Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies

Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies
School of Sociology and Social Policy
Social Sciences Building
Leeds, LS2 9JT

Tel: +44 (0) 113 343 3770
Fax: +44 (0) 113 343 4415


#Metoo and the task of coalition building to combat violence against women

by Jessica Wild, PhD candidate, School of Sociology & Social Policy

The recent social media campaign  #metoo transpired following numerous public disclosures of sexual violence, initially by women in show business. This prompted a renewed focus on the widespread perpetration of (sexual) violence against women across all facets of society. Arguably, the campaign gained such significant traction because of the high profiles of the women who spoke out, however its reach has now facilitated a broader public articulation of narratives of the sexism and misogyny women experience daily. For many victim-survivors, it is often only when their experiences are reflected in public discourse that they identify and name their own experience. This has functioned in some ways to galvanise victim-survivors and collectivise their experiences, while sending out a message that they are not alone, pointing to a broader social problem, rather than an individual phenomenon.

The #metoo campaign has also simultaneously sparked a counter discourse from some men, prompting them to speak out and publicly take a stand against violence against women through an acknowledgement of their complicity in this issue. In this, they have highlighted that (men’s) silence indeed equates to collusion when it comes to violence against women. Campaigns such as these therefore plausibly challenge all men’s silence and their collective complicity in a problem which is rooted in social norms and a patriarchal system from which the majority of men routinely benefit. However, at a time when one of the most powerful men in the world has had his own sexually abusive behaviour exposed, and yet remains in office, the extent to which this deeply rooted problem can be challenged through campaigns such as this, is less discernible. It also becomes glaringly obvious that the lived experiences of some women and girls often cannot compete with the privilege and power of some men. Indeed, are we to applaud the men that come out and acknowledge their collusion in this issue, not only via their silence but also often through subtle engagement with violence supportive norms and behaviours that are considered common place and an aspect of mere ‘banter’?

The most recent UK domestic abuse statistics indicate that 8.2% of women and 4.0 % of men reported any form of domestic abuse in the year ending March 2015. This is equivalent to 1.3 million female victim-survivors, and 600 000 male victim-survivors (ONS, 2016), with overall statistics indicating that on average one in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime, and two women killed every week by a current or former partner (Women’s Aid, 2016). Sexual violence is just one form of a range of abuses women and girls experience daily, indicative of the widespread normalisation of violence against women. Despite this, the public narrative and the stories that we tell about women’s experiences of abuse typically remain stubbornly fixed on victims rather than perpetrators, and there has been limited recognition until more recently, that this is an issue which is not the sole prerogative of women to address.  The UK government’s violence against women and girls strategy (2016-2020) outlines an approach which coheres with this assertion, operating on the basic notion that violence against women is “everybody’s business”, with a strategic focus on the engagement of “men, boys and bystanders” to challenge violence against women and “further social change”(Home Office, 2016, p. 52).  Policies implemented under welfare reform are however severely at odds with the Government’s strategy, because while it seemingly recognises the scale of the problem, it has not allocated funds or resources sufficient for the intervention and prevention work required to address this issue in the longer term (Towers and Walby, 2012). This makes for treacherous terrain when seeking to explore new prevention approaches not least because service providers as well as victim-survivors themselves, are often faced with severe funding and provision uncertainty (Robson, 2016).

Given the persistent “everydayness” (Kelly and Westmarland, 2016) and pervasive nature of this issue, we need to begin reworking the normative discourses that inform approaches to prevention, which should strive to go beyond social media campaigns.  This entails resituating the attribution of responsibility and accountability within the public story of sexual and domestic abuse. In practice, this equates to a shifting of responsibility from women and those that experience violence and abuse, to all actors in society, including (non-perpetrating) men. Dismantling the dominant social order which precipitates this violence entails in part, engaging men as social justice ‘allies’, tasked with making it more socially acceptable to resist sexism and misogyny, and call out those who engage with harmful social norms. My research explores these ideas of coalition or alliance building between women and men to prevent domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women. In this, I examine the participation of men in prevention efforts as part of the wider (feminist) social justice movement to address this issue.  This is predicated on the notion that until those that are powerful take an active role in seeking to end discrimination, discrimination and oppression will persist (Casey, 2010). Failure to recognise the role of men in this context can also be construed as the product of a persistent prejudice within a patriarchal system that systematically benefits those in power, and which is indicative of a reluctance to dismantle the dominant social order.

