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22nd June 2016

Discomfort Mother Blog

The discomfort of Becoming a Mother

by Yara Richter,Sociology Undergraduate from the University of Warwick,

and Wendy Hollway, Emeritus Professor in Psychology at the Open University


It's been almost six months since our Annual Lecture by Wendy Hollway, 'Becoming a Mother, Gender & Feminism' so we thought it would be an poignant time to look back and reflect upon Wendy's message.

We asked one of our undergraduates who attended the lecture to write a piece that summarised the lecture, whilst also critically engaging with some of the ideas. We also offered Wendy the chance to respond, which produced a open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable discussion around motherhood, femininity, and the position of gender and feminism studies today.


Embracing the Uncomfortable When Reflecting on Motherhood: A Reflection on Wendy Hollway’s Annual Lecture on “Becoming a Mother”, by Yara Richter

As a daughter, as someone who is friends with a young mother, and most importantly, as someone who might someday become a mother herself, I was looking forward to Wendy Hollway’s lecture with much interest. Secretly, I was hoping to hear some concrete pro- and con-arguments as to whether becoming a mother nowadays even makes sense. Although the lecture did not add any such arguments to the imaginary mothering-list of mine, it gave me many valuable thoughts and nudges regarding theoretical considerations relating to gender and parenthood, and strongly inspired me to keep reflecting on how I position and practice my feminism.


Hollway opened her talk by explaining how in interviews, prospective mothers had described pregnancy as feeling “weird”. This constituted a base for her analysis, because she described those mothers as faced with an inner conflict between their ideological views on gender, and the physical reality of biology. Because – if I understood Hollway’s argument correctly – “phallic logic” has been causing women to try to eliminate gender inequalities by getting closer to the “masculine”, an inherent conflict arises when pregnancy serves as a reminder of biological differences. Hollway used the matrixial theory, the idea of trans-subjectivity, and the notions of diachronous versus synchronous parenthood, to explain how men and women are bound to experience parenthood differently. As a result, Hollway suggested that feminism needs to be very careful about disregarding the biological. In my eyes, this provided us with a comprehensible conclusion and an interesting challenge, because the notion of “the biological” often serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the universalisation and essentialisation of presumed biological differences, which feminism aims to fight against.


"In my opinion, using the term “mothering” has a cisnormative feel to it."


In connection to “phallic logic”, Hollway reflected on the concept of “femininity”. She seemed generally critical of 2nd wave feminists’ ways of revolting against stereotypes of femininity. Personally, I've been thinking about the concepts of masculinity and femininity, and my position in and between the two, ever since taking a gender module in first year. Therefore, I see Hollway’s analysis as an invitation to further reflect on what feminism means to us as individuals, and how we adapt our behaviour with regard to its aims. In conversations, I try to move away from reifying the ideas of “femininity” and “masculinity”, by replacing them with more accurate descriptions (such as "soft" and "assertive", rather than "feminine" and "masculine"). Here, Hollway’s frequent mention of “phallic logic” reminded me that it is problematic to try to erase those concepts all too soon, and inspired me to be aware of general limitations of feminism’s sex-gender division.


What I found rather challenging was Hollway’s reflection on how, influenced by the adaptation of “phallic logic”, there has been a shift from the concept of “mothering” to “parenting”. She seemed to view this shift as central to the troubles of becoming a mother nowadays. While I understand that an unconditional adaptation of “masculinity” as a form of feminism is questionable, I believe that viewing the term “parenting” as problematic is conflicting with current movements towards non-binary views of gender. In my opinion, using the term “mothering” has a cisnormative feel to it. I feel quite strongly about this, maybe due to the fact that from the beginning on, a non-binary view of gender and sex, and the emphasis of the former as detached from the latter, has been a central theme of my feminism. This, combined with my own complex gender identity, and my non-binary view on sexuality, makes me wonder what term Hollway might recommend I use instead of parenting. Hollway acknowledged this conflict and the possible political implications, and I recognise that the argument as it stands is central to her analysis.


