Dr Who?

So it has been a while since I have posted on here, and I was going to make my comeback with a post on the Reith Lectures and 20th-century masculinities, but that can wait, at least for a couple of weeks when the lectures are due to start. In the meantime, I have been spurred back to the keyboard by the latest Twitterstorm over Dr Fern Riddell’s insistence on her right to use her hard-earned title in public without shame. Dr Riddell’s challenge to the many men who took the view that they were entitled to police her behaviour and challenge her claim to expertise has morphed into a movement of women changing their Twitter handles to include their academic titles in solidarity and as expressions of justifiable pride in their achievements. The movement has spawned its own hashtag, #ImmodestWomen, in face of the claims that the use of such titles displayed unfeminine immodesty in the public sphere.

If you follow me on Twitter, you will see that I have not followed suit. This is not because I am an appropriately modest woman. I doubt any of Dr Riddell’s detractors would define me as such, and I take great pride in my title and use it often. So why was my instinctive reaction to this campaign one of resistance – not to the women changing their titles but to the idea that I should do so myself?  Was it the sense of embarrassment, even shame, about declaring our credentials publicly which a number of my colleagues articulated?  Perhaps in part, not least because I have complicated feelings about the process through which I earned my title, arising from the way in which I completed my doctorate, as I’ve previously discussed. While I now absolutely feel that the title is mine, earned as of right, it has taken me a long time to get to this position and a large part of that sense of ownership comes not from my work on the degree which led to its award, but rather from the work, struggle and achievements that came after and that ultimately led to my promotion last year. Calling myself Dr Meyer reflects that position in ways it never did my PhD alone.

But there was more than a sense of embarrassment behind my reluctance. What was making me uncomfortable was not any sense that blowing my own trumpet was inappropriate in anyway, but rather the extent to which the exercise was deliberately performative.  As Dr Riddell said in her initial tweet, in explanation of why she used her title consistently in public, ‘my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible.’ Which is a stance of courage and commitment, to be applauded and supported, but one which, personally, know that I can never hope to attain.  I may be an expert in my career, but in my entire life? I have multiple identities; as my Twitter bio says, I am a wife and mother as well as a historian. I am more than that – a friend, a sister, a decent cook, a not-in-the-least-bit-expert gardener, a reader, a writer, a knitter. How I integrate those roles and identities into a coherent whole is my daily personal challenge, but, having written an entire book on how men could integrate multiple masculine identities even in moments of personal and national crisis, I fail to see why, as a women, I cannot or should not do the same.

The problem is that patriarchal society does like to define women by monolithic categories – Madonna or whore, stay-at-home mother or career woman, blue stocking or angel of the house, immodest woman or properly feminine. Women’s capacity for multiplicity, complexity, an integrated self, is severely curtailed in our society, which then demands that we perform the roles we are deemed to appropriately occupy through our dress, our language, the titles we may suitably call ourselves by and when it is suitable for us to do so. And #ImmodestWomen the world over are pushing back against that in important ways, but using a title in a public space because men said we shouldn’t feels, for me, reactive rather than proactive. It feels another way in which men define women’s behaviour, making me define myself entirely in a particular way through their mockery or rejection of my claim to that definition as a part of who I am. That robs me of my sense of agency, my ability not only to define myself as an expert through my title and qualifications, but to choose when and where I do so. No man has a right to prescribe, positively or negatively, either when I may use my title or when I must.

So I will carry on tweeting as plain old Jessica Meyer, about things I am expert in and things that I am not, because that is how I choose to occupy that particular public space.  And I will do so in solidarity with all the amazing women displaying the symbols of their expertise publicly with pride.  We are all #ImmodestWomen with a great deal to be immodest about.

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The Village, Part 1

So I started watching The Village last night, Peter Moffat’s new drama about a northern rural village over the course of the twentieth century.  It began, when else, in the summer of 1914 (I am waiting for a course-of-the-twentieth-century drama that has the courage to begin with either the death of Victoria or the end of the Boer War!) although it managed to avoid most of the First World War clichés by the simple expedient of ending the episode with the departure of the first draft of volunteers.

