Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility

Last month, I gave a keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in Oxford. Below, you'll find the full text of my paper, edited lightly to ensure sense in terms of references to images. My thanks to Amsterdam University Press, who have given permission for me to post the paper in full here. Such copyright permission is necessary, given the fact that the majority of the text is taken from my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens (Introduction and Chapter 3). If you would like to cite or reference this published material, please use the book version!  You can download the Introduction as a .pdf gratis here. For all other material, feel free to cite this post for now. Plans are in the works to publish the keynote-only stuff, and I will post an update here with all relevant info whenever I have it. Having covered all the logistics, now it's on with the show, and onto the paper proper.

B/w print ad for Bell & Howell Canonet 19 camera, featuring nun using camera. Holiday magazine (?) (October, 1963), p. 22. Source: Etsy.

B/w print ad for Bell & Howell Canonet 19 camera, featuring nun using camera. Holiday magazine (?) (October, 1963), p. 22. Source: Etsy.

In 2002, Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker made an urgent call for the revalorization of hagiography as a rich source of medievalist material: ‘The message seems to be that “true medievalists” do not concern themselves with hagiographic sources, or if they do, it is only because they wish to study the earliest texts in the vernacular or are interested in folk beliefs and popular mentality.’[1] Hello, my name is Alicia and I am, apparently, not a ‘true’ medievalist, whatever that actually means. For I maintain that hagiography is important precisely because it reflects the ‘popular mentality’ of medieval Catholics. Moreover, I contend that this ‘popular mentality’ is not reducible to an inherent medieval-ness. Medieval hagiography is certainly a product of its historical context. Nevertheless, it expresses and discusses many of the issues with which our contemporary popular culture grapples. Medieval hagiography’s ‘popular mentality’ is constituted by altogether human, trans-chronological pre-occupations. In particular, today I focus on one issue: the ways in which ‘acceptable’ female identities are produced, consumed, and lived both in medieval hagiography/biography and in our modern media ecology. Who gets to be visible? Who gets to be invisible? And who makes those decisions? In a moment in which I find myself with the privilege of standing in the spotlight – as a woman, as an early-career researcher, and as a medievalist, ‘true’ or not – I look to a pair of radically visible women for my source material, fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century selfie queen Kim Kardashian West. These two ‘always make a spectacle of themselves’ it seems, working tirelessly to produce their own identities with the tools at their disposal.[2] They traffic in the political economies of visibility as ‘extraordinary’ individuals – women outside of the norm, and thus deviant; women who are extra-special and thus lauded, celebrified saint and sanctified celebrity. Before I embark upon my analyses proper, let me sketch out all too briefly the terms of my engagement, the analytical framework within which my hypotheses are oriented.

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Fig. 1. Untitled gif featuring Virgin Mary eating a TV dinner, watching Christ’s Passion on TV, by Scorpion Dagger (James Kerr).

Hagiographical scholarship has long struggled with the issue of mediation inherent to the genre. We can never view the hagiographical subject ‘face to face’. We set eyes only on the figuration of the holy person provided by the biographer, compelled to author the work by a variety of ideological aims.[3] In short: the existence of a medieval vita typically ‘only proves’, as Nancy Caciola puts it, ‘that a single, literate man […] was impressed by the woman he described’.[4] Instead of grappling with the ‘problem’ of mediation, I suggest that we embrace the full weight of the proposition’s heuristic possibility, considering hagiography as media, and pop-cultural media at that, situating medieval hagiographic subjects alongside those presented in our contemporary pop-cultural media. For my work today is not just to prove that ‘true’ medievalists can and do love hagiography, adoring it with an ever-critical eye – but that ‘true’ medievalists can also render their primary sources relevant, engaging – and, dare I say it, visible – to non-medievalists, if only we appreciate the analytical value of contemporary pop culture, considering pop-culture material as worthy of our attention, our time, and our serious critique. The arguments I present today are drawn from my first book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. This gif (Fig. 1) pretty much lays out my central arguments. But if you’d like a version that’s more than a dizzying video loop, I’ve got you covered: today’s paper is grounded on the analyses I set forth in the book’s Introduction and Chapter 3.[5]

Why media? Or perhaps – how media – how does media ‘work’ in terms of hagiography, and vice versa. Here, I draw especially on Birgit Meyer’s definition of ‘media’: ‘those artifacts and cultural forms that make possible communication, bridging temporal and spatial distance between people as well as between them and the realm of the divine or spiritual’.[6] In this light, it becomes clear that media are, and always have been, ‘intrinsic to religion’ as a means of making divinity visible, tangible, and intelligible to believers.[7] My formulation relies also on W. J. T. Mitchell’s theories of media, with particular emphasis on two key tenets.[8] Firstly: media are ‘environments where images live, or personas and avatars that address us and can be addressed in turn.’[9] Hagiographic media are immersive and communicative. They solicit interactions with readers, and open up spaces of virtuality in which their hagiographic personas live and into which the reader can project themselves.[10] Secondly, I concur with Mitchell’s pronouncement that ‘media purity’ is a fallacy.[11] All media are multimedia in the sense that they are fabricated from an assemblage of mixed media. A film, for example, is an admixture of image, text, sound, and so on. Consequently, engagement with media is always a multi-sensuous and multimodal process. Even in the most superficially two-dimensional interaction between reader and book, for instance, we find the visual (the words on the page), the haptic (turning the page), the imaginative and intellectual (processing the words’ meaning), and even the olfactory (the smell of the book).

Hagiographic media are dynamic, active, in some sense animate, or at the very least vital. Things live in media, or at least they seem to. The most potent example of such living media is the celebrity (or ‘star image’).[12] However ‘realistic’ the celebrity subject appears, they are an inauthentic representation, fabricated from an amalgam of ‘media texts’ and grafted on to the real personhood of the star-as-subject. In fact, the ‘true’ identity of a celebrity is fragmented, pieced together by various attributes which together form a whole. When analysing celebrity, Richard Dyer observes that ‘we are dealing with the stars in terms of their signification, not with them as real people. The fact that they are also real people is an important aspect of how they signify, but we never know them directly as real people, only as they are to be found in media texts.’[13] The same is true for analyses of hagiography. Medieval holy women (and men) exist to us solely in, and as, hagiographical ‘star images’. What is at stake if we call our celebrities saints, and our saints celebrities? In an effort to answer – or begin to answer – this question, it’s time for Margery Kempe and Kim Kardashian West to take the stage once more.

Screen grab from  KUWtK  (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). Kourtney Kardashian (left), inadvertently launches the ‘ugly crying’ Kim Kardashian West (right) meme: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying ‘cause I just can’t help it. She has this ugly crying face that she makes.’

Screen grab from KUWtK (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). Kourtney Kardashian (left), inadvertently launches the ‘ugly crying’ Kim Kardashian West (right) meme: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying ‘cause I just can’t help it. She has this ugly crying face that she makes.’

Kim Kardashian West’s ‘ugly crying face’ is a viral online sensation.[14] In 2008, Kourtney Kardashian, Kim’s sister, drew attention to Kim’s unfortunate mien when upset. In a ‘confessional’ from Keeping Up With The Kardashians (KUWtK), the family’s massively popular reality-TV show, Kourtney declared: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying because I just can’t help it, she has this ugly crying face that she makes’.[15] This footage, coupled with Kim’s regular emotional outbursts, has become a well-known and much-circulated meme online. Margery Kempe is the Ur-example of ‘ugly crying’, and her Book is the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV.[16] Given the audience for this paper, I’m going to cut to the chase in terms of Margery’s vital statistics. Tl;dr: born c. 1373 to a burgess family in Norfolk (England), married to a burgess, mother of fourteen, widow, pilgrim across England and Europe, one-time brewer, #blessed with a lot of visions, and – most importantly for my point here – cries her eyes out as a sign of her devotion. Almost everyone finds Margery’s crying obnoxious.[17] Even the woman’s closest relations cannot stand her incessant wails. During one of Margery’s whine-athons in Canterbury, her husband pretends not to know her, and runs off.[18] He abandons Margery to the clutches of an angry mob that has formed around the urgent social issue of putting a stop to Margery’s interminable wailing – or as the Book tells it, her suspected Lollardy. A note on terminology is necessary before I go any further. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Book is a work of ambiguous authorship: it is predominantly narrated in the third person; two scribe-amanuenses are identified in the work; and the division of labour between Margery and her scribal helpers is simply not clear. To handle this instability, I follow Lynn Staley in referring to the author-subject as ‘Kempe’ and the text’s protagonist as ‘Margery’.[19]

Fig. 2. Kim Kardashian’s Best Ugly Crying Moments, (YouTube video, 1:17: posted by Fun Trolly, uploaded 23 October 2013)

In Sharon L. Jansen’s summation, Margery is ‘garrulous, attention-seeking, and funny, both repellent and endearing.’[20] The same can be said of Kardashian West. And for both women, ‘ugly crying’ operates as an iconographical metonym for the variety of ways in which they are ‘always making a spectacle’ of themselves.[21] Indeed, in direct response to Margery’s crying jag in Canterbury, an elderly monk informs her bluntly: ‘“I wish that you were enclosed in a house of stone, so that no-one should speak with you.”’[22] Margery’s tears are a means of affectively ‘taking up space’, a sinful colonisation of the public realm by a woman. Similar condemnation is evident in many of the comments appended to a YouTube video, Kim Kardashian’s Best Ugly Crying Moments (Fig. 2), which has netted over 1.2 million views as of last week (3 January 2018):

she is such a disgrace for women.. shame on her.. so pathetic

Shes a massive DRAMA QUEEN AND SHE NEEDS TO GET OVER IT STUPID WOMAN

I can't believe I live in a world where this woman exists... God damnit[.][23]

Other commenters seize upon Kardashian West’s illegitimacy as a ‘worthy’ celebrity. She is categorised as an ‘attention whore’, a fame-hungry ‘train wreck’ that should simply not be famous.[24] Margery Kempe is trolled similarly in online comments from modern readers outside the academy, and those with only superficial; awareness of her beloved status in contemporary medieval studies:[25] Here are two of the choicest call-outs served to Margery:

This woman was crazy. Hands down, batshit, insane. […] Margery Kempe is not a religious figure to look up to and instead is a self centered, self serving, medieval woman who used religion to gain fame.[26]

[Margery is] a nutcase, a freak, an annoying pain […].[27]

Kardashian West and Margery’s stardom is in question because it emanates from a process of auto-celebrification. They are ‘reality-TV famous’ rather than the products of the traditional celebrity manufacturing process.

