At the recent Sheffield Union Academic Awards Minna Shkul, our co-director, was acknowledged for all her excellent work on Liberation and Diversity at the University of Sheffield. This award celebrates Minna’s commitment to LGBT+ equality and inclusion on campus, especially through her work on Hidden Perspectives and the inspirational LGBT+ Studies module. Massive congratulations, Minna! We’re so proud of all of your work, and delighted to have featured in your success.
Now that our sibling project in New Zealand is up and running (scroll through our past blog posts and the NZ site to catch up on everything happening there!), I wanted to dedicate this post to their project slogan, ‘bringing the arts and humanities out of the closet’. After recently reading the New Zealand author, Sarah Laing’s new graphic memoir, Mansfield and Me, I was taken by the bold decision (not the first of its kind), to turn a memoir into a graphic novel. What are the genre consequences of this? And, more importantly, why is this significant for a memoir that deals with female sexuality and identity? As the title suggests, Laing’s life is explored in relation to Katherine Mansfield’s, an author who had to leave her home in New Zealand to become the literary giant she is seen as today and also, a woman whose personal life has been exposed by numerous researchers who explored her relationships with women. Laing’s identification with Mansfield is clear through their numerous similarities and Laing’s desire to become an author, however whilst Laing talks openly, freely and unashamedly about her sexual encounters with women, her use of a graphic memoir to represent these experiences can be seen as a rejection of any one label.
The graphic novel has had a difficult time proving its worth and, even as academics have started to appreciate its artistry, it still struggles to break into the mainstream readership. There is a stigma attached to books with pictures – be it comic strips or Roald Dahl – they tend to be seen as childish versions of the real thing. Colourful pictures are used as a way to entice young minds into reading and aid them in their learning, substituting for the lack of detail in the words on the page. In fact, if it wasn’t for their inclusion on a few of my module reading lists, it is likely that I wouldn’t have come across the genre either. This, as with most stereotypes, is not the reality of the genre; the reality, in this case, is that the blending of images and words present in graphic novels is a perfect dynamic for memoir writing – a genre notorious for its slipperiness and reliance on ‘truthiness’. The ambiguity and subjectivity of a drawing provides a much less concrete platform than a novel composed entirely of words, leaving the author with more opportunities to be suggestive as opposed to explicit in their retelling. This is especially significant when exploring young adult queer experimentation as in many cases, Laing’s included, these sexual encounters are often driven by strong emotions such as confusion, desire and/or curiosity. It can be difficult to translate an experience like this into words on a page without losing some of the authenticity of the event – or at least without having to consciously define the experience. A picture, by comparison, puts the power of interpretation more firmly into the reader’s hands, thus freeing the author to some extent of the responsibility of certainty.
Whilst graphic novels have this stigma attached to them, the intertextuality of the graphic memoir enables Laing to avoid being categorised, and in turn, limited by any one narrative label. These texts as a whole reject being labelled as solely one kind of narrative. Laing introduces the question of categorisation where previously there wouldn’t have been one. Laing’s novel fits into the graphic novel, memoir, fiction, historical, biographical, non-fiction and LGBT fiction sections whilst simultaneously not fitting comfortably into any. Categories such as the graphic novel and LGBT fiction are useful in a lot of ways, however they also come with limitations that many authors are keen to avoid. The danger is that, in being confined to one category, a text will then be ostracized from the more mainstream outlets. For example, what sort of text classifies as LGBT fiction? Is it where the protagonist identifies as queer, where any character identifies as queer, one where there are sexual relations between same-sex main characters, same-sex sexual relations between any characters, an author who identifies as queer or a story that has an LGBT focus? By putting a book in one section of the bookshop, in this case the LGBT section, you are eliminating it from other genres, even though it might be just as well suited there as where it is. For instance, a Sci-Fi novel’s focus could become limited to one queer element, or a book about a lesbian couple breaking societal expectations could become limited to Romance. In Mansfield and Me, Laing doesn’t disguise or conceal, however by combining all of these different forms she is rejecting being defined by any one label and creating a platform for the LGBT community in a much more popular genre, the memoir.
