My (Feminist) PCS

– By Joy Bauer Olimpo

Joy Bauer Olimpo is a PCS alumnus.  She is currently an academic adviser for students planning on pursuing a career in health care at Colorado State University.

During my years as a graduate student in Physical Cultural Studies (PCS) and Women’s Studies, I was often asked how I felt feminism did or did not “fit in” with PCS. The critique of PCS for its disregard of feminist scholarship is justified, and, in my opinion, rooted in issues with theorists utilized in PCS and its base in cultural studies. My PCS is a feminist PCS; to discuss my feminist PCS is to discuss my PCS. If we examine the goals and fundamental underpinnings of PCS as noted at the University of Maryland (UMD) and in scholarship, PCS is inherently feminist. This notion is complicated by the fact that there are multiple feminisms and thus multiple ways of “being” feminist. In fact, two feminists from different perspectives would have different ways of “doing” feminist PCS. Thus, I must be clear that I cannot generalize to all feminists, but there are common themes in feminism(s) that apply to PCS and can hold PCS accountable in meeting its intended goals. I still remember a lecture in 2009 in which feminism in cultural studies was explored, and the subtitle of the section was “Keeping (P)CS Honest.” Those words have stayed with me throughout my journey with, through, and in PCS, and I strongly believe the feminism inherent in PCS strives to hold our young academic area to its goals.

One contribution of feminism to PCS is the situating of the body as a (the) central site of power relations. This contribution has been fully embraced and even amplified by PCS, and in my opinion, PCS is living up to its feminist potential in this realm. Foucault has a widespread reputation of being anti-feminist, and I am not here to defend or answer the demands of “where are the women in Foucault?” However, in his studies of bodily discipline and power, I can see that his theories apply to and explicate gendered experiences. Thus, while I understand the critique of Foucault, I also see the position from which he wrote, and I choose to utilize his theories as they apply to different bodies, not just men. Nowhere can we find bodies more disciplined and punished than those of girls and women. In my explorations of ballet (particularly the female experience in ballet), Foucault’s work fit perfectly with the understanding of gendered discipline and power. We must consider that while theorists such as Foucault and Bourdieu wrote in a different climate and may not explicitly or separately address women’s bodies, we can read their work through a feminist lens to apply it to a feminist PCS.

At the same time, we cannot canonize these theorists and others that contributed to the formation of Cultural Studies and PCS. We must remain open to other ways of knowing the body, to rediscovering silenced voices that did not “make it” into the academy or the archive, in order to fulfill the feminist potential of PCS. Feminism also contributed one of the early examinations of the effects of structures and culture on individual bodies in its focus on eating disorders in the last 1970s-early 1980s. This type of research seems second-nature to us in PCS – of course bodies are affected/shaped by larger structures! – but at that time, it was novel to make such connections. This laid much of the groundwork for PCS, yet I do not see this impact noted much in the written genealogy(ies) of PCS.

The other areas in which feminist work can try to keep PCS honest – hold it to its (founding) principles – are areas in which I think PCS needs to work a bit harder. The goal of self-reflexivity is one such area. Feminist scholarship expects and demands the researcher to employ self-reflexivity. Thus, a feminist PCS – my feminist PCS – must have this reflexivity. Our bodies as PCS researchers must be prominent and featured in our research. We have talked about bodies for years and years. We have talked about how important it is to “bring the body back in,” and more recently, to “bring our bodies back in” to our work. However, this has been a largely unfulfilled promise. Our bodies are central to our work as PCS scholars, and the centrality of our bodily experiences cannot be ignored or muted. This can be scary for the researcher (and in no small part contributed to my struggles with research and writing), but in order to fully understand the positionality under which research and works were published or explored, the researcher must place her/his body at the center – and write about it. There has been a push towards this type of scholarship in recent times, and I think of Josh Newman’s exploration of his experiences growing up as an example of bringing his body into his work. I hope to see more work like this, particularly from individuals and researchers whose bodies have not been given voices in the academic archive.

As we seek to bring our bodies into our work and feature them in our work, we must look to the feminist use of intersectionality to fully meet the promise of PCS. Intersectionality, while extremely popular in feminist scholarship, is not a solely feminist concept. An intersectional approach as applied to bodies is something that we can aim to include more in PCS research. Bodies, as we know, are not uni-dimensional, and bodily experience and embodiment are thus formed by many different factors, identity markers, and locations. We can use the example of intersectionality to honor these multiple locations and identities while we research and explore embodiment. Researching and understanding bodies is obviously easier if we focus on one aspect or one dimension – the fat body, the female body, the black body – but this is not true to the PCS imperative. No body is only fat, only female, only black. We need to work harder to explore the interaction of locations and identities and historical moments on bodies – it is at these intersections that true embodiment lies. We have a duty to resist reductionism in all forms as PCS scholars, and this includes reducing bodies to one identity marker, as it often done in Kinesiology (and across the academy). This definitely complicates the research and often raises more questions than it answers, but isn’t that the point? In raising questions, we are trying to further understandings and knowledges.

Finally, I turn to one of the largest contributions that feminism(s) can make to PCS, and this is in the political imperative. Feminism and PCS share a stated political focus, but I believe that PCS can learn from the actualization of this political focus as seen in feminist scholarship and activism. To be sure, feminism and women’s studies is struggling and has struggled with politics in the academy and in society, but the imperative is always central to every discussion of the future of the field/discipline. They have kept the struggle alive, and I think PCS has the potential to follow suit and affect much social transformation and academic change. The political imperative within the academy is strong and important – both feminists and PCS are located by necessity in a corporate, capitalist academic structure that is reflective and productive of the current university experience. Both areas struggle to prove their worth in institutions that value quantitative production over societal contribution (unquantifiable). Additionally, PCS can take this imperative and effect significant change by being politically active in Kinesiology and the School of Public Health. In a scientized department and a school dripping with healthism, PCS has the opportunity and the responsibility to keep these areas honest. It is not easy, nor should it be, but PCS can potentially have a vast societal impact by being critical and persistent in its reflections on Kinesiology and Public Health, as well as society in general.

Additionally, the politics of feminism focus on society outside of the academy, and this is another area in which I think PCS can grow to reach its potential as a tool of social transformation. Although it is difficult to see when one is entrenched in academic life – the constant pressure to publish, the requirements of tenure, the funding issues – there is a world out there, and there are bodies, experiences, and realities that can be given a voice. 99% of the issues that we research in PCS occur outside of the academy, so while scholars (justly) worry about the academy and our place in it, feminism can remind us that our work can and should be utilized by, applicable to, and reflective of the “real world.” I know that the scholarly focus of PCS is a product of a young area trying to cement its space by proving its work in respected publications. However, we need to attend to other forms of sharing work – the praxis of PCS – and we need to do more than simply talk about it. We need to find people who are part of PCS’s imperative but are not in the academy, and include them in the conversations. It was shocking to me when I discovered that Audre Lorde didn’t have (or even attempt) a PhD – not even a Masters in any related field – yet she is respected, honored, and utilized in feminist theory and women’s studies. Where is our Audre Lorde? Are we just too young to have found PCSers without degrees? Clearly, Lorde is an extreme example, but she proves that one does not need a PhD to be relevant and important on a theoretical and activist level in areas such as ours. We need to make sure that in our efforts to be respectable that we do not miss chances to be effective and transformative, as those are hallmarks of our stated goals in PCS.

So, amidst these idealistic ramblings, I find my (feminist) PCS. It is obviously a PCS that is true to the ontological, epistemological, and axiological vestiges of postmodernism. There is no conflict between my feminism and my PCS in those areas. Part of my feminist PCS lies in the hope that I can contribute to PCS even if I did not find earning a PhD to be in my best personal interest. I’m no Audre Lorde, but I have much to offer, even if – or because – it is not through a faculty life in the academy. To carve out a place for those like me – and for others who did not follow an academic path – will help PCS honor its feminist imperative. For us to continually question PCS, to understand that it will shift and change and grow and shrink just as feminism/women’s studies has, is to keep it honest. By questioning ideas in PCS that risk becoming canonical, noting our shortcomings while celebrating our successes and potential, and taking what I learned in PCS and sharing it in a broader community, I hope I’ve held up my end of the deal as a feminist PCSer.


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