Reality-stars are famous because they have been on reality TV, not for any special talent. Initially, reality-TV producers operate as ‘star-makers’, choosing which lucky hopeful is cast in their shows and making tactical editorial decisions to present desired storylines. Their source material, however, is the brute force of persona, an individual who has consciously chosen to put themselves up as a ‘star image’ for audience consumption. Reality-stars typically engage in conscious attempts at auto-celebritisation beyond the show which first brought them to public attention. They package and manage themselves as star-objects by appearances in other texts over which they have more control. Presence on social media, in celebrity magazines, and in the tabloid press are mainstays in the reality-star’s toolkit. The reality-TV star harnesses the praxes of celebrification established in the traditional system, but under their own steam. ‘Fake it till you make it’ goes the saying, and that is surely the mantra of the reality-TV celeb. By performing the gestures of ‘legitimate’ fame often enough, to enough onlookers, and with enough skill, the wannabe becomes famous too. In a similar manner, Margery requires models of other acclaimed holy women to legitimise her own forms of piety, both within the diegesis (Margery and her community) and extra-textually (as the author seeks acclaim for the text’s protagonist).

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Untitled gif, supercut of Kim Kardashian West's 'ugly crying'.

The Book details Margery’s determined attempts to garner spiritual fame by modelling herself on other holy women. She is a fame-hungry fan, a wannabe desperate to transform herself into a celebrity saint in her own right. Though Margery grinds out her days on the D-list, she looks fannishly to a roster of A-list female saintly stars, in whose image she fabricates herself, or tries to. The Book calls out luminaries such as Birgitta of Sweden, Elizabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret of Antioch, Mary Magdalene, and St. Barbara.[28] Kempe relies on a patchwork of citation, borrowing from various spiritual texts to construct a viable – read: ecclesiastically and socially acceptable – holy life for Margery. In terms of Margery’s ugly crying, for instance, Marie of Oignies is invoked as a lachrymose predecessor who demonstrates that crying, and crying an awful lot, is a sign of holiness. Marie lived in present-day Belgium, and is considered by many as the first beguine – woman who is not a nun, but also not entirely secularized either.[29] She died in 1213, and her hagiography was written two short years later by Jacques of Vitry. Marie’s text was a blockbuster success. Susan Folkerts catalogues 39 extant manuscripts containing her vita, either in full, or in extracts and fragments.[30] The full Latin vita was also translated into an impressive number of languages: Dutch, English, French, Italian, Norse and Swedish. All this to say that Marie of Oignies, however unknown in modern scholarship, was a very well-known holy woman in the medieval period. She, rather than Margery, was the star way back when. Marie is an apposite example for Margery to turn to: she was renowned for her tears. Marie of Oignies is quite literally the dictionary definition of pious crying. Indeed, the entire entry for ‘tears’ (‘lacrima’) in Arnold of Liège’s fourteenth-century exempla anthology the Alphabetum narrationum (composed c1308-1310; translated in the fifteenth-century into English as the Alphabet of Tales) is devoted to the holy woman.[31]

Margery’s scribe, we learn, reads Marie’s biography and comes to greater understanding of Margery’s piety:

And yet our Lord drew [the scribe] back in a short time – blessed may he be – so that he loved [Margery] more, and trusted more in her weeping and her crying than he ever did before. For afterwards he read of a woman called Mary of Oignies, […] and of the plenteous tears that she wept, which made her feel so feeble and so weak that she might not endure to behold the cross, nor hear our Lord’s Passion rehearsed, so she was resolved into tears of pity and compassion. [32]

Ditto the Dominican doctor Maistyr Custawns, presumably Thomas Constance:

The worthy doctor said to her, ‘Margery, I have read of a holy woman [Marie of Oignies] to whom God had given great grace of weeping and crying as he has done to you. […] In the church where she lived was a priest who had no favourable opinion of her weeping, and caused her through his prompting to go out of the church. […] She prayed God that the priest might have some feeling of the grace that she felt […]. And, so suddenly, our Lord sent him such devotion during his mass that he could not control himself, and then, after that, he no longer wishes to despise her but rather to comfort her.’[33]

Crucially, however, the usage of Marie as an archetype here is not a case of passive citation. Rather, the Book adapts the source material from Marie’s life to make it better fit Margery’s own circumstances. In both the Middle English and Latin versions of Marie’s vita, Marie petitions Christ directly to grant the derisive priest tears (‘gate graunt of oure Lord with terys’; ‘impetravitque à Domino cum lacrymis’).[34] This request has been suppressed in Kempe’s retelling. The Book’s adaptation also states that Marie leaves the church due to the priest’s demand (‘at the request of a preyste’), caterwauling about her inability to hold back her tears.[35] In the source materials, the priest only asks Marie to cease crying and pray quietly (‘bade that she shulde praye softely and latte be hir weyping’; ‘ut oraret cum silentio, & lacrymas cohiberet’).[36] It is Marie’s inability to hold back her tears and intense humility that drives her from the church of her own accord. Kempe takes a pre-existing narrative and re-shapes it to better suit Margery’s needs, a move both interventionist and derivative which bears all the hallmarks of fan fiction.

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Gif of scene from The Simple Life in which Paris Hilton directs her then-unfamous childhood friend Kim Kardashian West to clean her closet. Hilton: 'Kim I need you to clean and organize my entire closet.' Kardashian West: 'Yes Paris'.

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Gif from Paris Hilton’s interview with Entertainment Tonight in which she states ‘I created Kim Kardashian, her whole family owes me life.’

Like Margery, Kardashian West needed a guide in the celebrification process. She credits socialite-cum-minor-celebrity Paris Hilton as a mentor: ‘“I do think I learned a lot from Paris. I think that she has always been so gracious to the paparazzi, to her fans, and has taught me, you know, that there’s no real need or reason to never not be.”’[37] For a number of years, Hilton employed Kardashian West, a then non-famous childhood friend, as a personal assistant and stylist in her own C-list celebrity life.[38] Kardashian West’s earliest onscreen appearances are in episodes of The Simple Life, the reality-TV show that launched Hilton as a star.[39] Whilst the pair were friends, footage shows Hilton exploiting the power differential between them, effectively putting Kardashian West in her place. This entry-level position in The Simple Life was productive, however. It functioned as an internship in the twinned businesses of reality-TV and auto-celebrification. In a now famous – or infamous – interview with Entertainment Tonight (ET), Hilton credited herself as the ‘star maker’ not just of Kim, but the entire Kardashian clan, proclaiming ‘I created Kim Kardashian, her whole family owes me life.’[40] Since the ET interview, Hilton has become more circumspect in her classification of her role in Kardashian West’s rise to stardom. Speaking about the pair’s relationship in a 2015 interview with Yahoo! Style, she emphasised their closeness: ‘We’ve known each other since we were little girls. We’ve always been friends.’ [41] The rosy picture is masterfully subverted with Hilton’s next remarks: ‘It’s nice to inspire people. I’m really proud of her and what she’s done.’ It remains clear that, in Hilton’s eyes at least, she has ownership over her childhood friend’s celebrity, and should be acknowledged accordingly.

Kardashian West’s own reality-TV show, KUWtK, launched in 2007. It instantly elevated her celebrity, and transformed the whole family into a celebrity brand. KUWtK is still going strong in its fourteenth season (debuting October 2017), with various spin-off Kardashian-focussed shows and cross-marketed merchandise.[42] Audiences worldwide can’t seem to get enough of Kardashian West and her family. Hilton is irrelevant; Kardashian West is omni-present in the media landscape. In the Book, Christ implies that Margery will achieve a similar usurpation of her role-model, St. Birgitta. He speaks to the English woman “‘just as [he] spoke’” (‘“ rygth as [he] spak’”) to her mentor, suggesting an equivalence between the pair.[43] However, he blesses Margery alone with certain visions, assuring her that the Swedish saint ‘“never saw [him] in this way”’ (‘“say [him] nevyr in this wyse’”)).[44] Nevertheless, Birgitta has nothing to fear from Margery: she does not attain anything like Birgitta’s fame in her time.

Chris Rojek attests that ‘[c]elebrities offer powerful affirmations of belonging, recognition, and meaning in the midst of the lives of their audiences, lives that may otherwise be poignantly experienced as under-performing anti-climactic or sub-clinically depressing.’[45] Margery’s pre-mystic life was certainly no bed of roses. Indeed, the Book opens with an account of Margery’s first pregnancy, a devastating experience which leads to an eight-month mental breakdown:[46] During this period, Margery is beset by demons and diabolical temptations. When all consider her a lost cause, a visitation from Christ – the most potent religious celebrity of all – finally jump-starts her recovery. God has not forsaken her; if Margery devotes herself to Him fully, then all will be well. But how can Margery accomplish this mission, practically speaking? The numerous acclaimed holy women found in the Book function as role-models. These saintly celebs – or the models of faith they embody – offer the much maligned Margery a roadmap to full integration in her society, and ultimately to the recognition of her own sanctity. Margery is an attention-seeking acolyte, a superfan, whose greatest desire is not to be like a saint, but become one herself.

Margery’s breakdown is provoked by her inability to confess a significant long-concealed sin.[47] Thinking she is on the brink of death post-partum, the woman calls for a confessor. The cleric, though, rushes to rebuke Margery, cutting her off mid-flow and thus silencing her. Her transgression remains unshriven, and she fears for her eternal damnation. Diana Jefferies and Debbie Horsfall contend that Margery’s sin is not based in any specific act.[48] Rather, after her traumatic pregnancy she comes to renewed awareness of the original sin that afflicts all humanity, and her status as a ‘daughter of Eve’. In Genesis 3. 16, God instructs Eve on the gendered burden of sin she bears: ‘in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee.’[49] Margery’s labour pains are visceral reminders of her transition from virgin to wife, and all that entails: the loss of both her bodily autonomy and subjective agency.[50] Recognition of these losses propels the holy woman into insanity. In order to move beyond this annihilating relegation to bodiliness and reclaim her sanity, Margery must produce an alternate self-image. She turns to saintly mentors who seem to have redeemed, at least partially, the sinful female body via their religious praxes.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians  season 1 (2007) title card. The Kardashian clan stands assembled on their front lawn, in front of a large house. They look fairly normal and relatable, though they are clearly rich. Source:    The Sun   . The image exudes a sense of family togetherness, as the whole blended family have gathered together and using their best camera poses. They seem nice, if a bit awkward and even dweeby. This is in stark contrast with later seasons' marketing imagery, which oozes unattainable yet deeply seductive power glam. See, e.g. season 14's (2017-18) branding    here   .

