Speaker Vulnerability and The Patriarchal University: A Response and Tribute to Pamela Sue Anderson

Lara ColemanLara Montesinos Coleman is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and International Development at the University of Sussex. This article was originally written for the alumni magazine of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, where Anderson was based before her death and where the author read Philosophy and Theology, and has been featured on the Women in Parentheses blog.

I never quite crossed paths with Pamela Sue Anderson. She returned to Oxford in 2001 to take up a post at my former college the year after I finished my undergraduate studies. In February 2017, we were both invited to speak at a British Academy conference on Vulnerability and The Politics of Care. Anderson’s paper was read by a friend, just weeks before her death.

All of us spoke about vulnerability, but Anderson’s contribution stood out in that she addressed our own vulnerability as speakers. She began by recounting an occasion, earlier in her career, when her audience was unable to receive her as an expert on feminist philosophy. The story stayed with many of us, because it reflected the painful, hidden histories of speakers who do not conform to preconceptions of how a ‘knower’ ought to look, be or think. These stories, if they are told at all, are normally the topic of hushed and anxious conversations, where the speaker’s close friends and colleagues express outrage and reassurance. Anderson, however, put her vulnerability on display.

Her story was about a talk at Durham on feminist philosophy. Before she arrived, the posters announcing the event had been defaced with the image of another Pamela Anderson: the Playboy model and actress who rose to fame in the 1990s. Anderson’s talk was particularly well attended – by mostly male students and philosophers drawn to it by interest in the other Pamela. From the outset, Anderson was not quite believed to be a philosopher because of her name. However, she was also accused by a prominent male philosopher of ‘disappointing’ her audience because of the content of what she said: her account of epistemology was deemed to lack the ‘particularity, concreteness and relationality required for women, and so, for “feminism”’.[1]

Of course, even the most privileged and celebrated speakers can feel vulnerable when addressing an audience. We all depend upon our audiences to hear us and to recognise us as ‘knowers’ and we all run the risk of being silenced when this recognition is absent. Some of us, however, have a greater material and social exposure to being silenced or dismissed. If we are not embodied or do not perform in a way that fits with stereotypes of the philosopher (male, white, well-spoken and able bodied), then we are often not recognisable as ‘a knower who is trustworthy’.[2] The ‘joke’ of ‘Pamela Anderson’ speaking on philosophy is instructive. It relies upon stereotypes that cannot coincide: a ‘model’ is ruled out in advance as a potential ‘philosopher’.

How do we respond when an audience is unable to recognise us as a knower? Sometimes we are silenced because the audience refuses to listen. Sometimes, we pre-emptively silence ourselves, smothering our own voices because we risk too much by expressing those ideas, to that audience, at that time.[3] Sometimes, we soldier on, knowing that the audience will find it hard to hear us. We hope that, if we appear invulnerable, we might be taken seriously. At the time, trying to appear invulnerable was Anderson’s reaction to being silenced. Her response reflects the advice that women have drummed into when we enter academia and are nervous at the prospect of speaking in public. Some universities even offer female faculty members ‘confidence training’, as if the problem lay with the individual and her own lack of confidence. Meera Sabaratnam summed up the problem in a podcast for The Disorder of Things, ‘I do not need a confidence building workshop. What I would like is for some of these older, male academics that routinely patronise or dismiss me to be given some sexism training or sexism awareness, or even be called out by their seniors for sexist practices’.[4]

I didn’t actually make it to hear Anderson’s paper. I was exhausted after my own performance as an invulnerable speaker and needed to recover some energy before going to collect my young daughter (something else we are encouraged not to mention, because motherhood, like sexuality, is also perceived to undermine one’s credibility). Afterwards, my colleague and collaborator, Doerthe Rosenow, insisted that I read Anderson’s text. ‘You would have loved it. It resonated so much with everything we’ve talked about’.

Alongside other colleagues and friends, we had had numerous conversations about the experiences of women in academia. Neither of us are in philosophy departments. Something that occurs to me is the significant proportion of women scholars who do philosophy in the institutional context of other disciplines, perhaps because of being wrongly embodied to aspire to the image of what Anderson referred to in her talk as the ‘great mentor-philosopher’. However, the differential exposure of speakers to being silenced or unheard is far from unique to philosophy. We are frequently taken for administrators or assumed to be PhD students, even into our 30s and 40s. ‘Oh, but you look so young!’, comes the embarrassed reply. ‘You’re really our professor? Wow, that’s impressive’ (for someone who looks like you). A director of a research institute was asked what a ‘pretty girl like you’ was doing in the director’s office. I once asked a question that wasn’t heard, but dismissed with the answer that I would benefit from reading Lara Coleman’s work. (We can be recognised as knowers in writing more easily than we can in the flesh).

