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Monday, 30 October 2017

Writing an undergraduate dissertation on comic representations of unruly women in film

According to a great deal of literature on comedy, film, and gender within these two topics, comedy is a skill attributed to men, and not women. As a film lover, and a feminist, I thought such statements were ridiculous, and thankfully so did my CMC dissertation supervisor Dr Hannah Yelin, as well as a few excellent authors such as Kathleen Rowe of The Unruly Woman (1995). In this book, Rowe discussed the idea of the ‘unruly woman’ in comedy with theories surrounding excess, the public sphere, and the subversion of patriarchal norms through women’s comedy. This book became the groundwork for my third year dissertation, aiding the development of my question surrounding female comics in film across the years. Ultimately I wanted to discover how subversion of the female gender resulted in comedy, and decided upon four films to analyse: That Touch of Mink (1962), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Miss Congeniality (2000), and Bridesmaids (2011). Although being keen on the films already, they also represented a fifty year period that covered three waves of feminism and a multitude of societal changes, and I was curious to see how things had changed.

The process began with a great deal of reading, and truthfully stayed that way for the number of months that followed, with my completed reference list featuring almost 100 titles from feminist film theory, to male comedy, and gender performativity. Some books such as Gender and Popular Culture (Milestone and Meyer, 2012) or Representing Women (Macdonald, 1995) became increasingly useful throughout my project, seeming to have something to say about almost every aspect of analysis. To begin with however, I needed a slightly broader, and less focused understanding into what would help both myself, and any readers of the key foundations of the project. In undertaking my literature review, I immediately divided up my reading into three topics: the waves of feminism, historical attitudes to gender, and femininity. Looking into femininity, specifically how ideas are constructed about what it means to be female or ‘feminine’ actually ended up being a key part of the project and its conclusion. It also led me to a new gap in research that gave the project more purpose; understanding how this concept of comedic femininity offered opportunities for ideas about the female gender to be subverted, but was not so easy to read up on. I discovered my rationale and aims in the lack of literature on why it was funny when women didn’t conform to behavioural norms of femininity.

Looking back now, it’s harder to recall why I chose the films I did, but I do remember my mother acting as a soundboard for all the good female-led comedies I could think of. With more time, and more words available to me, I’d gladly extend my research to an earlier decade in the form of His Girl Friday (1940), and equally fill out the gaps further with films like Overboard (1987) that fit more neatly into the subgenre of ‘romantic comedy’. The want for more space and time to research grew with the depth of my analysis. Even now, months after completion, there’s so much more I want to know and uncover. The actual process for analysis was very simple, and included me watching a few of my favourite films over and over, and making notes simultaneously. I was, however surprised that it wasn’t always obvious what I was looking for, and how much the dialogue and storyline of a film could be just as key as the female characters and visuals could be. I was surprised most when I struggled to generate a lot of data on When Harry Met Sally and learned that subversion of gender wasn’t always as simple as the bodily functions produced by the stars of the Bridesmaids film, but sometimes lay in comparison to male counterparts, or in the case of Miss Congeniality, the contrast to male counterparts.

The results that appeared in one film generally seemed to resound with the others albeit a few differences here and there in portrayal of gender, and obviously altering in line with the context of each decade. In discussion with friends and family about my dissertation topic, most have asked generally said at some point or another “So what is the answer?”. In attempts to sum up my project in a few short and easy sentences, I’ve almost always noted the crossing of boundaries between private and public spheres, and how the female gender is linked to ideas of femininity. The version between these short statements and a 9,809 word project lies somewhere in the idea that, within the filmic universe, to be female is to be feminine, which also means to stay in the private sphere, and essentially act as an opposite to masculinity as stereotypical traits would have it. There’s also an interesting feature of shock involved in that comedy found in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, or similar that centre on jokes about diarrhoea or vomiting that are common in male-centred comedies, but in these films presents a slightly different angle; one of women behaving badly.

Briony Brake, CMC Graduate

Friday, 27 October 2017

Beyond photography: A history of criminal identification

I research the visual dimensions of criminal identification from the nineteenth century to the present day. Oftentimes I work with photography - a visual medium that revolutionized the state’s criminal identification practices from photography's inception in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, photographs are iconic when it comes to criminal identification; they are the focal point for exhibitions on the history of crime and they continue to captivate popular-cultural imagination in contemporary social life. Just think of Moors murderer Myra Hindley, or the so-called ‘hot felon’ cum model, Jeremy Meeks (figure 1).

