The gender researchers teaching us about ourselves

Matthew Reisz reflects on the researchers who have brought us powerful stories about how gender manifests – from remote Himalayan villages to the nightclubs of the French Riviera

June 11, 2020
Women holding sparklers at party
Source: Ashley Mears

There are few issues more contentious than those surrounding gender. Equally, they are among the most fascinating because of what they can reveal about society, interpersonal relationships and oppression. 

Academics obviously play a crucial role in collecting data, exposing injustices and skewering stereotypes. They have been prominent in revealing the disturbingly gendered impact of the coronavirus and public responses to it.

But some of the most powerful insights come from the kind of deep, immersive and often demanding research that takes us to places we would otherwise know little about. Some striking examples of scholars exploring gender in this way are featured in our occasional Outer Limits series, devoted to “academia beyond the comfort zone”.

Although many people have strong views about gender, any individual’s direct experience is likely to be limited by country, culture and class. That is why we can learn so much from researchers who bring us, for example, richly textured accounts of the lives and labour of young girls in a remote Himalayan village or the impact of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” on Hungarian women.

We have recently written in Times Higher Education about two scholars who studied particularly toxic forms of masculinity, namely sexual violence in Columbia and the sometimes murderous fantasies of “involuntarily celibate” subcultures. Both found the research process emotionally challenging but tell us about abuses that are essential reading for all of us.

There has also been a great deal of debate about whether gender should be seen as a form of performance. Academic experts on female body builders and burlesque performers help give concrete form to the more theoretical arguments.

In a recent feature article I profile Ashley Mears, associate professor of sociology at Boston University, about her new book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit (Princeton University Press).

This explores how gender is performed on the glitziest of stages, where clubs pay “promoters” to bring along dozens of models or equally attractive young women classified as “good civilians”. This enables playboys and super-rich businessmen to surround themselves with what Mears calls “an excess of beauty” (although they usually don’t bother even to speak to the individual women) as a status symbol – rather like the vast quantities of expensive champagne also splashing about.

Although Mears’ book describes “a ritualized form of wealth destruction” that sounds both repellant and ridiculous, particularly at a time of economic contraction when all social life is under lockdown, it is also highly revealing about the politics and economics of beauty, and the way that “girl capital” provides a flattering backdrop for powerful men to network and do business deals.

The overwhelming majority of the human race will never get anywhere near “the global party circuit” Mears describes in such horrifyingly compelling detail. Yet research such as hers is well worth celebrating for what it tells us about another facet of the cruelties and complexities of relations between the sexes.

Matthew Reisz is a reporter and the books editor at Times Higher Education. 

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