"feminism needs to stop ignoring the biological, yet, we cannot erase the perspectives of people for whom biology is not as straight-forward as “having a womb or not”.


Probably the most crucial point to me was Hollway’s attachment of motherhood to the physical experience of having a womb. This line of reflexion caused issues around cisnormativity and heteronormativity to keep floating around my brain throughout the talk. Although Hollway did not explicitly argue that having a womb leads to a certain quality of mothering, I kept thinking that the analysis could suggest that there are qualitative differences in parenting between lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples, merely grounded on a count of wombs within the couple. Following from this, questions around cisnormativity arise, as the link between mothering and possessing a womb could lead us to suggest further divisions between those who are capable of bearing children, and those who are not (including intersex or transsexual women). According to Hollway, feminism needs to stop ignoring the biological, yet, we cannot erase the perspectives of people for whom biology is not as straight-forward as “having a womb or not”.


It is important, however, to acknowledge that Hollway reflected on the composition of her sample as entirely heterosexual. She seemed to be aware of the restrictions this posed, which is why I perceive the makeup of the sample to be an interesting point where her research could be extended.


One of the main aspects I liked about Hollway’s lecture was that she was honest and open-minded about the questions her research prompted. I certainly was inspired to reflect on the nature of parenthood as opposed to motherhood, and the various aspects that constitute them. Several times, Hollway strongly encouraged the audience to embrace the uncomfortable aspects of her analysis. This seemed like a call to us as critical thinkers, but also human beings, to question our uncomfortableness, and try to get behind what is causing it. As one of her concluding thoughts, Hollway made it very clear that her perspective on the issue is one related to the one of her “generation” of feminism. She urged us (as the new generation of feminists) to add relevant aspects (e.g. queerness) to the discussion.


With my mothering-list pushed to the back of my mind, I left the talk with many questions and inspiring thoughts, and a slightly confused, uncomfortable feeling – according to Hollway, just what is needed to advance this issue.


Wendy Hollway's response to Yara Richter:

I appreciate the open-mindedness of Yara's blog (which reflected the way that session was conducted). The theme of discomfort was an appropriate one because I was questioning some ways of thinking about gender equality that are so commonplace that they are taken for granted. In trying to unsettle the hidden binaries of masculine and feminine that underpin the gender equality model based on the male model, I was asking a lot of the audience and I think I probably tried to put too much into a single talk. Yara’s blog picked up some key themes, like political issues around the distinction between mothering and parenting.

 

The difficulty of going beyond the dominant feminist gender model was demonstrated by Yara’s discussion of how hard it is to grapple with the discomfiting aspects of conceptualizing women’s reproductive biology and its implications for gender equality. Let me try and spell out that aspect of my talk, which was very condensed. I was theorizing gender through Bracha Ettinger's crucial conceptual distinction between femininep (feminine to the power of the phallus) and femininem (feminine to the power of the matrixial). Whereas the phallic logic of femininep is premised on gender and sexual difference, femininem is by no means determined by the womb or biology: ‘a supplementary, shifting stratum of human subjectivity and meaning (…) delivered to us all’ (Pollock 2008: 13). Politically this is obviously important. It is hard to get ones’ head around, given the entrenched paradigm we are up against.


"In pregnancy and after childbirth, women have heightened access to femininem, because of the renewed, immediate, transsubjective experience of what Ettinger calls ‘coeventing’."

 

Ettinger’s matrixial theory gets more complicated when it addresses directly the implications of this distinction for mothering and parenting. Everyone – man, woman, birth or social parent – has access to transsubjective co-feeling, com-passion, on which care for a dependent infant must be based. For a man, it derives from ‘what once he co-evented at the register of his own becoming’ (Pollock 2008: 9, emphasis added). This is because everyone has experienced this primordial condition themselves, pre- and post-natally (although we don’t “remember” it or have conscious access) and it is in this sense that femininem is available to men as well. Women have double access to the femininem , first in the last period of prenatal life in the maternal womb […], and second, as someone who has a womb […], whether she is a mother or not’ (Ettinger, 1997). In pregnancy and after childbirth, women have heightened access to femininem, because of the renewed, immediate, transsubjective experience of what Ettinger calls ‘coeventing’. I used a case study, all too briefly, to illustrate how variable access to the femininem was in one heterosexual couple, where the father was more “maternal” than the birth mother. Again, gender does not follow from recognizing physical reproductive difference, as long as the psychology of that difference is not reduced to biology or to the old binary logic of masculine/feminine.

