their husbands. As you’d expect from a program driven by the survival of women alone, there are lots of rich roles for the girls here, in no way limited to Cara Gee as Kat Loving, mother to three adopted children and the town’s Sheriff; Melissa Farman as Rebecca Blithely, an autistic doctor with a penchant for gore; and Tawtianna Jones as Slotter’s wife Isabelle, a Hapa woman with twice Slotter’s business savvy and no love for the other women in the town.

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Farman, Gee, and Jones in Strange Empire.

Despite the fact that Strange Empire pivots on Slotter, his mine, and his machinations, it is only superficially about these things – it recognises that a patriarch is necessarily somewhere near the centre of any story about survival on the 19th century American prairie, but then turns that recognition inside out by framing Slotter’s actions through the perspectives and experiences of the women who must constantly negotiate around him in order to thrive. The endgame of the series is a group of women building a community, in solidarity but also constantly in tension with one another, as they try to organise around their differences and channel their shared experiences into political energy. This is Bechdel 2.0: they might always be talking about Slotter, but Slotter is almost never the real point of their conversation.

The same thing happens with Orange is the New Black: like Strange Empire, the entire premise of the show is built on a group of very different women, many openly enemies, stuck together in one physical space that they need to turn into some kind of functioning community. Each episode turns on a series of negotiations among the women, choices made and consequences absorbed. Bad shit happens. Great stuff happens. Women love each other – openly, in what is arguably the most queer-positive space on English television right now – and women hate each other’s guts. Women have complex relationships with each other, unpredictable relationships. Alliances form and dissolve. Guards are outwitted. Men are the major jail keepers here, so, again, lots of talk revolves around them – but, again, it’s not usually talk about them. It’s talk about living and working and managing in a physical and social context in which the men exist in positions of power and therefore must be accounted for and dealt with. When it is about men as objects of sex or love, it’s complicated: by pregnancy (Daya), by rape (Pennsatucky), by feelings that exceed romance by a very long way indeed.

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Taryn Manning as Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, in one of my favourite promo images for OITNB.

(Here, incidentally, is one point on which I find Outlander wanting. Claire Fraser is a remarkable woman, but her female companions are predictable and her scope for smart female conversation very limited. I’m hoping for a change in season three.)

2. Enjoy the soft-core. 

Can a costume drama be sexy and still be feminist? OF COURSE. Feminists do not hate sex, and they do not hate men. They often want to have sex with men! They just as often want to have sex with women! Many feminists, also, are not gender-norm identified, and those people want to have sex with men, women, and other non-cis people! Get over it already.

My favourite recent thread on Orange is the New Black sees Suzanne (“Crazy Eyes”) author a sci-fi style porn serial with some of the most hilariously extreme characters imaginable (one based, notoriously, on a not-especially sexy male guard). The other inmates go mad for it, hounding her for fresh work; Suzanne discovers what it’s like to be an artist in demand and nearly packs it all in. Then copycat fan fic starts appearing! Although this plot line is primarily funny rather than sexy, it reminded me how openly the show revels in queer, as well as some straight, sex, and how instructive it can be to see love and sex outside your own desire matrix represented on screen. I am a heterosexual woman, and I’m not turned on by watching Alex and Piper or Washington and Soso embrace, but I always appreciate those scenes very much. OITNB reminds hetero viewers over and over what it’s like to see not your preferred kind of sex on screen; this is the reality non-hetero viewers live with constantly, and it’s exactly the reason we need much more work just like this getting made.

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Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley as Soso and Washington on OITNB.

Outlander is much more straight(-laced) soft-core, with a pregnant Claire getting bigger and her breasts underneath her night shifts growing more and more visible throughout season 2. If you’re on Team Jamie, and/or you’re into Claire, then god knows there are plenty of terrific sex scenes for you to enjoy. But the real visual joy of Outlander‘s second season is the wardrobe styling, with Claire and Jamie sporting some extremely impressive 18th century French fashions while they try to game Bonnie Prince Charlie out of the war he’s about to lose. My favourite thing about this season is watching Caitriona Balfe parade around in dresses designed to show off her boobs and downplay her pregnancy, seemingly styled as no more than eye-candy, while she and Jamie work out a variety of strategies to trick the prince and beat the clock on the Highland Rebellion. Defying the costume drama stereotype – nice to look at! Wish they’d give her more to do… – Balfe gets to wear her cake and eat it, too.

