Hot-housed academic flowers and imposter syndrome

Sophie Harman


The academic summer is a halcyon ideal that I launch myself towards brimming with the thought of reading research in parks, flaneuring around London with big thoughts, and pitching up to hipster cafes to drink flat whites (when what I want is a skinny latte) while writing a 4* publication and nodding along to Chadian drumming. Seven academic summers have passed since I was awarded my PhD and this ideal has never been realised. The summers have been lovely, with more time to catch up with friends and colleagues and a higher proportion of lunches where I leave my desk, but I have always had the nagging back-of-mind fear that the book or grant application had to be finished by September and the swarm arrival of students. This summer is different.

I, friends, am going to say something no academic will ever say: I have nothing to do. No book projects to complete. No grant applications to write. And this worries me. I – as my good friend and fellow FAC member pointed out – am part of the breed of hot-house flower academics. Hot-house flower academics are bred in institutions to complete their PhD in three years, and to paraphrase Irvine Welsh choose a job, choose to publish, choose to get a grant, choose to get a promotion, choose to talk yourself up at all times, and choose a career. I know I am fortunate to be in this position and that my career has been built on right place right time, working on a niche part of IR, and supportive colleagues as much as hard work, sleepless nights (four new lectures a week with all those people staring at me for 50 minutes – yikes!) and loss of skin pigment. I also accept that worrying about not having something to do because you’re about to start a big fun project in September (woohoo!) is akin to a spoilt child being given an endless bag of Maltesers with the nutritional value of kale. And, yet the imperative to do something persists.

The imperative to do-something is a consequence of the hot-house flower breeding. However for me it is as much to do with the nagging imposter syndrome that somehow I have winged it up to this point and am lucky that people haven’t worked out that all I do is talk to people about their lives and work, dress it up in some fancy language and ally myself with good colleagues (and some not so good, I’ll save that for the defamation case blog). I think by consistently doing and producing I am somehow legitimising my previous work, job and position in academia. To lounge around and read a bit, and not for any purpose just for the joy of knowledge – preposterous!

Fortunately I have read something (but in the evenings that I don’t classify as real work time): feminist blogs, studies such as that in International Organization mapping the citation and publication differences between male and female IR scholars, and THE reports on gender pay gaps, and realised this imposter syndrome – TA-DA! – is bullshit. And perhaps may impact on women more than men (she writes ducking from the below the line comments). I regularly get told how young I am when I meet people for the first time (too young for this profession – imposter) or when I tell them of a promotion (too young to be a Reader – imposter), I have sat in workshops where people have cited my work by my male co-author not me (it must have been Will and David who did the work not me – imposter), and students often comment more on my appearance and humour rather than my work (academic-light imposter). Talking to female colleagues and reading these fab blogs I get the sense I am not alone in this. This is not to diminish the significant health impacts anxiety associated with modern academia can have on both men and women – this is a serious issue that Universities are seemingly mixed or rubbish at addressing. My point is, look at student evaluations and comments, colleague behaviour in meetings, and think who is made to feel the imposter here? We know that imposter syndrome is bullshit, yet my sense from talking to colleagues is that it still persists.

I have therefore committed to read with abandon this summer. My hot-house breeding is still within me and I have compiled three extensive reading lists for my new project. I have also made two to-do lists. I am going to enjoy this time as I know I am bloody lucky to have it. I am not going to feel like an imposter anymore. And as I finish this I am going to walk over to hipster central Hackney Wick to enjoy brunch with an awesome colleague at the hippest of cafes (think waitress with a propeller on her cap, more avocados than instagram, and a lot of people playing solitaire on their Macs). I choose not to choose imposter syndrome: I choose coffee and journals.

Selfishness versus selflessness: nurturing and the gendered self

Anonymous contributor


As I start to climb the ladder of academia, I am – as many no doubt do – re-evaluating a lot of the life choices I formerly took for granted. Academia will do that to you; the uncertainty and vagrancy that accompanies a life of the mind places harsh demands on our relationships and our sense of self. Whilst any process of evaluation is ultimately a liberating one, it also highlights the way in which social processes that we can happily and easily analyse when it comes to other people impact us in ways we may be surprisingly blind to. In particular, I have come to learn that I had a very skewed notion of what a morally or normatively ‘good’ relationship was. I was striving, at some level, always for an unattainable nobility, a kind of ‘Virgin Mary’ state of partner-dom, parent-dom, or friend-dom (or even collegiality), where the primary role for the woman in any relationship is to be a good nurturer, even in the case of her own diminishing. I thought that being a good woman (fundamentally, a good person) meant sacrifice and suffering in order to foster the wellbeing of other people; that it meant always picking them up when they were down, even if that risked bringing you down with them. That was just what good people, what good women, did. Academia is of course very effective at fostering such narratives, because as intellectual workers (required to give of ourselves cognitively, in entirety, to the academy) we have little space left for life. And with typically chaotic schedules we unavoidably place significant demands on those around us, which undoubtedly encourages a mantra of equivalent self-sacrifice in turn. Part of me is still very invested in the notion that you should attempt to give of yourself to your interpersonal relationships as much as possible, but part of me – an increasingly larger part – is beginning to reflect on how destructive, and specifically how gendered, this way of thinking is. For if you give entirely of yourself to all those who demand or require it, what do you have left?