Laing’s story isn’t the only graphic memoir, nor is it the only graphic memoir that explores queerness. For example, Fun Home, a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, is another version of this and perhaps a more obvious one. She frames her memoir around her father’s suicide which was largely driven by the years he spent hiding his identity as a gay man. Identifying as a lesbian, Bechdel’s relationship with her father is often one of frustration, secrecy and confusion, as his sexuality is hidden from her until he is close to committing suicide. Bechdel has spoken about her happiness that Fun Home can be seen as a multitude of genres, calling her story a ‘complete shelving conundrum’, and Laing has named Fun Home as one of the texts which inspired her own.
The graphic novel, and more specifically the graphic memoir, has two forms of representation and is, therefore, invaluable for representing queerness and underrepresented voices as a whole. The images add a further dimension that can be both explicit and ambiguous, ideal for portraying the subjective yet honest nature of lived reality. Furthermore, their intertextuality enables them to openly portray sexual encounters within the LGBT community without confining themselves to that one genre. By creating a memoir that includes both queerness and comic-like panels, they are able to break these two ostracized forms out of their niches and into more mainstream outlets. It is imperative that the narratives which portray characters who deviate from the norm and represent underrepresented voices become more prevalent in mainstream outlets and are no longer seen as a niche option. Memoirs provide us with this breakthrough as they demand transparency and the willingness to bare all – the graphic memoir in particular adds an extra layer to this representation. Hidden Perspectives New Zealand is a project committed to providing a platform and safe space for students whilst showcasing underrepresented voices in the arts. Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me is a text that fulfils these ambitions and so it seems fitting that both of these projects have emerged from Auckland University.
Melanie Smiley is currently studying at the University of Sheffield for an MA in English Literature. She has been working as a student intern for Hidden Perspectives both here in Sheffield and for our sibling in Auckland. Following the completion of her masters this year, she is hoping to find some time to travel before pursuing a career in publishing.
In our last post, Jo introduced the work she’s doing with Hidden Perspectives in Auckland. She’s not the only one working on this exciting collaboration – we’re delighted to have two MA student interns from the School of English in Sheffield working with us. Mel Smiley and Rachel Davies are working for both Hidden Perspectives in Sheffield and in Auckland between February and May 2017. As part of their projects they will be creating and managing a website and social media for the Auckland project, and will host an event to celebrate research which brings the Arts and Humanities out of the closet in Sheffield.
So let’s meet them:
Hello! Tell us about yourself… who are you and what do you do?
Hello! I’m Rachel Davies and I’m an MA English Literature Student at The University of Sheffield. I completed my undergraduate degree at Sheffield this summer and loved my time in the City, particularly in the School of English., and so I decided to stay on to complete my Masters. Throughout my studies at a BA level, I was always interested in researching and revealing ‘hidden’ narratives in Literature. This interest has persisted into the MA I am now pursuing and so I am really excited to be working with Hidden Perspectives and getting some practical experience in a work environment involving a subject I am passionate about. My first undergraduate essay discussed allegorical homosexuality in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and my last undergraduate essay explored the hidden homosexual narratives in Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier alongside Katherine Mansfield’s At the Bay and Bliss. My work has so far explored ‘hidden’ narratives in a multitude of genres and periods and for my MA I am focusing on researching these narratives more specifically within the Hellenistic era.
Hello! I’m Mel Smiley and I’m studying an MA in English Literature with the hopes of getting into publishing somewhere down the line (probably after I’ve managed to get the travelling bug out of my system). It’s my fourth year here in Sheffield, as I completed my BA in Language and Literature with the University in 2016.
How did you get involved in Hidden Perspectives? Tell us about your internship.
