ANALYSIS: The field of women’s, gender and feminist studies hardly looks serious
Women’s, gender and feminist studies — which are now in over 700 universities across the country — have faced many accusations of prioritizing the ideological over the academic.
In October 2018, the Hungarian government ended funding for gender studies academic programs, stating they have no business being taught in universities because the field is “an ideology not a science.”
The move prompted the American Association of University Professors to issue a statement to “reiterate the necessity of robust gender studies,” saying: “It is they who are offering ‘gender ideology’ by attempting to override the insights of serious scholars.”
Yet around the same time it was revealed that three scholars successfully published four hoax papers in academic journals with an aim to reveal fields like gender and race studies are “based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances,” the authors of the hoaxes wrote.
The papers had “passed the highest level of critical assessment in leading peer-reviewed journals for Gender Studies and related fields,” stated the hoaxers, mathematician James Lindsay, Portland State philosopher Peter Boghossian and writer Helen Pluckrose.
In response to the hoax, Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, said, “Some of the leading journals in areas like gender studies have failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit.”
The women’s, gender and feminism studies academic field grew out of second-wave feminist movements of the 60s and 70s. The field was established at least partially as a means to further feminism — the National Women’s Studies Association said in their 1982 founding constitution that feminist education is “a force which furthers the realization of feminist aims.”
A 2018 study showed there were no registered Republicans in the faculty of gender studies programs at 51 of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
What courses do these gender studies programs offer?
This semester at Harvard University, for example, the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality program is offering the courses “In These Times: Queer, Feminist, Experimental Methods,” “Leaning In, Hooking Up: Visions of Feminism and Femininity in the 21st Century,” and “The Sexual Life of Colonialism.”
Courses at other universities address obscure LGBTQ topics (like Latin American drag kings), seek to understand feminist theory (like Marxist feminism), and sometimes explicitly seek to prove feminist ideas (like a course “dedicated to rupturing binary thinking”).
Here are 10 gender studies courses offered this spring 2020 semester, plus one more from last fall, which reveal the subject matter, methods, and motives of the controversial field.
“Drag Kings: An Archeology of Spectacular Masculinities in Latinx America” — Princeton University
Students in this course at the top-ranked university in the country will explore whether Latin American drag kings could generate “a crisis in heterosexism.” While acknowledging the drag king has been “practically absent” from “LatinX American critical analysis,” the course seeks to understand the “prosthetic/cosmetic conditions” of drag kings in Latin America and how their “hyperbolic masculinity…usurps the space of privilege granted to the masculinity of men.”
The class is taught by Associate Professor of Latin American Studies Javier Guerrero, who hosted a symposium on the same topic last spring. The website of the symposium argues critical inquiries into masculinity have the impact of “weakening sexual hegemony and the consequent reproduction of the binary of gender.”
“Dancing Desire in Bollywood Films” — Swarthmore College
Swarthmore College is offering “Dancing Desire in Bollywood Films” this spring semester to study the “sexuality and gender constructions” of Indian women in Bollywood dance sequences. “The place of the erotic” in Bollywood dance sequences will also be examined based on film studies.
Trans-bodies in Horror Cinema — University of Chicago
In this course “dedicated to rupturing binary thinking,” students will study the expression of trans bodies in works like the 2018 video game “Detroit: Become Human,” the 1991 thriller “The Silence of the Lambs,” the 2017 film starring Scarlett Johansson “Ghost in the Shell,” and Ridley Scott’s Alien films. The class will discuss how films have historically presented trans bodies as “monstrous” and have “compelled a sense of the inevitable tragedy of living in sexual fluidity.”
“Spirit Possession in the Caribbean” — University of Pennsylvania
“This course is designed to provide students with a broad introduction to possession experiences in the Caribbean Religions,” begins the course description of this gender studies class at the University of Pennsylvania. The course is a part of the gender studies department because possession is a process through which “gender and sexuality can be performed,” the description says.
The instructor of this course, Eziaku Nwokocha, earned her PhD with distinction in the spring of 2019 with a dissertation which focuses on “the inventive fashion practices of a Vodou practitioner” named Manbo Maude.
“Ecofeminism: Gender and Ecology in a World on Fire” — Cornell University
This Cornell University gender studies course will examine “the relationship between the degradation of the earth and the oppression of women.” The class will consider an “interwoven vision of environmental and social justice” in order to “build a more just world beyond our hazardous ecological present.”
The instructor of this course, Kristen Angierski, pays special attention in her research to “figures of ‘untamable’ womanhood,” such as witches, mermaids, and vegans.
“Vampires, Castles, and Werewolves” — Yale University
This class will look at the formation of homosexual identity from the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries alongside modernist literature. Topics include “crossdressing and drag balls in Harlem,” “transsexuality and sex-reassignment surgery,” “nightlife and cruising,” “colonial narratives of same-sex desire in Arabia and the South Pacific,” and “lesbian periodical cultures,” among others.
“Transnational / Transgender” — University of Notre Dame
This class at the top-ranked Catholic university will examine “how gender moves across space and time.” The course will center on “transgender knowledges and practices,” and look at how people “move within, across, and against the gender categories available to them.” It will also examine how “settler colonialism” and “empire” have shaped gender.
The course is taught by a theology postdoc, Rebecca Wiegel, whose dissertation argues a 6th century saint of the Byzantine Church can be read as trans, and an assistant teaching professor, Pam Butler, who leads the “all-genders” bathroom mapping project Free2PeeND.
“The Tigress’ Snare: Gender, Yoga, and Monasticism in South and Southeast Asia” — Bowdoin College
This class at Bowdoin College will look at the “highly gendered worldview” in South and Southeast Asian yogic and monastic texts, and examine how women navigate roles in yogic and monastic communities.
“Nonbinary Romanticism: Genders, Sexes, and Beings in the Age of Revolution” — Mount Holyoke College
This course will examine “conceptions of nonbinary being” during the American, French, Haitain, and South American revolts and revolutions. It will also look at “new forms of gender, sex, sexuality, and being” which were created, thought, or practiced during this time, “however momentarily.”
“Marxist Feminism” — Smith College
The course description of “Marxist Feminism” says the course will study how Marxist feminists in the 19th century desired to “overthrow patriarchy” after beginning with the “simple insight” that capitalism relies on unpaid reproduction by women. The course will also examine how “queer of color & decolonial feminist theory” today uses the tradition of Marxist feminism alongside environmental and reproductive justice movements.
“Scenes of Instruction: Pedagogy, Punishment, Perversion” (fall semester) — Brown University
This class “seeks to investigate the classroom as a site of violent interaction and a potentially sexualized place.” The course also sought to appraise the “erotic dimension” of the “transmission of knowledge.” Campus rape culture, Title IX, and the “connection between learning and sex” were also discussed.
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