Even at a very superficial level, I can see that there are all kinds of dissonances involved with a way of thinking that elevates the nurturer to the level of saint, and thus to some degree equates self-worth with self-abandonment. Specifically, I think that I have subconsciously conflated ‘relationships where someone demands care, but both/all parties are still sustained by the relationship’ (good nurturing) with ‘relationships where someone demands care, and then steadily exhausts the resources of the other(s)’ (bad nurturing). This would seem to be a fairly simple distinction, but of course, in practice the lines are rather blurred and it can be difficult – with the edifice of many years and accumulated shared habits facing you down – to spot the difference when you find yourself immersed in the latter scenario. I personally have invested over time a lot of self-worth in my ability to encourage and promote others (I am sure that teaching and supervision plays, in part, into this dynamic) and whilst it can be very healthy, it can also be destructive (I am sure you can think of many romantic relationships where one party, often but not always the woman, is helplessly attracted to ‘fixer uppers’ to the extent that they sabotage their own lives).

The people I know who are in healthy and successful relationships of all kinds that have involved some kind of (objectively speaking) sacrifice, may indeed bear the scars of that experience, but they still in some way derive strength from the relationship. This is of course particularly clear in romantic relationships, where it is a relative commonality for this kind of dynamic to occur – perhaps one partner has been subject to severe illness, or misfortune; or perhaps the reverse, where an opportunity has necessitated a career move for the other party that requires them to redefine their own ambitions. But what defines the strength of such relationships is that regardless of how trying circumstances may be, the participant has no interest in redefining that relationship because they are still obtaining their succour from it; they draw strength from nurturing the other person, and that other person is equally invested. In other words, at a very fundamental level, the people in the relationship are still equals despite the fact that one may have shifted into a facilitating role, because that person is still gaining from it the benefits of mutual investment. Of course, there are many tribulations involved with even the most positive nurturing relationship (when I experienced chronic illness as a teenager, my mother was unstinting, generous and enthusiastic in her help, but even then I was conscious of the personal toll it exacted from her in terms of energy and self-care). But what distinguishes the positive from the not-so-positive in this context is the fundamental mutualisation of benefits. If an effort made for someone you love feels very consciously like a sacrifice, perhaps you shouldn’t be making it.

Once I spotted this distinction, I started to trace many of those kinds of patterns in my personal and professional life across many different strata of relationships, but which I had always previously rationalised with the mantra ‘relationships take work’. Putting my critical thinking hat on, this is of course a fascinating way of viewing things, akin to the argument that ‘mothering is a job’, a need to frame personal connections in the context of a masculinised value system constructed around paying employment. And framed in the context of aspirational capitalism, where the solution to any iniquity is always to work harder, I found myself trapped in a cycle of thinking that valorised working and giving in my relationships to the exclusion of personal growth. This, needless to say, is not terribly healthy. To be clear: relationships of all kinds take (mutual) effort, but not work. Making yourself unhappy on someone else’s account does not make you noble. It makes you dysfunctional. And my entirely unscientific reading of the situation is that women, primed to be nurturers, to be givers, are much more susceptible to this way of thinking than men. We expect to suffer. We define our self-image accordingly.

In a very real way, women have needed to ‘suffer’ increasingly over the last few decades. As the male-breadwinner model succumbed to the expectations of two-partner incomes in late capitalism (Elisabeth Warren’s book on this subject is particularly incisive), women have been expected to accommodate first the immediate needs of their partners and families, and second the requirements of economic growth, which demands the integration of women into the workforce. The point, of course, is not that this shift is axiomatically a bad thing (I, for one, love and derive great personal validation from my job – and studies of female stress suggest I am not alone) but rather than the demands of the former have not much lessened with the rise of the latter. Women disproportionately bear the brunt of the negative consequences of new gender roles. Women are expected to accommodate first, want later. And this tug reaches very deep: as many end-of-life studies have shown, people derive a lot of meaning from interaction with loved ones, and the line between giving and receiving is not well defined. The point is (as Amanda Palmer’s recent post on the experience of death touches upon), this giving needs to be mutualised, and you need to feel that you are deriving some sustenance from it. For women however it can be particularly difficult to identify or even to look for this sustenance when you have been raised to view giving as something intrinsic to who you are.

A psychiatrist, Julie Holland, has recently written a book (‘Moody Bitches’ – if I ever start a band, I am taking that name) pointing to the ways in which our hormones contribute to social stress, with an implicit critique of the contemporary trend to medicate unease rather than dealing with the (often very gendered) social causes of such strife. She describes estrogen (dominant in the first half of the menstrual cycle) as the ‘whatever you want, honey’ hormone, which promotes ‘giving to others: keeping our kids happy and our mates satisfied’. Conversely, she points to the decisive role of progesterone – dominant during what is conventionally described as PMT, a period not often framed in positive terms – ‘when estrogen levels drop before our periods, that veil is lifted…it’s time to clean house. During the rest of the month you put up with all kinds of bull that you won’t tolerate the week before your period.’ In other words, the cyclicality of women’s natures means that we are designed to nurture, to sacrifice – except for one week of the month, when we should embrace the desire to kick our relationships into shape. Maybe we need collectively to embrace that vision of ‘good woman- or person-hood’, as much as the self-sacrificing nurturer?

