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Web Roundup: Having a Moment: Ruminations on Women, Hysteria, Stress, and the Pelosi Backclap

Women are having a moment. At President Trump’s State of the Union address, Democratic women wore white as a nod to suffragists and female leadership, and Nancy Pelosi’s backclap went viral. At the 2019 Oscars, women of color made history, receiving an unprecedented number of awards, and Period. End of Sentence. (2018),a film about menstruation in rural India,won best short documentary. The presence of women of color in the historically white-dominated awards show prompted a whirl of tweets and articles, insisting “Dear Hollywood: More of this, please!”

Nike played an ostensible role in the Oscars’ feminist makeover. The company first aired its “Dream Crazier” commercial, narrated by tennis pro Serena Williams, during the awards show. The ad is the sister (the she-quel?) to the 2018 “Dream Crazy,” which featured numerous bodies—disabled, raced, gendered—training to do the presumably impossible. “Dream Crazier” is a celebration of the dedicated female athlete (and to be clear, Nike means cis- or biologically sexed female). Seizing on the “moment” (and the show’s female audience members), Nike focused on the insults hurled at female athletes and women’s historical association with emotion. “If we get angry,” Williams narrates, “we’re hysterical, irrational, or just being crazy.” She dares viewers, “Show them what crazy can do.” The internet erupted with praise, calling the commercial “moving” and “empowering.” New York Times reporter Maya Salam saw the advertisement as reclaiming the trope of the hysterical woman.

And there are reasons to be hysterical. During his State of the Union speech, President Trump pivoted from paid parental leave to outlawing late-term abortion to increased expenditure on military defense in five dizzying minutes. His points landed. Several weeks later, Mississippi, Georgia and Ohio each passed the “Heartbeat” bill, making abortion illegal at the detection of a fetal heartbeat, and male Republican New Hampshire representatives donned pearls in response to (hysterical) “pearl-clutching” proponents of heightened gun control. Meanwhile, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8th, was #balanceforbetter. The campaign called for a gender-balanced world, showing pictures of people posing with their hands held out to the side like a scale weighing opportunities for equality—yet, as gendered and raced bodies are made urgently precarious by the whim of legislation, the stance feels more like a shrug. 

Women are indeed having a moment.

In 2014, women were taking to Facebook holding signs proclaiming “I am not a feminist.” Today, the future is suddenly female. As a white cis woman PhD student, I am torn. I want to mobilize, to cluster, to congeal around the moments celebrating women and their feminisms, but acknowledging them as such—fleeting reactions to a patriarchal political administration—feels like we have already admitted defeat, that “we” are somehow temporary, only seen in the time of the reactionary, or worse, as a reflex. 

In the context of this particular moment, how do we understand “Dream Crazier”? As a provocation, a call to action, a stealthy advertisement? When the media grants women the permission to be “crazy,” what are they doing? And, as academics trained in the practice of critique, what might we read in such permission? I get goosebumps every time I watch the ad, but it also deeply unsettles me and I’m not sure it reclaims the hysterical woman. 

At first blush, it is easy to see the problems with the advertisement. Nike is a major international company notorious for its exploitive sweatshoplabor practices. With women and children making up the majority of sweatshop employees, it is likely they are the invisible labor producing the clothing featured in and sold through the ad daring women to “dream crazier.” Nike is capitalizing on the feminist-as-fad moment to sell their products, all while obscuring the unethical, predominantly international femalelabor that produced them. 

Further, we can consider the problematics of this same company re-appropriating the socially fraught labels “crazy” and “hysterical” to describe female athletes’ public- and mobility-based forms of protest. These words are not innocent. Nor is the act of re-appropriating them. They carry violent histories that a company such as Nike whitewashes and perpetuates when it uses them as a marketing device.

In fact, the Nike advertisement is unsettling because it purports to be radical by wielding the tools of critique—re-appropriating oppressive language, de-centering the male subject, insisting on being seen—while rendering a specific body visible. But simply describing it as such and stopping there is not enough. As academics, we need to acknowledge it as a cautionary tale of when our impulse to critique, as both a generative and destructive force, becomes a reflex that obscures more than it reveals. To be clear, I am critical of Nike, but I don’t want to dismiss the women in the ad as pawns of the company’s grand capitalist scheme. I don’t want feminism to be a fad. I want to ruminate on hysteria a little longer—to understand why feminism resonates now and what this moment might still generate.