Mel: Work experience is a key part of landing a job with any publishing company and so I was keen to take part in the work placement module on offer within the Sheffield MA programme. Hidden Perspectives stood out to me because the workload included event organising, writing and editing articles, website management and the opportunity to get involved with the new Hidden Perspectives’ launch in New Zealand. Experience in these areas is invaluable, particularly with how competitive publishing can be. I feel very privileged to have this opportunity and to be able to take part in setting up a brand new venture for Hidden Perspectives abroad. However, I was somewhat disappointed this opportunity didn’t involve an all expenses paid trip to New Zealand…
In the second half of my placement I am excited that Rachel and I will have the chance to organise an event in Sheffield for Hidden Perspectives in the UK. This will be a great opportunity for us to get some practical experience and to provide a platform for academic research that we are interested in and that challenges the norm.
Rachel: As part of the MA programme this year we have been able to select a work placement module. We were given a plethora of options and asked to defend our first choice in a 200 word statement. Hidden Perspectives was my first choice and so I am very happy to have been given this placement. It is exciting that I now have the chance to continue my academic research whilst also being afforded invaluable work experience. During my internship, I am hoping that Mel and I will be able to successfully set up and manage both the Hidden Perspectives’ blog and Social Media, as well as helping manage events for the UK project.
Rachel, what interests you about Hidden Perspectives?
Throughout my undergraduate studies I found myself returning to discussions of gender and sexuality and have continued to do so in my MA. Therefore, Hidden Perspectives seemed a natural fit when I was choosing a work placement. Until this year, I haven’t really explored any work earlier than the 16th Century, but I’m excited to be involved in an organisation that considers the Bible as a resource for creating discussions around gender, sexuality, race and class. During one of my current MA modules – ‘Love, Death & Destiny: The Ancient Novel’, I had the chance to look at both early Jewish and Christian narrative fiction. I enjoyed the chance to extend my research, and look forward to continuing to do so on my placement.
What else are you working on at the moment? What are you hopes after your MA and this internship?
Mel: I have recently completed a module called Confession where I have explored different literary forms of confession throughout history, beginning with St. Augustine. I had an assessment at the end of this where I decided to study the diaries of Anne Lister and explore how they have shaped the discourse of lesbian history. The diaries were written in the nineteenth century and explore Lister’s sexual identity as a lesbian in explicit detail. Her diaries have had a massive impact on studies into female sexuality and gender and have been an invaluable resource for lesbian history today. After researching such a powerful female figure and seeing how far the discovery of her sexuality went towards discrediting the once common belief that lesbianism didn’t exist at this time, it is easy to see how important it is that we bring the bible out of the closet and away from the normative gaze. I think uncovering these lost narratives and challenging a history that only caters to one identity is crucial and I’m really excited to be a part of it.
Rachel: I have recently completed my first semester of my MA which involved two modules – ‘The Analysis of Film’ and ‘Love, Death & Destiny: The Ancient Novel’. For ‘The Analysis of Film’, I am analysed how the contemporary romantic-comedy, (500) Days of Summer, subverts the conventions of Classicism. I did this by looking at how gender is constructed and portrayed in the film. In a similar vein, for ‘Love, Death & Destiny’ I investigated why homosexuality is a marginalised narrative within Hellenistic novels and focused on Longus’s work, Daphnis and Chloe. I am hoping to continue working with Ancient Greek literature for my dissertation and I am also thinking of applying for my PhD in the next few years, where I would like to continue researching homosexuality in the ancient novels.
Mel, what are your hopes for the future of Hidden Perspectives?
My current hopes for the future of Hidden Perspectives are that me and Rachel are helpful additions to the team and manage to run things smoothly! Aside from this however, I hope it continues to build in strength and picks up an even larger following online, in Sheffield and with the new team in New Zealand.
I’m very grateful for this opportunity and thank you for having me!
By Jo Henderson-Merrygold
Sometimes it can take viewing things from a different perspective to be able to see them more clearly, so it seems rather apt that thoughts are cohering while I’m on the other side of the world to normal. These days I’m usually based at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield where, after four fantastic years doing Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, I now spend my time working on a PhD in Biblical Studies. However, for four weeks I’m working at the University of Auckland to help them launch a student-focused project called Hidden Perspectives NZ (site currently under development), and which carries the tagline, Bringing the arts out of the closet. It’s the sister project to this Hidden Perspectives project which I co-direct in Sheffield but has a slightly different focus. Hidden Perspectives in Sheffield is a research-centred programme which explores ways to bring the Bible out of the closet and presents thought-provoking and inciteful work challenging dominant ideas of gender, sex, and sexuality as seen in and through the Bible. The Auckland Hidden Perspectives NZ is much more designed to offer safe spaces for Rainbow (LGBT+) students, and returns the academic work so much associated with the project in Sheffield to lived experience here in Auckland.
