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Down & Dirty Discussion

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Welcome to the readers’ discussion of the Down and Dirty! If you haven’t read the Down and Dirty discussion featured in volume 24, issue 2 of the Journal of Women’s History, please do so and come back here to post your comment below. You may return as many times as you wish, and you may also post anonymously if you prefer. We hope to continue here the candid and respectful discussion we began in the pages of the Journal.

The Johns Hopkins University Press’s Public Relations and Advertising Coordinator, Brian Shea, interviewed Leigh Ann Wheeler on May 25, 2012 about the decision to host the Down & Dirty discussion for the Journal of Women’s History. Listen below:

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Track Length: 11:30

Please Note: “Name” and “Email” fields are optional. You may submit just a comment if you wish. Your email address will not be displayed in the discussion thread. The conversation is moderated, so your post will not appear immediately.


  1. Randolph Hollingsworth / Jun 6 2012

    It was delightful to me to see that a drag show was offered as an option at the Berks. I hope that more theatrical events are offered in future so that those who don’t often have the opportunity to see avant-garde performances in their own hometowns can go. However, I was not interested in going to this event – and didn’t. I also do not choose to go to these performances here in Lexington KY (where we often have shows with nationally popular drag performers) – so, it’s just a matter of personal preference on my part. If I had known that the show would have been seen as controversial in any way, then I would have attended as a show of support!

  2. Theresa Tiso / Jun 6 2012

    Reflections on “Down and Dirty” at the Berkshire Conference 2011
    – Theresa Tiso, Stony Brook University June 6, 2012

    What a wonderfully thought-provoking, sincere, intelligent, meaningful, and relevant work of reflective scholarship. Not a historian, but a long time feminist from the sports world and academia, I have always struggled with the ambiguities of feminist theory, LGB and now T and Q entry into scholarly inquiry, as well as bodies and performance studies.

    This discussion parallels some of my long time thoughts on the matter. I did attend the Berkshire Conference with a historian colleague many years ago and was impressed with the collegiality and scholarship on women that spoke to those of us who are outside the history discipline.

    Feminist and Women’s Studies.

    In the 1970’s and 1980’s, our emerging feminist scholars in my research university routinely ignored my physical education colleagues and me as we tirelessly enacted feminism in our support for, and daily struggles to implement Title IX benefits for all women. I bemusedly described this women’s studies push-pull with physical education and competitive athletics as the “heads” versus the “bodies.” 1

    Paradoxically, while attending my national conferences as a not-so-out lesbian, athletic, feminist, many of us would descend on the local gay bar, some with drag performances, as a night out. I had no choice if I wished to escape the “glass closet” 2 of collegiate athletics where many closeted women academics and coaches uncomfortably dressed to the nines when attending the academic sessions. There was a generation divide to some extent, but it was such a relief to be who I was with others including esteemed academics who thoroughly enjoyed this space of comfort. And this oxymoronic public behavior continues in today’s athletic experiences. 3

    Body Studies.

    I taught physical education and coached collegiate volleyball for over 25 years until our department was dropped in 2003 after I became chair. My response to what do you do now, Is “I use to get paid to teach people how to acquire and maintain healthy lifestyles and now I get paid to research how we can get people to acquire and maintain healthy lifestyles.” In other words, research speaks, movement is for freaks. It was not until I designed and now teach sociology of the body seminar that I was able to incorporate some experiential learning that mixes up participatory movement assessments and performative videos with gender and sex scholarly readings and biology. Students at my university are required to learn the theory of their physical experiences in our culture, but they can graduate without ever learning what exactly it means to be physically healthy, alive, feeling in their own bodies.

    “Down and Dirty.”

    And now to the gist of the matter, a gender and sex b (l) ending burlesque show as part of a scholarly conference. Years ago, I attended drag shows as part of my entry into a marginal gay world. What does this have to do with the “Down and Dirty” drag and burlesque show? I see it this way. As long as the mainstream academic paradigm rules, then it is OK to “study” LGBTQ experiences, but not to actually participate; or at least not openly.

    Part of this discussion is about homophobia and physicality-phobia in academia. I see it now in the medical model in my current health sciences division and many esteemed feminist scholars have said it much better than I can. We study women’s bodies when they are dis (eased) or deficient, or disgusting. Much research is funded if it finds causal links to women’s’ injuries, eating disorders, or reproductive status.

    And this patronizing inquiry is now extended to non-whites, who occupy marginalized sex, gender, and physicality spaces such as drag and burlesque performances, transgendered athletic competitions, and obese bodies. Just “add color (used to be gender) and stir,” is a common research paradigm many scholars use when seeking federal grants that insists on “underrepresented populations” be included as subjects in their funded studies. As if this has anything to do with diversity and cutting edge inquiry into our humanity.

    I applaud the organizers of the Berkshire Conference for taking a leap into what for them is the unknown. Research is about asking the right questions about the right subjects in order to advance our knowledge of ourselves and others in the world we all inhabit. These spaces can be messy, uncomfortable, 4 exciting, forbidden, uncouth, erotic, spiritual, uplifting, boring…but if they yield a scholarly inquiry that advances our understanding of all people, all bodies, all colors, all genders, all classes, all ages, then it should be embraced.