I won’t repeat the important work tracing the genealogy of hysteria—one in which the Greeks’ wandering wombs travel through Freud’s phallocentricism, to the DSM’s body to its index, before second wave French and American feminists reclaimed it as a psychosomatic mode of resistance to patriarchy (Devereux 2014). Instead, I want to emphasize that hysteria as a bodily female affliction is still roaming within the capitalist imagination.

Hysteria has made a reappearance as the black box “stress” has become as a medical cause, symptom, and disease. Stress causes sleeplessness, irritability, anxiety, changes in appetite, menstrual irregularities, tremors, as well as full-blown autoimmune disorders, which proliferate and disproportionately impact women (Gleicher and Barad 2007). It is the biomedical gloss to make sense of how non-material or social causes materialize in the bodies of individuals and particular populations. Theories of “allostatic load” (Sterling & Eyer 1988) and the “weathering effect” (Love et al. 2010) quantify the detrimental impact of chronic stress on individuals as well as generations as an effect of racism and sexism. But even in these latter theories, which gesture towards rather than directly address a capitalist system that bears down and wears out bodies, stress is the burden individuals should be able to manage, mitigate, and balance—because medicine and society cannot. 

The figure of woman, the categories of hysteria and stress, and the Pelosi backclap are all excessive. They leak out, overwhelm the patriarchal mode and so become oppositional. They are forms of resistance-by-being—being excessive, irritable, unruly, ironic, even ambivalent. In an atmosphere that calls for balance only to exploit anger, they occupy the problematic space of the excess and are iterations of the not always productive ways to live within it (see Berlant 2007). Their genealogy is not linear. It’s a spinning rumination, comprised of complicated origins and ambivalent afterlives. 

Today, part of feminist critique is to understand this ambivalence. The contemporary category of “woman” (epitomized by Serena Williams) has become a placeholder for something broader. This placeholder, as established by the media, both expands to consume some groups and contracts to exclude other, non-normative, queer, disabled, trans bodies. 

Feminism-as-fad in 2019 is not a coincidence. It is symptomatic. At a moment when America is hysterical—that inchoate and overwhelming feeling of being the excess—it pulls from the margins for a vocabulary to articulate such anxieties. These margins are invariably black feminist, crip, queer, and indigenous theory. The result of jerking the margins into the center is sometimes generative, sometimes exploitive. Sometimes it challenges us to think in new ways, and sometimes it de-historicizes and decontextualizes these concerns, ideas, strategies from their origins (such as appeals to self-care following Trump’s election that failed to mention Audre Lorde or black feminism). We should take care in how we move these margins to the center. We should take care in what we dismantle and how, and who that displaces.

Acts of resistance are never momentary but citations that carry life worlds within them. María Puig de la Bellacasa (2017) calls for speculative engagement as a mode of thinking and caring that imagines an otherwise and worlds it into existence. Part of such speculative engagement, I argue, is following and citing the genealogy of such acts as ruminations that circulate in productive and non-productive ways, discerning why and by whom they are taken up, and imagining what they might yet work towards. Speculative engagement is excessive. It does not fit neatly into tidy, ready-made academic boxes of empowering/disempowering, conservative/radical, object/subject, practice/theory. It spills out and implicates academics in the worlds we critique.

Works Cited:

Berlant, Lauren. “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency).” Critical Inquiry 33:4 (2007): 754-80. doi:10.1086/521568.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge Press.

Devereux, Cecily (2014). “Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender Revisited: The Case of the Second Wave.” ESC 40:1, pp. 19-45.

Gleicher, N & DH Barad. (2007). Gender as risk factor for autoimmune diseases. Journal of Autoimmunity, 28, pp 1–6.

Love, Catherine, Richard J. David, Kristin M. Rankin, James W. Collins (2010). “Exploring Weathering: Effects of Lifelong Economic Environment and Maternal Age on Low Birth Weight, Small for Gestational Age, and Preterm Birth in African-American and White Women,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 172: 2, pp 127- 134,  https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwq109

Puig de la Bellacasa, María (2017). Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. University of Minnesota Press. 

Sterling, P. & Eyer, J. (1988). “Allostasis: A new paradigm to explain arousal pathology”. In Fisher, S.; Reason, J. T. Handbook of life stress, cognition, and health. Chicester, NY: Wiley.


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