Keeping Up With the Kardashians season 1 (2007) title card. The Kardashian clan stands assembled on their front lawn, in front of a large house. They look fairly normal and relatable, though they are clearly rich. Source: The Sun. The image exudes a sense of family togetherness, as the whole blended family have gathered together and using their best camera poses. They seem nice, if a bit awkward and even dweeby. This is in stark contrast with later seasons' marketing imagery, which oozes unattainable yet deeply seductive power glam. See, e.g. season 14's (2017-18) branding here.

Kim Kardashian West’s auto-celebritisation is also rooted in a reclamation of subjectivity in the aftermath of trauma. In February 2007, she faced public humiliation after the leak of a sex-tape, made with the singer Ray J a few years earlier, when the pair were a couple. At this point, Kardashian West was mostly unknown, of interest primarily for her party-going with Paris Hilton and brief romance with boyband star Nick Lachey (of band 98 Degrees; he later married Jessica Simpson) in 2006. Nick La-who? – exactly! The sex-tape, then, was the primary ‘star image’ with which the public interpreted Kardashian West. It materialised her celebrity, or rather notoriety, as a sexual object: a body without a voice, and without a story. Paris Hilton faced the same issue, with her own sex-tape leaking less than a month before the debut of The Simple Life. The tape was certainly a media sensation. However, Hilton used her reality-TV series to offer a counter-narrative, crafting herself as the archetype of the rich dumb blonde. Once more, Kardashian West followed, and refined, Hilton’s example. Five months after the release of her sex-tape, KUWtK hit the air. In the show, Kardashian West comes across as likeable and family-oriented, in diametric opposition to the spoiled and entitled brattiness embodied by Hilton. Crucially, KUWtK allowed Kardashian West to exercise control over the narrative circulating in the sex-tape. The woman having sex in the video is not just a body. She is a woman with a real life, with a real family, and with real emotions. Kempe’s portrayal of Margery hits the same notes: she is not just body, but soul too.

Fig. 3.    Scan of Kardashian West,  Selfish , p. 253: a selfie of Kardashian West in an opulent bathroom in jogging bottoms and a casual bra top. Caption reads: 'I just got home from an Oscar party and put my sweats on.'

Fig. 3. Scan of Kardashian West, Selfish, p. 253: a selfie of Kardashian West in an opulent bathroom in jogging bottoms and a casual bra top. Caption reads: 'I just got home from an Oscar party and put my sweats on.'

In 2015, Kardashian West published the best-selling Selfish, a 448-page monograph composed of selfies taken in the period from 2006 to 2014 (though later editions have included more selfies from 2015-16 too). As with Margery’s Book, Selfish makes visible the celebrity manufacturing process. Megan Garber notes that in reading the book, ‘you see the work that goes into making Kim Kardashian, the person, into Kim Kardashian, the icon.’ [51] Countless selfies capture Kardashian West mid-beautification: in the make-up artist’s chair, or with her hair in rollers. She reveals the dissonance between celebrity ‘reality’ and her normal existence. Kardashian West might walk the Oscars red-carpet as a paragon of glamour, but when she returns home, the gown comes off and comfy sweats rule (Fig. 3).[52] The painstaking effort of maintaining a feminine persona, celebrity or otherwise, is revealed as Kim shows us the before and the after (see e.g. Fig 4.). All that labour pays off though. In 2014, Kardashian West was the second most Googled person worldwide.[53] In 2015, she was the most Googled person in twenty-six countries.[54] The transformation is complete: Kardashian West is a wannabe no more. Why does she succeed, whilst Margery fails?

Fig. 4.    Scan of Kardashian West,  Selfish , pp. 228-29 (top) and pp. 230-31 (bottom): close-up selfies of Kardashian West's face. Pp. 228-29 shows her face covered in strange-looking contouring make-up, captioned "Before". Pp. 231-31 shows her luminous face once the make-up has been fully blended, captioned "After".

Fig. 4. Scan of Kardashian West, Selfish, pp. 228-29 (top) and pp. 230-31 (bottom): close-up selfies of Kardashian West's face. Pp. 228-29 shows her face covered in strange-looking contouring make-up, captioned "Before". Pp. 231-31 shows her luminous face once the make-up has been fully blended, captioned "After".

Christ intimates to Margery four times that she will be the object of a posthumous cult in the Book. These promises are ultimately empty. There is no evidence of a cult in Margery’s memory. Regardless of Marie of Oignies’ example, Margery’s tears could not be assimilated into a successful saintly identity, in the Catholic context at least. The Church of England commemorates Margery in its Calendar of saints on the 9 November, in a relatively recent addition to their liturgy.[55] Margery’s inclusion here, though, is almost a back-handed compliment. A ‘commemoration’ is the lowest form of veneration available for inclusion in the Calendar: a kind of ‘participation trophy’ for the holy woman who – bless her heart – tried so hard, but didn’t actually produce the goods. In 2009, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA also provisionally approved the liturgical commemoration of Richard Rolle (d. 1349), Walter Hilton (d. 1396), and Margery Kempe on 28 September.[56] Even here, Margery finishes last. She is quite literally the hanger-on after the two illustrious male mystics in all official written material about the commemorative day circulated by the Church.

Instead of any significant medieval renown, evidence of any sizeable fan-base for Margery is instead found in modern academic scholarship, particularly in feminist critique from the 1980s onwards.[57] In 1998, Margery earnt an entry into the connotatively titled Who’s Who in Christianity anthology, a veritable star-chart of religious celebs. The last line of Margery’s entry concisely captures the shift in the holy woman’s fortunes: ‘In recent years she has become something of a feminist heroine.’[58] Margery’s Book is so compelling because our wailing heroine fails at – or more charitably ‘struggles with’ –– her objective of securing sanctity. In a personal blogpost, Clarissa W. Atkinson reflects on Margery’s impact in her professional life as a medievalist.[59] Atkinson was on the vanguard of academic feminism, undertaking postgraduate study at a time when women were practically absent from the medievalist canon. With Margery, she finally found ‘a recognizable (and annoying) human being’. Academic interest in Margery is founded on Margery’s relatability: she is a woman scrambling to find her place in a male-dominated world, balancing the competing demands of family, community, and personal passions. Visibility in terms of the discovery of Margery’s Book, and its eventual inclusion in the medievalist canon, equates to representation at a meta-level, as Margery functions as a proxy for women more generally in the field of medievalism.

Still from horror movie  House of Wax  (2005; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), showing Paris Hilton (playing the role of Paige Edwards) crying.

Still from horror movie House of Wax (2005; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), showing Paris Hilton (playing the role of Paige Edwards) crying.

Margery is not (academically) famous because she is (or was) recognised as a saint, a perfected image of (holy) womanhood. Rather, she is a celebrity, at least in medievalist circles, for the messiness of her persistent bids for (holy) fame. Margery has become famous for wanting to be famous. Jeffrey Sconce affirms that Paris Hilton’s ‘reality TV-level’ fame depends on her consistent (and perhaps even knowing) failure at doing something truly celebrity-worthy: ‘her entire persona depends on her signature inability to do or contribute anything productive, making her fame the most pure and tasteful of all.’[60] Similarly, Margery’s incapacity to perform holiness ‘productively’ underpins her enduring presence in the academic media-scape. The mystic’s failure, however, exposes the reality of the hagiographic star-system, the constructed-ness of accepted saintly identities. Katherine J. Lewis suggests that the Book was ‘intended to plug a perceived gap in female English sanctity by providing a saint who was Katherine, Bridget, Mary Magdalene and others all rolled into one – thus providing something for everyone.’[61] Margery (or Kempe’s) suturing together of numerous female saintly identities is a conscious hagiographical move to create a female English ‘multi-saint’. In other words, she is a try-hard, and trying too hard too obviously is the antithesis of celebrity cool. Margery’s behaviours may not be ‘tasteful’, to quote Sconce, but they demonstrate in perhaps the ‘purest’ form the ways in which saints are artificial objects, cobbled together from various narratives and for various ideological motives.[62] As a ‘wannabe’, then, Margery shows us how the ‘real’ stars are made.

Fig. 5   . Moschino Spring/Summer 2015 Barbie iPhone 5 case, shown (l-r) backwards on, sidewards on, front facing. Source:    Moschino.com    (3 single images, here conjoined)

Fig. 5. Moschino Spring/Summer 2015 Barbie iPhone 5 case, shown (l-r) backwards on, sidewards on, front facing. Source: Moschino.com (3 single images, here conjoined)

Fig. 6.    Moschino catwalk collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Blonde model, styled in Barbie-pink demonstrates the baroque-vanity mirror iPhone 5 case. Source:    Tiny Beauty Blog    (cropped).

Fig. 6. Moschino catwalk collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Blonde model, styled in Barbie-pink demonstrates the baroque-vanity mirror iPhone 5 case. Source: Tiny Beauty Blog (cropped).

The genius of Kardashian West is that she reveals the inequity and artificiality of the celebrification process, and leverages this revelation to support her celebrity trajectory. She is the hyperreal of womanhood, existing as mediatised images which reveal the logical end-point of the patriarchally enforced pressure that society places on all women to look and act in certain ways. Kardashian West turns to social media and selfies to chronicle her own navigation of the socio-cultural demands placed on female appearance and comportment. That she may enjoy dressing up or being photographed is not important here, no matter how the tabloids might frame it. What matters is that she consciously shows you the ‘before’ and ‘after’, how celebrity is manufactured. More crucially, this revelation emphasizes the constructed-ness of the image of socially ‘legitimate’ cis-heterosexual Western womanhood itself. Even before she snapped her first selfie, or appeared on any TV, Kardashian West was always already imprisoned in this panoptical woman-ification system, as are all women who must conform – or pay the price – to what society, at a given moment, designates as the appearance and behaviour of ‘real’ and ‘legitimate’ (read: acceptable) womanhood. She has managed to extract value from this system, to play it at its own game: she mediatises herself, and so doing holds up a mirror – or smartphone – to the cameras of patriarchy which adorn the walls of the panopticon in which all women find themselves. This dynamic is materialized in a smartphone case by Moschino, produced for their Barbie-inspired Spring/Summer 2015 collection (Fig. 5).[63] The iPhone 5 case is styled as a baroque hand mirror, replicated in fuchsia-pink plastic, with the traditional mirrored glass replaced by the screen of the user’s smartphone. But the mirrored glass has not been entirely removed: instead, it has been displaced, to the back of the holder. Whenever the user lifts their phone to snap a selfie, a ‘vanity mirror’ on the back of the case reflects those who look at the selfie-taker (Fig. 6). Snapping a selfie means quite literally lifting a mirror to the world around you, making those who would capture you with their gaze confront the trajectory of their own look(s). 