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Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser. Genuinely killer outfit. (Shame about the prerequisite male gaze.)

And Strange Empire? It revels in the gruesome that is hardscrabble township life on the American frontier. Kat has some great hetero-sex. Rebecca doesn’t quite let herself have some great queer sex with the cross-dressed Morgan – but mostly because she’d prefer to caress the literal hearts of the cadavers she cuts open, to study the inner workings of the human body. Isabelle has all kinds of sex – including the kind she wants, with the Chinese immigrant Ling who helps her undermine John, and the kind she doesn’t, in which John fucks her on his terms while the camera shows us her ennui, her understanding that she must tolerate this, too, in order to progress her own agenda. Soft-core with a strongly critical eye, an eye always trained on the challenges of the female-centric world the series is crafting. Best kind.

3. Embrace the improbable.

The Greek philosopher and theorist of theatre Aristotle famously said that drama should prefer the “probable impossibility” over the “improbable possibility”. What does this mean? Roughly translated: if the choice is between 1) a town beset by a plague because of the hubris of a man and the workings of the gods – however weird it might be to have a god drop down from above to create or cure a plague! – and 2) women or slaves as main characters with complex backstories… well, he’ll take the god-given plague any day. Women and slaves shouldn’t be so overtly encouraged.

Obviously, that was then and this is now, and I do not blame Aristotle (384-322BC) for not being a feminist. But his wisdom is best, for me, when reversed: odds are, if we embrace what our culture deems improbable, cool stuff will happen and our imaginations will open wider. All three of these shows are driven by improbability in the first instance: girls come to the front! But they also revel in historical weirdness, to wondrous effect. They begin from the very premise most costume dramas like to cover up: the fact that they aren’t actually all that historically accurate. The fact that they are, mostly, sensationalised.

On Strange Empire, the murder that sets the plot in motion creates a haunted atmosphere in the town that is augmented by a handful of ghostly appearances as well as a general sense of dis-ease. The dialogue takes this further: it includes a mix of “spaghetti Western”, “literary-speak”, and something akin to modern that makes every interaction just a bit stilted, and leaves viewers constantly aware that they are viewing a historical fiction, a dream of a world in which women are given the freedom to shape their universe (and what complex freedom it is, too).

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Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman, right) gives in to her one true passion. With Joanne Boland as Morgan Finn (centre), and Marci T. House as Ruby Slotter (left).

Outlander begins and ends with Claire traveling through a standing stone circle to another moment in historical time; while she’s never free in her 18th century body to be the modern woman she was, that woman is always within. And more: she is constantly visible and audible to us in Claire’s voice-over narratives, chafing against the “realism” of the show’s 18th century stylings and reminding viewers that the Claire from 1743 is as much structured by her social and historical circumstances as is the Claire from the mid-twentieth century. (And that both are, for better or worse, inventions.)

Orange is the New Black, meanwhile, turns the most improbable trick of all. It maintains that a show set in a prison full of women is the most interesting thing you’ll ever see, because the vast diversity of experiences, knowledge, and ambition shaping and sustaining these women offers more than enough fodder for multiple seasons of gripping television. I wonder what Aristotle would have thought about that!

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Is it a coincidence that these three great programs are made by women? I don’t think so. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one I remain most uncertain about – Outlander – is the one written by a woman (Diana Gabaldon) but developed for TV by a man (Ronald D. Moore), and produced by a major Hollywood heavyweight (Sony). OITNB is the brainchild of the wickedly smart Jenji Kohan in partnership with what was, at the show’s inception, the upstart Netflix, and Strange Empire was created by Finstad-Knizhnik and produced by the CBC, a public broadcaster working with public money and a mandate to tell Canadian stories.

