Thesis Re-Visited

[It’s] a popular notion, that it is exclusively suffering that produces good work, or insightful work.  I don’t think that’s the case. I think in a certain sense, it’s  a trigger, or a lever. But I think good work is produced in spite of suffering, and as a response, as a victory over suffering.

Leonard Cohen

I had the idea to read through my thesis, and post excerpts on my blog; I may still do that.  As always, I hesitate; I think that some of this work is of high quality, but I wonder how it will be received. I talked about my thesis and agonized over it for so long, that I’m not sure anything I could have created would have been worth the fuss I made about it. Then again, the only arbriter that really matters at the end of the day – my supervisor – gave me an A- on it. So I’m not really sure what I’m worried about in that regard. I suppose putting one’s work out there will always feel like an act of incredible vulnerability.

Reading my thesis in preparation for posting it reminds me of how far removed I am from the academic world; I admit that this reminder is somewhat disheartening. I’d have to read and study for months before I would become as well-versed in the theoretical language and literature as I was when I wrote the thesis. Furthermore, I don’t see myself having the opportunity to write something like that and become immersed in the acts of learning and creation anytime soon; I may not have an opportunity like that ever again.  I suppose my hesitation to post my thesis is borne from that sentiment as well, which isn’t exactly regret; I’ve just become aware that there’s a gap between where I am, and where I want to be, and I’d rather not think about it.  At the present time though, I’m a still a little too weary from the struggle to get through school to knit that yarn into motivation to go back.

Although there are ideas and passages in this piece that I wish I could have developed further, in some ways, that doesn’t really matter; what matters most to me about this work is that I finished it at all. I wrote it during a tumultuous time in my life, during which I was suffering from clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Hence, the Leonard Cohen quote above: this work is important to me for its merits as a piece of undergraduate-level scholarship, and because I see the completion of this project as a “victory over suffering.” I may always struggle with my mind, but this serves as a reminder that I can still (with a hell of a lot of effort, time, and support) complete the work I set out to do.

That’s what I’ll remember this piece for; this piece, with all of its glorious imperfection. Maybe one day I’ll regard the time of my life during which I wrote it as being “gloriously imperfect” as well.

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After thinking and writing about it, I’ve decided to post excerpts from my thesis after all. These can be found on the following pages:

Dance Macabre: Women’s Experiences in Burlesque Excerpt 1 (Introductory Chapter)

Dance Macabre: Women’s Experiences in Burlesque  Excerpt 2 (Research Methods Chapter)

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Status Update

I’m inching towards the finish line on my thesis (slowly, somewhat mindfully at times, and accompanied by my “study buddies” at others). But still. Progress is being made, and I can look at some of my writing without wondering what the hell I was thinking and wanting to puke at sight of my own supposed scholarly inadequacy.  When I read through a few of the passages in my text, I sort of half-smile while wishing I had a bit more time to develop my thoughts.  That might not count for much to some people, but if in the process of evaluating work I don’t experience nausea and simply wish to do more, I know I’m getting somewhere (this means that I’m essentially thinking, “my work doesn’t suck as badly as it used to! Hooray!” Yes, I’m discussing my feelings of inadequacy and sense of self as “mediocre” in therapy).

Moreover, for anyone in the audience who is familiar with Steven Pressfield’s concept of “resistance,” I do believe I kicked its ass soundly today. I know it’ll still be there ringing in my ears tomorrow, but maybe when I sit down to write then, I’ll be like an action-flick heroine; I’ll be well aware that it wants to do me in, and I’ll give it its due. But I’ll also soar into the ring on a happy cloud made up of my previous successes, perform a 35+ move combo and a killer finishing move, and run its ass into the ground. That will happen. But now I’m going to bed.