With her appearance on the medievalist scene, Margery gave feminist academics someone to root for, and someone whose life – struggles and all – rang true for them. This is not to say that Margery simplistically reveals enduring truths of womanhood, or not only that. She functions as a focal point for feminist medieval scholars to find ourselves in our field, in our primary sources, and perhaps even in our own lives. Margery’s Book – and its feminist reception – can be read, then, as a productive mirror of our own scholarly and socio-political contexts. Margery – as a mirror – allows us to sculpt our own auto-hagiographies, and ultimately move beyond her Book to bring to light other neglected, difficult, or messy stories from medieval feminist pre-histories.

Wendy Harding affirms that the Book stages ‘an unequal struggle for control of channels of communication’.[64] The illiterate Margery is dependent on oral expression to render her life into narrative.[65] In order to preserve her life story, Margery must give her spoken words, and thus her narrative agency, to an individual who can process her oral account in to text: the cleric Kempe. The mystic ‘cannot write her own script’.[66] Writing permits the elision of Margery’s body (subjectivity), as text conveys meaning ‘without the necessity of bodily contact’.[67] Moreover, in the epistemological hierarchy of the late Middle Ages, textuality is the most authoritative communicative format. Margery’s vocalisations are simply less significant than Kempe’s interpretation of them, and can never be fully represented in text in any case. The holy woman depends entirely on her textual producer to purvey her ‘star image’. In comparison, Kim Kardashian West is in almost complete control of her own celebrity narrative. Reality-TV producers might have first brought her into the public eye, but they no longer run the show. Paris Hilton’s ever-waning fame may, to return to Sconce’s critique, rest upon her ‘signature inability to do or contribute anything productive’.[68] Kardashian West, by contrast, is a digital entrepreneur, whose celebrity springs directly from her industrious and innovative media interventions.

Kardashian West has harnessed the power of social media to disrupt the traditional model of ‘top-down’ celebrity production, in which the star-object is controlled by her producer-creator.[69] She assiduously manages her multiple social media profiles. Kardashian West started the new year (i.e. January 2018) with over 193 million followers across her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts.[70] These social media channels equate to multimedia networks which are completely under Kardashian West’s control. In posts shared directly with her followers, Kardashian West carefully sculpts the particular image of celebrity she wishes to portray. She frequently anticipates content in her reality-TV show, releasing news on her social media channels to control the story, and uses her multiple platforms to refute celebrity gossip. Here, for example, she tweets in anticipation of the broadcast of the KUWtK episode dealing with violent robbery which took place at Paris Fashion Week (October 2016), in which she was held at gunpoint:

Tonight’s episode is going to be very tough for me.[71]

However, I thought it was important to share this story through my eyes & not in an interview where my own words could be twisted.[72]

I have always shared so much & I’m not going to hold back when this was probably one of the most life changing experiences for me.[73]

These tweets emphasise the fact that other narratives circulating around the Parisian incident are not (fully) authentic. The show, then sets the record straight – and contains compellingly raw and authentic footage of Kardashian West. What’s more, the tweets underscore that fans should not necessarily trust any Kardashian-West content not produced by the woman herself.

In her analyses of Margery’s orality, Harding explains that oral communication ‘is not linear but interactive and global’, a means of mediation that nevertheless depends on ‘the body in its entirety.’[74] These characteristics similarly govern social media. Indeed, social media is useful to Kardashian West for precisely these reasons. It allows her to interact with fans across the globe in an informal manner. Moreover, the star’s social media accounts allow her to foreground her subjectivity as an unavoidable part of the Kim-Kardashian-West package. She resists the reduction of her existence to body alone as a female celebrity and sex symbol. Instead, she shows followers her ‘body in its entirety’, complete with her personality, mind, and affect. This representation also serves to heighten for fans that she is authentic above all, and thus supports her broader celebrity identity as a ‘real’ star. Kardashian West is a consummate businesswoman, extraordinarily savvy in the art of auto-celebrification, or put otherwise autohagiography.[75]

Screengrab    from NPR website, with transcript of Kardashian West's episode of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'. Taken 22/01/17. The introductory blurb spotlights Kardashian West's many achievements, with her media enterprise front and centre. She is 'a producer, entrepreneur, designer, model, mom, tabloid magazine life support system - and now a star of public radio.'

Screengrab from NPR website, with transcript of Kardashian West's episode of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'. Taken 22/01/17. The introductory blurb spotlights Kardashian West's many achievements, with her media enterprise front and centre. She is 'a producer, entrepreneur, designer, model, mom, tabloid magazine life support system - and now a star of public radio.'

Nevertheless, Kardashian West’s stardom is not viewed as fully ‘legitimate’ by many. In June 2015, her appearance on the National Public Radio (NPR) show, ‘Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!’ provoked ire in listeners.[76] Hundreds wrote in to complain, with many threatening to cease their NPR sponsorship in response.[77] A complaint from listener Brianna Frazier is indicative of the tenor of the backlash: ‘vapid, talentless, and shallow individuals who have not earned fame or fortune through an ounce of hard work have no place on a show of such caliber’. In religious terms, Kardashian West is a celebrity not via any official canonization, but instead via grass-roots lay devotion. Margery Kempe and Kim Kardashian West’s auto-celebritisation does not have ‘official’ backing – be that a gifted hagiographer or circle of clerical, or indeed cultural, supporters –  and is enacted via non-traditional routes which fundamentally threatens the establishment, be that the Church or broadcast media. As Margery is dismissed as heretical and annoying, Kim is classified as talentless and low-class. Despite her success, Kardashian West’s auto-celebrification is only partially successful. A significant portion of the public resist her disruption of the celebrity machine. But, love her or hate her, they know who Kim Kardashian West is. ‘Famous’ or ‘infamous’, she remains in the spotlight. In much the same way, Margery Kempe is ‘everywhere treated as a miracle, a scandal, a cause celèbre’.[78] She endures as an object of fascination and irritation, both in her own contemporary context and in academic scholarship alike.

If this study of radically visible women has shown anything, it is that being visible is neither a simple nor an easy prospect. Navigating the politics of visibility is fundamentally necessary though, an inescapable part of Kim and Margery’s lived experience(s), the very formation of their subjectivity. You can’t ignore it, you have to confront it: visible or invisible, there’s no escape from the spotlight – it defines even that to which it brings shadow. Visibility is always political, emblematic of agency and oppression by turn. For being visible – being in the spotlight – gets one noticed. I am keenly aware, as I speak these words, of the context in which I speak. I have the profound privilege of giving a plenary paper as an early-career researcher, a heretofore almost unheard of undertaking. But this isn’t the whole story, my whole story (professional or otherwise). My presence here today, having my moment in the spotlight, depends on the work of countless scholars - colleagues, collocutors, collaborators – who are invisible to you all yet should, rightfully, share the stage with me. What’s more, innumerable early career scholars are producing paradigm-exploding work which would make ideal material for a keynote. I am fortunate to have a research fellowship, but one that doesn’t pay – I haven’t been paid for my academic work since last September. This state of affairs is not particularly unusual, at least amongst my group of early-career friends and peers. Making space for early-career researchers on the scholarly stage is a momentous, incredibly laudable, move. Exposure, however, is not enough for the precariat. Increased visibility must lead to increased recognition institutionally, with ECRs being valued for their work and their time, in terms of professional stability and financial remuneration. In a Twitter thread from last December, Lucia Lorenzi cuts to the heart of it:

I see many emerging scholars who are told they are brilliant - that they should apply for PhD programs, postdocs, jobs - but their ‘promise’ becomes a way in which the academy neglects or abuses them.[79]

And all too often, there is no pay-off for all this ‘promise’. However brilliant a marginalized scholar may be, jobs seem to go to the usual suspects: white able-bodied men.[80]

Medieval studies today must reckon with visibility. Like it or not, many people – academics and non-academics alike – simply do not see the value of our research, and do not understand why it should be funded. We must speak from where we are, and who we are. And like it or not, the Middle Ages are being weaponized as fodder for neo-Nazis and white supremacists. This isn’t new, but it is more visible than ever, particularly in the United States of President Donald Trump and in a post- (or mid?) Brexit Britain, ‘little England’ writ large. In her blogpost ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy’ (published 28 August 2017), Dorothy Kim laid out what is at stake for medievalists in our current political environment:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. […] Neutrality may have worked in a distant past when white supremacists/KKK/white nationalists/Nazis were some imagined fringe group, but that is not going to work now. […] So, what are you doing to overtly signal that your medieval studies class is not going to implicitly or explicitly uphold the tenets of white supremacist ideology?[81]

As medievalists, we must work to adopt a politics of engaged public visibility, a strategy of showing ourselves – and our work – to push back firmly and frequently against the rising tide of hate. Becoming visible is not an easy undertaking, nor can every individual adopt this role. Visibility, especially for women and for people of colour, can be dangerous – as shown all too readily in a quick Wikipedia search for ‘Gamergate’, in any cursory perusal of social media and online comments sections, and indeed in the recent harassment faced by Dorothy Kim in response to her blogpost.[82] Those of us with various privilege(s) must stand up and become visible. A comforting – protective – cloak of invisibility is simply not an option for many. Not everyone can pass as the patriarchy’s default, and thus ‘unmarked’, state – cishet, white, able-bodied manhood. We must stand up and be meaningfully present for those, and with those, for whom the fact of visibility is inescapable. We must also protect the right to be invisible, affirming the right to privacy for those who cannot step into the spotlight, for whatever reason. We must also pursue, vigorously and productively, alternate modes of visibility, ways of imagining how visibility is achieved for academics as a component of building professional reputations and scholarly networks. Here, I think particularly of those of us with more or less visible disabilities, with care responsibilities, and with bodies – and lives – which do not, cannot conform to the pressures of academic life: always working, always productive, always visibly so.

I leave you with questions, to which there are no easy answers: How do we make visibility safe, affirmative and genuinely inclusive? How do we support those who are invisible and need to remain so? How do we create a feminist-medievalist politics of visibility? Here are a few final thoughts, Jerry Springer style.[83] We must work to share the spotlight’s glare, at times seductively scintillating and at others harshly penetrating. We must work to diffuse the spotlight’s exceptional beam across the individual and institutional surfaces of our discipline. In short, we must make spectacles of us all, for us all.

'Silence is Invisibility', by Melina Vanni-González. Source:    Flickr.    White wall, flecked with paint, with graffiti in orange and red stating ‘silence is invisibility’. (CC BY-SA 2.0.)

'Silence is Invisibility', by Melina Vanni-González. Source: Flickr. White wall, flecked with paint, with graffiti in orange and red stating ‘silence is invisibility’. (CC BY-SA 2.0.)