All of this of course resonated with me on both personal, intellectual and professional levels. What kind of sacrifices am I making to sustain relationships, and why am I making them? What is it giving me? Am I really deriving strength from the interpersonal practice of self-sacrifice, or am I just seeking to project an image of ‘sainthood’ to wider society? And if so, does being noble actually confer any benefit? (When I really think about it, a lot of the women I know whose self-esteem is intimately tied to the notion of being ‘givers’ at their own expense are actually not a lot of fun to be around). Of course, this kind of dynamic can be replicated in many broader contexts – it relates strongly to Nicki’s notion of ‘making sandwiches’ in the professional realm, for example, giving to the collective to the extent that we ultimately relinquish and indeed actively destroy our own needs. And intellectually it presents some interesting challenges to how we define the notion of selfhood as refracted through the biological and social lens of gender (are women’s constructions of the self the same as men’s? Do we require a more communitarian definition of self-actualisation?). In all contexts, we need to move away from the notion that to avoid being selfish we must be selfless: for surely, if we void our own sense of self, we have no means left with which to help others.

Queer man seeks Feminists. No experience required.

Allan Tyler

Trigger warning: I wrote more than I meant to do, and this is 1500 words long. Topics: Feminism, gender, drugs, AIDS, sex, politics (change punctuation to suit.)

I’m a feminist. And a white man. It’s something that some people don’t understand and it’s something that I can talk about at length. I’ve written a blog post about it, but this is not that post. I want to say, “My mother taught me never to open with an apology,” because that would have more poetry, but we are Canadian and the stereotypes are true. And besides that, it was something I read somewhere. Instead, my first call from the Feminist Academic Collective is a call to action.

A short reminder of some history, and one which will point to why it makes sense for men to be feminists: AIDS first took the attention of what we now call the Global North when queer men in the US started not just getting sick, but dying from this as yet unheard of phenomenon. In 1982, it was labelled G.R.I.D.: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. (Oh yes it was. ‘Global North’ and ‘queer’ are just two of the shifts.) It was renamed that same year when folks realised the name wasn’t quite covering everyone who was affected. I’ll speed past the worst bits of the history ‘splanation and get straight to my point: even when it was queer men who were worst affected by AIDS and ‘the AIDS crisis’, women acted.

We can unpack that, but it’s been done elsewhere so I will keep the points salient and brief. Women, queer and straight, were on the front lines of politicising and caring. Men were overwhelmed with what was happening, in some cases preoccupied with grief, or other caring duties. Some kept away variously from stigma or through scarcity. By scarcity I mean lack of resources (money, time, constructive emotions) but I can also talk about lack of knowledge and understanding. That scarcity included ignorance, also fear, and in its ugliest form, bigotry.

And women came to the rescue. To our rescue. To the rescue of men. (And not for the first time, any joking pre-empted.) Queer women, straight friends. Allies. (I apologise for the binary language and the choppy fragments, but going for productive and imperfect.)

The activity, leadership, care, courage, strength and resources of women steered us through the rough waters of those years. My queer friends in their 50s and 60s all lost people, all bore witness.  And it was the action of women in that time of crisis that is credited with galvanising the LGBT community, bringing together people who practiced queer identities in very different ways but who  demonstrate/d care for each other (and demonstrated, and cared.)

So when I post that blog on why I am a feminist or you read it why men should be feminists, you might decide to just say ‘it’s payback’ but that isn’t my rationale, and it’s a gross oversimplification.

My point? Where are you? Oh there you are. Current day: July 2015. Place: London, England; big cities across the USA; [add location in comments below…]

We have a new crisis. Crystal meth – and drug addiction more widely – is killing queer men. And we need a Feminist Response. We’re going to need – not going to, it’s not the future – we need the action of women to clean this mess up. Yes, I’m a white, educated, gay man, and I’m using my privilege to get stuff done. I’m sounding the alarm. I’m firing out a warning call. We need more help.

(I’m re-reading this and want to just throw in a holler to the many, many clinicians (counsellors, doctors, nurses) and carers who are feminists and who are neck-deep in this already.)

Because you know how this plays out. Right now it is ‘gay men in London’ who are (most) affected (in the UK). But epidemics don’t respect the boundaries of geography, gender, or sexual politics. And when this spreads, and it will spread, who will be affected worst? It will be poorer people. And it will be women and girls. And it can be used to control people. And it will be used to harm women. (Or harm more women more.) Whatever your politics about a woman’s right to her own body, crystal meth will be used in ways to change her rationale and corrupt her agency.

