Battling with Boy Theory at the Big Conference – by Sara De Benedictis

My first encounter of the dominance of boy theory and theorists at supposedly feminist informed and ‘friendly’ conferences was a shock to the system. When I was in my first year of my postgraduate degree I had the opportunity to go to a very large established Cultural Studies conference. The specificity of the conference, location and people are irrelevant. I am certain that this story will be familiar to many and could easily stand in for experiences that others have had. These stories tend to be silenced publically. You will not usually find the reporting of academic sexism at conferences on the (now obligatory) twitter hashtag. Rather these stories are told in hushed, angry tones between feminist friends and colleagues unable to compute the hypocrisy of the situation that they have witnessed; gender inequality playing out so palpably in sites that they should not.

I was fortunate that my experiences of conferences when I attended this one had thus far been of small feminist arranged ones, which were by no means perfect but overall had a strong feminist drive with an awareness of the importance of practicing feminist politics. Practices such as conscious decision making about panel speakers, and others that #womantheory have helpfully pointed out. I (naively) came to this large Cultural Studies conference with around 300 attendees assuming that these types of practices were infiltrated into the very core of Cultural Studies, and as such this would be fundamental to the organisation of the conference. Women theorists had been so vital to the discipline of Cultural Studies, how could they not be?

Unfortunately, I was wrong. From the start, I had some gripes with the theme of the conference in itself. It was a conference professing a ‘new’ turn, which always makes me dubious. I soon realised that what was being cast aside and undermined in the ‘newness’ professed in this conference was the importance of feminist politics on inequality and power relations and how essential this is to Cultural Studies. As Sara Ahmed notes:

I would say that in the landscape of contemporary critical theory there is a sense – sometimes spoken, sometimes not – that we need to “get beyond” categories like gender and race: as if the categories themselves have restricted our understanding; as if the categories themselves are the blockage points. […] The hope invested in new terms (movement, becoming, assemblages, capacities) can thus be considered a way of “overing” as if these terms are how we “get over” the categories themselves. (Ahmed, 2013)

The majority of the actual conference was not necessarily my main issue, although papers with gender perspectives were largely labelled as such in the programme, whereas all other panels were labelled through their seemingly ‘apolitical’ content even if they were informed through these perspectives. A move that I felt marked the former types of panels as ‘other’ to the invisibility of the white, male perspectives that were not named as such.

It was not until the closing plenary, however, that the reality of the silencing of feminist theorists really hit home. As I sat with the other attendees, a fairly diverse audience from multiple countries, waiting to hear the closing panel I was taken aback to see a majority white, male panel shuffle on to the stage before me. These well-known academics sitting in front of me were meant to reflect and discuss where Cultural Studies was now. As the closing plenary began I was enraged as slowly, one by one, in some sort of bizarre display of male back patting and camaraderie, the six men began to discuss how fantastic Cultural Studies was citing the ‘leaders’ in the field – all men from Anglophone countries – and just how far the discipline had come. I looked around engulfed by rage and rolled my eyes at my feminist colleagues who sat beside me. Surely, I was not the only one who found this display unbelievable? If the actual presence of a male dominated panel in a supposedly feminist aware conference was bad enough, the content of what these men were saying was even worse. I did not hear the word ‘politics’ spoken once in any meaningful way, let alone any reference to feminist politics or female theorists.

I felt disappointed, saddened and angry. Perhaps these feelings were more acute as this was my first experience of this type of sexist display in academia, which felt all the more pernicious due to the fact that this was at a Cultural Studies conference. But as the second of two women spoke, I will never forget the wave of appreciation I felt for her as she took on the position of feminist killjoy. This woman began to speak with such directness and measured anger about the politics of Cultural Studies, the inequality still felt by many and how this focus on the ‘new’ can overshadow said structural inequality around gender, race, class “etc”. She gestured to the room that we were in where the grand pictures of solely white, aristocratic men that adorned the walls of the room only served to antagonise and remind us of how long the history of white male supremacy is, and how this would be seeming to repeat itself in front of our very eyes. Amongst other points, she was clearly making subtle reference to the display before us.

I do not know what it must feel like to be a feminist killjoy on a male dominated panel in a room full of around 300 people questioning the very heart of the theme of a conference. I imagine it is quite terrifying. This academic was (and still is) established in her field so perhaps she has become more used to taking up this position, or perhaps every time she is forced to appropriate this position she has to push herself to override her fears and exhaustion to be the subject that speaks up against inequality. Regardless, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for a number of reasons. Firstly, she showed me how important it is to not be complacent in the assumption that issues of power no less affect these types of sites that are supposedly more aware. Secondly, that she had the courage to speak up to disrupt and fracture the dominance of boy theory in that moment, which cemented how important it is to do – in the little and big ways – as a form of collective action. I am sure that I was not alone in feeling this as she cracked the mirror that supposedly reflected ‘where Cultural Studies is now’.

Written for Womantheory by Sara De Benedictis, King’s College London

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