' invisibility', by garann. Source:  Flickr.  Bench in garden, with chalkboard back support, with text saying ‘Invisibility 5¢ for 5 minutes’. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

' invisibility', by garann. Source: Flickr. Bench in garden, with chalkboard back support, with text saying ‘Invisibility 5¢ for 5 minutes’. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Notes

[1] ‘Invention’, p. 5.

[2] Here I draw on Jansen’s (n.p.) remarks on Margery Kempe, which I quote later in this piece.

[3] Mulder-Bakker, ‘Laywomen’, p. 5. See also Flory.

[4] Caciola, p. 271.

[5] See in particular: pp. 11-14, 47-52, 167-87.

[6] Meyer, ‘Media’, p. 126.

[7] Ibid., p. 127. On this, see also: ‘Medium’, in which the citation appears verbatim on p. 60.

[8] Lives and Loves, pp. 201-21.

[9] Ibid., p. 203.

[10] This associates hagiography with other medieval media which aim at engendering authentic yet virtual experiences. This includes, for example, guided meditational manuals in the tradition of affective piety which place the reader-cum-seer in the thick of biblical history, such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s De institutione inclusarum and the Meditaciones vite Christi (dubiously ascribed to John of Caulibus). I refer to the latter briefly in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, Chapter 4 (pp.193-94). Virtuality was equally central in medieval pilgrimage guides to, and images of, Jerusalem for the imaginative use of those for whom travel to the holy site in person was impossible. For details and analyses of such works, see: Rudy, ‘Cityscape’; ‘Guide’; ‘Fragments’; Virtual Pilgrimages.

[11] Lives and Loves, p. 215. Mitchell writes extensively on this topic, see in particular: Iconology, pp.7-46; Image Science, pp. 13-21; 125-35.

[12] The phrase ‘star image’ is coined by Dyer, used repeatedly in Stars.

[13] Stars, p. 2.

[14] Although still known a ‘Kim Kardashian’ by many, the star rebranded herself across all media outlets in 2014 as ‘Kardashian West’ following her marriage to rapper Kanye West. As such, I refer to her as ‘Kardashian West’ throughout. On celebrity and ‘ugly crying’, see: Cote.

[15] ‘Kardashian Family Vacation’ (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). On the links between reality-TV tears and medieval crying as confessional expressions of contrition, see: Weisl.

[16] I refer to the Staley edition of the Book for all original citations (as MKB), and the Windeatt’s translation for modern English text (as MKBEng).

[17] See, for example: MKB, 1.13.620-23.40.

[18] Ibid., 1.13.623-73.41-42.

[19] Fictions, p. 3. On this, see also: pp. 1-38.

[20] N.p.

[21] Ibid.

[22] MKBEng, 1.13.63. ‘“I wold thow wer closyd in an hows of ston that ther schuld no man speke wyth the.’” MKB, 1.13.629-30.41.

[23] Comments by YouTube users ‘stiLLa himself’, ‘MUSIC IS MA L!FE!’, and ‘Frank Conrad’ respectively. As of 3 January 2018 (4pm), the video had been viewed 1,260,831 times.

[24] Quotes from comments by ‘Frank Beltra’ and ‘John Roberts’.

[25] Bale, p. 16.

[26] ‘Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe: This woman was Crazy’, n.p.

[27] Dr Virago, n.p. These are comments made by students when encountering Margery in their reading list, reported in a blogpost by a medievalist professor using the pseudonym ‘Dr Virago’. Though technically made by individuals ‘in the academy’, these cutting remarks nevertheless summarize the general critique levelled against Margery in trolling online.

[28] On this, see in particular: Atkinson, ‘Sanctity’, pp. 226-33; Lewis; Staley, Fictions, pp. 171-200; Yoshikawa, pp. 94-104.

[29] The ‘beguine’ classification is problematic generally. I discus this at length in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, pp. 25-37.

[30] Pp. 226-7, 230, 235-41.

[31] Arnold of Liège, ex. 435-36, pp. 246-47. For references to Marie in the fifteenth-century translation, see: Banks (ed.), II, ex. 427, p. 293; ex. 429, p. 294.

[32] MKBEng, 1.62.191-92. ‘And yet owr Lord drow [the scribe] agen in short time, blissed mote he ben, that he lovyd [Margery] mor and trustyd mor to hir wepyng and hir crying than evyr he dede beforn, for aftyrward he red of a woman clepyd Maria de Oegines, […] and of the plentyuows teerys that sche wept, the whech made hir so febyl and so weke that sche myth not endur to beheldyn the crosse, ne heryn owr Lordys Passyon rehersyd, so sche was resolvyd into terys of pyté and compassyon.’ MKB, 1.62.3610-15.149.

[33] MKBEng, 1.68.205. ‘The worschepful doctowr seyd to hir, “Margery, I have red of an holy woman whom God had govyn gret grace of wepyng and crying as he hath don onto yow. In the cherc ther sche dwellyd was a preyste which had no conseyt in hir wepyng and cawsyd hir thorw hys steryng to gon owte of the cherche. […] [S]che mreyd God that the preyst myth have felyng of the grace that sche felt […]. And so sodeynly owr Lord sent hym devocyn at hys messe that he myth not mesuryn himself, and then wolde he no more despisyn hir aftyr that but rathyr comfortyn hir.”’ MKB, 1.68.3925-33.160.

[34] VMOME, 1.5.152-53.93; VMO, 1.1.17.640.

[35] MKB, 1.62.3618-21.149.

[36] VMOME, 1.5.148-49.93; VMO, 1.1.17.640.

[37] Pomarico, n.p. See also: Kardashian, Kardashian, and Kardashian, p. 100.

[38] Kardashian West insists that she was not, in fact, Hilton’s stylist, but the socialite was a client of her eBay-selling and closet-organising business: Kardashian West and Swisher, ‘Interview’.

[39]‘Ro-Day-O vs. Ro-Dee-O’ (S01E01, first aired 2 December 2003), ‘The Nolan Family’ (S04E01, first aired 4 June 2006), ‘The Ghauri Family (S04E02, first aired 11 June 2006), ‘Murrie Family’ (S04E06, first aired 16 July 2009).

[40] For all intents and purposes, this interview has been scrubbed from the internet. It is impossible to pin down exactly when this interview took place, though it coincides with Hilton’s promotional tour for The World According to Paris, which debuted in June 2011. This is clear when examining a short excerpt of the interview posted to Hilton’s YouTube channel, in which she discusses her new series: Paris Hilton - Entertainment Tonight. Hilton’s appearance and the set décor matches the clip of the interview in which Hilton disses Kardashian West. This clip is a much-shared gif online, and the interview remarks are cited in myriad online gossip stories, though without any source identification. See, for example: Flynn; George; Woodward.

[41] Hilton and Zee, n.p..

[42] See, for example: Kourtney & Kim Take Miami, Kourtney & Kim Take New York.

[43] MKBEng, 1.20.83; MKB, 1.20.1089.58.

[44] MKBEng, 1.20.83; MKB, 1.20.1085-86.58.

[45] P. 52.

[46] MKB, 1.1.130-87.21-23.

[47] Ibid., 1.1.142-50.22. This episode is often interpreted as post-partum psychosis or mental illness within a modern framework. See in particular: Craun; Freeman, Bogarad, and Sholomskas; Jefferies and Horsfall, pp. 350-52; Torn.

[48] P. 353.

[49] Douay-Rheims Bible.

[50] McAvoy, pp. 36-37.

[51] N.p.

[52] Kardashian West, Selfish, p. 253. See also the ‘before’ and ‘afters’ selfies: ibid., pp. 228-31.

[53] Google Trends.

[54] McCluskey.

[55] Brother Tristram and Kershaw (eds.), p. 502.

[56] Church Pension Fund, p. 611.

[57] On this, see in particular: Tolhurst.

[58] Cohn-Sherbok (ed.), p. 167.

[59] ‘40 Years’, n.p.

[60] P. 336.

[61] P. 215.

[62] Sconce, p. 336.

[63] ‘Runway Capsule Collection’, n.p.

[64] P. 170.

[65] Ibid., p. 174.

[66] Bynum, p. 41.

[67] Harding, p. 172.

[68] P. 336.

[69] Ingram; Kardashian West and Swisher, ‘Interview’, ‘Naked Selfies’; Kirst.

[70] As of 3 January 2018, Kardashian West had: 58 million followers on Twitter; 105 million followers on Instagram; and 30.1 million followers on Facebook.

[71] Kardashian West, ‘Tonight’s episode’.

[72] Kardashian West, ‘However’.

[73] Kardashian West, ‘I have always shared’.

[74] P. 172.

[75] On celebrity as a business, see Kardashian, Kardashian, and Kardashian, pp. 131-39, 213-19.

[76] Pesca et al. This is a typical reaction to Kardashian West’s appearance in ‘series’ media. See, for example: Gannes.

[77] Jensen, n.p.

[78] Watson, p. 396.

[79] Lorenzi, ‘I see many’. The whole thread is worth reading on this topic: ‘Sitting here’.

[80] Lorenzi, ‘Because I’ve seen’.

[81] N.p.

[82] For a summary of the vitriolic – and abhorrent – backlash Kim has received after posting the piece, see: Roll; Xu.

[83] Jerry Springer devotes the closing minutes of his massively successful talk show, The Jerry Springer Show, to his ‘final thoughts’ on a given topic. Or at least he did, when I was a regular watcher in my misspent youth, i.e. the early 2000s. Contrasted with the typical trashy, tabloid banality of an episode, these final remarks allowed Jerry to deliver some home-spun wisdom, roughly centred on lessons learnt from his guests.