But a research focus on photography alone threatens to obscure other visual histories of criminal identification. And so, whilst photography informs my research it does so only to the extent that I use it as a point from which to compare and contrast other kinds of visual media used to represent criminals. As such, I like to think beyond photography to reveal the broad range of visual media implicated in criminal identification. In particular my research uses visual media that are considered artistic rather than scientific, which is how photography is viewed within criminal identification studies.

Focusing on artistic material allows me to reveal the extent to which criminal identification was a cultural and specifically creative and even artistic practice so that I re-read the history of science in terms of art and the history of art in terms of science. At the same time, this kind of interdisciplinary approach brings the arbitrariness of disciplinary boundaries and boundedness into view. For example, my doctoral research tackled the scholarship of one of the most famous figures in the history of what today we call criminology, the criminal anthropologist, Cesare Lombroso. My research began from a point of irony: Lombroso’s work was so materially comprised and received as visual, yet this aspect of his work is almost completely ignored.

This led me to researching never-before translated aspects of Lombroso’s entire oeuvre which revealed his thinking on the epistemology of the visual arts as it contributed to his criminology. And although art historians have pointed, mostly in passing, to Lombroso’s consideration of prisoners’ creative outputs, my research shows how Lombroso disregarded their outputs as mere craft, not art - adding the interesting nuance of a 'born-criminal' identity to the craft/art distinction. Indeed, Lombroso spent a great deal of time considering the artworks of the most famous (and sometimes infamous!) practitioners of the visual arts in Western-European art history. Fascinatingly, those artists who were not 'born criminals' who had murdered or raped had produced, Lombroso argued, consummate evidence of his theory of criminal identity.

It would be easy to think that these, overtly artistic representations of criminality are defunct today. However this story is not so straightforward. Indeed, even in Lombroso’s time, the gentleman-scientist himself was citing works from the history of art which dated long after photography’s inception and even dominance in studies of criminal identification. And today it remains the case that artistic media continue to embody a curious relationship with crime and criminality. By the twentieth century crime scene images in Scotland were still being line drawn and rendered in watercolour (figure 2; thanks to Anne-Marie Kilday for showing me one such image) as was the case pre-and-post-photography, as in Lombroso’s research.

Today in British court rooms photography is still relegated to the margins by legislation. It seems that when it comes to representing crime and criminality, even within the formal institutions of criminal justice, line drawings, rendered in charcoal, pastels and watercolour remain the preferred media. It turns out, then, that little has changed from when Edgar Degas; well-known post-impressionist but probably not-known criminal courtroom artist, was creating his own images of defendants in the Parisian criminal court. This reflection steers my next major research project as I delve further into the relationship between art and objectivity, this time away from the history of science and criminology and into the court of law.

This resonates with my undergraduate studies in Law. I wanted to practice as a criminal lawyer; but spare time spent in criminal courts quickly became a fascination with the remnant iconography of the courtroom. During my taught postgraduate Masters I wrote essays and a dissertation on images and crime and justice. For instance, the image on the front of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (figure 3) was probably the most captivating part of that canonical work for me and so I interpreted Foucault’s history of modern punishment through that one, single image.

In terms of Brookes’ emphasis on research-led teaching, my research has already had an impact. Walk into any introductory/early undergraduate lecture you are likely to be met with the rows-upon-rows of portrait photographs from Lombroso’s criminology. Indeed, this remains the most reproduced aspect of Lombroso’s scholarship (Past, 2012). On delivering the first degree lecture in criminology here at Brookes it was refreshing not to reproduce those tired, photographic mug shots from Lombroso’s criminology. Instead I was able to show some of the most famous artworks in the history of Western-European art!

By Kate West, Lecturer in visual criminology

Figure 1: Stockton Police Dept.
Figure 2: National Archives, Scotland
Figure 3: The Prison Courtyard (1890) Vincent Van Gogh: with permission from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Strange Death of Liberal England Revisited and Revamped

'Such is the brief opening scene of a political tragi-comedy. And since dramatic irony consists of the audience's knowing what the actor does not know, it is at least an ironical scene. History unfortunately has decreed that the rest of the play should be somewhat wanting in nobility and balance; that is it should be hysterical, violent, and inconclusive: a mere fragment of the play, with the last act unwritten.'