    1 Admittedly, the bigger struggle was with the mostly male administrators who as the people in power were responsible for our neglect and discrimination in the sport world. This is the reason why I have never articulated this struggle in print. Most women experienced biased and discriminatory actions in academia at that time, and many still do to this day.

    2 Pat Griffin, Strong Women, Deep Closets. Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport. (Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 1998).

    3 Watch collegiate softball and you will see most if not all of the athletes wearing full make up, jewelry, and rhinestone hair ribbons, a practice that was not allowed years ago due to necessary safety concerns.

    4 I may not have attended the burlesque performance. As I say to my students when asked, …”I am too old to be queer.”

  3. Ann Little / Jun 6 2012

    Thanks so much for this analysis and discussion of The Down & Dirty Show. I missed both the entire conference as well as the performance, so I’m glad to see the show discussed here.

    All of the scholars and performers here are very eloquent in discussing the different subjectivities they see at stake in both feminist/queer scholarship and in burlesque and drag performances–gender, sexuality, race, body size, etc.–but there is one sujectivity that I didn’t see addressed here that might help explain why some second-wavers were uncomfortable with the show while some third-wavers were not. (Of course these are problematic generalizations, but I’ll go with the consensus characterization I read in the discussion.)

    The subjectivity I have in mind is age. Is it possible that the women who didn’t really dig the show were uncomfortable digging it because they are uncomfortable in digging/getting off on young people’s bodies? (I’m assuming that most of the performers are young or young-ish–perhaps an incorrect assumption.) After all, feminists in the academy for the most part work with much younger people all of the time (our students), but we also have a highly developed critique of sexualizing students and sexual relationships with students. I guess what I’m suggesting is that it might have been easier for the under 35s or under 40s to identify with the performers & to enjoy their performances, whereas this might have raised some more problematic power issues with older feminists in the audience. (I am now an over-40, and can see it both ways. I don’t know how I would have reacted to the performance myself.)

    Also, I’d just like to thank Kathy Brown for her point about academics being comfortable with discomforting our students, but how we’re uncomfortable with discomfort outselves. This is a point that bears further reflection, especially by the tenured, senior scholars/over 40s among us!

    Thanks again for a terrific discussion.

  4. Lucy Delap / Jun 12 2012

    I attended the 2011 Berks conference, and the Down and Dirty Show, and despite nearing 40 (!), I found the show enormously energising and challenging in all the ways I hope a feminist conference might be. Indeed, I was very conscious of a feeling that the show was the most important thing I witnessed at that conference. I did not experience the performances as being sexually objectifying, despite having been part of protests at my home institution over the planned inclusion of pole dancing at a May Ball. While my students attempted to position pole dancing as part of the sexual agency and comfort with heterosexual desire that characterises recent feminism (or ‘babe’ feminism, as some term it), I was not convinced. I still doubt that one could deconstruct pornographic cultures by performing erotic routines to a mixed and far from knowing audience. However, the Down and Dirty Show was a very different matter. I attempted for the first half of the show to guess what gender I was seeing being performed on stage, but gave up as the show progressed, and simply enjoyed being in a space where all my preconceptions and assumptions were likely to be deliberately undermined. White, heterosexual academic women like myself need to be discomfited in this way; for all our theoretical comfort with the ‘gender trouble’ posed by Judith Butler, we may find it unsettling in practice. Realising that fact, and coming to enjoy a different kind of gender performance, was a very significant experience for me.
    I very much appreciate this chance to unpack our responses to the show in a manner that respects our differences – it has been a fascinating read!

  5. Benita Roth / Jun 23 2012

    Loved the “Down and Dirty” edited email exchange as a format and for the content expressed. I too was at the Berks, but didn’t go to the show. Now I wish I had. I am particularly glad that the Gilmore and Wheeler asked Foxy Trann to contribute — I found her contribution, where she distinguished what she did, burlesque as art, from stripping as part of a sex service industry, really illuminating — all my ethnographic bells went off when I read that. My only wish is that someone from the “anti-having-the-show-at-the-berks” or “anti-burlesque” or whatever variety of thought that might have been, had stepped up and actually spoken their objections. It’s too bad they didn’t feel empowered enough to do that. But in general, loved the topic, the forum and hope to see more like it in JWH.

  6. Leila Rupp / Aug 6 2012

    The “Down and Dirty” conversation is probably the first thing I have every read online before my hard copy of the journal arrived. OK, so that puts me in my proper generational cohort. I loved the show and I loved the forum in JWH. I agree with Heather Spear that the divide may have been more along the lines of sexuality than age–or at least sexual identity combined with, as Susan Stryker points out, familiarity with this kind of performance. I do wish we would stop reifying second and third waves of feminism, however. It’s not that generations and cohorts are not important. But we need to stop repeating the characterization of second wave as anti-sex and third wave as pro-sex. The very fact that the “sex wars” themselves did not pit second v. third suggests how much we have fallen into the trap of collapsing feminist generations and thinking about sexuality. The world out there is a lot messier than that. Thankfully.

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