Pre-modern Primary Sources

Aelred of Rivaulx, De institutione inclusarum, ed. by C. H. Talbot, in Aelredi Rievallensis Opera Omnia, 7 vols (Turnhout: Brepols, 1971-2017), I, pp. 637-82

Arnold of Liège, Alphabetum narrationum, ed. by Colette Ribaucourt and Elisa Brilli, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 160 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015)

Banks, Mary Macleod, ed., An Alphabet of Tales: An English 15th Century Translation of the ‘Alphabetum Narrationum’ of Étienne de Besançon, from Additional Ms. 25,719 of the British Museum. 2 vols, Early English Texts Society 126-27 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1904-1905)

Jacques of Vitry, De B. Maria Oigniacensi in Namurcensi Belgii dioecesi, ed. by Daniel Papebroeck, in AASS, June IV (23) (1707 (repr. 1969)), 636-66

———, ‘The Middle English Life of Marie d’Oignies’, in Three Women of Liège: A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d’Oignies, ed. by Jennifer N. Brown (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), pp. 85-190

John of Caulibus (?), Meditaciones vite Christi olim S. Bonaventurae attributae, ed. by C. Mary Stallings-Taney, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 153 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997)

Société des Bollandistes, ed., Acta Sanctorum quotquot toto orbe coluntur vel a catholicis scriptoribus celebrantur, 68 vols (Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Tongerloo: various publishers, 1643-1940; 4th repr. Brussels: Impression Anastaltique Culture et Civilisation, 1965-1971)

Staley, Lynn, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe, TEAMS Middle English Texts (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996)

Windeatt, Barry, trans., The Book of Margery Kempe (London: Penguin, 1985)

Secondary Sources

Atkinson, Clarissa W., ‘Female Sanctity in the Late Middle Ages’, in The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism, ed. by Lynn Staley (New York: Norton, 2001), pp. 225-36

———, ‘“This Creature”: 40 Years of Margery Kempe’, Oldest Vocation (24 February 2015) <https://oldestvocation.wordpress.com/2015/02/24/this-creature-40-years-of-margery-kempe/> [accessed 27 May 2016]

Bale, Anthony, ‘Woman in White: Why Margery Kempe Divides Modern Readers as Much as She Did Her Medieval Audience’, Times Literary Supplement, 19 December 2014, pp. 16-17

Brother Tristram, SSF, and Simon Kershaw, eds., Exciting Holiness: Collects and Readings for the Festivals and Lesser Festivals of the Calendars of the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Church in Wales. 3rd edn (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1997 (repr. 2007))

Bynum, Caroline Walker, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991)

Caciola, Nancy, ‘Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 42.2 (2000), 268-306

Church Pension Fund, Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. Conforming to General Convention 2009 (New York: Church Publishing, 2010)

Cohn-Sherbok, Lavinia, ed., Who’s Who in Christianity (London: Routledge, 1998)

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Abbreviations

AASS: Société des Bollandistes, ed., Acta Sanctorum quotquot toto orbe coluntur vel a catholicis scriptoribus celebrantur, 68 vols (Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Tongerloo: various publishers, 1643-1940; 4th repr. Brussels: Impression Anastaltique Culture et Civilisation, 1965-1971)

KUWtK: Keeping Up With the Kardashians, created by Ryan Seacrest and Eliot Goldberg (prod. by Bunim-Murray Productions and Ryan Seacrest Productions, 2007-present)

MKB: Staley, Lynn, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe, TEAMS Middle English Texts (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996)

MKBEng: Windeatt, Barry, trans., The Book of Margery Kempe (London: Penguin, 1985)

VMO: Jacques of Vitry, De B. Maria Oigniacensi in Namurcensi Belgii dioecesi, ed. by Daniel Papebroeck, in AASS, June IV (23) (1707 (repr. 1969)), 636-66

VMOME: Jacques of Vitry, ‘The Middle English Life of Marie d’Oignies’, in Three Women of Liège: A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d’Oignies, ed. by Jennifer N. Brown (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), pp. 85-190

Edited 03/12/18 to fix a typo.

Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility - Keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference 2018

I have the distinct honour of giving a plenary paper at the 2018 Gender and Medieval Studies conference (GMS) (8-10 January 2018). This will be the first year that this long-running conference has included a plenary from an early-career researcher, and I am delighted/thrilled/terrified to have been invited for the inaugural slot. My paper, entitled 'Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility', presents key arguments from my first book, in particular the Introduction and Chapter 3. Handy reminder: see my earlier blogpost to find out how you can download a .pdf of the full Introduction for free, and to snag a voucher code for 20% off the listed price of my book (valid till 1 February 2018).

In my GMS talk, I first sketch the theoretical foundations for my consideration of hagiography as media, setting out my terms of engagement. Then, I discuss in depth the ways in which the politics of visibility are central in the creation, consumption, and lived experience of female identities. In particular, I bring the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century celebrity icon Kim Kardashian West into dialogue, analysing the ways in which the pair attempt to self-produce 'acceptable' exceptional identities in their respective contexts. Finally, I discuss the role of visibility in the academy today - for early career researchers, and for medievalists more generally. Flicking through the slide deck below should give you a feel for the material. I look forward to seeing all those who can make it in Oxford!   

CfP: Sponsored Panel on “Gendered Experiences of Pain” at International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo (MI, USA), 2017

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.

Panel title: “Everybody’s (Gender) Hurts: Gendered Experiences of Pain”
 

Sponsored by: Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship
Conference: International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, (MI, USA), 11-14 May, 2017

"Pain has a face..." by duncan c. Via  Flickr

"Pain has a face..." by duncan c. Via Flickr

Following Elaine Scarry’s (1985) seminal work The Body in Pain, researchers from various disciplines have productively studied pain as a physical phenomenon with wide-ranging emotional and socio-cultural effects (e.g. Boddice 2014; Cohen et al 2012; Davies 2014; Morris 1991; Moscoso 2012).  Academics and scientist-clinicians have demonstrated that the experience of pain is highly gendered (see e.g. Bendelow 1993; Bernardes et al 2014; Hoffmann and Tarzian 2001). For example, the severity of women’s pain is often less readily accepted by medics. Women in pain are more likely to be dismissed as attention-seeking or suffering from psycho-somatic conditions than men. Painful conditions that affect many women, such as endometriosis, are woefully under-studied. 

Medievalists have also analysed pain, including its’ gendered dimension, elucidating a specifically medieval construction of physical distress (see e.g. Cohen 1995, 2000, 2010; Easton 2002; Mills 2005; Mowbray, 2009). In particular, Caroline Walker Bynum’s ground-breaking feminist scholarship (see e.g. 1988, 1992) has shown the specific ways in which medieval holy women harnessed ascetic suffering as forms of empowering worship praxes. 

"Pain" by Kasia Ferguson. Via  Flickr

"Pain" by Kasia Ferguson. Via Flickr

This panel will examine the gendered experience of pain in the medieval period, engaging with, and moving beyond, the limited context of holy women established by Bynum. It will dissect the ways in which men and women experienced -- or were understood to experience -- pain differerently, to elucidate the wider framework of gender-specific suffering in the period. The subjective experiences of medieval men and women in pain will be unearthed, allowing their marginalised voices to add context and further urgency to contemporary debates about inadequate medical care for modern men and women in pain. 

 

Relevant questions for this session include: 

  • How are the pains of  “women’s complaints” -- including menstruation and childbirth -- depicted, and understood in the medieval era? Are other forms of physical discomfort coded as predominantly feminine - even if they have no direct biological link to womanhood? Are there similar “male” forms of pain?
  • How are men and women socialised differently to understand, to contextualise, and ultimately to experience their pain? How do men and women express their pain? And share their pain with those around them? Are specific patterns of lexis, imagery, or metaphor routinely used by either men and women, or both?
  • What differences can we observe between the ways in which men and women in pain are treated by medical practitioners, the religious community, and their families? What was the contemporary rationale for classifying and treating men and women’s pain differently?
  • As a counterpoint: what similarities are there in the treatment of pain for men and women? Does the pain experience ever unite suffering men and women as a cohesive group, a group in which pain -- and not gender -- is the most important identity marker? 
"pain" by Chris Frewin. Via  Flickr

"pain" by Chris Frewin. Via Flickr

If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit the following documents to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] qmul.ac.uk), by 15 September 2016:

  1. One-page abstract
  2. Completed Participant Information Form (downloadable in .pdf and Word format from the Conference website).

 

N.B. Conference regulations stipulate that speakers may only present on one panel each year at Kalamazoo. As such, we cannot consider papers from individuals who have already submitted abstract proposals to other sessions at the conference. Nevertheless, if a paper submission is not selected for the “Gendered Experiences of Pain” panel, we will forward the submission to the Conference organisers for potential inclusion in a General Session.

Bingo Players - "Knock You Out": Electro-House and Domestic Violence

I do not got to a fancy gym. If my gym were an airline, it would be EasyJet. It costs £30 to check in your first bag for an EasyJet flight. Everything is virulently, vehemently orange. I assume management is going for "cheap and cheerful"; in my family, the airline is known as "SleazyJet". There is a website dedicated to customer venting of EasyJet rage, including a shared safe space of forums to tell your story. Like an online support group. One is not an EasyJet customer, one is an EasyJet survivor. But, the problem remains that we all go back, because EasyJet does enough - it gets us cheaply (sometimes suspiciously cheaply) out of our Fair Isles and off to sunny lands afar. And so it is with my gym, cheap as chips with loads of cardio machines and tons of free weights, seemingly open forever and providing fresh water from the taps in the loo. I am particularly fond of the fact that the taps are mismatched, at least in the ladies' bathroom. "What more do you want, people? We fixed the sodding tap, now you want it to match the others? Spoiled urban hipster types, jog on. You don't even know you were born."

      Obviously, my gym does not pay for premium entertainment services in the facility. There are a couple of LCD screens in each room which show a mish-mash of ads, tube service updates, and music videos that are usually either a) minimally 7 years old; b) featuring nobody you've ever heard of before. So it was the other day, when I looked up from the elliptical (low impact cardio for the win!) and feasted my eyes on the video below, "Knock You Out" by Bingo Players.. No-frills music-tainment is sometimes most useful! You find stuff you'd never see before! As you're a captive audience until you finish your work-out, the mind tends to over analysis of the video imagery and tropes!  Before I launch into the fruits of such over-analyses, I must offer a trigger warning: the video contains scenes of domestic violence, so please bear this in mind before you choose to view it. 

     What intrigued me about the video was how it upturned my expectations pretty effectively. At the beginning, we see a lone pretty waifish woman, sporting injuries to her face typical of a beating. She looks both deeply pensive, and - frankly - somewhat broken inside. I literally sighed out loud when I first saw the opening. Great, more woman-as-victim imagery. She just needs to listen to an upbeat empowerment electro song and she will reclaim her subjectivity and escape her violent partner! The woman passes some older men loitering by a doorway, and one in particular lasciviously eats an orange: the stage is set for creepy male objectification. Again, I sighed. But then: we see the woman without her facial injuries, in a changing room, with a serious "I've had e-fucking-nough" face filled with weary despair. A man with a red cap, out of focus, hovers in the margins of several shots. Remember him, he's important. Cutting again to the exterior, the woman shakes hands with Creepy-Orange-Man, and pow - evidence of her beating is back. Later in the video, though, it turns out this dude is not-super-creep. He is, in fact, a boxing trainer, and trains her in the ring so she develops her own pugilistic skills.