The task of including men as social justice allies in this type of work is not however without significant challenges and risks, which include concerns regarding the co-optation of the women’s anti-violence movement and the obfuscation of women’s voices, particularly when set against the backdrop of the current socio-political climate of austerity.  The political ideology that first underpinned early feminist anti-violence work is also increasingly challenged by the ever more popular discourse of post-feminism. While the definitional boundaries of the term are often quite blurry or overly generalised, in its most common form, post-feminism draws upon the tenets of individual choice, entitlement and (female) empowerment (Gill and Scharff, 2011). Crucially, it espouses the notion that early feminist battles have now been fought and won. In this, post-feminism is positioned as a rejection of the second-wave’s so-called victim-centred feminism and instead offers up women’s (perceived) individual choices and self-determination as an alternative to more radical feminist or political activism (Butler, 2013; Walby, 2011). Informed by neoliberal ideals regarding women’s social positioning and sexuality, postfeminist thought according to this reading, is potentially very damaging for work aimed at addressing men’s violence towards women because it risks positioning women as responsible for their own victimisation, and shifts focus away from the structural conditions and systems of power that precipitate this social problem. It also enables domestic abuse and violence against women to be reconstituted as the problem of individual women and aberrant men (Stanko, 1990).

When situated within this framework, and current socio-political climate, a shift in focus from structural conditions and systems of power, to the individual agency of citizens, functions as Walby (2011) argues, to resituate the gaze onto those that are relatively powerless. This in turn, can lead to victim blaming, while those in power escape public scrutiny. It also risks a potential regression to the early stages of the anti-violence against women movement of the 1980s, which fervently fought to move the issue of domestic abuse out of the private domain of the home, and into the public realm (Dobash and Dobash, 1992). Meaningful and sustainable responses to domestic and sexual abuse require that gender inequality is addressed in a way that acknowledges the role that men play in this, as well as a critical examination of the structural conditions that enable it. This requires the unified strength of collective feminist activism and political action. The notion that feminism has now achieved everything it set out to achieve, or that the most important battles have been won, is incredibly damaging for work to address deep rooted gendered social problems such as domestic abuse. And, in the shadow of campaigns such as #metoo, and current domestic abuse statistics, it is hard to believe that indeed the most important battles have been won.



Butler, J. 2013. For White Girls Only?: Postfeminism and the Politics of Inclusion. Feminist Formations. 25(1), pp.35-58.

Casey, E. 2010. Strategies for Engaging Men as Anti-Violence Allies: Implications for Ally Movements. Advances in Social Work 11(2), pp.267-282.

Dobash, R.E. and Dobash, R.P. 1992. Women, violence and social change. London: Routledge.

Gill, R. and Scharff, C. 2011. New femininities: postfeminism, neoliberalism and subjectivity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Home Office. 2016. Violence against Women and Girls Strategy 2016 – 2020. London: HM Government.

Kelly, L. and Westmarland, N. 2016. Naming and defining ‘domestic violence’: Lessons from research with violent men. Feminist Review. 112(1), pp.113-127.

ONS. 2016. Chapter 4: Intimate personal violence and partner abuse. [Online]. [Accessed 08/08/2016]. Available from: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/compendium/focusonviolentcrimeandsexualoffences/yearendingmarch2015/chapter4intimatepersonalviolenceandpartnerabuse.

Robson, S. 2016. Challenging Austerity: The impact of austerity measures on women’s voluntary community organisations and the response of the women’s sector. [Online]. London: Women’s Resource Centre. Available from: https://thewomensresourcecentre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/State-of-the-womens-sector-survey-reportMay2016-FINAL.pdf.

Stanko, E.A. 1990. Intimate intrusions: women’s experience of male violence. London: Unwin Hyman.

Towers, J. and Walby, S. 2012. Measuring the impact of cuts in public expenditure on the provision of services to prevent violence against women and girls Lancaster University, Northern Rock Foundation, and Trust for London.

Walby, S. 2011. The future of feminism. Cambridge: Polity.

Women’s Aid. 2016. Women’s Aid Annual Survey 2015: the findings London: Women’s Aid.


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Thanksgiving: the relationship between sport, society and oppression. Introduction.