The Twilight of My Thesis

Ugh. I hate the fact that I can’t type the word “twilight” without images of sparkly vampires coming to mind. I’ve never seen the movies or read the books of the same name, but I know they’re awful because all of the real goths I know, as well as the ones on the internet, as well as legions of feminists and anti-racist thinkers, and lovers of literature everywhere have all denounced the series.  The only groups of people who seem to enjoy it are young girls and women, and nobody cares what they think [/sarcasm].  Since I don’t have the time or the inclination to read the series myself, I’ve let the opinions of the learned among us inform my own.  So it follows that the series of books/movies of the same name have ruined what was once a lovely word for me (in case I’ve lost anyone in the course of my ramblings, I’ll repeat the word here: twilight).  However, I decided to go with the phrase “The Twilight of my Thesis” anyways, because it seemed more optimistic than the first one that came to my mind: “The Dying Days of My Thesis.”  Look at me trying to re-frame things in a positive light and all.

So, that was a tangent; I’m not entirely sure what I came here to write about. Oh yeah: I miss being in contact with humans, particularly in the context of that “real world” I keep hearing so much about. You know, the one outside my head, outside of my bedroom/office even – that flesh-and-blood world which is occupied by humans that go outside and catch some of the light of the evil day star and have conversations and hold hands and kiss and fight and all of that. I can only voyeuristically participate in real life by observing the encounters of people who walk outside of my second floor window for so long before I start feeling creepy and well, kinda pathetic.

The funny thing is, I live with my sister and my fiance, two people who would (presumably) want to spend time with me if I arose from my thesis-chamber and engaged them.  So one would think that I could easily solve this problem, and I concur. However, I’m all about bitching about problems over the internet as a means of thinking through how I actually want to go about solving the problem before I do anything. And in any event, they’re usually working too, so although we all live together, we don’t actually get to socialize all that often. It’s a lonely business, this thing of trying to be a respectable adult who tries to earn their keep on this planet.

I keep telling myself that I only have a few more days of this before I absolutely have to hand in my thesis, and then I have one more paper to write before I get to enjoy my summer. And I’m pretty stoked about this, because I haven’t had a Real Summer in years. By “Real Summer”, I mean one in which I’m not struggling with unstable living situations, the depths of poverty and despair, and doing schoolwork on top of it all.  Over the past couple of years, at least three out of four of those conditions have been met; if all goes well this year, the only thing I’ll still be somewhat worried about is money.  If a full time position opens at work, I’ll be all over that shit and not even money will be much of an issue anymore.

Whenever I realize that I do have a desire for my life to be a little bit easier, my inner critic steals the show and tells me that I sure am one lazy, spoiled motherfucker for wanting such a thing.  Fortunately, almost immediately after that bitch has her say, a montage of every psychologist and doctor I’ve spoken to over the past couple of years runs through my mind, and they’re all saying pretty much the same thing (if not quite the way I’m about to put it): I’ve had a lot of shit to deal with over the past few years, and most people would have cracked under the weight of it all.  It’s not unreasonable to want a little bit of security, happiness, and hell, even fun in one’s life.  And although I haven’t pinpointed exactly what I see myself doing in my post-undergrad years, I know I don’t want to be scraping by financially and taking fistfuls of meds every day to keep myself sane; I want security,  contentment bourne from the circumstances of my life and my awesome coping skills, rather than pills that prevent the re-uptake of seretonin in my brainmeats, as well as fun, adventure, and new experiences.  I want to travel and not give a shit for a while (and somehow, I’ll still have money and a stable place to come home to; on second thought, I might have to compromise on the “not giving a shit” part of that). I want to have found a way to remove the last few shards of the stick I’ve had in my ass all my life, care less about what others think, and live whatever life I’m meant to live out on this planet, now that I’ve done what I thought I was supposed to do (ie, get the degree). I want be like one of the 30-something friends I looked up to in my twenties, who did the real-world thing, decided it wasn’t for them, and then found their own way in life based on life experience and self-awareness (rather than rejecting “the System” outright due to lowered expectations disguised in a cloak of idealism, which is what I feel I would have been doing if I had either decided against going to university, or dropped out; so as much as I complain about school, I’m glad I gave it an honest shot).

I guess what I really want, when I imagine my life in my thirties, is to be rid of the overwhelming amounts of stress and chaos I experienced in my 20’s, without becoming a boring, happy-sunshiney motherfucker with kids and a house, who has another breakdown when she’s pushing 40 because she doesn’t recognize herself anymore either.  I haven’t given up on the possibility of grad school yet either, I just know it’s something I’m not prepared to do right now (emotionally or financially).