      Distaste for and fear of the Creepy-Orange-Man is initially guided more or less explicitly by the video, and then an alternate perspective on him is provided. To me, this initial fear/suspicious response to him mirrors the standard operating procedure many women must take when inhabiting public spaces. Male violence against women is a fact of life in patriarchal society, and women must deal with this reality, often safeguarding themselves with practices and modes of behaviour to avoid becoming victimised. The safest course of action is to interpret Creepy-Orange-Man as, well, creepy. The reveal later in the video, though, that he is a somewhat paternal, supportive coach figure muddies the waters. The 2012-2013 Crime Survey for England and Wales reports that 45% of female murder victims in the UK are killed by their partners or ex-partners. That is to say: creepy male strangers are certainly not the only or primary threat to women's safety. Intimate partners can also be significantly dangerous, as the video demonstrates with the woman's abusive partner, revealed as Red-Cap-Man. So, does the viewer need to rethink their negative judgment of Creepy-Orange-Man, and focus our contempt on the woman's abusive partner? I don't think so. For me, the two characterisations of the man uncomfortably co-exist side by side: he is both creepy and potentially dangerous in the one instance, and then warm and supportive in the other. He is not a caricature of masculine evil, a black-and-white case of Abusive Man. Instead, we see his potential for taking up - and acting on - this abusive identity. And then we see his potential for behaving with compassion and respect towards a woman. The problem is in judging - accurately - which identity this man is inhabiting in a particular moment for the woman with whom he makes contact. This is a problem a woman may face in almost all environments, and in all areas of their life - not just out in public, but potentially at home too. 

      The interleaving of images of the woman with and without injuries continues throughout the video. It subverts linear narrative, and challenges the reader to unravel the woman's circumstances. What happened to her? What is her story? Are we seeing three periods of her life: 1) pre-beating (no injuries); 2) immediate aftermath of beating (injuries); 3) after injuries have healed, in next phase of her life? Or just 1) and 2)? Such interleaving also leads the viewer - or at least this viewer - down several different narrative alleys. For example, we see the woman (not injured) running on a treadmill, posters of boxing stars pasted all over her walls. So: the injuries on her face are from the ring, right? Her facial wounds are a sign of her reclamation of (female) power, not victimisation from a partner. Yet, no. Next, we see the woman (uninjured) fighting with Red-Cap-Man (the one hovering in the margins earlier), who is now revealed as her abusive partner. His vicious beating is inter-cut with images of her training in the boxing ring, where Creepy-Orange-Man is shown as a supportive and encouraging figure. She strides out of the gym to meet a long-haired man, Jason, who carries her bag for her - a sign of his respect for her, and general nice-ness. As the pair walk down the street, she pointedly stares at Red-Cap-Man who looms hazily in the right of the shot. He fades away: he is a specter of her psyche, one who she defeats by assuming her own power both in the ring and out of it. With this final image of Red-Cap-Man, we can perhaps re-read his appearances earlier on in the video: abusive partners do not just inflict visible wounds with beatings, but colonise the internal landscape of those whom they terrorise, becoming ever-present ghostly figures of control and oppression in the women's lives. Emotional abuse is a component of domestic violence, and is equally damaging. (For an excellent accessible overview of domestic violence patterns, see the first chapter of Harne and Radford's 2008 Tackling Domestic Violence, available as a .pdf here.) Ultimately, the video does not provide the viewer with an easy-to-grasp and coherent conclusion. Yes, the long-haired Jason is shown to be thoughtful and nice, but...so what? If Creepy-Orange-Man could turn into Supportive-Coach, what's to say that Jason doesn't end up as another abusive partner? The fact that the woman can now box? Hmmm. Why does her "happy ending" have to feature another romantic partner? Can't she just be kick-ass and strong in her own right?

       Looking at the circumstances of the song's creation does not offer up any definitive reading of the song either. Bingo Players are  a Dutch electro house / dance DJ outfit, going since 2006, and with a bona fide #1 UK single in 2012 with "Get Up (Rattle)" (feat. Far East Movement). The band started out as a two piece, with Maarten Hoogstraten and Paul Bäumer collaborating on tracks. After Bäumer died from cancer in 2013, Hoogstraten decided to keep going with the project solo, a proposition Bäumer actively advocated prior to his death . I mention this not to inject some tragedy rubbernecking into this post, but because Hoogstraten himself characterises "Knock You Down" as a song which conveys his own struggle with grief:  

“It’s all about overcoming struggles and emotional challenges, it really reflects [where I am] right now,” he says. “When I play it, it’s spot on. I could write those lyrics myself.”

It was the last song the pair worked on together, and operates in some ways as a means for Hoogstraten to preserve an emotional link with his dear friend, particularly through witnessing the fan's enthusiastic reaction to the track the duo crafted together. Hoogstraten is clear that the lyrics to "Knock You Out" can "be interpreted in many ways". Indeed, the music press lights on the song's lyrics as a metaphor for Bäumer's struggle with cancer (see, e.g. this article in Dance Music Northwest).

      The track's success is arguably due to this plethora of possible interpretations offered in the allusive lyrics. They speak elliptically to a kind of personal empowerment and triumph against adversity that listeners can apply to almost any situation(s):

My fight is won / Who needs a gun / Boom boom knock you out / You knocked me down / But who's laughing now / Boom boom knock you out / [...] /
You pick on the weak / Your twisted tongue speaks / All the fears you hide / The fear inside / You think I don't see / You're not talking to me / I'm the mirror, the knife / The fear inside /
But I get stronger everyday / One wrong will be all it takes / My power's fed by your hate / One wrong will be all it takes / [...] /
And the bully's best friend / Is the poison pen / But you can't touch me / While you sit at home / Plan attacks all alone / You try to phase me / [...]

The lyrics were penned by a woman, Australian singer-songwriter Sia. Produced in advance of the rest of the track, they formed the kernel around which Bingo Players created the soundscape. The song's power is at least in part due to the great vocal performance of female singer Kim Viera, who is not credited overtly (i.e. in the official artist slot) and does not feature in the video.  I'm not sure what to make of all this. It feels as if there is both female erasure and over-emphasis going on here.  The male DJ behind the song, under whose moniker it officially circulates, views the track as offering a generalist empowerment message, and for him speaks to grieving over the loss of a male friend. The song's video directly spotlights violence against women, but the track-as-media-artefact renders Sia and Kim Viera basically invisible. Sure, Sia is credited on liner notes and receives royalties for the song - but the average radio listener or YouTube viewer does not know that. Same again for Kim Viera. Why the choice to depict gendered violence? Did Bingo Players consult with Sia on this choice? Does the video then reflect her intended lyrical thrust? Is it conscious-raising for some viewers - an important move to show the horrific realities that many women experience? Or does it slimily trade in such intimate violence, using it as a quasi-titillating hook to attract attention? I am undecided personally. It is an imperfect narrative, as all narratives are wont to be. The woman overcomes her abuser and stakes out her own claim to power through boxing. But why should she have to take up boxing in order to do this? Why does she have to find another - nicer - man to partner up with at the end? Why does her trainer have to be a previously-creepy-dude, and not, say another woman with no baggage attached? All these questions and more remain unanswered. 

 

Outsource Your Emotional Labour with Amy Schumer's Listen Alert!

I proselytised about recent online conversations on "emotional labour" in my last Internet Bibliography. In the face of overwhelming demands from friends and family to be listened to (supportively, pre-reflexively, ad nauseum), Amy Schumer once more rides in on her bright white steed to fix the problem, by presenting to us the fabulous Listen Alert service. Users in desperate need of a kindly, attentive ear simply press on the Listen Alert panic button - ever accessible on a lanyard round your neck - and are connected with support staff willing to do the dirty work of emotional labour, i.e. listen to you whilst effacing their own needs/desires in the moment. As one Listen Alert tech says: "Just stay calm and tell me your story."

        Schumer-the-saleswoman has to point out that "Listen Alert is not just for women", which flags the fact that men might pre-emptively feel excluded from the target customer base. After all, men don't need to (pay to) be listened to amirite? In the "ad", when one man is ignored by his date at dinner, he pours his heart out to Listen Alert's Katie - who listens, completely engaged, to his comments about his fluctuating weight and ever-increasing height in college. She reveals her investment in his remarks when she, in a natural and deft conversational move, asks "but what size shoes did you wear?!" What strikes me, though, is that this interlude seems entirely normative - a woman responding sensitively and in a validating manner to a man discussing his life experiences.  By contrast, I am blown away by Geoff, one of the male Listen Alert call-centre techs, who starts one conversation with "[t]ell me everything - don't leave out your feelings." This dead-pan depiction of a "manly" (not overtly non-hetero, bearded) man digging in to emotional labour with gusto seems fairly radical. Of course, Geoff and all the Listen Alert techs get paid for this service, which runs to $100, 000 per month per user. And cheap at the cost, I crow! 

        Emotional labour is a necessary service in relationships - it is the assemblage of behaviours that bind us together. When all parties in a relationship commit to taking on the assorted tasks of emotional labour - made in the measure of what each party specifically needs or wants - things are fine and dandy. A barter or trade economy of sorts is in operation which keeps everyone feeling that things are more or less in balance. And, yet, so often women are almost exclusively loaded with emotional labour. Socio-cultural mores suggest that women not only take on more of this service work, but that men are not tasked with giving back in kind. Women from an early age are schooled - overtly or implicitly - on how to perform such emotional labour, and it often makes up a significant portion of the performance of femininity. Like Listen Alert techs, women are (supposed to be) "trained operators" in the business of emotional service work. Men, in comparison, are often instructed that doing emotional labour makes them less masculine. Once more, nobody wins under patriarchy, people. Emotional labour has to be monetised in the Schumer-verse, because it is not performed in an egalitarian or reciprocal manner. Talking more generally about emotional labour, Metafilter user Rangi points out, "in a healthy relationship, this kind of labor wouldn't have to be monetized because it would be reciprocal". Emotional labour should not need to be monetised necessarily, but it certainly does come at a cost to the labourer in question: time, energy, effort, emotional bandwidth, and so on and on. Emotional labout is not "free". By positioning emotional labour squarely within the capitalist service economy, Listen Alert conjures up - if only spectrally - the "lost wages" of so many emotional labourers. 

Some Thoughts on #s406 at #IMC2015 - Medievalists, Public Engagement & Budgy Smugglers

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

Last week, I was at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. It’s one of the foremost conferences on all things medieval, with thousands of scholars in attendance. One of the best things about such big area-specific shindigs is the variety of panels on offer: not just research-focussed stuff, but also organised discussions about the business of academia, how to be a medievalist going forward. On the first day of the conference , I went to a round table (session #406) on the role of public engagement – or “public intellectualism” – for medievalists. It’s a topic I’m obviously interested in – after all, you’re reading this on my medieval-monikered blog, and I tweet fairly regularly these days. The panel gave me a lot of food for thought, and I’ve been pecking out some thoughts over the past few days.