Is this Britain after the Brexit vote? Or perhaps this is a wry comment on the precariously ambiguous and vanishing mandate of the new Conservative government elected in June 2017. No, this comes from a judgement about Britain's dangerously volatile political scene just prior to the First World War. It comes from George Dangerfield's Strange Death of Liberal England and I was reminded of this text when I suddenly confronted an old American copy of this book in my local Oxfam bookshop. 

It is a demonstration that how we react to history texts can really be shaped by the context in which we read them! I first encountered the lyrical and winding prose of Dangerfield in the autumn of 1980 when I was a first year history undergraduate. Reading this next to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen's The River and The Clash's London Calling was incongruous and perhaps showed me how much had changed in a whole range of ways. But the killer impression this experience had on me was realising I was reading this during the first stages of the Thatcher revolution. From every pore of her government the desire to sweep away the cobwebs of the past was evident. Britain, so this narrative argued, had been irreparably damaged by the actions of complacent and old fashioned men schooled in the ideas and sentiments of a thoroughly liberal past. These evil men, so the Thatcher Revolution argued, should be discredited and held to account for the damage they did and for the havoc they wreaked. But actually so many of us in my small seminar group were still obvious products of the dying remnants of the consensus that had been an important part of the 20th century. Some of us even deployed regret in noting its passing. Many of us were exactly the right age to have had parents who had been involved in the War. Even then it seemed crucial that Mrs Thatcher was the first Prime Minister who really did not understand the War's impact upon people and political culture.

So all this meant that Dangerfield's book and its analysis was remote and bewildering. The ‘death’ described happened long ago and Thatcher's Britain really did seem to be the greedy predator feasting on the carrion left behind. Dangerfield painted a fragile Britain outflanked by the uncertainties surrounding it and the growing number of enemies from without and within that it was helpless to combat. In contrast Thatcher's Britain, at least to start with, just seemed to carry all before it and was capable of vanquishing anything that lay in its path. The apogee of this was reached with victory in the Falklands which harked back to a time I was only just starting to read about professionally, but one which my generation had been told was irretrievably past. Anachronism could be reborn in our lifetime if you could recapture Churchillian rhetoric, if only for a moment.

But fast forward thirty seven years and encountering Strange Death once again invokes entirely different thoughts. The Britain of today is a thoroughly different place in which to read this enthralling work and it just gets still more enthralling when its story is used to think about contemporary events. Dangerfield described Liberalism as an out of date ideology that became an overbearing burden to carry around. Moreover, its tacit acceptance meant it was thus capable of inspiring discontent on the grand scale. For this read the modern Conservative Party which chose to wash its dirty linen in public in what has proved to be supremely damaging to its sense of coherence. Many believe this act risked destroying the country merely to save a tired ideology. Some of the cultural assumptions of free market capitalism are also being questioned in everything from complaints about corporate tax avoidance to what goes in our food and our building materials. For the various foreign policy problems faced by Liberalism on the eve of the First World War read the looming leap in the dark of Brexit negotiations and their multiple potential outcomes. Ulster said NO in 1912 and its politics have similarly ground to a halt in a fashion that creates headaches for Westminster. Ulster is even now in a position to demand YES from an embattled and beleaguered Conservative government. This text, The Strange Death of Liberal England is now alive and real in a way that it simply was not 37 years ago. The question is does a new Dangerfield wait in the wings to write lyrically and enthrallingly about our own time?

Professor David Nash who works on blasphemy, history of shame, blame and culpability, links between religion and crime, history of secularisation, history of radicalism and the affinities all these have with cultural history.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Telling stories with the Census

I’m a quantitative historian. I like to know that I have a good stack of evidence to support the things that I say. My graduate students frequently have to endure scrawls of ‘is this representative????’ when they cite a particular individual, or a nice vignette, but I think it’s really important to know whether the stories that catch our attention in the archives were interesting one-offs, or a common experience.

But on the other hand, all of my research is focused on everyday lives of everyday people, and I very much do want to know what my numbers might have meant in terms of lived experiences. That’s the fun part of quantitative history: putting the ‘real life’ back in again. Of course it’s also its biggest challenge as numerical sources don’t often contain personal reflections, and we can’t assume that people in the past felt the same about any given circumstance as we do today.