For Thanksgiving this year, Greg Hollin and 5 colleagues compiled a collection of posts on the theme of “Thanksgiving: the relationship between sport, society and oppression”. You can download the collection in pdf form here, but CIGS is also proud to be able to host the series as individual posts here on the blog. There are 6 posts in all, beginning with Greg’s introduction below. Enjoy!


Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel for the national anthem.

By Greg Hollin

Today, the forth Thursday in November, millions of North Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving. Like many others around the world my thoughts and actions today are shaped by two spheres of American life. First, and as fans pour into stadiums in Dallas, Detroit, and Washington, I will be meeting with friends and watching a lot of American Football. Thanksgiving and American Football are inextricably entangled. Much like Association Football and Boxing Day (December 26th) in the UK, playing football on Thanksgiving is a tradition which extends back into the 19th century and the National Football League (NFL) has hosted games on Thanksgiving every year since the league was founded in 1920. Even as someone who supports the side that, last year, suffered ‘the worst defeat in the history of sport’ I find myself drawn back to this tradition.

Second, I will be thinking about colonialism. As Ashley Niccole McCray and Lawrence Ware say in their article for CounterPunch:

‘Let’s be honest. On the last [sic] Thursday of November, every year, we celebrate the beginning of an European invasion that ends with the death or relocation of millions of native people.’

McCray and Ware’s piece is just one of many arguing that Thanksgiving needs to be radically rethought and decolonized. An acknowledgement that Thanksgiving is bound up with colonialism and genocide is not enough; the matter needs to be front and centre for, as Howard Zinn notes in his famed book A People’s History of the United States:

‘To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves – unwittingly – to justify what is done.’ (Zinn 1980: 9)


Under normal circumstances, colonialism and football would occupy different spaces in my mind. This year, however, things are quite different. In part, this is due to the fact that the Washington Redskins – the most brazen of all racist American team names – are playing this Thanksgiving. This coming together of sport, racism, and colonialism is also apparent, however, because of ongoing protests against police brutality made mainly, although not exclusively, by African-American athletes playing in the NFL.

As Rembert Browne writes for Bleacher Report these protests over police brutality came to international attention in August 2016 when it was noticed that then San Francisco 49ers (and now unemployed) quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sitting through the national anthem. (Kaepernick subsequently starting kneeling following conversations with ex-NFL player and military veteran Nate Boyer who suggested that kneeling was more respectful than sitting in a military context.) Over a year later, Kaepernick’s protest continues to generate front page news, not least because of numerous and notable provocations and incidents. First, Donald Trump’s repeated pronouncements on the protests. Second, star Seattle player Michael Bennett’s apparent arrest and mistreatment by the Las Vegas Police Department. Third, mind blowingly offensive statements from NFL owners. And forth, Kaepernick’s ongoing lawsuit which claims that owners of NFL teams have colluded to keep him out of the league. All this, of course, has occurred against ongoing acts of violence which were the cause of protests in the first place. For the first time in a long time, those of us who watch the NFL are being forced to consider matters of race at the exact same moment that we are watching the sport.


The links in the text above provide a good summary of the particularities of the Kaepernick case. The purpose of this blog, however, is to ask a slightly broader question into which the current case clearly fits: what is the relationship between oppression and sport? It seems to me that there are three answers generally proffered in relation to this question.

The first is to suggest that we need to keep politics out of sport. Like church and state, politics and sport need to be kept apart for the good of us all. Recent polls (discussed in the above link) suggest that the majority of Americans feel this way. The problem, of course, is that this is impossible. As the recent Oscar winning documentary OJ: Made in America made clear, politics and sport are absolutely intertwined. How could it be otherwise when there is an Alternative Soccer World Cup for peoples whose nations are not recognised by Soccer’s world governing body, FIFA?

The second option is to consider sport as a mirror of society or broader social patterns. Perhaps the fact that female tennis players and academics are paid less than their male peers should be understood as part of the same patriarchal culture? Examples of this argument are widespread and well-founded. In his biography of Muhammed Ali, for example, David Remnick argues that ‘Ali may not have read W.E.B. Du Bois, but he was a living example of the “two-ness,” the “double-consciousness,” described in The Souls of Black Folk’ (Remnick 1999: 278). The implication here is that Ali, his views, and his treatment can be understood with reference to pre-existing social theories which are not concerned with the particularities of sport.