The talk was based on the following article, now available:

Hollway, W. (2016) ‘Feminism, psychology and becoming a mother’. State of the Discipline, Feminism and Psychology, 26 (2), 137-152.

Elaboration at length of the ideas, with further references can be found in:

Hollway, W. (2015) Knowing Mothers: Researching Maternal Identity Change. London: Palgrave.

Image courtesy of Pixabay



8th February 2016

Poldark

Is female heterosexual desire still a taboo?: the male body in Poldark (2015)

by María Seijo-Richart, MA in World Cinema from the University of Leeds


I enjoyed immensely the 2015 TV series Poldark, and not exclusively because of Aiden Turner’s shirtless scenes (although, being a heterosexual female, they contributed). Nevertheless, I was puzzled at the stir these scenes provoked. Robin Ellis did appear shirtless in the 1975 version. Moreover, if the main target audiences of period dramas are heterosexual females, it should not be shocking that these productions acknowledge female desire, especially in the 21st century.

When researching for my thesis about the film transpositions of Wuthering Heights, I observed a tendency, from the 1990s, to focus on the male body as a source of pleasure, both for the heroine and for the women in the audience. Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth)’s famous lake scene in Pride and Prejudice (1995) was preceded by Harvey Keitel’s full frontal in The Piano (1993) and followed by Stephen Dillane’s in Firelight (1997). Nudity had been present in mainstream film and TV since the late 1960s, but mainly focused on the female body. In my thesis, I argued that the display of the male body acknowledges the changes in women’s social roles in the late 20th century: we are economically independent (therefore members of the paying public) and the expression of our sexual desires does not automatically bring moral condemnation. I consider Darcy’s lake scene totally faithful to Jane Austen. Lizzie Bennett would look mercenary if she fell for Darcy after seeing his house (as she does in the novel), but it is credible for a 1995 audience that she would feel attracted to him in a wet shirt. Moreover, Darcy is not only baring his body. He is caught off-guard, out of the mask of stiffness he projects to society. The scene is different in the novel and the TV series, but the effect is the same: Darcy’s true self is on display. Clothes (or absence of them) are a common device in film and TV to define the characters: Poldark’s infamous mowing scene has a counterpart when his cousin Francis handles the scythe in his gentleman clothes, while complaining about blisters (he is weak and conventional). In contrast, Ross’s unruly hair and bare chest show his disregard for social conventions.

The 1990s focus on the male body is not exclusive of Hollywood or European cinema, but international, as I observed during my research. In fact, it has been always a feature in Bollywood film industry, with the idea acquiring open sexual undertones only recently (compare 1950s fully clothed hero Dilip Kumar to Salman Khan’s trademark ripped shirts in the 1990s). In Bollywood, the body of the hero works as the canvas in which the story is written, which is applicable to Poldark. Emblems or scars symbolize cultural identity (the scar in Ross’s face, reminder of his past as a soldier). The body also implies moral purity: Poldark taking a dip in the sea (washing off his shame for having slept with a prostitute) is similar to Brahmin Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan) emerging from the Ganges in The Rising (2005) after his ablutions. Moreover, the violence inflicted to the hero’s body emphasizes his endurance and resilience (Poldark’s bruised face after fighting Demelza’s father stresses his defiant decision not to leave his home).

