Embracing the #femfog: Session at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds, UK, July 6, 2016, organized by Bettina Bildhauer, chaired by Diane Watt
Reviewed by Debbie White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Reviewed by Debbie White (email@example.com)
Embrace the #femfog: Diversity, Medievalism and Moving Beyond Frantzen
As a first-timer at IMC 2016, I arrived on the Sunday evening in Leeds not entirely sure what to expect, armed only with the alarmingly thick programme, a notebook and more spare pens than I knew what to do with. One of the highlights of the conference, however, was a session which was not included in the programme; a late addition to proceedings focused on ‘embracing the femfog’, which took place on Wednesday lunchtime. The eight panellists, all of whom spoke articulately (and impressively for academics, kept to time!) were Helen Young, Elaine Treharne, Robert Stanton, Christina Lee, Dorothy Kim, Jonathan Hsy, Liz Herbert McAvoy, and David Bowe, and the session was chaired by Diane Watt.
Perhaps due to its late scheduling, the demographic of the room was noticeably skewed towards the younger end of the scale, and as I observed at the time in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tweet, ‘There are more people with brightly coloured hair than there are white men in this room.’
It is perhaps inevitable that an event such as this would attract an audience consisting of those most affected by the issues under discussion, but the danger that accompanies this is that it becomes a matter of preaching to the choir (as useful as having a safe space in which to share experiences with those who have undergone similar things can be); the Frantzens of this world remain unaffected and their views unchallenged, and the anger of those who see our field and our identities under attack risks being unheard. Fortunately, Twitter came into its own, and #femfog became a trending topic; for those who were not there, I’d highly recommend investigating the record of proceedings as found on Twitter, for a snapshot of the passion and energy in the room. It has been helpfully storified by Shyama Rajendran, and can be found here:
For those who are unaware of the impetus behind this session, a quick overview of the events that led to it; #femfog began trending on Twitter in January, after posts were found on Allen Frantzen’s blog which would not have been out of place on Reddit. They spoke of the ‘femfog’, the ‘sour mix of victimization and privilege that makes up modern feminism and that feminists use to intimidate and exploit men ...’ and the need to ‘clear the fog of feminist propaganda’. The offending posts have now been removed, but they contained references to ‘red pill’ and MRA culture, and were entirely dismissive of feminism as a personal, political, and academic necessity. Frantzen’s comments had been posted some time before they were discovered and given a wide airing on social media, but in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, he defended his arguments, claiming that his opponents merely accused him of ‘hating women’ rather than engaging with the substance of his ideas.
Frantzen’s blog attracted such levels of attention in part because of his status as a respected academic and medievalist, and particularly as someone who has worked to bring queer studies into medievalism. The seeming lack of understanding of intersectionality made the discovery of the blog all the more shocking.
As Dorothy Kim noted, Frantzen is not merely a private citizen; his status as an academic gives his words weight, whether published in a blog or in more traditional modes. This is particularly true as the blog on which these views were published also included a list of his academic scholarship, as though this gives credence and weight to the misogyny spouted. However shrouded in his academic achievements, however, the similarities of the language used by Frantzen to that found in MRA culture, and associated with phenomena such as gamergate (the controversy around harassment and sexism in gaming culture, which began with sexist attacks, death threats and harassment of games developer Zoe Quinn) or Roosh V (an American blogger and self-proclaimed ‘pick up artist’ who has been criticised for his misogynistic ideas and promotion of rape) cannot be ignored.
Such views are not merely online ramblings; they have an effect far beyond an isolated series of blog posts – they are rather reflective of a wider culture within academia and society in which women routinely face harassment and may struggle to find their work accepted, especially for those working within fields which deal with gender, race, sexuality or disability. These range from microaggressions (examples were given of male scholars rolling their eyes at women using the language of heteronormativity in academic contexts) to sexual harassment at conferences and academic events, the scale of which was uncovered in work undertaken by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship. Of the 432 respondents to their survey, 70% reported being on the receiving end of harassment, and the culprits were often repeat offenders. Such a statistic is likely to surprise no one who has experience of being a woman or non-binary person in academia.