There were some lovely moments.  John Simm’s shame at the generosity (or patronage) of his neighbour in face of his drunken aggression, the dismissal of the unpleasant schoolmaster from the recruitment station for being too short, the use of a recruiting poster that was not the (anachronistic) Kitchener. The implication that Bert’s older brother enlists in order to escape from a life of subservience and drudgery, rather than from war enthusiasm was a particular pleasure.  But overall the whole left me feeling uncomfortable.  It has been sold as the anti-Downton Abbey, a dose of working-class reality in opposition to Julian Fellowes’s soft focus nostalgia for the upper classes and noblesse oblige.  And there were certainly very few positive views of the upper classes, although the middle class (as represented by the nicer, taller schoolmaster and the vicar’s suffragette daughter) came off best.  But in making the daughter of the local squire a sexually predatory halfwit, her mother a vicious snob and promoter of (literally) Victorian gender values and the squire himself a physically damaged recluse who forces his staff to turn their back on him when he passes, the caricature seems to have swung too far in the other direction. Nor did the working classes come off as any more real.  Even with the skills of actors such as Simm and Maxine Peake, they never really gained more depth than ‘violent, drunken failed farmer’, ‘put-upon wife’ and ‘naive country girl’.

And then there was the focus on sex.  Yes, the story is being told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, so such a focus can be justified.  But did we really need quite so many scenes of voyeurism and sexual innuendo, culminating in a scene straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  The whole thing felt extremely Lawrentian, in fact, which coming from me is not particularly high praise.  I do like some of Lawrence’s poetry (Snake is something of a favourite) but as a portrayer of class and sexual relationships in his fiction, I have always found him unconvincing.  Or at least no more convincing than Fellowes’s historical world view.

Can there, then, be no middle way in how the past is portrayed in contemporary television drama?  Are we condemned to see history either in terms of soft-focus nostalgia or sex-and-violence grimness?  Parade’s End might point in another direction, having a satirical bite to its vision of the upper and upper-middle classes at war, although Ford’s portrayal of working class characters verges on the sentimental.  And it was, of course, an adaptation of contemporaneous fiction rather than a contemporary fictionalization of history, a point which rather supports my on-going argument that the fictions of the past have as much to teach us about the times they were created in as any facts.

In short, I don’t know.  I will carry on watching The Village, at least for the moment, but I will need a lot more convincing that this is the correct and necessary riposte to national and international obsession with Downton.

A letter to Simon Russell Beale

privateson-parades_2423627bDear Mr Russell Beale,

First of all, please allow me to apologize for making such a complete idiot of myself when I saw you on Friday evening before the performance of Privates of Parade. In the first instance, it was extremely rude of me to stare at you so long and so idiotically while you enjoyed your cigarette at the stage door. Secondly, when you had the civility to say hello, for me to mutter something incomprehensible and slink off in the other direction was beyond impolite. My only excuse is that, at that stage, I did not have anything I could have said to you that would not have been more than the burblings of a long-term fan.

In all honesty, I do wish our encounter had taken place a few hours later, after I had had the privilege of seeing your hugely enjoyable performance as Terri Dennis. As a theatrical experience it was, as the reviews have said, enormously enjoyable, courageous, full of energy and life and wit. But writing as a historian of gender and warfare your performance,along with that of all the rest of the cast and Michael Grandage’s highly accomplished direction, offered a great deal of food for thought as well.

The story the play tells is, of course, one about the achievement of masculine maturity, both sexual and emotional, in a theatre (in all its many meanings) of conflict. As Steven says in the final scene, he has become a man thanks to his experiences in SADUSEA, specifically, rather than in the military more generally. But what I found far more fascinating was Terri’s attainment of a conventional masculine identity at the end, one defined not by his military status, which is so successfully undermined throughout by the campness of his demeanour, but through his marriage and impending (surrogate) fatherhood, a narrative emphasized by the modulation you brought to that closing scene.

For me, that was the most powerful theme of the entire evening, the importance of the domestic and of home to the identity of all the men involved. The scene in which letters home are opened and read is the first in which their characters become fully defined, as sons and husbands, and throughout it is through their domestic ties, former, potential, respectable and subversive, that the characters developed. Dennis’s own story of domestic tragedy was profoundly moving, a lovely counterpoint to his eventual domestic ‘respectability’.

Not that these were the only themes: the role of uniform and costume in defining masculinity, the transient power of wounding and disability in creating heroic identities and the appalling things that conflict does to warp both men and women were all powerfully evoked. In the end, I had so much to say that, had I seen you again I probably would have been no more coherent than I was on our first encounter. So all I can do is say thank you, to you and the rest of the cast, for creating a theatrical performance that had so many profound echoes of my own work and which forced me to think critically about questions of sexuality and emotion. And again to ask your forgiveness for one tongue-tied long-term fan who remains

Yours very sincerely,

Jessica Meyer