Accusing modern costume drama of “sexing up” overlooks the fact that sex has always been present in literature and cinema. If we have a different perception, it is because the literary and cinema traditions we regard as “classic” are the 19th century Victorian novels and 1930s - 1950s Hollywood films. These were quite sexually repressive periods. The Victorian era promoted the suppression of passion partly as a reaction to the cult of sensibility and open expression of feelings which characterized the second half of the 18th century. This is the period in which Poldark is set, and also when Tom Jones (1749, Henry Fielding) and Fanny Hill (1748, John Cleland) were written. In each of these novels, the hero and (more importantly) the heroine have multiple lovers without being punished by the narrative. Similarly, Winston Graham’s Poldark novels were written in the 1940s, part of a subgenre which updated 18th century romances. This subgenre regularly provided source material for Gainsborough film melodramas. While Hollywood was constrained by the Hays Code of censorship and melodramas focused on the family, this strand of British melodrama focused on the sexual lifestyle of wealthy landowners (The Wicked Lady, 1945, had some “risqué” scenes reshot for the American release).

In her iconic essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), Laura Mulvey established that Hollywood classic cinema positions the male as owner of the gaze, which he projects over the female. This is not necessarily the case in other film industries. Bollywood films often show the hero being looked at from the point of view of the adoring heroine. Authors like Desai (2008) and Vasudevan (2006) talk about the darsanic gaze: the heroine positions herself like a devotee looking at an object of veneration, a god (the hero). This is an ambivalent idea, as the male still bears the authority, but the female owns the look. As she is the one with the power to give devotion, she remains in charge of the desire. By showing Poldark through the eyes of a desiring Demelza, his later seduction of the servant girl loses any predatory connotations, but becomes mutual (the final decision to go to his room is hers). Besides, she does not only admire his body, but his books, his piano (symbolizing her wishes to improve herself). Theirs is not a relation of subservience, but of emulation. They appear as equals.

The display of the male body in film and TV has complex implications that go beyond the sexual. It is one of the elements which build a compelling drama. However, the critical emphasis on the “eye candy” aspect makes me wonder if heterosexual women are still expected to feel guilty for having desires. It also fails to address how homosexual and lesbian audiences feel about these scenes.

María Seijo-Richart holds an International PhD in English Philology at the University of A Coruña (Spain). She also has a MA in World Cinema at the University of Leeds, where she currently works. She regularly contributes at the jobs.ac.uk blog at the University of Warwick.

 

REFERENCES

  • Desai, Jigna: “’Ever since you discovered the video, I’ve had no peace’: diasporic spectators talk back to Bollywood Masala. The Bollywood Reader. Eds. Jigna Desai & Rajinder Dudrah. New York: Open University Press, 2008: 229 – 242.
  • Vasudevan, Ravi S. “Addressing the spectator of a ‘Third World’ National Cinema: the Bombay ‘social’ film of the 1940s and 1950s”. Asian Cinemas. A Reader & Guide. Eds. Eleftheriotis, Dimitris & Needham, Gary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U. P. 2006: 295-316.



16th January 2016

Wordle for Blog 150116 

Reader, Viewer, Player: The ‘I’ in Textual Analysis

 by Joanna Cuttell, Sociology PhD candidate at The University of Warwick.


Feminist thinkers within the social sciences have successfully argued for an approach which does not occlude the visibility of the researcher in pursuit of objectivity, but rather makes the subjective ‘I’ visible and accountable. Mainly deployed as a component of qualitative research, methods which openly draw upon and discuss the experience of the researcher such as autoethnography and autobiography are useful tools in understanding and making clear both the research process and the relationship between the researcher and the researched. Rather than individualising and undermining arguments and conclusions, these methods make evident the subjective and situated nature of research. As the ‘I’ is ever present in all research, and continual subjective decisions are made throughout the research process (Harding, 1993, in Hesse-Biber, 2012: 10), processes of reflection and accountability enable ‘strong objectivity’ (Harding, 1991) in their ability to account for and highlight the power relations within the research process. In the brief discussion that follows, I propose that owing to the interactive and potentially immersive elements of videogames, the field of games studies is an apt area to practise and document the ‘I’ within the research.