My choice of language is deliberate. This is a call for help and also a call of warning. I have read the study (full study here; executive summary here) from Sigma at London School Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that documents what is going on in three boroughs in South London. I have read the transcripts of interviews that one of my students recorded with gay men who are in recovery. I have heard the stories from friends, or friends of friends. Men whose lives have been devastated, and also men who don’t think it’s really a problem for them, because…

I’ve also read some of the news stories that are emerging. You might have read them, or heard coverage from a team at the BBC. Productive but imperfect. And then I read some of the responses from other sex-positive critical thinkers who I can only assume are not in London and not seeing what’s happening and not doing research in this community. But here I am, and I’ll say actually, the reporting is fairly measured.

Productive but imperfect. But at this stage our response can’t only be that the word ‘homosexual’ medicalises gay men and elides or erases variation of queer subjectivity. Our response *shouldn’t* only be to conflate drug addiction with HIV (and HCV) transmission – for a whole host of reasons – because, we’ll have to fight that battle/ clean that mess, too. But even I might be willing to let that slide if it does get the attention of the medical and party-political communities and the bods who control the money and work out how much stuff is going to cost to fix.  Because it will need fixing. It needs fixing.

And queer men are not doing enough to fix it. (Not able? For similar scarcities as the AIDS crisis?) There are some excellent provisions with not enough resources. There are some thoughtful, intelligent, hard-working people applying different strategies of harm reduction, abstinence, recovery and prevention. But we can do more. Or we need to do more. And we must do that before this becomes a (bigger) issue for women. At the moment there are *relatively* few people who are officially affected by this in the UK, in part because only when people seek help or get in trouble are they recorded. If we’re going to make comparisons with HIV, let’s take that lesson from history and mobilise early. Let’s not *allow* this to become a global epidemic on the same scale as HIV and AIDS now affect women globally.(16 million women were living with a positive HIV diagnosis in 2013. Deaths related to HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for women age 15-49.)

In wider demographics and from research for LGBT health equality in England with which I have been involved, there is not an agreement about ‘drugs’ (a broad category) in terms of definition or personal use. My interviews with men who sell sex reveal something similar; however, what I heard was a pattern that if there was a relationship between drug use and selling sex, there were problems and distress. That becomes a longer post and this is already quite long, but it does support research with vulnerable women who sell sex and discourses of women and girls who are pimped or trafficked.

In sex work or prostitution (depending on your standpoint), discourses, life stories, research, activism, and critique, there is a focus on the intersections of bodies, sex and power. I have spent years deconstructing and unpacking some of that, and other feminists had been doing it long before I arrived on the scene. And we don’t all agree. But there does seem to be some agreement that we do not know (or that people report very differently) how many people are involved or how many people are affected. ‘Drugs’ are a similar situation.

Is there consensus on when and how drugs are/might/can/could be used or should be addressed? No. But in a mix of bodies, sex, and power there is evidence, from research and court testimonies, that drugs get in the way of agency and consent. With crystal meth, there is evidence of sexual assault. There is evidence that men are doing things (or things are done to them) that they would not do or have done in other contexts. They can be ‘making choices’ but with a rationale from a chemically altered brain and body. And often from a standpoint of scarcity which can be financial or emotional. Those scarcities are not only felt by queer men. I’m sounding the call because we need to acknowledge and support a Feminist Response to this crisis, not just to help a population who might seem small and ‘other’ now but to learn from history and prevent a wider crisis that could disproportionately affect poorer women and women in emotionally vulnerable situations.

I have to wrap this up. I said this was a new crisis. None of this is all that new globally.  You might have read about meth labs blowing up people’s homes and you might have binge-watched storytelling about it on Netflix. It’s not new, but it’s not going away on its own.

Let’s be critical, but let’s be clear. I do not think the media is covering this unfairly. We need to address it. And we need to help fix it and prevent it before ‘them’ becomes (more of) ‘us’. Yes, it affects a minority of a minority. We might not like all the language. We might not like to acknowledge that some of us are back in the shit (excuse my language) when we seem to be making so many steps for progress. We might not like that there are liberal thinkers, sex-positive people, queers and even feminists who are imperfect, do things imperfectly and who get into trouble.

The obvious gap in what I’ve written is, ‘So what can we do?’ I’ll leave that for the comments section, in part because this is about dialogue, and in part because I just don’t think we have all the answers yet.

Popular culture, political economy and the death of feminism

Penny Griffin


In 2009 I started working on a project examining the feminist shape of popular culture, inspired, in large part, by reading Janet Halley’s Split Decisions and Angela McRobbie’s The Aftermath of Feminism. At the time, my experiences in the university classroom were decidedly mixed. Every time my students squirmed uncomfortably in their seats when the ‘f’ word was mentioned, I felt, both personally and professionally, that feminism had taken a head shot while I wasn’t paying attention. Feminists appeared on television, when they appeared on television, as shrieking harpies devoid of humour, even across cultural sources I otherwise admired and enjoyed, and sexually explicit content and demeaning representations followed me everywhere.