The lesson here? We don’t need to trust our stories to the mainstream, ladies. There are a lot of people willing to take risks on so-called improbable content – we need to look for them, and we need to trust ourselves to write that work, direct it, and produce it too.

There are, I know, a thousand different ways to make amazing feminist period drama; above are only three, and they are of course subjective. I’d love to hear from y’all about your favourites – strategies as well as series – and as always your feedback on the stuff above is very welcome indeed.

Happy beginning of the new school year!

Kim

 

 

Writing abroad (Dispatches from the end of summer…)

I’ve not posted in this space in a couple of weeks, partly because it’s the end of the summer (oh blessed goddess, where did the summer go?!), and partly because I’ve been writing and posting elsewhere. I’m very happy to be part of a couple of different online communities, and I’m also very happy to share my contributions to those communities here with you.

I’ve taken on a new monthly gig with Fit is a Feminist Issue, run by my two colleagues and friends Sam Brennan and Tracy Isaacs; I reblogged my first regular post with them at the end of last month (check it out here), and this week I contributed my second regular post, on the exercise challenges my mom faces as a person living with dementia in a wheelchair, and how she and I are addressing those challenges using retail therapy. This one is called “Shopping is my cardio (no, really!)”, and you can have a look at it here.

Last Friday I also reviewed a piece of local theatre for Keith Tomasek, the brains behind Stratfordfestivalreviews.com. Keith does his utmost to draw much-needed attention to local performance work in Southwestern Ontario, beginning with work showcased at the acclaimed Stratford Festival of Canada and branching off from there. I’m both grateful to Keith for what he does for the arts in our communities and keen to support his commitment to thoughtful, engaged, critical theatre reviewing whenever I can. My review, of Troubadour Theatre Collective‘s terrific production of David Hare’s classic 1995 play Skylight, is available here.

That’s it from me for now! I hope these treats make tasty end of summer reading, and that your days at the beach aren’t quite done…yet.

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Next week I’ll be back to start the semester with that promised post about costume dramas, redux – featuring thoughts on Outlander season 2, Orange is the New Black, and Strange Empire. Feminist historical fiction, here we come.

Till then!

Kim

On Political Animals, by Sophie Mayer: writing as activism

(An Activist Classroom Book Review)

This blog is called “The Activist Classroom” because I believe that teaching, writing about teaching, and thinking about teaching and learning (especially in relation to performance) are all activating practices. They are things we do to inspire, stimulate, and charge others to engage in public debate, thoughtful reflection, and critically aware acts of citizenship.

I don’t talk overtly about activism a lot on the blog, largely because I see this as a space in which to explore what “activism” means: the different valences of the term, and what acts it can signify beyond its more obvious, old-school, and – it must be said – always courageous and essential roots out on the streets. So, when an exceptional example of non-traditional activism crosses my desk, I’m keen to investigate it, and usually to share my thoughts about it.

Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinemaby Sophie Mayer, is one such example. It offers a comprehensive, enthusiastic, generous, elegant, smart and forceful look at nearly 500 films from 60 countries. It is written for the widest possible audience but pulls no intellectual punches along the way. It opens with a discussion of Frozen telescoped through the reflections of a young female viewer (Mayer’s god-daughter); those reflections become a model for its inclusive, girl-positive ethos. It ends with a formidable call to action for cinema lovers of all ages, backgrounds, sexes and genders – but with girls called first to the front line.

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On the front line: Elle Fanning and Alice Englert in Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa (2012).

Before I go further, full disclosure: Mayer is an old friend of mine. We attended Massey College at the University of Toronto together, and we shared a PhD professor, though not a PhD program (hooray for interdisciplinarity!). She is the reason I own a Wheelock’s Latin primer, and the reason I believe that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest television program ever made. (OBVIOUSLY.)