With any qualitative research, the researcher needs to be understood as a ‘situated’ observer in that their background, situation, and identity will all have an effect on both the research process and their results (Markula & Silk, 2011: 4). Observations made as part of the research process need to be understood as based on their personal relationship to the ‘other’ which is observed (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005:21) as well as the researcher’s internal dialogue which informs and reforms their process and revisions (Markula & Silk, 2011: 73). In order to highlight the spatiotemporal elements of the construction of knowledge, autobiography as a feminist-analytic method furnishes the researcher with the tools to critique and make clear their situated position. It allows the reflexive researcher to connect the personal and the cultural and then ‘refract’ their interpretations (Ettore, 2005: 536). However, the adoption of methods which recognise the situated, subjective, and experience-based quality of research “needs to be tempered with an understanding of the self that will shape the process; that is, it requires the researcher to be reflexive about their own position and how this interacts with both their experiences and assumptions” (Cuttell, 2015: 65).

In drawing on autoethnographic and autobiographic methods by which we acknowledge our social location, we can make apparent our own role in “constructing rather than discovering the story/the knowledge” (Letherby 2000: 90 in Letherby 2002: n.pag). That is not to say that we are therefore confined to merely studying ourselves, as we – as situated and social agents – encompass “second- and third-hand knowledges as well as first-hand knowledges” (Stanley, 1993: p.50). Developing a ‘conscious subjectivity’ about our interaction with the object studied is important as it “helps break down the power relationship between the researcher and the researched” (Cotterill & Letherby, 1993: 72).

When we analyse media texts, we are no less a part of the research process than when we are studying peoples and cultures. Indeed, in the process of ‘reading’ the text, we must acknowledge the active involvement the researcher is required to undertake in order to perform their analysis. In the field of games studies this is further complicated by the interaction necessitated by the objects ‘gameness’ (Juul, 2001). Because of its ‘playability’, one cannot study a game without directly interacting with it and thus influencing it (Kücklich, 2002). One cannot play a game to completion without developing some measure of proficiency – what Graeme Kirkpatrick (2012) terms ‘gamer habitus’ – with the controls. The researcher must therefore not only become complicit within the mechanics and narrative of that game, but any meaning must be contextualised vis-à-vis the player (Malliet, 2007: para. 9). By employing and adapting elements of autoethnography and autobiography when studying interactive media such as videogames, the researcher can thus situate and articulate the interactive, immersive experiences of that activity and potentially draw upon their own experiences as part of their analyses.

In my own research, negotiating my ‘closeness’ to the object studied, as well as reflexively recognising, understanding and documenting the ‘I’ within my research, has given me critical access to an often obscured element of media research. Incorporating an immersive, reflexive, autoethnographic component not only allowed me to critically access and discuss the experiential, immersive elements of the practice of gaming, but also to situate my readings in a specific spatiotemporal context. My findings are thus offered as “one of many interpretations of the gaming experience” (Cuttell, 2015: 66). I believe that this does not diminish my claims; rather it allows me to personally, socially, and culturally situate and contextualise them such that I can be more transparent about the specifics of my research process.

I believe that, as feminist researchers, we must challenge research which is produced where the self that produced it is obscured. By recognising our role in the construction of knowledge and the design and practise of research, we “privilege positionality and subjectivity” (Reissman, 2000: 3) and as such gain a critical purchase on the diffraction (Haraway, 1997) of such observations and the situated knowledges they produce (Haraway, 1988). We need to extend the requirement for the visible ‘I’ beyond the social sciences’ use of feminist ethnographic methods and into other areas of research. Given videogames’ necessary interactivity and ability to generate immersive states, I propose that game analysis is an ideal mode of experiential research for recognising and documenting the ‘I’.

Joanna is a third year Women and Gender PhD student with the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick.

Joanna's research interests are centred on immersion, gender, accumulation, and morality in video games.

Her thesis is titled "Gender in Immersive Gaming: Violent Spectacle, Morality, and Accumulation" and is supervised by Prof. Deborah L. Steinberg and Dr Amy Hinterberger.