At this point, antifeminism seemed much more prolific in popular and commercial form and feminism in decline, submerged by popular rhetoric and representations that questioned its relevance and obscured its incisiveness. The misogyny squared at Hillary Clinton during the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign was brutal, but yet not perhaps very surprising (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had not yet made televisual feminism so appealing) and, in Australia, no one cared (or seemed to care publically) that a future Prime Minister believed that the best board for an Australian woman to sit at had an iron on it. I began Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism: Why Women are in Refrigerators and Other Stories with a sense, then, of despondency; for the prospects of feminism in Australia, and for a future teaching apparently disinterested, desensitised, neoliberalised youth. Like feminists such as McRobbie, Whelehan and Levy, I was convinced that popular culture was indeed reproducing the dismissal of feminism in order to better maintain the (assumed) profitability of sexualised market products.


If feminism was suffering from an image problem, how, I wondered, had the representational practices embedded in our everyday cultural lives come to constitute and shape feminism and our responses to it? Were cultures of production and consumption in the West contributing to derogatory attitudes to women and, particularly, to feminism? To what extent were negative representations of the women’s movement in the popular media depoliticising feminism as a form of collective politics in a world where young women were being taught that discrimination had been eliminated and individual efforts, self-definition and choice were key to women’s advancement? Why was sexism so prevalent across popular culture? Why could popular culture produce at best only uninspiring, and uninspired, representations of women, while sexism was all that consumer culture seemed to be selling? Feminism did, indeed, appear ‘undone’ in the contemporary West, dismissible and irrelevant to young women’s (and men’s) lives and incompatible with a cultural landscape in which the sexualisation of market products and objectification of the human body was valued above all else.

Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism, I hope, challenges International Political Economy (an academic discipline that tends to forget that there are actual human beings in the world) to produce a view of the world attentive both to the politics of gender and of cultural production, including the myriad ways in which these are inseparable. For the critically-minded, it is nothing new or controversial to argue that the abstracted pictures of the world offered by International Relations, where life exists as a sequence of isolated events unrelated to everyday practices of social and cultural reproduction, is flawed. Yet, if International Relations has struggled to take (frivolous and insubstantial) popular culture seriously, International Political Economy has not even got close. Although a ‘cultural political economy’ has drawn near to articulating the many and varied ways in which meaning and practice interconnect, very little writing in International Political Economy takes popular culture seriously as a core part of the global political economy. I find this baffling, particularly because the success of the neoliberal globalisation thesis has been, at least to me, so glaringly visual. I find it hard not to see the representations of masculine success that fill the pages of The Economist, or the pictures of poor, rural women (invariably with some sort of child strapped to their backs) that populate development banks’ pages on gender, development and ‘smart economics’. Corporate capitalism and global finance, their legitimations, dominant narratives, practices, and sources of support and subversion, are always visual and powerfully so. Yet International Political Economy scholarship rarely considers visual language a worthy subject of analysis.


Arguing that we ignore the significance of visual language in global politics at our peril, Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism makes a case for centralising analysis of popular culture in our examinations of the global political economy. It explores the intimate connections between the politics of feminism and the representational practices of contemporary popular culture, examining how feminism is ‘made sensible’ through visual imagery and popular culture representations. It investigates how popular culture is produced, represented and consumed to reproduce the conditions in which feminism is valued or dismissed, and asks whether antifeminism exists in commodity form and is commercially viable. Asking whether popular culture is contributing to a dismissal of feminism is a question worth thinking about because, for me, it is more than simply being interesting: it is a question of the politics of power and the circulation (and regulation) of knowledge, exclusion and appropriate behaviour. The cultural ‘turn’ across the social sciences has taught (some of) us that representations matter. The representational practices of contemporary popular culture help define our codes of conduct and horizons of possibility. Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism proceeds from the assumption that we cannot understand the processes and forms of our social, economic and political activity without trying to understand the properties, biases and effects of the cultural systems in which we are located. These make ‘real life’ (whatever that means) possible. Images and cultural constructions are intimately connected to patterns of inequality, domination and oppression: to understand their power is to begin to unravel the exclusive and discriminatory hierarchies that sustain them.


Cultural theorists have often discussed political economy in their considerations of culture and identity, but political economists (in their incarnation as a discipline in International Political Economy, at least) have not often ruminated on the world of popular culture. I cannot say for certain that many International Political Economy scholars would care what the relationship was between feminism, popular culture and political economy. The possibility that popular culture might undo some of their constructions of ‘legitimate’ knowledge remains, however, too tantalising a prospect to ignore.

[This post originally appeared at Progress in Political Economy]

All drone pilots kiss their wives and take their kids to ballet. Who knew?

Lindsay Murch

I research drones and in particular drone pilots (whether or not I should be calling them drones – or indeed pilots – is a separate massive debate which I will deliberately not engage with here). As part of this research I read as many accounts of the lives of drone pilots as I can get my grubby hands on: newspapers, magazines, radio shows, official transcripts obtained through FOI requests, and academic accounts. It is a challenge to get access to “real life” drone pilots, (although I am determined to do so) so I do sometimes have to rely on the presentation of other people’s words and interpretations. I am also a gender scholar. I am interested not just in the experience of female drone pilots (there are some) or pregnant drone pilots (anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been some). But also how the military, as a structurally masculine institution, interacts with these individuals.