The third (and final?) option is that sport somehow shapes or modifies oppressions and plays a constitutive role in society. Sport here does not reflect society but, as Jelani Cobb puts it, ‘refracts’ (that is, modifies) national anxieties. This view is well articulated by the historian, journalist, and socialist CLR James. In Beyond a Boundary, often claimed to be the greatest sports book ever written, James discusses liberal and socialist histories of Victorian England. James is aghast that these histories do not include mention of W.G. Grace, one of cricket’s most enduring icons and important players:

‘I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace… Between those who, writing about social life in Britain, can leave him out, and myself, there yawns a gulf deep and wide.’ (James 1963/2005: 208)

For James, understanding society necessitates an understanding of sport – not as an epiphenomenon but as a constitutive element.


For me, understanding the relationship between sport, society, and oppression is a fascinating and important area of sociological inquiry; albeit an area I am not qualified to contribute to. Fortunately, here at Leeds there are a number of scholars whose work entails a detailed understanding of the relationship between sport and society. This Thanksgiving, at a time when colonialism and sport are to the front of so many minds, I asked scholars in our school a question which speaks to this matter:

“How should we understand the role of sport within society, with particular reference to various oppressions?”

In answering this question there is first is a contribution by Sonja Erikainen. Sonja (@SonjaErikainen on twitter) is a research fellow at The University of Edinburgh but, until recently, was a research student in the school. Sonja’s PhD involved a genealogy of the female category in Olympic sport. The current piece engages extensively with Colin Kaepernick and the ‘take a knee’ movement.

Second, work from Hizer Mir. Hizer (@hizzy20) is a PhD researcher in the school. Hizer’s work concerns matters of Islam, secularization, and understandings of the public sphere and last year Hizer discussed some of these issues in relation to ‘Steph Curry’s game winning shot’ making his work particularly applicable to the current context.

Third, Kay Phoenix Nacto. Phoenix is a PhD student in the school whose work engages with feminism, race, and popular culture. In this piece, Pheonix addresses another facet of the debate surrounding race and the NFL: the decision to invite Justin Timberlake to the superbowl in 2017 while ignoring Janet Jackson.

Fourth, a piece from Karen Throsby. Karen (@thelongswim) is Associate Professor within the school and has written extensively on gender and long distance swimming. It is from within this sporting arena that Karen situates her piece here.

Finally, the thoughts of Rodanthi Tzanelli, Associate Professor of Cultural Psychology. Rodanthi (@RodanthiPu) has written extensively on media, tourism, and globalization and this includes work examining recent Olympic ceremonies. The current piece, which Rodanthi has entitled ‘football mobilities’ examines oppression with a global focus very much in mind.

The answers below, ordered alphabetically, are thoughtful and diverse and I hope they make us all think about this matter a little more closely.


James, C., 2005. Beyond a Boundary, London: Yellow Jersey Press.

Remnick, D., 1999. King of the World: Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, New York: Picador.

Zinn, H., 1980. A People’s History of the United States, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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Thanksgiving: the relationship between sports, society and oppression (2/6)

By Sonja Erikainen

After Colin Kaepernick ‘took the knee’ during the American national anthem at the 2016 NFL season to protest racial stereotyping and injustice in the US legal system, many athletes have embraced kneeling down during the American anthem as an anti-racist practice allied with the Black Lives Matter social movement. In response to this activism, US president Donald Trump used his notable social media presence to condemn such kneeling, declaring that “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it!”

Sport is often viewed as an apolitical sphere or, indeed, as a level playing field disconnected from broader social, cultural, and economic conditions, as success and excellence in sport should be determined based on performance alone. Yet, institutionalised competitive sport in America and elsewhere is a space where national and social identities, inequalities, and forms of oppression are highlighted, reproduced, and resisted. When ‘taking the knee’, athletes like Kaepernick contribute to a long history of political activism in sport that targets broader inequalities beyond the sporting world.

Benedict Anderson famously argued that nations, like other social communities, are ‘imagined’ in the sense that national identities, including ‘American’, are collectively created or constructed through a process of active imagination. National identities require a vision of a national community with shared attributes, values, and ideals that unite all of ‘us’ – the Americans. The idea of ‘national sport’ is particularly useful for creating a sense of shared national identity, as it allows ‘us’ to rally around ‘our’ national teams and ‘our’ sporting heroes and heroines. Indeed, athletes often come to symbolise or represent the national collective, and their bodies stand as symbols of the ‘body politic’. Their victories are celebrated as a national accomplishment while their losses are suffered collectively.