Right. My thesis. I wanted to do this first to warm-up my writing muscles, and to remind myself of why I’m doing this. I’m doing this because it’s on my bucket list; it’s this thing I wanted to create and give to the world outside of all of the circumstances (outside of me, and in my head) that made it take a lot longer to complete than it was ever supposed to. It was so much harder than I ever thought it would be; however, I decided not to think of all the work involved from the outset, because I know if I did I’d scare myself and I’d back out.  I’m not going to lie; it was a lot of work! But I’d probably do it again, were I to travel back in time and be asked to make that decision, knowing what I do now.

Anyways, back to my motivations. Getting the “Honours” designation on my degree is kind of neat (and I do want to get a decent grade on this), but those were never my main reasons for taking this on. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, and I’m almost there. A few more lonely days with my nose to the grindstone really isn’t a big deal, considering all the work that’s behind me and the sense of personal statisfaction I know I’ll feel when I finish this (didn’t my mom mention that a few days ago? Yeah, she did).

Okay, my writing muscles have been engaged. Let’s get on with this.

Thesis Ruminations

At the moment I’m trying to figure out the first step to take in refining my research question.  I think I might go back into the literature to remind myself of what’s been done before, and see what I can add to the conversation on this subject. There are a number of ways I can approach this topic, and I have to decide what’s the most interesting to me.

Thinking this through: I might want to consider and evaluate a relevant debate within sociology – are the distinctions between “culture,” “subculture,” “counter-culture” are still relevant or useful? Some of the ambiguity within my current proposal is there because I don’t really know where I stand here. Those distinctions make it easy to categorize and study people, but we live in a world in which social/group affiliations, cultures, and identities are complex (if the term “counter-culture” evokes the 1960’s in my mind). Can it really be said that, say, the BDSM community is a “subculture” when many symbols of this group have been taken into “popular” discourses – Lady Gaga music videos, for example? Or are there values/ideologies/narratives/practices that are unique enough to locate this group within a sub-category of “culture”?

Similarly, I have to figure out whether or not “women who are into burlesque and could possibly be doing something interesting with gender norms/ideologies of gender, but maybe not, and maybe some are, but maybe some aren’t” count as a “sub” or “counter” culture. If not, is there a better way to theorize what they are doing?

But assuming they do count as a subculture for a minute, I could ask questions that try to tap into the discourse and ideolologies within this subculture. But then there are a number of things that are interesting here. I can figure out how they are relating to “cultural” norms and ideologies of gender, or I can try to capture the “narrative” used within this group (understanding it on more of a “micro” level).

Then I have to find a way to ask questions that aren’t full of academic language and whatever my assumptions might be (not with the intent of eliminating them, since I’m assuming that’s impossible, but with the intent of figuring out how my own location as a researcher/woman/white person/etc. affects what I do). There’s a lot to think about!

Dance Macabre: Performances of Gender and Sexuality within Sub-cultural Spaces

Proposed Topic of Study

I am interested in studying “burlesque” subcultures to determine why local women are engaging in a practice that can alternatively be read as a “simplistic display of the flesh” or a form of social critique (Nally, 2009, p. 622).  Arguably, the local burlesque subculture does both; it is exemplified by groups such as the Fake Moustache Drag King Troupe, and those involved in the annual variety show “Demonika’s Symphony of Horrors.” Although some burlesque troupes perform gender in more or less “straightforward” ways, others take up the art form’s historical use of satire, “performing” gender in ironic, “campy,” exaggerated, or “humorous” ways to critique gender norms (Nally, 2009, pp. 622 – 3,631 – 3). I am interested in understanding why local women are engaging in these practices. Do they offer a form of “freedom” from conventional femininity, allowing women to embrace “composite” sexualities and explore their desires (as some theorists claim)(Nally, 2009, p. 628)? What are these performances intended to signify within these subcultures, and how are they taken up by those outside the subculture (ie, by friends outside of these subcultures, co-workers, authority figures)? How do women negotiate their sexualized “subculture” identities with other social roles? Although “burlesque” groups in the UK and United States have received some attention from academics (and feminists), this project presents an opportunity to understand how local women are engaging with broader cultural trends.