Consider the following selection of quotes pulled from popular accounts of drone pilots:

‘Six days a week, Shannon Rogers kisses his wife and two young kids goodbye and wheels his battered 1989 Chevy Cavalier out of the driveway of his suburban Nevada home.’ (Donnelly, 2005)

‘He explained to me the odd reality of making his kid’s lunch in the morning, kissing his wife goodbye, then driving to work in traffic, saying hello to his co-workers on base, and then passing through an aluminium door that miraculously transported him to the bloody battlefield of Iraq.’ (Rogoway, 2015)

‘Every decision you made was either somebody, somebody living, saving somebody or somebody dying. And you walk into your house and you’re trying to figure out whether your daughter is going to wear a blue tutu or a pink tutu and the disconnection is astounding. Is just, it’s, it’s amazing.’ (Black, 2013)

‘“Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home — and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home — all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman,” Colonel Cluff said’ (Drew and Philipps, 2015)

‘Col. Pete Gersten, commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech, said that when he deployed as a fighter pilot to Iraq and Afghanistan, he would kiss his wife, hug his children and then emotionally detach.’ (McCloskey, 2009)

‘“Normally, when you go to war, you go into a theatre,” he explained. “You sleep in a tent every night and you walk half a mile to go to the bathroom. In the Predator world, you’re in Las Vegas. You get up in the morning, kiss the wife goodbye and drive up the base. But when you get into the box, you’re right there in the theatre. You’re at war. It’s incredibly strange.” (Sankin, 2015)

‘At the end of a day’s work, you hop back in the SUV to pick up the kid at school, grab a pizza and head for your Ikea-decorated home right here in the United States’ (Fancher, 2011)

‘My first ten minutes at the controls of the MQ-1, otherwise aptly known as Predator, and I had already been in on a kill. Then I remembered that Trish had asked me to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home.’ (Martin, 2010)

Is it just me or is there an awful lot of wife-kissing going on? An awful lot of child- hugging? These pieces are written as a means of giving an insight into the lives and worlds of part of the contemporary military. That contemporary military, it seems from these snippets, is only open to those (or will only celebrate the lives of those) who have (ideally attractive) families comprised of warrior-dad, stay-at-home mom and the 2.4 children. Admittedly part of the point of these pieces is to highlight the “human” side of the drone pilot, to dispel myths that drones are really autonomous robots or piloted by morally bankrupted computer-game playing teenagers with no sense of the impact of their actions. But where is the diversity? Given that the UK has 10 Reaper drones and the US has an astonishing 101 Reapers and 73 Predators (to name just the most contentious, armed variants of the drone species) it seems unlikely to me that all of the crews comprise of these cookie-cutter families! Where are the women going home to their husbands? Going home to their (female/male/trans*) partners? The men going home to their husbands? To their housemates? Their parents? Where are the single parents? Where are the childless individuals (I know there are some, I’ve met them and see also the now famous Brandon Bryant)?

In these accounts, predominantly male drone pilots are humanised through use of domestic imagery- picking up milk, choosing tutus* and going to soccer games. In the same way that Carol Cohn in her excellent work on Nuclear Defense Intellectuals in the 1980s notes that discourses are used to “tame” the destructive potential of the nuclear warhead, the drone pilots are constructed as “the guy next door” through repeated references to groceries, childcare, and loving spouses. Whilst I would be the first to support the need to envision drone pilots as embodied humans, who have a life beyond their military orders; I am troubled by the singularity of the narrative being used here. We are shutting down the options for what is required to “make” a drone pilot human. In order to claim humanity as a drone (and to dispel the idea that you are a robotic callous civilian killer), it appears, you must be married (to the opposite sex), and a parent.

And I humbly submit that this is simply not ok. ALL drone pilots are human. They cannot be squeezed into this shape, we cannot ask them all to become cookie-cut individuals- severing limbs and qualities that don’t fit the discourse we like.

*(and whose child does ballet class in a tutu rather than the bog standard leotard?! But I digress…)

(I would recommend the play “Grounded” for anyone interested in this topic- the drone pilot in that is female. And whilst it is not unproblematic in terms of its gender portrayal it certainly adds another perspective).

Rigour mortis

Nicki Smith

There’s currently a lot of talk about REF 2020 across pretty much all of our necks of the woods here in the UK, and inevitably this seems to entail the fine dissection of the still-warm body of 2014.  One of the things that keeps on cropping up is the whole issue of ‘rigour’ and, in particular, what that means in actual practice.  A discourse that I’ve heard a couple of times now in casual contexts is that ‘it basically means hard-core quants’.  As a post-positivist researcher, that obviously concerns me quite a bit, and so here are my thoughts on rigour.