            Firstly, let me say that the speakers - Matthew Gabriele, Andrew James Johnston, and Erik Kwakkel – had a lot of useful, practical counsel to offer. I live-tweeted what I consider to be their key soundbites, so check out my feed from if you’re interested in my perspective, or check out the Storify of tweets about the panel curated by Peter Konieczny, editor of Medievalists.net. All three speakers are “public intellectuals” in various ways (and in different geographical contexts), and outlined their own approaches to entering into dialogue with non-specialist audiences, whether in print, online, or radio. What I want to blog about today is a brief run-down of the speakers’ insights, alongside some fairly problematic issues brought to light in our discussions about the troublesome us/them nature of public engagement, and by the make-up of the panel itself (three well-established white male academics).

            Gabriele urged us to consider the existing publics that we all have, including colleagues and readers of articles. All research, when published, is “public” – thus we are all, already, “public intellectuals”. Instead of trying to link contemporary news to anything and everything medieval, Gabriele advocated that we stick to talking about what we are really passionate about in the medieval universe, and then connect that to relevant modern events. His research centres on unpacking the relationship between religion and violence in the Middle Ages, and the cultural role of nostalgia and memory – themes clearly resonant with recent debates in the US about the deeply problematic Confederate flag. I also appreciated his explanation of his rationale to become more public-focussed. Gabriele is based at Virginia Tech, and after the heinous massacre there in 2007, he felt compelled to step up and refute any claims of “medieval” culture supporting contemporary violent, racist ideologies. As experts in our field, we have an ethical responsibility to push back against those trying to manipulate a spurious fantasy of the “Middle Ages” to bolster their own destructive urges. Indeed, Dorothy Kim raised this point well in the Q&A session after the talks proper. 

         If memory serves correctly, Kim was responding to some enervating – but ultimately useful, I concede – remarks from Johnston. Johnston raised my hackles a bit when he prodded the audience to question if medievalists really have anything to offer to contemporary public discourse anyhow. For him, the question is not how to become a (better) public medievalist, but whether to be one in the first place. My internal response: “YES OF COURSE WE SODDING WELL SHOULD!” Nevertheless, the hackle-raising was – and is – productive. This is a question of massive significance, and a means to situate oneself personally within the discipline. I became irritated because I so stridently believe that we have a duty to share research with our varied and dynamic publics and to learn from them as much as we purport to relay gems of medieval relevance. And the vehemence of my internal shouty voice needs to be matched by a willingness to do the damn work of engaging cogently, efficiently and non-patronisingly with those outside of our lovely academic echo chambers. There’s certainly more work needed on this, not least from myself. I’m inspired by vocal members of the audience who pointed out the need for academics to engage with audiences not normally tapped by intellectuals as potential readership. The ensuing debate amongst attendees highlighted class issues to do with the ways in which “public academics” define their target audience(s), who we deem “worthy” of “our” knowledge, and the entrenched power dynamics at play. See, for example, the following tweets:

 

            Kwakkel had a slick series of slides, which showed off his digital chops very well, including lots of hard data about his impact in the wider world – follower numbers, clicks, page impression and the like. Indeed, Kwakkel has over thirteen thousand Twitter followers, and a well-respected popular blog about medieval books. He underscored the need to be strategic about engagement online. Figure out your curated persona – who you want to be in the digital world, what you want to comment on, and to whom you want to speak. Give it time, up to a year of blogging and/or tweeting, and then reassess how your energies are paying off (or not), to evolve your plan of digital attack. Think clearly about making your stuff accessible and enticing: that means flashy pictures, a “sexy” hook, and no-faff explanations of key jargon. Entering into conversations with non-experts does not mean you need to dilute your intellectual content, but present it in more transparent and welcoming terms. In response to attendees’ questioning the ways in which a “public medievalist” might talk to audience(s) not traditionally accessed by, say, an academic-ish blog on medieval stuff, Kwakkel noted that there is a “trickle down” effect, i.e. journal content (hardcore intellectual work) migrates downwards, via blogs, vlogs, radio, and the like, to tabloid fare (the fluffiest version of research findings). I think this top/down hierarchy - stated by Kwakkel as an objective, monolithic system, is actually pretty harmful and utterly subjective to boot:

 

Helen Young also pointed out, quite rightly, that this model is out-dated:

 

            Johnston professed a dislike, or at the very least unease, with the term “public intellectual” himself. (And he maintains he will never have a Twitter account, hence lack of a hyperlink for his name.) He writes fairly regularly for a liberal left-wing newspaper in Germany, and features on radio programmes about almost all things British. He “smuggle[s] the medieval” in to a wide swathe of topics that he is asked to comment upon, thereby flagging the period to the public whenever possible. For example, the recent christening of Princess Charlotte can be parlayed into a conversation about medieval dynastic politics, inheritance, kingship and so forth. The word “smuggle” set off all manner of odd lightning bolts of association for me:

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via  Flickr .

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via Flickr.

  1. Enid Blyton-esque tales of bearded smugglers lugging booty in from every Cornish cove.
  2. Muggles, the non-magickals of the Harry Potter universe.
  3. Budgy smugglers, Australian slang for ultra-tight men’s swimming briefs, suggesting that the wearer has some form of small bird shoved down the crotch – for some examples (sans hunky wearer), see here.

Somehow, I think all three of these admittedly random associative pings flesh out my thoughts on the panel more generally. Bear with me.

  1. I have extraordinarily limited knowledge of the historical and contextual facts of Cornish smuggling enterprises. Literally all I know is taken from Enid Blyton or dodgy Sunday afternoon black and white films. However, what occurs to me in these kinds of narratives is that the smugglers’ contraband tends to contribute fairly significantly to the local community. For example, smugglers might bring in goods for the black market, or simply introduce more money into circulation so the small local economy keeps going. That is to say that the medieval booty we, as “public intellectuals”, "smuggle" actually has real consequences for our localities, and has valuable impact.
  2. Muggles are the “not-haves” and the “them” to the all-powerful magic “us” of Hogwarts alums. The vibrant and dynamic world of magic has to be hidden from the Muggles at all costs – otherwise, they’d ruin it, destroy it, or just completely freak out. Much of the discourse about “public intellectuals” posits a similar dynamic between “us” medievalist know-it-alls and “them”, the befuddled ignorant masses. We can’t really show them what we do, because they just won’t get it – or they’ll somehow break it.
  3. As an item of apparel, budgy smugglers are technically donned to cover up the genitals. But, of course, a swatch of tight tight Lycra does little to shield our eyes – and sensibilities – from the “horror” of the male anatomy. Instead, it draws our attention to it, like a giant neon sign saying “ahoy matey, here’s a penis!” The round table, for me, basically smuggled the budgy of gendered and racial privilege when operating in public spaces as a professional academic. Basically, the manner in which the panel did not meaningfully – if at all – address the significant and specific challenges to public engagement faced by those not represented on the panel, i.e. non-male non-white individuals, the more glaringly obvious the problem of representation and the effect of various kinds of privilege became.
You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

            For most of #s406, I couldn’t help metaphorically staring at the deeply gendered budgy before me, being uncomfortably covered up by calls for “making your research accessible” and “just getting out there”.  “Getting out there” professionally online and in public spaces is demonstrably harder for women and people of colour. I am acutely conscious as I write this that I operate in the world as a white cisgender heterosexual subject, with all the privileges this position entails. I cannot speak for the experiences of those without my intersecting privileges; I can listen attentively, educate myself, and act as a strident ally. What I can speak to is inhabiting a female body, and the evidence of misogyny as standard in the patriarchal framework. For example, witness the harassment female Guardian writers recount in this video:

Or what about Gamergate - the rampant misogynist attacks on game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, and feminist video-game scholar Anita Sarkeesian? I do not want to be doxxed, stalked, threatened with rape or murder, or subject to torrents of abuse simply for doing my professional business of medievalism online. How do we address that as academics? As people? How do we protect ourselves? But also push back against such vileness too? These topics were apparently pretty much taboo in #s406.

            One of the principal aims of the session, presumably, was to encourage academics to foray outside of traditional institutional spaces, i.e. for members of the audience to be inspired to identify in some way with the speakers and move to emulate their public engagement. Yet, #s406 was a #manel – and an all-white #manel, at that. The vast majority of the audience were not represented by those at the speakers’ table and could not smuggle any budgies, i.e. were non-white and/or non-male. Granted, there was a female moderator, Sanne Frequin, and a female academic, Alice Johnston, had been slated to speak, but had to withdraw at the last minute. So it was not designed to be an all-white-male affair, but voila, that’s what we got. Speaking first, Gabriele started the shebang off well, noting his experiences online/in public were inevitably shaped by his intersecting privileges as a Caucasian cisgender heterosexual man. I was impressed, anticipating more dissection of practical approaches to challenges faced by academics of different identities, perhaps in the Q&A. Alas, this was not to be the case.

            An audience member, Rachel Moss, asked the million dollar question. To paraphrase: how do we do “public medievalism” successfully – and safely – if we don’t look like the speakers? Ross was seemingly ignored; the question went unanswered. A short while later, the question was asked again by Courtney Barajas:

The moderator, Frequin, shut the question down, commenting that the purpose of the session was not to “harass” the presenters. This was unfortunate and deeply frustrating. I don’t think the questions posed were harassing or argumentative at all, though the issue is difficult certainly. I can’t definitively speak for the audience as a whole, but for what it’s worth, I do not believe that we expected any “perfect” answers, nor any kind of apology by the presenters themselves for the iniquities of privilege, representation and public response. I think, mainly, we wanted an acknowledgement of this patently obvious issue, and some discussion as to what to do about it. I certainly did. Some of us expressed our frustration on Twitter:

            Audience members, myself included, had been live-tweeting the session, and our tweeting ramped up in response to the session’s swerve around the representation question. From shortly after 7 pm, #s406 was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter in the UK:

This surge in hashtag usage represents one of the wins of the session overall for me: passionate and informed analysis of the very real challenges of public engagement for some; the sharing of perspectives and personal responses; the coalescing of a supportive community. Through interaction with #medievaltwitter online – both those in the room with me, and those geographically dislocated – I felt seen and heard. In response to a lack of models with which I could identify and the panel’s frustrating silence, I found a whole host of online companions who just, well, got it – and get it on an ongoing basis. To loop back to the session’s topic: it is because of a set of active “public medievalists” that I feel more represented in the academy, that I feel seen, heard and felt as a female academic. This is invaluable work.

Bonus: to sign a pledge promising to actively avoid participating in #manels, click here. My thanks to Dorothy Kim, who tweeted about the pledge.

[Edited on 15/07/15 to fix some typos and nonsensical overuse of "problematic" in one sentence.]