One of the highlights of the recent American Folklore Society meeting was a panel discussing events in #MeToo, what folklorists can specifically contribute to the discussion, and continuing problems with abuse/assault in our field.
In what follows, I’ll summarize some of the highlights of the panel on #MeToo (labeled “Take Two” because we had an excellent #MeToo panel at last year’s conference). Mild trigger warning for discussions of sexual violence, though there’s little that’s very graphic.
…Actually, I’ll start by pasting in my summary of some of the topics discussed at last year’s conference, since we returned to those very same threads:
To sum up that panel discussion, folklorists study narrative (among other topics) and thus we can play an important role in collecting, preserving, and studying stories about sexual assault, those being shared in the #MeToo movement and elsewhere. Got a whisper network to quietly share information about rapists or aggressors to avoid? Yeah, that is literally something folklorists are equipped to study. We also study jokes and humor, and given that rape or domestic violence jokes can be used to both normalize sexual violence and to take the temperature of a group, to figure out if a perpetrator can be more open about their values/intentions, folklorists can and should be more involved in understanding the various facets of rape culture.
We also have our own #MeToo moments in our discipline, with women in the field having shared their experiences of being harassed or assaulted on the basis of their gender both in decades past and in recent times. Many of the experiences that were shared in the panel were characterized as minor incidents, but ones that nonetheless stuck with the tellers for years if not decades. Institutional responses to rape culture are often slow and wrong-headed, but many of us at the panel were hoping that the American Folklore Society, as well as our respective universities and organizations, would do a better job in the future.
There was also an important reminder that traditional communities speak indirectly. It’s common to see coded, veiled, or metaphorical expressions of experiences and values in folklore, especially in cultures where it might be taboo to directly address certain issues.
Emotional labor kept coming up, both in the #MeToo panel and in other panels, as well as the fear and confusion that many men and masculine-type-folks seem to be feeling in this era. Um, welcome to the party? Or, as it was put so brilliantly on the Saturday Night Live sketch, welcome to hell! I definitely want to see more folklore work on emotional labor since it’s such an important and relevant concept.
At this year’s panel, I missed the first 20 minutes or so (because I prioritized attending a paper on Critical Race Theory or CRT, which is increasingly interesting to me). There were short remarks given by the 4 panelists on a variety of topics: reflexivity, community, (un)tellablity, and traditonalization. On reflexivity, for example, the panelist commented on how women in a variety of folklore studies situation – in the classroom, in the field, at the conference – must exhibit more self-awareness and reflection than their male colleagues when it comes to self-presentation. When “what she was wearing?” can legitimately still be asked in rape cases, we better be damn sure that we know how we’re presenting ourselves, because our body art, posture, style, and speech can be weaponized against us.
In a sense, the power of the #MeToo movement speaks directly to the heart of folklore studies: we’re positioned at the tension point where the communal bleeds into the individual, where personal/solo narratives may become group property. Sexual assault stories might both create and destroy communities; create because those sharing the stories share experiences and may thus bond over them, and destroy because (as in one case study a panelist related based on fieldwork) if an accusation surfaces, the people in that community must think whether they wish to remain affiliated with a community where assault is allowed to go unchallenged. Fights might erupt, people might leave, etc.
There were some audience comments that generated further discussion. One senior scholar, a woman, said she wished young women would find their voices, stand up to harassers, and be able to loudly and clearly say no. My hand shot up in the air almost before I realized what was happening. I get where she’s coming from, and I know that women are socialized to be polite and to not give a direct no… but I think her comment ignored the larger coercive contexts of patriarchy, misogyny, and so much more. My comment was something along the lines of, agreed that women should stand up for themselves more, but it’s disingenuous to give advice like that when women are shot, stabbed, and killed for refusing men’s advanced (here are just two cases of this happening, but there are more).
Also? Someone with a trauma history might freeze up when a similar thing happens again, and it’s not that they’re being weak or not claiming their power, it’s that their brain literally goes back to the moment of initial trauma and stays immobilized there. It’s never anyone’s fault when they freeze up (or alternately go into fight or flight mode).
Personally, I think this is why we all need to become more trauma-informed. Like, I would love to start doing trauma trainings for university faculty and staff as a (paid) consultant, just so the people in these rooms wouldn’t have to listen to victim-blaming rhetoric being casually tossed around. Statistically speaking, it’s likely that there are survivors of sexual violence in the college classrooms where we teach, and I hate to think that an offhand comment would throw someone off, either by triggering them or just resulting in an unpleasant time of things.
We also received some reminders that there is sexual harassment and assault happening within our own field. One attendee remembered, years ago, a senior scholar chasing her around the conference to the extent that she couldn’t get any networking done. Another attendee was – at this very meeting – assaulted by a senior male scholar. Part of the reason this is so frustrating is that it’s an equity issue: if young female scholars are warned off working with certain older male scholars but young male scholars are not (though we acknowledged in the panel that men are also victims of sexual assault), then those women’s tuition dollars aren’t going as far as their male peers’ tuition fees. That, for me, was an extremely disheartening thing to think about.
Overall, there were some thoughtful ruminations about what our field specifically can contribute to the study of sexual assault narratives, and the impact of sexual assault on communities, as well as on how we’re still grappling with these issues in our own communities. One theme that I’ll discuss in my next post on this topic is the cognitive and emotional load borne by (mostly) female scholars who must manage their (and their students’) exposure to predators.