Rigour relates to questions of methodology and so I should begin by noting that I see methodology as super-super important.  I just don’t think that it’s possible to separate questions of how we produce knowledge from questions of what knowledge is produced.  Indeed, one of the things that is guaranteed to make me have an epic rant to students, colleagues, my parents, and/or random passers-by is to read the words ‘the research finds that’ or ‘the study shows’, without any mention of the methodology involved. It makes me go a big-bit crazy when the ‘findings’ or ‘results’ just hang there, as if they’re floating in space, when the reality is that those findings/results have been produced by actual, embodied and fallible researchers. I go crazy because (to get a bit shouty and arm-wavey here) I find it duplicitous and irresponsible – it’s like a magician trying to hide how they do the trick; except with researchers no-one thinks we’re magicians. Quite the contrary: there’s often a perception that academics are in the business of discovering reality/truths and then reporting those reality/truths – our ‘findings’ – to other academics/the media/policy-makers/our students. Except we haven’t just ‘found’ the truths; we have actively produced them through the process of undertaking our research.  We need, therefore, to be clear about exactly how we have undertaken that research.  This is especially important given that our findings can be (and often are) taken up as transparent ‘facts’ by policy-makers, as if those ‘facts’ aren’t in reality always open to contestation.  So, researchers have a huge responsibility to be upfront and honest about how we have produced what we have ‘found’. We have a duty of care to take methodology seriously, and it’s an ethical and political one as well as an intellectual one.

And, in fact, all of the above is actually what I understand to be meant by ‘rigour’ in the 2014 REF document. The generic criteria state that: ‘Rigour will be understood as the extent to which the purpose of the work is clearly articulated, an appropriate methodology for the research area has been adopted, and compelling evidence presented to show that the purpose has been achieved’. And the Panel 2C criteria in turn states: ‘Rigour will be understood in terms of the intellectual precision, robustness and appropriateness of the concepts, analyses, theories and methodologies deployed within a research output. Account will be taken of such qualities as the integrity, coherence and consistency of arguments and analysis, such as the due consideration of ethical issues’. There is no subsequent sentence that then reads: ‘N.B. This means do statistics’. Indeed, I would argue that it is only in a world where methodology isn’t being taken seriously that ‘rigour’ might mean ‘we should just do hard-core statistics and then that’ll mean 4*’.

To continue with the question of quants, I should add that I am not an ‘anti-quants’ person.  I believe both that feminists can count and that (as Sara Ahmed notes) ‘numbers can be affective‘. But we all know that, ‘even’ with quants, there is absolutely no inherent guarantee of ‘rigour’ – indeed, as someone who researches on the sex industry, I am particularly mindful of the huge damage to actual people that dodgy and so-called ‘authoritative’ statistics can do. But, more broadly, we just cannot let ourselves off the hook like that. In all research – using whatever method/s – researchers have to be really clear about the claims, commitments and consequences of that research (i.e. its core claims; its underlying commitments; and its theoretical, political and ethical consequences). This means reflecting very carefully and very openly not just about the ‘limitations’ of the research (e.g. ‘I would have done more interviews if …’) but also about its own silences and gaps. What, in short, are the power relations being reproduced in and through the research itself? This is a matter of reflexivity, which I would argue is a condition of possibility for the ‘rigour’ that the REF document is asking for. Put another way (as we already tell our dissertation and research students): if you haven’t engaged in open and sustained reflection about how and why you’ve done the research in the very particular way that you have decided to do it, then you’ve got yourself one shoddy research methodology. This is just as true for quants as for any other method, for a research method is not the same thing as a methodology, and the latter cannot simply be reduced to the former.

I would love us to shift the discourse from ‘rigour’ to ‘reflexivity’ but, as I don’t think that’s an argument I have any chance of winning, this is instead a plea for rigour in the application of ‘rigour’. We just can’t use ‘rigour’ as any kind of shorthand for a specific type of method.  If we do it then it will be rigor mortis that we get: intellectual, political, and ethical. I am sorry for that pun – but rigour is not synonymous with ‘statistics’ and this distinction matters a great deal.

About Perfect Me! BeautyDemands

Heather Widdows


Perfect Me! is my current book project, a project funded by a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust. Perfect me! explores the ideal of perfection as exhibited in contemporary, and increasingly global, ideals of beauty. Perfect me! can be read in a number of ways: as an individual’s aspiration to perfect themselves (‘I want to be perfect’), as assertion of what being perfect is (‘this is what I would be if I were perfect’), and as a command which a woman (or man) feels she should obey (‘I should be perfect’). In the book I explore all of these meanings, with particular focus on the moral element that each reading implies: the first, that being perfect is worth having; the second, a judgement that this is what perfection is; and the third, as a moral demand.

Too often beauty – appearance and body image – is treated by philosophers as something trivial. This is borne out by the lack of research on this area in mainstream philosophy and the topic is almost wholly missing from mainstream moral and political philosophy core readers, handbooks and textbooks. Philosophers, especially moral philosophers, have tended to look at beauty as an abstract concept or in the context of the sublime, rather than as attached to real bodies and as influencing how real people actually feel. But beauty is not trivial. It is a dominating ideal and one which pervades nearly every aspect of contemporary life. It is an (moral) ideal. For some this ideal is a standard against which individuals judge their own and other’s progress, success and failure. People feel ‘happy’ or that they are ‘successful’ if they have attained some aspect of their ideal (reached their goal weight, erased their wrinkles or firmed their thighs).