Through developing an immersive-participatory method, this thesis engages with work on power, agency and subjectivity in order to analyse the affective and embodied relationship between the player and the game world. It specfically interrogates themes of authority, aquisition, and morality

Joanna completed field work at the end of summer 2014 and is currently writing up her findings.

Joanna's recently published article in the Journal of Comparative Anthropology and Sociology explores her initial findings, and can be accessed here.

Joanna’s final year of study is funded by a 'Funds for Women Graduates' grant.

 

References:

Cotterill, P, and Letherby, G. (1993) ‘Weaving stories: Personal auto/biographies in feminist research.’ Sociology, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 67-79.

Cuttell, J. (2015) ‘Arguing for an immersive method: Reflexive meaning-making, the visible researcher, and moral responses to gameplay.’ Journal of Comparative Anthropology and Sociology [online], vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 55-75. <http://compaso.eu/archive/issue-1-2015-video-games-and-insightful-gameplay/cuttell-abstract/>.

Denzin, N. K. and Lincoln, Y. S. (2006) ‘Introduction: The discipline and practice of qualitative research.’ In Denzin, N. K. and Lincoln, Y. S. (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. pp. 1-42.

Ettore, E. (2005) ‘Gender, older female bodies and autoethnography.’ Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 28, no. 6, pp. 535-46.

Haraway, D. (1997) Modest−Witness@Second−Millennium.FemaleMan−Meets−Onco Mouse. New York, NY: Routledge.

--- (1988). ‘Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.’ Feminist Studies [online], vol. 14 no. 3, pp. 575-599. <http://www.staff.amu.edu.pl/~ewa/Haraway,%20Situated%20Knowledges.pdf>.

Harding, S. (1991) Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hesse-Biber, S. N. (2012) ‘Feminist research: Exploring, interrogating, and transforming the interconnections of epistemology, methodology, and method.’ In Hesse-Biber, S. N. (ed.) Handbook of Feminist Research [online]. New York: SAGE, 2012. <http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/43563_1.pdf >.

Juul, J. (2005) Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kirkpatrick, G. (2012) ‘Constitutive tensions of gaming’s field: UK gaming magazine and the formation of gaming culture 1981-1995.’ Games Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research [online], vol. 12, no. 1. <http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick>.

Kücklich, J. (2002) The study of computer games as a second-order cybernetic system.’ In Mäyrä, Frans. (ed.) Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference [online]. Tampere, Tampere University Press. <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.190.115&rep=rep1&type=pdf>.

Letherby, G. (2002) ‘Claims and disclaimers: Knowledge, reflexivity and representation in feminist research.’ Sociological Research Online [online], vol. 6, no. 4. <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/6/4/letherby.html>.

Malliet, S. (2007) ‘Adapting the principles of ludology to the method of video game content analysis.’ Games Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research [online], vol. 7, no. 1. <http://www.gamestudies.org/0701/articles/malliet>.

Markula, P. and Silk, M. (2011) Qualitative Research for Physical Culture. Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan.

Riessman, C. K. (2000) ‘Analysis of Personal Narratives’ [online]. In Gubrium, J. F. and Holstein, J. A. (eds.) Handbook of Interviewing. pp. 1-41. <http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~brooks/storybiz/riessman.pdf>.

Stanley, L. (1993) ‘On auto/biography in sociology.’ Sociology, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 41-52.

 

Further Reading:

Hinterberger, A. (2007) ‘Feminism and the politics of representation: Towards a critical and ethical encounter with “others”.’ Journal of International Women’s Studies [online], vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 74-83. <http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1380&context=jiws>.

Stanley, L. (1992) The Auto/Biographical I. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Wall, S. (2008) ‘Easier said than done: Writing an autoethnography.’ International Institute for Qualitative Research, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 38-53.



2nd November 2015

Rethinking Cultural Stereotypes: Reflections on Different Contexts

by Iro Konstantinou, Sociology PhD candidate at The University of Warwick.


