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? Continue reading