But our personal connection is beside the point in this review – truly. I requested a copy of Political Animals from Mayer’s publisher, I.B. Tauris*, because I knew when I saw the abstract online that it would be essential reading for me. I also knew, given my academic expertise in feminist performance, that I’d be able to provide a balanced and informed reading of it, whatever the weather. Moreover, knowing something of Sophie’s work as a film curator, popular culture critic, and voracious and eclectic film consumer, I strongly suspected it would seriously kick ass.

I was right.

In a nutshell, Political Animals is a book about what Mayer calls “representational justice” (after “reproductive justice” [20]): she looks at but also very far beyond mainstream cinema in order to locate the images, narratives, and techniques that allow the feminist filmmakers she tracks to paint for us a picture of our world that is critical of our patriarchal present but also full of hope, “love, vigour and courage” (8). What’s a feminist filmmaker, for Mayer? Her definition:

A stance of ongoing public activism, rooted in but not limited to gender equity, underlies my definition of a film, filmmaker, film theorist or film viewer as feminist. …Drawing on the modes of criticism laid out by Jill Dolan in The Feminist Spectator in Action – argument and advocacy, forming an activist criticism engaged with artistry – I suggest what lies beyond: activist viewers of an activist cinema. Where the active viewer makes connections to and within the film, the activist viewer connects the film and the world. (8, final emphasis added)

Mayer’s book has numerous strengths, but chief among them is this: it shows performance criticism at work, as activism. (Or, to put this another way: it does feminism as criticism, and it does feminist criticism as activism.) Mayer sees herself as an activist, to be sure, but her book positions us – ordinary audience members, film fans everywhere, you and me – as the ultimate activist agents in the public sphere, central players in the debates that shape the making, doing, sharing, and viewing of art in a moment of political precarity. (Or, indeed, in any political moment. I’m not sure we’ll be getting less precarious anytime soon.) This is probably the most inspiring thing about Political Animals, especially for student readers. It fills reading, watching, and thinking with a sense of true agency.

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Sophie Mayer, photo by Ian Mantgani

Beginning from this democratic premise – that VIEWERS become activists when they have (and use) the tools to “connect the film and the world” – Mayer surveys an absolutely staggering amount of cinema, grouped into themed chapters. The first offers an “alt” reading of feminist film history – one in which the typical story of scarcity (“not enough feminist work!”) is replaced with a sense of “plenty” (“look at all this feminist work we’ve not been talking about!” [14-18]). Following on, chapters two and three take on ecological issues, examining films that engage animals, earth, and other forms of “bare” life in political solidarity with women’s concerns. Chapters four (on women making movies about war) and five (on the many faces of modern British feminist cinema) are more traditionaly geopolitical, while chapters six (feminist costume drama! My favourite!**) and seven (on the political power of female fantasy) explore “trad” women’s art and craft practices for those practices’ radical possibilities, when they are coopted effectively for (and by) the feminist imagination.

The final three chapters look to topics at once “done” and not nearly done (well) enough: girls (taking up space), homes and family life, and love. Mayer concludes with a vibrant, inspiring “open letter” (modelled after the open letters of some of her filmmaking heroes) to viewers, artists, critics, and curators as she peers into a future that is in the shaping, right now. That future is being imagined, created, filmed and talked about by the girl(s) she and I once were (the Riot GRRRL generation); the young female-identified artists watching, thinking, and making today, at home and at school and on their smart phones; and the thoughtful pioneers still all around us, in no way done with their essential work. Mayer invites us every one into the tent of her activist writing and viewing practice: channeling Kathleen Hanna, she cries out: “Girls to the front: let’s go” (203).

There is so much material to admire in Political Animals, and if you are a cinema-hound or a film scholar (or aspiring to either, or both!), I urge you to grab a copy and dive in. What I want to emphasise in the rest of this review, though, isn’t content but form. I want to highlight the para-textual dimensions of Mayer’s work that make it a model for the kind of scholarship I know I want (and want more of us all) to write more often.