Yet, when it comes to athletes who embody identities that occupy a marginalised position in the cultural and political life of the nation – such as African American identities and bodies in the hegemonic white culture of the US – their ability to represent the nation (‘correctly’) is not clear cut. The bodies and identities of African American athletes evoke not only contemporary debates about the status of ‘race’ in American society, but they also evoke related colonial legacies that have long portrayed black subjects as uncivilised, uncultured, deviant, child-like at best and animal-like at worst. Exemplary is the imaginary of the ‘natural black athlete’, which represents black athletes’ sporting achievements as a side-product of natural (animal-like) vigour of black bodies, contrasted against white athletes’ sporting accomplishments represented to be a cultural attainment achieved through refined skill and technique. Viewed through this lens, the success of black athletes in the sphere of sports appears as the result of their perceived natural aptitude for hard bodily labour (recalling justifications for slavery), contrasted against white subjects’ perceived aptitude for cultural and intellectual endeavours.

African American anti-racist sport activism has always taken place in the context of these broader socio-historical, cultural and political circumstances through which black subjects have been systematically denied access to American cultural life and political power. Athletic participation and excellence has served as one of the few avenues through which cultural legitimacy and recognition has historically been awarded to black communities under conditions of white supremacy. From riots to protests and boycotts to dashikis, large afros, and raised fists as a challenge to dominant white norms and white supremacy, African American athletes have used a myriad of strategies to resist, challenge, and change oppressive social structures. Such activism has overwhelmingly been condemned and demonised as anti-American by defenders of the ‘American dream’ because it poses a threat to the national ethos of American society, imagined as a liberal sphere where prosperity and success are attainable for all, if one only works hard.

The sphere of sport, and the identities and bodies of athletes who occupy this sphere at the highest competitive level, have great symbolic power when it comes to reproducing as well as resisting the nation’s image of itself. When Trump condemned ‘taking the knee’ as disrespectful and dishonourable anti-patriotism, he stood as a champion of American nationalist imaginaries within which national unity is created by suppressing alternative visions of cultural and political life. Kaepernick and others’ act of kneeling is dangerous to this vision of unity, because it poses a symbolic challenge and a threat to American racial hierarchies within which black lives have not, and are not taken to matter as white lives do.

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Thanksgiving: the relationship between sport, society and oppression (3/6)

By Hizer Mir

The role of sport in society has undergone a transformation in the past two years or so, ever since Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee during his country’s national anthem. Perhaps, however, this story would be slightly misleading as Mahmoud Abdul Rauf protested during the American national anthem well before Kaepernick took a knee. Who did what first does not concern us however. What does concern us is what both events show. What both instances show us is that sport can go far beyond being the “bread and circuses” of modern society. Perhaps what marks Kaepernick’s experience off from Abdul Rauf’s is the election of Donald Trump. The election of Donald Trump has led to the politicisation of sport on an hitherto unprecedented scale. The list of incidences are endless: Trump’s SoB comment, the withdrawing of an invite to the Golden State Warriors, the far right boycotting of the NFL and embracing of the NHL and so on.

So what does this mean for the role of sport in today’s society? Whilst sport has not become as politicised in the UK as in the US (yet) we can draw some general points from occurrences in the US.

The first, and most important, role sports play is that of a mirror to society. It reflects who we are and if we don’t like it then something must change. We can either change ourselves or we can look away. Perhaps a comparison can be made between a disfigured person looking in the mirror and turning away and the far right turning from the NFL to the NHL.

The second role is new to sports. It is as a gateway to the political. The political has infiltrated sports thus leading to a politicisation of sports. This can be seen quite clearly in the sports talk shows in the US (especially First Take and Undisputed). This role is perhaps the most controversial as it has led to a backlash in which people claim politics should be kept out of sport. This should be seen as a cry to place sport within the category of a distraction from the “real” world. This role can be seen more in the US than the UK at the present time.

The third role is that of a mediator between the political class and a (significantly large) portion of the electorate. This role comes as a direct result of the second. When Kaepernick took a knee he was doing so on the basis of thoughts and actions of people far less famous and far less able to capture the spotlight. Thus Kaepernick, and now others, have become a vehicle through which the demands of the often overlooked can be voiced on a national stage. The implications of this are grave. The implication of this is the failure of the current political order to adequately represent everyone. Thus, for some, sports more adequately represents them than do their politicians.


