Books interview: Kaitlynn Mendes

Karen Shook speaks to the author of SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism and Media

August 23, 2015

Emma Rees reviews SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism and Media, by Kaitlynn Mendes

Kaitlynn Mendes, author of Slutwalk: Feminism, Activism and Media, is lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leicester. She was born in Calgary, Canada and spent time in Texas and Indonesia as a child. For the past six years she has lived in Leicester with her partner Ben, their boys Brayden (3) and Adam (2), “and a very energetic and loving lab named Layla”. She and Ben “met playing rugby at Carleton University in Ottawa, and we emigrated to the UK together when I started my PhD”.  

Mendes recalls that she “always loved and excelled in school. Until high school I favoured the sciences and thought I would be a veterinarian, but then I discovered an interest in social studies, and writing essays. I grew up with parents who highly valued education, and they were thrilled when they found out I wanted to pursue academia.

“My dad partially completed an MA and I think he was particularly keen to have his children go further with their education than he did. I also had some wonderful and amazing teachers along the way. In university I bonded with a number of my professors, many of whom I am still in touch with today. They encouraged me to go to graduate school and nurtured my interest in a range of topics such as media and communication, women’s rights and history.” 

As an undergraduate, Mendes says, she was “definitely determined and ambitious. I threw myself into everything, including extracurricular activities. I played intramural and competitive sports, and I was heavily involved in our university’s outdoors club. One of the best pieces of advice I was given before I left for university was to get as involved as I could. I still have this mentality today. I have been and continue to be heavily involved in a number of subject associations, and I join in with extracurricular activities – from organising conferences to joining reading groups – whenever I can.”

What about protest marches? Was she politically active as an undergraduate? “Interestingly, not so much, although I volunteered at the Womyn’s Centre, particularly in my last year when I was taking a lot of women’s studies courses. But I have always been interested in politics, and come from a family where we regularly talked about political and social issues.

“My undergraduate degree was also in journalism, so I often wrote about political or social issues. Even though I didn’t necessarily attend political demonstrations, I have always been interested in equality. Living in Jakarta and Houston also opened up my eyes to poverty, racism, homophobia and sexism.”  

Moving to the UK was “definitely a culture shock”, Mendes recalls. “Mostly, I was surprised at how casual and approachable academics were. Whereas in Canada I addressed everyone as ‘Professor’, in Britain everyone was on a first-name basis. I liked the way UK academics broke down the hierarchical barriers between themselves and students.” 

Mendes has recently participated, first as research assistant and later as co-investigator, on research projects looking at young people’s view of the BBC. Did she find affection among that age cohort for publicly funded broadcasting and “old” media (television, radio) generally?

“There was a definite sense among many of the children and young people we spoke to on this project that the BBC was important. Sine this project was about news, most also recognised the importance of news in their everyday lives and really wanted news provision that reflected them, their interests, concerns and lives. Unfortunately, many felt that young people were either ignored or demonised, which is a surefire way of alienating them.” 

She adds: “As for the types of media they consume, particularly for younger children, TV still plays a central role. While this research was done a few years ago, we found that many (particularly the younger ones) simply lacked either the technical know-how to use, or access to, new technologies. For example, many young people had their online media time monitored or restricted by parents. I think parents feel more comfortable letting their kids watch TV alone than, say, browse the internet alone. In Northern Ireland, radio was also mentioned as being important, although it was generally a really overlooked medium. However, I do wonder how much these views would be seen to have changed if we did the study today, particularly among older children and their views about online news provision.”

What gives Mendes hope? “Lots of things. I was astounded by the ways that the SlutWalk movement was made up not only of seasoned activists and feminists, but also of ordinary people who were just sick of the sexism and slut-shaming they saw in their everyday lives and decided to do something about it.

“It also gives me hope to see feminism becoming more mainstream. I am PI on a project looking at the ways feminists are using social media to challenge misogyny, sexism and rape culture, and one of our case studies is a high school feminist society. I am amazed that teenage girls not only know what feminism is and embrace it, but are willing to come together in solidarity to support one another and to stand up against sexism when they see it.

“I also have hope when I see my two young sons and hear them repeat things I say about how girls and boys are both fill in the blank (strong, smart, funny, good at sports). I am hopeful when I see I’m not the only one raising my boys not to see the world in pink and blue. We are at this really crucial point…where feminist ideas aren’t foreign concepts, but seem to just ‘make sense’.” 

Also offering grounds for hope, Mendes suggests, is the “marked shift this past year alone in terms of social awareness, particularly around sexism” among the undergraduates she teaches at Leicester.

“Whereas in the past few of my students would identify as feminists at the start of term, now the majority do. Whereas in the past most believed women had achieved equality, now most recognise that sexism still exists and are keen on challenging those views. Some of those students have attended protests and demonstrations, but many more are participating in online activism, or are part of the feminist blogosphere, even if just as a reader.”

Karen Shook is Times Higher Education's books editor.

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