1. Political Animals risks accessibility, gorgeously. 

Mayer’s writing is intellectually rigorous but also fluid and lucid and full of heart. It takes seriously the notion that writing about art is a creative thing, not less than (or better than) the art it discusses, but a parallel document that exists in an intellectual and social relationship to its subject and forms a crucial part of our public engagement with that subject and the potential it holds to “remak[e] the world” (8). Mayer is a proper scholar-artist in her working life (that is: she makes art, curates art, and writes about art, moving seamlessly between these labours every day); here, she turns her phrases with the talent of a sculptor, reminding us that scholarship cannot be dry because it is creative, and as creative material it needs to inspire. As she writes at the end of her galvanising introduction:

Political Animals is written in homage and gratitude to the feminist scholars, curators, critics and bloggers whose work opened, and opens, up a world of film to me, and preserves it for us all. Above all, B. Ruby Rich’s feminist film history Chick Flicks brought news of films I couldn’t yet see (and had never dreamed possible). Her search, delivered in effervescent style, for ‘the kind of riveting, soul-replenishing work that can give girls and women the confidence and spirit to change the world’, is the shoulder upon which my book stands. (11)

2. Political Animals is rigorously inclusive.

In its inclusivity, this book reminds us that we must make our futures together, respectful of our differences yet committed to solidarity across difference, or we have nothing at all. The quotation above is an apt example of how Mayer’s critical generosity extends outward to those who have inspired and supported her; she pays that generosity forward in the exposure she grants the hundreds of filmmakers whose work she discusses – in many cases exposure long overdue.

Mayer’s scope is broad, always international and intercultural, and her language choices carry with them her deep understanding of the responsibility writing across cultural difference brings. She consistently chooses the terminology used by minority communities (trans, LGBTQIA, Indigenous – for example) as she addresses work from those communities, and she pays constant attention to the ways in which labels carry unconscious privilege, the privilege to decide who is “us” and who “them”. This might seems like a small thing, but I assure you it’s not: the research required to ensure naming and pronoun preferences are correct on a subject-to-subject basis, and the additional care needed in writing and copyediting in order to make sure casual errors are not left in the manuscript, is painstaking. Taking these pains indicates a willingness not to settle for “normative” language as normal, a desire to use words literally to speak a different and more inclusive world, page by page, into being.

3. Political Animals is evidence that reviewing film, theatre, performance – art, period – is essential cultural labour, labour we need to support and maintain in these rough political times.

By choosing to go long rather than deep in her engagement with most of her cinematic subjects, Mayer models film scholarship’s relationship to popular-culture reviewing, helping to break down the barriers between “criticism” and “reviews” – artificial and unhelpful as they are. In a moment when I often despair of the quality of performance reviews in the media outlets I rely on for information about the cultural zeitgeist (500 words, maybe; maybe written within an hour or two of the show, on the hoof, maybe on the phone!), this book represents film reviewing at its highest calibre. It takes the measure of trends, makes political connections, and articulates a vision for what yet may come. This is reviewing that takes time. It is reviewing that recognises its responsibility to support, engage, critique, and also adore that which it speaks of. It is reviewing as political activism.

Mayer’s kind of sustained, cultivated, invested engagement is essential for artists, and through them for the societies they both reflect and shape. Work like this forms part of a conversation artists need to have, in public, in order to move their practices forward. It forms part of a conversation spectators need to have in order to learn what it means to go to the cinema or the theatre with a world-making eye. And it forms part of a conversation we need to promote, urgently, online, louder and stronger every day, so that one day we might drown out the trolls – or, even better, render them hopelessly irrelevant. Perhaps we might even teach a few of them something about art, feminism, and inclusivity along the way.

Thanks, Sophie!

Kim

*If you’re concerned about where you send your money when you click to buy online, consider purchasing Political Animals direct from the publisher here.

**I have talked before about costume drama on the blog. I will again – very soon. Look forward to more from Mayer’s book in that upcoming post, as well as thoughts on season 2 of OutlanderOrange is the New Black, and the crazy-cool feminist western Strange Empire.