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Students present on gender studies in third biennial conference

and | Monday, April 30, 2018

The Gender and Women’s Studies Departments from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Indiana University-South Bend hosted the third biennial Midwest Undergraduate Research Conference in Gender Studies, themed “New Directions in Gender Studies,” Friday and Saturday in McKenna Hall.

The conference featured 12 panels of 43 students who presented on political representation, feminism, marriage, identity and performativity, body image, media and culture, science and technology, policy-making and other research areas related to gender relations. The occasion also included an alumni panel and reception, as well as a keynote address from Ntozake Shange, a playwright and poet, as part of the InterAction Community Theatre for Social Justice Action conference.

Saint Mary’s senior Taylor Thomas presented on the history and interpretations of the Sapphire stereotype, otherwise known as “the angry, black woman” stereotype. Titled “Warped Images: The Sapphire and Relationship Abuse in the African-American Community,” Thomas’s presentation explored the media portrayal of the Sapphire stereotype and its effect on younger generations through intimate partner violence.

Thomas said she is very passionate about both African American studies and efforts to counter stereotyping and prejudice.

“My goal for all the research I do on black men and women is [to] combat the many stereotypes applied to them and help create new narratives,” Thomas said in an email. “Furthermore, I hope to inspire the people who heard my presentation to analyze the media they take in and to critique it publicly [by telling] those in power, loud and clear, representation matters.”

Studying gender relations is important because women, especially women of color, are more likely to experience physical violence than men, Thomas said. Through her research, Thomas said she analyzed the statistics surrounding gender relations, such as the wage gap between male and female workers, as well as the violence directed toward LGBTQ youth.

“Americans like to think that we are so far beyond the times of racial discrimination and women’s suffrage, but the truth is that we still face many of the same issues — just in different ways,” Thomas said. “We never actually solved the problems of the past, we just found Band-Aid solutions. Gender relations and gender studies asks us to look deeper. In the same way you must remove the root of a weed to be completely rid of it, you must do the same to problems in our current world.”

Saint Mary’s sophomore Katherine Wankelman said she titled her presentation “‘Who Tells Your Story?’: Lin Manuel Miranda’s Color-Conscious Casting and the Women of ‘Hamilton’” because of its focus on the implications of the renderings of gender and race in Miranda’s hit Broadway production “Hamilton.” Miranda provides his audiences with commentary that invites them to reconsider the ways they have learned and engaged with the history of the United States through the lens of gender and race, Wankelman said.

“The telling of our history is predominantly white-centric and androcentric, and that is problematic for a number of reasons,” Wankelman said in an email. “Too often, we think that history can be considered outside of race and gender, merely perpetuating the cultural norms of whiteness and maleness. Therefore, if we … remove race and gender from history, we are excluding a number of important voices from the narrative.”

Miranda’s purposeful manner in which he presents the constructs of race and gender to his audiences is especially evident in his color-conscious casting and the dialogue of “Hamilton” character Eliza Schuyler, Wankelman said. Through her research, Wankelman found the version of history most often taught and analyzed excludes people of color and women — both by chance and purposeful omission. The cultural phenomenon of “Hamilton” cultivated an enormous fan base, she said, allowing for the important, widespread reception of the inclusive renderings of race and gender.

“I think it is important to think critically about the media and aspects of pop culture that we engage with and acknowledge where they may or may not be problematic in the ways they discuss various social constructs,” Wankelman said. “The media we consume has an influence on the way that we see the world, and no one is truly immune from this. Therefore, we must carefully consider what ideas the media … [perpetuate], such as gender binary and gendered norms.”

Gender and women’s studies highlight the intersectionality between race and gender issues, which could lead to greater success for feminist movements like the Women’s March, Wankelman noted. The research of topics like race and gender can push people to consider those who are excluded from the narrative of history, she said, and empower others with the tools necessary to make effective and lasting change for the future.

“The way we engage with gender, be it our gender or someone else’s, is so contingent on our understanding and education,” Wankelman said. “Gender is something that we are surrounded with every day, and that necessitates a conversation coupled with education.”

Notre Dame senior Liam Maher presented on his thesis, which he said discusses “the performativity of gender and how [drag artists] turn it into an art form.” Despite being nervous about public speaking, Maher said the discussion was “a fantastic experience.”

“Especially since I plan to go into academia after graduating, it was a really great experience for me to practice presenting my research, talking about it with other people and workshopping with other people about their research to try to relate it to wider trends in different fields,” Maher said. “It was a lot of fun — super causal and low-key, but a lot of cool topics were discussed. … It was really great to see people from all these different academic institutions able to get together and really be able to talk and relax and have fun.”

Maher said he believes the status of gender relations at Notre Dame makes the topic especially important for students.

“Notre Dame kind of has a funky gender relations dynamic, which you find out really quickly when you go anywhere else in the country or even out into South Bend,” he said. “I think it’s really important that Notre Dame hosts conferences like this that talk about these gender issues and historical trends of gender relations and gender itself. In future years I’d like to see it grow into an even bigger event that gets more of the Notre Dame community involved, because a lot of the topics that were discussed were just so cool and I wish more people could have heard them.”

Notre Dame senior Taylor Still’s presentation of her thesis, “‘Chi rappresenta noi?’ [‘Who represents us?’]: What it means to act in the interest of women from Italy and the United States,” focused on issues of citizenship and the treatment of Italian-American women, Still said.

“As a first-time presenter, I was pretty nervous going in, but it was such a welcoming environment and it was awesome to see how interdisciplinary everything was,” she said. “I think people tend to think of gender studies as insular, but that’s not the case at all. It was great to see everyone enter into the conversation and try to make connections between each other, even between the days. I think it was evidence that there was a lot of authentic listening going on — people trying to constructively learn from each other.”

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