What Anderson didn’t mention was the endemic sexual harassment that accompanies the routine disavowal of female scholars as trustworthy knowers.[5] The editors of Strategic Misogyny, a blog established to expose the systemic nature of sexism in universities, have drawn attention to the connections between sexual harassment and the ‘academic sexism’ that Anderson described. Both ‘work strategically in our universities to secure institutional power to some while denying it to others’.[6]

Anderson’s account of her experience of being silenced reminded me of my first keynote lecture a few years back. As the only woman among four keynote speakers, I was less exposed to being silenced than I might otherwise have been. My talk was about the racialised ways in which the humanity of victims of atrocity is recognised in human rights discourse and photography. Having been asked to bring out points of debate with other keynote lectures, I suggested the previous (white, male) speaker had missed crucial questions of race and gender in his own account of how suffering is mediated aesthetically. A sparring match ensued. He asked if he could put a ‘cheeky question’ to me, which he apparently hoped I would be unable to answer. I quipped that I was not sure that I had understood the question, but that if he had really meant what I thought he meant then he had ‘misunderstood Foucault’s entire philosophical project’.

I performed invulnerability in tried and tested fashion. Some of the audience laughed and my interlocutor looked momentarily deflated. I apologised to him afterwards, concerned I’d been too boisterous in my response. Our conversation was amicable. He came and sat with me at the conference dinner and afterwards invited me to join him and a couple of other men for drinks at my hotel. The lectures of the three male speakers was discussed, while I was complimented on my boots, and told by a retired male academic that my ‘leggy look’ reminded him of his daughter. At the end of the evening, my fellow keynote speaker asked publicly if he could stay over in my hotel room. I said no and the other two men hastily said their goodbyes. From the wink that the older man gave my companion, he seemed to be of the impression that I was only acting shocked and might yield once we were alone. ‘So, am I staying or going?’, my companion asked with an entitled grin. ‘You’re going’. He didn’t speak to me again.

‘Of course he was going to try,’ a colleague commented when I told her what had happened. ‘You brought him down intellectually. He had to put you back in your body’.

Reflecting on similar experiences of other women, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is part of the function of sexual harassment in universities. When a we disrupt the hierarchy, by insisting on being taken seriously by or by performing in a way that is a bit ‘too clever’ for our bodies, we are diminished by objectification. While male colleagues and friends are often among the most outraged when they hear of these experiences, there remains a significant minority who will seek to convey – to us and to other men – that it is our bodies, not our ideas, that are really of interest. Relatedly, I’m struck by how often I’ve heard women colleagues described as ‘scary’. When a woman gains recognition, she is vulnerable to being seen as a threat.

Later, Anderson said, she came to wonder what she might have done differently. She realised nothing she could have done on her own could have made her a trustworthy knower to that particular audience. Women’s attempts to be recognised are unlikely to succeed by trying to imitate the figured of the ‘great man’. Following feminist philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff’s call for a collective approach to access to philosophy, Anderson came to advocate collectivity, not just as groups working together, but as an attitude geared toward ‘reciprocal relations to the “unknown”’.[7] Anderson’s proposal was that such a collectivity should to be ‘modelled on our mutual vulnerability as speakers and audiences’. If silencing exploits speakers’ vulnerability, then might not one way to undo this be active avowal of our vulnerability? Indeed, the denial of our vulnerability is no less than a ‘systemic form of self-deception’, a ‘wilful ignorance’ that reflects and reinforces inequality and privilege.

While I was finishing this article at a recent conference, another colleague told me of the numerous occasions upon which someone had ‘mansplained’ her own work to her. Her experience as a Muslim woman is presumed to be irrelevant and she is often told (on the basis of no special expertise) why she was simply ‘wrong’ about Islam. Inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay, ‘Men Explain Things to Me’,[8] ‘mansplaining’ is a term recently popularised within popular culture to refer to occasions ‘when a man explains condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he is talking to does’.[9] Anderson’s story of being told she had ‘disappointed’ her audience is a pertinent example. These experiences accumulate. They wear the recipient down.

This pattern of silencing is both harmful and insidious. Any single instance is easy to explain in another way. As a result, we miss the gendered nature of the phenomenon. It is then easy for institutions (such as those offering confidence training to women) to locate the problem with the individual, rather than addressing the institutional and cultural mechanisms through which some learn that they are entitled to speak and be heard, while the confidence of others is insidiously but systematically eroded. My colleague also told me of an encounter in which she and her (white, male) partner had been introduced to another male academic. When she offered her hand, had simply bypassed it and shaken her partner’s hand. She was overlooked on the basis of her embodiment. ‘It gets you here’, she said, clutching her abdomen.