As I remind myself, and the students I teach, the kind of research I do (and which is showcased by Hidden Perspectives) is only relevant when it reaches beyond the pages of text to personal experience, and/or belief in the case of the theological. It is not, as posited to me at an academic conference at which I presented, a joke. My research may be fun for me, but its purpose is deeply serious: to change the way we see (biblical) stories in order to see how norms of gender, sex, and sexuality can be challenged. So, if that’s always been the aim – both for Hidden Perspectives and within my own work – what is it that I’m seeing differently?
One of the important things about much of the Hidden Perspectives research is that it poses a threat to those who continue to use the Bible and (cultural) religiosity as a source for their justification of cissexism, heterosexism, and traditional (as well as oppositional) sexism (see Julia Serano‘s fantastic glossary for definitions for these terms). It is no longer fair – and was arguably never accurate – to say that these are predominantly found within religious contexts. Instead it is important to look at how the Christian cultural capital and societal biblical literacy extend far beyond those faith communities, especially in Anglophone and Americo-European contexts. With that in mind it is only now I’m embarking on the work with Hidden Perspectives NZ that I’m realising quite how important it is that the Auckland project has emerged from a Biblical one. The justification of transphobia, homophobia and misogyny definitely has roots in those biblical and religious discourses, but they are far from confined to communities of faith. And, despite protestations from the Pope, and from bishops in the Church of England, faith communities are also working to challenge and confront these damaging behaviours. Yet it is precisely the effects of those damaging behaviours which is what strikes me as I sit in sunny Auckland recovering from my jetlag.
The need for safe spaces, such as the one being created through Hidden Perspectives New Zealand is essential – not just because of the rise of hate crimes and the politics of fear – but because, to quote Stonewall, there is still work to be done. This is in all contexts, but let’s look for a moment at the Christian ones so much in the media this week. Making international news was the contentious vote and discussion about the future of Rainbow – to use the preferred terminology in NZ – (LGBT+) people in the Church of England: the status quo is not good enough says the synod, in rejection of the argument proposed by the bishops. On a far smaller scale I discovered just before leaving the UK that the chapel I attended as a child will soon be independent; the decision to leave its denomination motivated by a rejection of a move to enable same-sex marriages in (some) churches. So when I encountered the neighbourhood church in Auckland displaying a small sticker on its noticeboard making its inclusion explicit, it is eye-catching and greatly appreciated.
This isn’t just a case of opening the door and hoping people will trust they’ll find safety inside. It is far more than that. It is an acknowledgement that identifiable safe spaces are needed, because there are too many places that just aren’t safe (even if they’d like to think they are). It is visible and political. It is an important act of representation, and an act of resistance against doctrine, politics, or even just the perceptions which suggest otherwise. That is exactly what I hope Hidden Perspectives will be for students at the University of Auckland: an open, safe space; one which holds potential for exciting opportunities but most importantly somewhere they can be confident to come and be themselves.
Jo Henderson-Merrygold is visiting the University of Auckland to support the launch of our sister project Hidden Perspectives New Zealand. Her Researcher Employability Project trip is funded by WRoCAH. You can keep up with her visit by following her on Twitter and checking out the Hidden Perspectives NZ’s instagram.
Since the news broke of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States, there has been much incredulity and analysis. How was it that someone as aberrant as Trump could emphatically beat Clinton and gain so much support from Christian voters?
But perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise; the reasoning of these voters can be found in the words of Arlene, New Jersey: “The first woman president should have integrity and that historic moment should not be tainted by someone like Hillary Clinton.” Why is it so important for “the first woman president” to have integrity, and to be held to a higher standard than any of her male counterparts? For an answer to this question, we have to turn to the Bible, and acknowledge its continuing role in American public life.