Walk to School_Iros Blog_011115

 

My research interests have never really fallen directly under the broader themes of gender studies. Coming from a culture where gender roles were largely pre-defined, I grew up with very clear stereotypes in my head. Relationships between males and females were constituted in the private sphere and the positions and notions related to them always echoed ideas found in religion, culture and history of the nation. Men have always (up until now even) been seen as the breadwinners, historically saving the country from enemies; whereas, women are responsible for raising children, a lot of them abandoning their careers and dreams altogether to devote their lives to the family. Personal choices can never be questioned unless contested in public – this was obviously never the case while growing up. Despite the anachronistic stereotypes of the above, I do not believe that much has changed ever since I left Greece, more than ten years ago.

When I came to England, with visions of it perfectly combining modernity and progress with traditional aspects, I was slightly taken aback to see that the family I was staying with at the time sent their girl to a school which was only for girls, and very far from home. According to them, it was a school which would ensure she would get the best possible results and get into a prestigious university. As the years passed, I stayed in a lot of what could be described as gentrified areas and observed that a lot of middle class families would try their best to get into ‘outstanding schools’, even if that meant that 1. Your child would have to travel for more than an hour on a daily basis to go to school 2. The whole family would move to a different ‘catchment’ area or 3. Your child would go to a private school, if neither of the above were possible. For me, the whole process seemed bizarre. Where I grew up the best school was the one that required 1. the least walking time and 2. meant that your best friends – who all lived near you – would be at the same school. Some of my best memories were shaped while walking to and back from school.

The idea of the whole catchment area seemed interesting but quite problematic on so many levels, which cannot be discussed in a blog entry. Communities require a lot more stability to produce stable societies – or cohesive societies as Theresa May recently described them. The other element which struck me was the idea that somehow schools attended separately by boys and girls was still a notion which was considered beneficial for the society at large. I found it hard to see how pupils who never mixed on a daily basis from early in life, could function appropriately and be able to see each other as equals while at university and then later on in professional circles (as a matter of fact they cannot, not at a university or a professional level). The focus of primary and secondary education should not be preparing pupils to pass exams but to create well-rounded individuals who are able to grasp new concepts of equality, cutting across gender, class, ethnicity and race. In progressive, industrial societies like Britain, where equality features so high in the agenda of the government, it cannot be the case that schools encourage non co-educational tuition. This does send the wrong message regarding images of equality and cohabitation in public spaces, which require meaningful interactions and compromise.

As part of my PhD research, I am conducting an ethnographic study at a private school in London. The pupils at the school come (at their majority) from white, middle class families; they possess the cultural and economic capital which will allow them to explore opportunities, further their education and occupy elite social and professional positions. The school itself has a very long history and prides itself on a change in discourse regarding public schools; its ethos is not only about educational achievement but ensuring that pupils shape an attitude that will allow them to give back to society. The school became co-ed in the early 90s. For the first years of this change the number of girls at the school could be counted in one hand; they used to hide from the boys. This was 20 years ago and at the beginning there was a pastoral officer responsible for the well being of the girls. Now that the ratio between boys and girls is almost 50-50, this role seems no longer necessary and has been side-lined. The school also has a very vibrant sports community – which has been through the years associated with boys and sports which are largely seen to be preferred by boys.

In an interview with a senior member of the school I asked them ‘And what mechanisms did you put in place to ensure that girls felt included in all of this environment?’ The reply was ‘Oh we have a lot of activities, you know, girly activities’. I thought best not to ask what these ‘girly’ activities might involve. It is not the numbers and statistics and having different female-related titles which will ensure equality but real change in our perceptions of stereotypes.

Iro is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick at the Department of Sociology. She is currently conducting an ethnographic study in a secondary school, researching the constructions of identity amongst adolescents and the effects of cultural and economic capital on this process. Her research interests include educational (in)equalities, class, ethnicity, race, gender, and the everyday. She also holds an MA in English in Education, which examined perceptions learning among international students in English universities, adopting a sociocultural lens.

Image adapted from 'Walking to School' courtesy of Randomthoughtstome CC-BY-2.0