This view, which connects being physically perfect (having the best body) with ‘the self’, is a common one. The assumption is ubiquitous in the language of value which surrounds talk of beauty: be ‘your best self’, ‘the best you can be’, ‘it’s still you, but the best version of you’, ‘the real you’. Such terms invoke the ideal, the imagined perfect you, waiting to be revealed or attained if only you learn the proper skills, engage in the proper practices and buy the right products. These are comparative terms about how you can be better, and likewise moral words like should, ought and worth proliferate: ‘you’re worth it’, ‘you owe it to yourself’; and conversely ‘you let yourself go’ and presumably ‘you’re not worth it’. In this dominant ideal of ‘perfect me’ beauty, happiness and success begin to merge. The more perfect you are the more you will succeed: you’ll get a better job (‘look the part’, ‘dress for the job you want not the one you have’); better relationship (‘if I’m thinner, prettier, sexier s/he’ll love me more’); and better life in general (‘if I was ten pounds lighter, I’d be happier’). In these ways the beauty ideal is thought to provide rewards to the successful devotee – rewards of jobs, relationships, respect, love and happiness. It gives shared standards – to aspire to, and to judge ourselves and others by.

The shared nature of the ideal is crucial. The fact that it is shared matters – and this takes us from moral and into political philosophy. The shared feature makes it problematic to claim that beautifying practices – in the form of routine beauty regimes or interventions (such as surgery) – are merely individual, trivial, fashions. You can’t choose your own beauty ideal, you can only choose to conform to it, to embody it or to reject it. It you reject it – as some do – then you are standing outside the norm and will be judged accordingly. Standing outside the ideal isn’t easy for most people – as the barefaced selfies show (raising £8 million in just six days!) – most women wear makeup at least some of the time in most walks of life, and employers and others expect it. Gradually what is ‘normal’ – what is required to attain minimum standards of acceptable appearance – has extended. Not very long ago make-up and hair dye was unacceptable for most women (for respectable women). I’m not defending this division of types of women or these norms – but rather just pointing out that what is required by the beauty ideal to be ‘normal’ is changing and expanding. Body hair is a particularly good example of this – think of the column inches which follow revelations of underarm hair, and growing underarm hair is also now fundraising! It is now the ‘norm’ to be increasingly hairless. In public – at the beach/pool/on a night out – most women think ‘de-fluffing’ is ‘routine’, like washing or teeth-cleaning. But it’s not so long ago (days I remember from when I was at University) when underarm hair was normal, even attractive. And the changes in norms with regard to pubic hair are striking in the last 20 years. In the future what will be required? The de-fuzzing of all body hair (except on the head where the trend is the opposite and in some groups hair extensions are almost a requirement)?

In the book I am making three main arguments: First, about the ubiquity and dominance of the contemporary ideal – which I claim is different to past ideals in a number of significant ways; it applies to more types of women (and increasingly men); it applies for longer and that increasingly it is a global ideal. In addition, and importantly, it increasingly requires technological involvement to attain it. My second argument addresses what this beauty ideal implies for understandings of the self – what human beings are – and key to my position is an argument about the power of the imagined self – a self which has power to shape, constrain and limit our supposed choices. From the first two arguments I make a third claim about why choice and consent arguments don’t – and can’t – provide ethical safeguards in this context. I am right in the middle of this project and some are more developed than others, but I am greatly enjoying the process. Some of these arguments are developed in a recent paper given at the Global Gender Justice conference and can be viewed here.

As well as Perfect me! I am also (with Professor Jean McHale, Law) leading an AHRC-funded Network on the ‘Changing Requirements of Beauty’: key partners are Dr Fiona MacCallum, Psychology, Warwick University; Professor Melanie Latham, Law, MMU, and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

The Beauty Demands project brings together scholars, practitioners, policy-makers together to consider the changing requirements of beauty. The assumption of the network is that beauty image is becoming ever more demanding and defining of women, and increasingly men, irrespective of their professions. The project asks whether this is the case, and how this norm is constituted and how it impacts upon real ‘choices’. It also asks whether the dominant beauty norm is increasingly a global beauty norm, and thus open to less cultural and sub-cultural resistance. The project is especially concerned with role of technology in this. In particular, that procedures which were once regarded as ‘exceptional’ such as the use of surgery, are now regarded as ‘normal’ or even ‘required’ in certain contexts. Our last workshop was in June in London and included, surgeons, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and even art historians. The next is in Birmingham in October on the ‘Globalisation of Beauty ’ and the call for papers for doctoral students and early career lecturers closes on 16 July.

To find out more check out the BeautyDemands website and blog. And we are always including new members and welcome new contributions to our discussions and blog – to join the discussion email us.