Trump was recognised as a flawed leader but that, according to evangelical leader Franklin Graham, makes him just like the biblical figures of King David or Moses. The emphasis was that “no one is perfect and we all sin”. The illustrious King David, for example, was far from angelic not least in killing 144,000 people.
The president elect has some controversial attitudes towards women – as did David. In fact, David took his to the extreme – he raped Bathsheba before killing her husband when he would not cover up the pregnancy. But for David, a man, that’s apparently no big deal.
Yet the portrayal of Bathsheba hints at the problems facing Clinton when trying to overturn hundreds of years of the Bible being at the heart of culture and society. Bathsheba is long associated with seducing the king. For that she is considered a slut, and is condemned for her wantonness. She is a bad woman because, in the Bible, women come in only two forms: good or bad.
That takes us back to Graham’s suggestion that no one is perfect, and we all sin. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really apply to women – as “Arlene” points out. And it certainly doesn’t apply when a woman is breaking a glass ceiling. Women have to be better than that – women must be extraordinary, the Bible tells us so.
Ordinary women are few and far between in the Bible, unlike their male counterparts. Those women who are named and given identity are so good they are brilliant. They have to be astonishing, to quote Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and their behaviour has to be exceptional and beyond reproach, especially when taking on powerful or significant roles.
The Virgin Mary is the quintessential example: eternally remembered for her chastity, obedience and her willingness to disappear from the story to allow a man to come to the fore. She is far from the only one. In the gospels, women’s discipleship is only ever painted as exemplary.
The same women, however, face challenges to their virtue and attention is frequently drawn to their sexuality. A woman’s sexuality, of course, is bad. It’s why Mary needed to be a virgin before bearing Jesus, and it is how a woman’s goodness remains constantly at risk. If a woman is not good, then there is no middle ground. She’s bad or, to quote the president-elect, “nasty”.
As Bathsheba shows, it does not take much to become a bad woman – it can be as little as attracting unwanted attention. In Clinton’s case, it is primarily focused around being married to a flawed man. Whether or not she had divorced Bill for his infidelity, she is associated with the Clinton brand and will be condemned for his misdeeds.
The email fiasco certainly did not help, nor did her record on foreign policy. They reinforced the message that Hillary was not a good woman and therefore, in the eyes of “Arlene” and many like her, unsuitable to be president. This latent, underlying belief about women, inherited from the Bible and reinforced through constant reiteration in society, was just waiting to be stoked.
So when Trump described Hillary as a “nasty woman” in the final broadcast debate, he pushed that button. Trump invited his audience to return to their deeply ingrained, inherited, biblically-coded gender expectations. No wonder he did so well with the evangelical Christian audience. He told them what they wanted, and expected, to hear: you cannot trust a woman unless she is good.
Despite the link being made between Trump and the biblical heroes, his Christian media supporters offered no named biblical counterpart for Clinton. She was not labelled Jezebel, Delilah or any of the other vilified biblical women, but the inference remained: they are all nasty women. No nasty woman will be the first female president, no matter how qualified or experienced, and no matter how bad the male alternative is. So sayeth the Bible.
We are delighted to announce two events in the next month. Firstly, on Monday 14 November Lucy Skerratt, from SIIBS and our sister project Orange is the New Bible, will be presenting a paper entitled Samson and the Salon. Lucy’s paper promises to be really exciting, and a fascinating engagement with contemporary ideas of identity alongside the ancient text. To mark World Aids Day (1 December), we will be hosting a special Hidden Perspective Presents…World AIDS Day on Monday 5 December. Dr Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds) will be sharing his paper, Same Love: Kenyan Courage and Creativity in the Struggle for Same-Sex Rights, and there will be a wine reception following his lecture. You can see more about the papers below.
Both lectures are free and will be held in the Humanities Research Institute (HRI) Conference Room (34 Gell Street, Sheffield, S3 7QY) from 14.00-16.00. Please come and join us!
Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s incredibly successful drama set in a women’s prison, returns this week for a fourth season, with at least three more to follow.
The portrayal of the women in the show has attracted much praise, with diverse, complex and well-developed characters, each of whom has the capacity to surprise or challenge. This is particularly evident in religious representation throughout the show, which astutely introduces audiences to the themes of women’s religious practice, community and identity. The issues faced by the Orange Is The New Black women transcend the fictional prison complex, remaining relevant in contemporary real life.
Explicit exploration of belief and religion was a major theme of the last season, and we can expect this to continue – the most recent trailer revealed a new inmate wearing a hijab, the first in the series.
Orange Is The New Black is inspired by Piper Kerman’s autobiographical account of her 13-month stint for drugs trafficking and money laundering. Set in the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, the show is increasingly unafraid of tackling difficult topics through the lives of prison inmates and staff alike.
Conversation about religion traditionally only appears in film and TV when associated with the predictable weddings, births and funerals. Although these have been known to occur in Orange Is The New Black, Litchfield’s religious life is not primarily encountered through these generally benign events. Rather it comes to life in the day-to-day and ordinary, playing a major role throughout the show. These are stories of religious spaces, communities and practices present in the lives of the inmates: women, whose personal and communal religion is so rarely documented in popular culture.
Religion and spirituality is found everywhere. In the kitchen, where Latina women conduct prayers and spells learned from foremothers. In the laundry, where a white group practice their own form of charismatic evangelical Christianity. In the gym, where the Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous groups intertwine meditation and yoga.
The more obviously religious space of the chapel rarely gains such use. Instead, it is a battleground between inmates and authorities, a space for breaking down barriers. The closest women come to God here in this traditionally religious space is hardly through prayer – the chapel is a typical meeting place for hook-ups, so perhaps they experience something religious through sexual pleasure.
The religious lives of inmates reflect the broader complexity of their stories. Last season, Roman Catholic nun Sister Jane Ingalls (Beth Fowler) convinced a Rabbi she was Jewish in order to keep kosher meals – “the Abrahamic religions are all pretty much the same until you get to Jesus,” apparently.
Although more interested in selling her book and gaining publicity than religious teaching and authority, within the prison community Sister Ingalls is the go-to person on all things religious. “Black Cindy” Hayes (Adrienne C Moore) enthusiastically converted to Judaism after feeling rejection and alienation from her father and the church he pastors.
Then there’s Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), a self-appointed leader inspired by the religious communities who have funded and claimed her as a prophetic figure since she shot her abortionist. Right-wing religious, anti-abortion campaigners publicly celebrate and validate Pennsatucky because of her crime. She is martyr for their cause, and they provide her with an excuse. Religious indoctrination allows Pennsatucky to rewrite her own history.
And there’s shunned Amish inmate, Leanne Taylor (Emma Myles), who establishes fellow prisoner Norma Romano (Annie Golden) – a former member of a 1960s New Religious Movement – as a religious figure who grants miracles in Litchfield. Leanne bullies other inmates into following her rules, declaring herself to be the true interpreter of Norma-ism. In her need to belong to a religious group, she attempts to recreate what she misses from her Amish tradition. She is lost without her religion.
Whatever happens next, it remains clear that religion underpins identity in Litchfield penitentiary. Whether beliefs are accepted or rejected, religion remains inseparable from the sex and drugs, abuse and manipulation, power and identity in the lives of each individual and group. Orange Is The New Black puts religion under the microscope and allows us to peek into the religious lives of others. What makes the show so provocative and valuable is that it shows the outreaching impact of religion across society.
This is never more important than in the aftermath of acts of terror and violence such as the recent homophobic attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Religious lines are drawn to try and explain, condemn, ally or distance ourselves from the act. Orange Is The New Black shows that drawing such lines between religion and non-religion, between sacred and profane spaces, is impossible. It’s just not that simple.
Orange Is The New Black encourages us to question how we understand identity and community in light of religion. You can guarantee that the religion present in season four will confront, challenge and defy expectation, just as the earlier seasons have. But will we embrace that diversity in wider society?