The discussion at the IMC panel revealed that many women medievalists have faced such struggles, and swiftly turned to ideas of how improvements can be made, especially for those of us at the beginning of our academic careers, who are often most vulnerable to structural injustices and have the least power to speak out against them. Mentoring, and the importance of role models and support structures, was seen as an important step towards addressing some of these issues. For young scholars starting out in the field, older women who have experienced some of the same battles and hurdles can be of vital importance, and many of the panel and audience members spoke fondly of their own experiences of mentoring and being mentored. This extends beyond the ‘gender question’ of course, and sexuality and race in particular are areas where seeing role models who reflect one’s own identity is an invaluable part of being supported in developing oneself as an academic. Discussions on Twitter in the aftermath of the sadly time-limited panel also highlighted disability and class as areas in which diversity is noticeably lacking in the field. Anglo-Saxon studies in particular was highlighted as being an overwhelmingly white field, and Helen Young spoke of the rarity of encountering any openly queer women in her first ten years of academia. This applies both to the subjects of our study and to those who are teaching and writing; diversity must appear both in the pages of our textbooks and on our presentation slides and in the names on the front of those textbooks. Perhaps due to my own focus in my research on women religious, I was fortunate enough to make it through the entire conference without attending a single all-male panel, an experience that may not be either universal or representative of the IMC, but the majority of panels I attended were all-white. Jonathan Hsy noted the importance of interrogating attitudes within one’s own community, particularly a call for gay men to look for, call out, and rid their communities of misogyny, but also a reminder for white academia to be vigilant against racism and whitewashing.
Alongside mentorship and diversifying the field, both in terms of the subjects of our research and the people in our classrooms, other practical options for action were discussed. One important issue raised was the need for conferences such as Kalamazoo and Leeds to have clear codes of conduct related to harassment and for appropriate action to be taken in the event of such being reported. Refusal to participate in structures and institutions which continue to permit harassment and misogyny was brought up as an important weapon at our disposal, though with the important caveat that withdrawing participation is not necessarily a tool equally available to all; a PhD student or ECR may find they have fewer options at their disposal than a more established senior colleague. Again, here is where the importance of mentorship and of cross-generational support structures and solidarity cannot be overestimated; the call goes out to those senior, established scholars amongst us to use what power they have within the institution for those of us with less of a voice. There was a noticeable absence on the panel of a PhD student, and this was brought up in the discussion; the reason for this was that the burden of labour can fall disproportionately on younger scholars and this was judged to be an unfair position to put somebody in. The risk of speaking out against misogyny in the field is by nature far greater for someone in a more precarious employment situation or who has not yet had the opportunity to establish themself.
The discussion concluded with a focus on kindness; being kind to others and being kind to yourself. We are often encouraged to be competitive, especially as jobs become harder to find – at one point post-Brexit, there were more openings for leaders of political parties in the UK than there were vacancies for positions in medieval history. I can barely go a week, it seems, without another article appearing on my social media timeline about the difficulties of finding a permanent academic job. This creates an atmosphere of competition, in which the values of mentorship and solidarity can be forgotten in the surrounding angst. Academia can be a punishing environment for anyone, and particularly for those with mental health conditions. This can be amplified when fighting against viewpoints such as those espoused by Frantzen and others - for it is important to remember that he is not an isolated case; his thoughts are not his alone, and while his blog was the catalyst for the femfog discussion on Twitter and at Leeds, it is clear that they are simply part of a backdrop of misogyny and harassment which goes much further than any one individual or institution. Despite what may seem like a rather depressing and demotivating thought, I left the femfog panel feeling uplifted – the shared passion of scholars to create a field which is diverse, welcoming, kind and supportive was impossible to ignore, and my hope, a hope which I believe is shared by most of those in the room, is that that energy is not left behind in July 2016, but will be taken forward to academic institutions across the world, and shared with those colleagues who were not present, to make it a reality. As Jonathan Hsy said in his ‘tweetable summary’ of his thoughts, ‘keep on fighting, whoever you are and wherever you are’.
Debbie WhiteUniversity of Glasgow