These experiences begin early in life and are reinforced in our educational institutions. I doubt that, without encouragement given me by my (male) tutors during my time at Oxford, I would have had the confidence to continue in academia. Yet that encouragement was particularly needed in a context when I was not once by taught by a woman, nor did I even see a woman give a lecture. Through these experiences, we learn– as one of my students put it – ‘that knowledge has a body and that it is not my body’. The result, is what Solnit describes as ‘a war that a woman faces nearly every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence’.[10]

In her article in the 2016 edition of our college magazine, Regent’s Now, Anderson set out how the embrace of vulnerability might provide a means, not only of countering sexism and epistemic violence in academia, but also of ‘enhancing life’ in general.[11] Vulnerability is not just a condition of a speaker before an audience, but a general condition of our coexistence. As one of the other speakers at the British Academy conference, Judith Butler, has famously argued, we are all dependent upon others from the minute we enter the world.[12] Vulnerability is not just openness to being wounded. It is also ‘a capability for openness to affection’. Being wounded – be it through abuse, injury or loss – can be transformative, personally and politically. It can open us up to the needs of others, even those at far away. ‘In acknowledging our vulnerability,’ Anderson wrote, the hope is that we become capable of living (more) openly and fully for ourselves and for others. This assumes a striving to become what are more ‘deeply’, to employ another image, becoming in all of our “complexity”’.[13]

In closing, I want to dwell upon the connection that Anderson made between the call for collective work and the avowal of our vulnerability as a more general ethical project. This implies far more than a call for women and allies of all genders to work differently, and to support one another (which in any case has been happening for years). It implies a struggle to change the ethos and modes of relationship at the heart of the university. Part of this might involve a collective commitment to what anthropologist David Berliner calls ‘getting rid of your academic fake self’, including that we ‘substitute a politics of competition for an ethics of care’ because, as Berliner puts it, ‘science is about collaborative knowledge and not a massacre’.[14] However, avowal of vulnerability is also an epistemological challenge: a challenge to our approach to knowledge itself. It demands that we listen, that we are willing to unlearn through our encounters with others, to let our own language yield in the face of experiences we have been socially conditioned not to recognise. It demands that we understand gender, not as a subfield of philosophy, but as as central to the exercise of power and the production of knowledge in general.

This also implies a collective challenge to the patriarchal structures of the university. It means addressing policies and practices that bolster those structures, and puts a particular responsibility on those of us with relatively protected positions. Anderson’s paper at the British Academy conference affected so many of us because she brought her own vulnerability into the open in order expose the practices through which relations of power/knowledge are maintained. As the writer Ariel Leve put it in recounting her own experience of being wounded through childhood abuse, ‘We tell our stories in order to be heard. Sometimes those stories free us. Sometimes they free others. When they are not told, they free no one’.

[1] Pamela Sue Anderson, ‘Silencing and Speaker Vulnerability: Undoing an Oppressive form of Wilful Ignorance’. Keynote speech at International Womens Day conference, Durham University, 8 March 2016. Online at http://www.womeninparenthesis.co.uk/read-pamela-sue-andersons-iwd-keynote/ Accessed 12 September 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kristie Dotson, ‘Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing’, in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 26, 2 (2011), pp. 236-57.

[4] Comments in podcast, ‘The Dissonance of Things #1: Sexism in Academia’ podcast, 3 July 2015. Online at: https://thedisorderofthings.com/2015/07/03/the-dissonance-of-things-1-sexism-in-academia/

[5] Leyla Whitley and Tiffany Page, ‘Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harassment’, in New Formations 86 (2015), pp.34-53.

[6] See https://strategicmisogyny.wordpress.com/about/

[7] Anderson, ‘Silencing and Speaker Vulnerability’.

[8] Also the title of her more recent book. Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

[9] Merriam-Webster, Words We’re Watching. Online at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/mansplaining-definition-history

[10] Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me, p. 5.

[11] Pamela Sue Anderson, ‘Enhancing Life: Vulnerability and a Liveable Life’, in Regent’s Now (2016), pp. 36-37.

[12] See for example, Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004); Frames of War: When is a Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009) and, for a deeper philosophical exposition of her argument Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).

[13] Anderson, ‘Enhancing Life’.

[14] David Berliner, ‘How to get rid of your academic fake self’ (22 August 2017), online at: http://davidberliner.over-blog.com/2017/08/how-to-get-rid-of-your-academic-fake-self.html


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