It’s an approach I’ve used fruitfully since my PhD study of healthcare and survivorship among abandoned babies in eighteenth-century Europe. I spent a lot of time doing what was probably the most technical statistical work I’ve ever done (thanks to the expertise at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, where I was based), working out what factors made it likely that some ‘foundlings’ made it through childhood, while others (very many of them, sadly), did not. However, once the analysis was complete, I felt it was important to return to what that might have meant for all those babies and young children, for the mothers who in all likelihood would never see them again, and for the institutional officials who looked after them (a telling note in a committee minute mentioned the problems that went with large numbers of four- and five-year olds returning from placements with country wet-nurses and never having encountered stairs before!). Some of this came from records like letters and minutes, but a lot of it is about simply thinking in more personal terms about the bald data generated for survival or regression analysis.

I’ve spent my summer busily interrogating another source that lends itself well to large-scale analysis: the British census. These have been taken every ten years in one form another (world wars excepted) since 1801, and I’m using the one recorded in 1851. Of course, many people use the census precisely to help them tell very personal stories about their own families. I’m doing something slightly different: I’m using it to reconstruct the households of Jews in several growing cities, in order to examine how a self-bounded and highly mobile population arranged itself in a time of huge economic and social change. In total, my database contains over 3500 individuals, arranged in 853 households across seven towns. It’s allowed me to examine whether Jews lived with family beyond the basic parents-and-children core; whether they employed Jewish servants (rarely – possibly because Jews didn’t work as servants very often); whether Jewish lodgers boarded with co-religionists, and whether they clustered together in the same parts of town.

But, as ever, the bigger-picture perspective, with individuals bundled into statistical categories and variables, does also allow me to draw out something of what that might have meant in terms of family relationships. While many families and individuals lived without other relatives in their house or even the town, others were well connected. Jacob and Juliana Myers, for instance, who were living at 2 Bordesley Street in Birmingham in 1851, had a wide range of relatives on Juliana’s side of the family nearby (Jacob, like 40 per cent of my database, was born abroad, in Strasbourg, and does not seem to have had other relatives in Britain in 1851). Juliana, in contrast was a Brummie born and bred, and all seven of her siblings were also resident in the town in 1851. Her brother Isaac shared a home with their widowed mother, while siblings John, Emma and Henry lived together in a separate house. Being close by didn’t mean that family members necessarily saw or helped each other, of course, but Jacob and Juliana’s three year old daughter Sarah was staying in her grandmother’s house on census night, which certainly suggests that there were close and useful bonds at work. Information on birthplaces shows us that this was not a family who stayed put all their lives though – the Myers’ six children had been born on the south coast, variously in Lymington and Portsmouth. They were to remain physically close though: their son Joseph was living either next door to, or opposite, his widowed mother in the 1881 census.

We see another little glimpse of these sorts of family relationships in the household of the Simons family, also living in Birmingham in 1851, this time in Cleve Terrace. Here, the parents were actually absent on census night, leaving four children aged between 14 and 2 in the care of their grandfather, 76 year old Nathan Aaron. If only we knew a little more about what that experience was like! I have a similar yen to know more about the living arrangements of the 24 employees of Benjamin Hyam, a Jewish clothing manufacturer in Manchester, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish, who all shared a residence at 35 Pall Mall. The house next door contained a similar mix of workers, enlivened by the presence of two prostitutes. Benjamin himself lived in Salford, with his wife, three daughters, two sons, a niece, and that rare addition: a Jewish employee, acting as a governess.

There is a limit to the details we can add back in to the census data without the sorts of personal reflections and diaries which become more common over time. However, my current project is showing that the household is a very fruitful level of analysis when it comes to combining numbers with stories. As I continue, adding in charity records and more sophisticated mapping techniques, I hope to be able to reveal much more about how the Jews of the mid-nineteenth century lived, intermingled, and assisted one another.

Dr Alysa Levene, Reader in History.

Note: the British censuses did not record individuals’ religions until 2011. The identification of Jews within the 1851 census has been carried out by a team of researchers and combined into a searchable database curated by Petra Laidlaw. It can be found at The note on the Myers family in 1881 is taken from there. My work enriches these data by returning to the census to recreate whole households, including non-Jewish members, and building in new measures of relatedness, geography and community ties.

This image is the Perkoff Family from the collection of the Jewish Museum London