Working Literature Review

From the literature I have reviewed so far, it seems like the topic of “sexualized self-presentations” (typified in neo-burlesque, as well as websites such as Suicide Girls, God’s Girls, etc) tend to be studied from a “post-structuralist feminist” and/or “critical race feminist” perspective (Magnet, 2007, p. 577; Nally, 2009, p. 622). Many of these perspectives discuss possibilities for agency within these “cultural” practices, yet express anxiety about the “libratory” potential of such practices when “subculture identities” have become commodified, and “meaning-making” of women’s identity work is an intersubjective process (and thus not entirely within individual women’s purview) (Magnet, 2007, p. 593, Nally, 2006, pl 621; Pitts, 2003, p. 73). On the other hand, the study of “body modification” itself is not always explicitly framed in “feminist” or “post-structuralist” terms; some approaches to the study of body modification “de-emphasize” these “politicized” readings, to focus on the ways in which “body projects” facilitate and gain meaning within social “figurations” (Atkinson, as cited by Pitts, 2004, pp. 382-3). Of course, there are also interesting perspectives from feminism and queer theory (Pitts, 2003, p. 87). The concept of the “queered body” might provide a useful way to read some of the more “non-heteronormative” gender work I might come across in my study (Pitts, 2003, p. 91).

Preliminary Research Questions:

  • Do these women’s  “performances of femininity” constitute a self-conscious “performance” of gender?
  • What meanings are encoded onto burlesque performers’ gendered, sexualized, and possibly modified bodies?
  • How are these messages “read” by women themselves, other subculture participants, and those outside the subculture?
  • Are these projects/performances indented to “subvert” the male gaze?
  • Are these women engaged in “stylistic,” “discursive” or “behavioural” resistance, or some combination of all of these (LeBlanc, 1999, pp. 17 – 18)?
  • Do they “succeed” in doing so (and what constitutes “success”)?
  • How and why do women engage with “grotesque” representations of femininity (Braunberger, as cited by Magnet, 2007, p. 581)?
  • Do women experience burlesque performances as acts of sexual transgression or eroticism (Pitts, 2003, p. 99)?

Preliminary Methods:

Qualitative Interview:

  • Population: women involved in body modification and burlesque subcultures in Calgary
  • Sampling method: Purposive/judgmental or snowball sampling; ie, “word of mouth”, postings on Facebook and mailing lists ) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 134 – 5)
  • Obtain 3 – 5 participants
  • One semi-structured interview with each participant, one hour in length (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
  • Topics: how do they define/describe themselves, personal or social significance of body modification, experiences within either the “burlesque” or “body modification” subcultures, gender identification, whether or not gender is important in one’s “embodied practices,” how they feel about their social location (as a “woman,” “performer,” “body modifier” etc.), experiences of sexual harassment/abuse as a result of their “different” identities (presuming they describe themselves as such)
  • Possible questions/prompts:
    • Can you tell me about experiences within (a particular “scene”)? (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
    • How did you develop/create (a body modification or performance)?
    • Tell me more about (an experience/concept the participant identified) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
    • What does (a symbol such as an article of clothing, a particular body modification, or an event such as a performance) mean to you?
    • How do you think women typically experience (a scene, body modification, performance)?
    • Do you think women tend to experience sex/sexuality differently than men? In what ways?

Working Bibliography

Baxter, L.A., & Babbie, E. (2004). The Basics of Communication Research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Leblanc, L. (1999). Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys Subculture. Piscastaway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Magnet, S. (2007). Feminist Sexualities, Race, and the Internet: An Investigation of SuicideGirls.com. New Media and Society, 9(4), 577 – 602. Doi: 10.1177/1461444807080326

Nally, C. (2009). Grrrly Hurly Burly: Neo-Burlesque and the Performance of Gender. Textual Practice, 23(4), 621 – 643. Doi: 10.1080/09502360903000554

Pitts, V.L. & Atkinson, M. (2004). Review Symposium: Health and Body Modification. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Heath, Illness, and Medicine, 8(3), 373 – 386. Doi: 10.1177/1363459304043479

Pitts, V.L. (2003). In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan.