[Gawain said:] “Ah, my uncle king Arthur! My good brother Sir Gareth is slain, and so is my brother Sir Gaheris, who were two noble knights.” Then the king and Gawain both wept, and so they fell on swooning.
Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver (my translation).
“Three things happen when they [women] are in the lab.… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”
Nobel Prize-winner Sir Richard Timothy “Tim” Hunt, World Conference of Science Journalists 2016.
I’m currently tinkering with the final edits to an article on male swooning in Middle English romance. Medieval romances are full of fainting men: swooning from lovesickness, losing consciousness after battle, collapsing on receipt of bad news about beloved companions. In the middle ages, it seemed to me that swooning and weeping could be used as proofs of hypermasculinity – and so an article was born. Some of you have heard it in a protoform at a couple of different conferences, and according to the journal editors, it’s almost ready to go out into the world: pages of virile men collapsing on the battlefield, in the forest and at court.
Meanwhile, the academic twittersphere has been stirred up today when the renowned scientist Tim Hunt made crass remarks about women’s place in the laboratory. According to him, women disrupt the scientific workplace because men fall in love with them, they fall in love with men – and they cry if they’re criticised. Women scientists are a threat to the masculine rationality of the laboratory. They offer the distraction of romance, and they respond to useful critique by weeping, presumably dissolving their colleagues’ ability to reason with them, like the Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch melting under a bucket of water.
Twitter has responded with its usual heady blend of sharply-articulated outrage and gleefully tongue-in-cheek jokes. Women academics have tweeted about not being able to get to work because they’re swooning over Tim Hunt, and I smiled as I read down my timeline this morning. Still, it struck me that there was a greater problem than this. Many academics were robustly defending women’s abilities to be just as professional in the lab as their male peers – which is absolutely true. And it’s easy to dismiss Hunt as a fossil, a relic of the Bad Old Days of science. But there’s a deeper issue here, which is about how we model professionalism: and what we deny when we’re doing that.
I didn’t meet my spouse at work, but I know a lot of people who did. When we go to our office, lab, store, restaurant – wherever it is we work – we don’t stop being human and become employees. We fall in love. We fall out of love. We make friends, and sometimes enemies. We cry: both because of things that happen at work, and because of things that are happening outside of work. Of course it’s healthy to have some distance between the different roles we occupy in our lives, because otherwise we’d never get anything done. But there’s a difference between drawing healthy boundaries and dividing ourselves up, pouring the contents of ourselves into smaller boxes marked with categories like RESEARCHER, FRIEND, WIFE, MOTHER, TEACHER. No one was made to live within the narrow confines of a single role, no matter how stimulating and exciting that role might be; pretending that we are not all our roles at once, even if we must necessarily allow one or other of them to take precedence at any particular moment, is to deny that we are complete human beings.
In the passage from Malory I quoted at the start, Arthur has already received the news of his nephews’ deaths. Surrounded by his knights, he swoons with grief. So when Gawain comes to tell him what has happened, Arthur must already be awaiting his arrival with dread and sadness. Gawain faints with sorrow at his brothers’ deaths, and Arthur swoons in mutual grief and in a terrible sympathy. They are not in private; they are at court. The death of two knights is as much courtly business as it is a private family matter, after all, and in my article I argue that this swooning is both both an emotional response and a political act. What we now think of as a typical association of fainting with femininity is a nineteenth-century development, when swooning became something of the home and of the weak female body. In medieval literature, women swooned; but men did, too, and they did it in public and without shame.
This isn’t to say that I think medieval people were more “emotionally open” (whatever that means) than people are today; in the past, people’s emotional responses were as strongly socially codified as they are now – but that codification has changed. Nowadays, to be “professional” is to be emotionally restrained, and the quality of that emotional restraint is subtly but definitely coded as masculine. The ideal worker in academia is intellectually engaged and rigorous, but emotionally restrained. Working in a high-intensity research environment is both emotionally draining and emotionally stimulating, as well as being full of intellectual highs and lows: and yet weeping at work is seen as weakness. That’s because it’s a disruption of the proper order, just as Tim Hunt seems to think women themselves are. “You fall in love with them,” he said, making the you who is the natural inhabitant of the laboratory a man and the outsider-them automatically a woman. Which is why I think it’s dangerous for us women to defend ourselves on the grounds that we work just like men, because that’s buying into a culture that says we are acceptable so long as we behave just like you.
It’s easy to read this example across intersectional lines, of course. It’s not just women who get criticised for being “too” “emotional”; men of colour do as well. People with mental health issues are criticised that way, too. People are are not white, abled, middle-class men don’t necessarily dress “professionally”. They don’t always speak “professionally”, and they may not have the kind of household set up that allows them to maintain a nice home and family (because Professional People ideally have a spouse and children who can be referenced in Christmas cards as proof of their Well-Rounded status) while also working the lengthy hours and at multiple locations that academic “professionalism” demands.
Right now I have an unprofessional body. Within me I’m growing another body; 29 weeks and counting, and they are definitely making themselves felt. Fortunately I live in a country where my working rights are protected, and I in fact work at a university with an incredibly generous parental leave provision. All of my colleagues have been thoughtful and considerate of my pregnant state. But there’s still this sense in the industry as a whole that the ideal professional way for women like me to work during pregnancy is to carry on as normal; to make accommodations where necessary, but otherwise to keep going. Because ours are jobs of intellect more than body, and we’ve worked so hard to find a place for ourselves in an industry that was dominated by people who didn’t have to worry about morning sickness or swollen ankles or finding nursery places.
Except that we are always in our bodies. I carry my child with me wherever I go; day by day the boundaries of my flesh are being expanded – sometimes with a glowing unfolding, but more often with aching strain. Even the texture of my skin is different. I am myself, and I am someone else. My emotions feel more raw these days, and that’s not because I’m “hormonal” (all human beings are hormonal all the time; that’s how hormones work), but because I’m undergoing huge physiological, emotional and, yes, intellectual shifts in this two-bodied state. That doesn’t mean that I want to sit in the common room and cry, any more than I think my male colleagues should take up strategic fainting to secure political advantages. But I’m not going to pretend that my academic, as well as my personal life, is not affected by going through a major life change. Not because I need accommodation, in that patronising sense of being treated differently from the “norm”. Nothing I’m experiencing is abnormal – but even if it were, I would still be an academic professional. I don’t have to fulfil a narrow set of socially-coded values – themselves dependent on temporally and culturally specific hegemonic norms – to be “professional”. And neither do you.
Reblogged this on hyperglossia and commented:
Brings to mind the Twitter flurry around Tim Hunt’s recent, ill-advised remarks on working with women in labs ( https://twitter.com/sdgottlieb/status/608635458365476865 ) and also, for lit fiends like myself, Achilles and his “manly tears” – or was that Hector? You know what? It doesn’t matter. They both cried like babies – or like grown-ass men with the ability to acknowledge their own feelings and (importantly) keep on going.
Excuse me while I find some ancient Greek literature about abducting women to take a break from all this misogyny.
I love this post.
It’s far less exciting than what you’re describing, but I do notice how difficult it is to explain the Gawain/Bertilak kiss to modern audiences – yes, it *is* potentially homoerotic/a nod towards the female gaze, but it’s also just men kissing. I might see if next year, I can contextualise it with men swooning and see if that helps shift expectations of what is ‘manly’.
And sending positive thoughts for the rest of the pregnancy.
Great post. I think it’s a ‘science’ thing as well, this idea that one can separate everything else from ‘the truth’, let alone whether the attempt is fair or desirable.
Agreed – though I do see this attitude replicated in my field, which is not particularly scientific! But I’ve blogged previously on the dangers of “objectivity” in historical enquiry, which creates some of the same problems.
There’s so much wrong with Mike Hunt’s [sic] stupid words that it’s hard to know where to begin, but this post is a good start. I’ll just take up what AliceinAcademia said about the science thing – what makes me laugh is the implication that science labs are different to other places of work, like the work done there is SERIOUS and IMPORTANT, and mustn’t be distracted by women who clearly have nothing to offer except tits and tears.
And also, that having and expressing emotions is a sign of weakness, as if the traditional inability of men (at least in the modern era) to express their emotions has nothing to do with why they commit suicide in such high numbers compared to women.
Thank you for this, this is enlightening, and really moving.
Great post, thank you.
What strikes me about the comments is that this man has admitted to emotional behaviour towards women that is disruptive to the workplace, and criticising female collegues to the point of making them cry. The words ‘predator’ and ‘bully’ come to mind.
Yes, I can’t imagine him being the most supportive or congenial colleague…
Great post dude! 🙂
Holy cow, thank you for this. It is (or can be) a liberating point of view for men, too, of course. Good luck with your construction project.
Thanks, Robert. And yes, like many aspects of patriarchy, cultural expectations that men bottle up their emotions does them a lot of harm!
You’re welcome, of course. Yes, the cultural straitjacket is something I think about a lot: http://rjhowe.net/2015/03/07/what-separates-the-men-from-the-boys/
Is it only me or this blog post is just acknowledging what Hunt said about women but there is no need to make sex specific labs and we should accept women for what Hunt proposed they are?
I think it might be only you – but thanks for sharing your perspective.
No need to be nasty.
Reblogged this on Stuff I find on the internet.
Well said! And certainly not confined to research and academia. This is even a problem in “women’s professions.” Is it not ironic that psychoactive prescription drugs increase sales and millions of people turn to psychiatry while our culture continues a relentless squashing of all “emotional behavior?” Oh, wait, no it’s not…
You know it’s been said from the beginning of time that women are the weaker vessel, there is a reason behind that statement. For starters we were made different but now have to adapt to the new norms that are inclusive of the professional society. we do it well so well that some women have been known to make a few of their counterparts cry. Once this happens she’s regarded as a bitch (Miranda from “the devil wears prada”) my point is that women’s emotions are expected to be a prototype of what should be a man’s and it’s been that way since the first female begun working secularly. Hence males expect this no show of emotions to be an inherited tendency passed down to each and every career driven woman, if not you are regarded as weak and unprofessional and never taken seriously. Women should be able to express themselves in an appropriate way, however different it may be from the way a man does, then and only then will we be able to say that we have complete equal rights. And this starts with the male accepting that the female was made different, and the female acknowledging this difference and prove that she as a race is and will always be indispensable.
Thank you for this article.
Reblogged this on Lit Quotes and Avo Toast.
Reblogged this on My Blog.
I’ve just been reading and viewing (an ABC programme) about the bullying of young medicos in a Melbourne institution, which points to a culture of bullying in the workplace here. Mental health issues are worrying. A little crying can actually be a sign of health!
Reblogged this on BIENaija.
Reblogged this on Anne Skyvington and commented:
As an ex-student of French Medieval literature, this post caught my interest from Rachel Moss, lecturer in Medieval History at Oxford University. It is relevant to media accounts of medical workplace bullying in Melbourne recently. It’s a much wider problem, with enormous repercussions on mental health. I added a comment to Rachel’s post that a little bit of crying is a healthier sign than explosive anger against more junior workers. http://www.theage.com.au/comment/medicines-jekyll-and-hyde-complex-doctors-suffer-the-cycle-of-workplace-abuse-20150526-gh9rt5.html
I love the title of this post!
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Lovely piece, this one. Exceptional even.
You’ve made a point that has never crossed my mind. Something to do with “women being only acceptable, if they are just like men.” True, we should never defend ourselves by saying such… we’re measuring ourselves against “men’s standards” which is wrong. We as women, are acceptable just as we are, no justifications required. Hope I got it right.
Thanks very much! Yes, you’re right, and more than that – that we shouldn’t accept social standards that mean there’s only one narrow, framed-as-masculine way of being a good “professional”. We’re a richer, more diverse community than that!
Reblogged this on Gmofo .
Great take on hunt’s comment. It all comes down to gender bias time and again. What’s sad is its coming from such great thinkers and academics.
Great post that touches whole me.
Reblogged this on kade4u's Blog and commented:
This is such an astute post. I think you nailed it when you wrote: “I think it’s dangerous for us women to defend ourselves on the grounds that we work just like men, because that’s buying into a culture that says we are acceptable so long as we behave just like you.”
I don’t think the example of professionalism has quite the same implications, but it does echo the mentality of respectability politics: non-dominant group is ‘safe’ (or in this case, professional) so long as it imitates dominant group. Unless dominant group decides otherwise. Which it may well.
On a side note, the article sounds fascinating: fainting as a political act. Look forward to it.
Reblogged this on Practice.
What a fabulous article. Congratulations on a well-deserved FP, and on your impending arrival.
Great article! I think that what Hunt lacks here is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a valuable asset in the professional workplace and this extends across all professions. We are, at the end of the day, human and while women may ‘cry’ from time to time, I have known men to sulk and become uncooperative and unproductive as a result. The hones is on understanding the different qualities both sexes have to offer and utilising them, not on suffocating them. So what we fall in love. So what we cry. It seems to me that Hunt needs to learn a little about getting a handle on his own emotions before publicly verbalising such nonsense. Yet another dumb thing said by an educated man. Give us strength!
Awesome blog! I’m going to refer your blog to a writer friend of mine. She’ll love it! 🙂
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Thanks for a good read.
The Middle Ages, saw the rise of the Guilds and consequently crafts persons’ working class values taking over the feudal code. So a man doesn’t cry any more, shouldn’t take a nap, should be a handy-man … bloody nuisance, compounded by women who feel insulted when you hold a door or a chair for them!
Hmm, as someone who works quite a lot on men who were members of guilds (check out my posts on the Celys) I don’t quite agree with this! For one thing, many guilds were quite elite organisations – not working class at all in the modern sense. Yes, their social values differed from the aristocracy’s in some ways – but by the late Middle Ages feudalism had declined so much in England that aristocratic values had changed, too.
I’ll just take up what AliceinAcademia said about the science thing – what makes me laugh is the implication that science labs are different to other places of work,
I’m not sure if you meant to stop there? I agree that there are many issues that go beyond the lab setting! I’m not a scientist so I can’t generalise about science working culture, anyway 🙂
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Reblogged this on Varchaswa (Authorce) and commented:
That looks Interesting
Great post…. beautifully written……
Reblogged this on They Loved Camille And Now In The Shadows and commented:
This is definitely a good article for those of us who love the sickly and the ailing, experience erotic sympathy. Fainting, weeping, suffering men are hyper masculine? Why of course. Just as suffering women are hyper feminine. It’s alluring. Swooning men – yes thanks – and as a woman, I swoon regularly and as much as I want. By the way I hate so -called professionalism. Back to the days of courtly love!
I hope you don’t mind me reblogging this.
Reblogged this on kingkhaliofficial.
Since when did a woman carrying kid change from a beautiful gift to humanity into an disability she needs accommodation for?
Since this is not at all what I said, I’m going to assume you’re being deliberately inflammatory. Better luck next time.
I love this.
Reblogged this on Tana Daily Telegraph and commented:
A remarkable post. All in all, emotions appear to not particularly settle for one sex as it does the other. Much has of course been said and written about place of work romance. This interplay between social pressures vis-a-vis matters of romance and emotions can be overwhelming indeed, judging from your personal experience. Thanks for such great post.
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