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Thanksgiving: the relationship between sport, society and oppression (4/6)

By Kay Phoenix Nacto

On October 23, 2017 Justin Timberlake (with the assistance of his friend and entertainer Jimmy Fallon) announced that he will be performing at the upcoming Super Bowl Halftime show. One question began to circulate social media and many conversations surrounding the upcoming game: what about Janet Jackson?

February 1st 2004, the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime show would change lives and the internet drastically. Janet and Justin put on a show that was both entertaining and memorable but would become infamous for all the wrong reasons. Somewhere amid the performance Justin accidently revealed Janet’s breast and the wardrobe malfunction (a phrase which was introduced to the pop-culture vernacular because of what happened) would not only be recorded, but replayed, and reviewed on a mass scale due to TiVo, which changed the way people watched tv at home. It would also be the reason that YouTube was created. Jawed Karim (one the 3 founders) has stated in many interviews that his idea for what became YouTube sprang from two very different events in 2004: Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” during a Super Bowl show, and the Asian tsunami.

The broadcasted incident garnered CBS a fine from the FCC and backlash for Justin. More importantly, the Grammy revoked privileges for Janet that year, as well as a series of events that some would call a blackballing within the entertainment industry. Nipplegate became the coined phrase for the situation because everyone wanted to know, “whose fault was it really?”

Janet Jackson is a multiplatinum selling artist. She is an icon. She is a part of the Jackson family legacy. She is a black body performing in front of the white dominated male world.

When thinking about bodies, materiality comes to mind, but it is not that simple. The body is subjected to perception. The body is raced, gendered, and classed. This intersection and the body’s intersectional existance is why one body appears as more important than another. For instance, the ways black women’s bodies are viewed as spectacles in the public is rooted in the intersections of power, privilege, and oppression. Black bodies suffer from both invisibility and hypervisibility and it was ever so present during the unpacking of the halftime show.

Janet’s body was replayed and dissected on both live TV and in private homes, just as the body of Sara Baartman, a South African woman who lived in the 1800s, was in public arenas and private hospital rooms. There is no doubt that Janet has agency over her body, but there is much to be said about the blame that was placed on her at the time, and how it was claimed that the “accident” was a stunt that she created to get attention. Her music, her platform, and her image changed. Black female bodies have always been at the pleasure of the public and that mean they can be policed and controlled. As with women who have been sexually assaulted there tends to be a spotlight on what she was wearing, what did she do to bring the unwanted attention, how could she have avoided the situation.

The very idea about invisibility and hypervisibility is what made Colin Kaepernick take a knee. He highlighted the injustices of black bodies regarding police brutality, in return his own black body has become a target for multiple conversations surrounding sports and politics. The Super Bowl Halftime show might seem trivial in comparison, but it is relevant nonetheless. Perhaps amid Justin’s performance, Janet may show up and that could be a small means of reparation for what happened back in 2004.  However, it will not be a conclusion to the necessary, although often silenced, ongoing conversation about whose body matters.

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Thanksgiving: the relationship between sport, society and oppression (5/6)

By Karen Throsby

Sport, or at least some sports, enjoy extraordinarily privileged status. At the level of elite sport, national pride, vast sums of money, the passionate belonging of team loyalties and the spectacular feats of extraordinary bodies create a privileged domain which can dictate TV schedules, mark holidays and capture national headlines. At the amateur level, sport provides a means of demonstrating bodily discipline through practices normatively coded as healthy and is a source of pleasure to many; the sporting subject is the good citizen par excellence.

But the public endorsement of sport and its subjects is also premised on exclusions that should give us pause for thought. Sport remains determinedly demarcated on gendered lines, with men and women rarely allowed to compete directly with each other. The boundaries between men and women’s sport are closely regulated and policed, with women at risk of exclusion if their hormonal or genetic profiles exceed arbitrarily defined boundaries of acceptable femininity. And even when women can compete, they still experience systematic exclusion and discrimination: women’s sport receives only a tiny fraction of the media coverage that men enjoy, women are frequently limited to fewer and shorter events and they receive lower rewards in prize money and sponsorship. Other exclusions persist alongside the rigorous and hierarchical gendering of sport: sporting participation is constrained for many by lack of access to facilities, prohibitive costs, the absence of childcare or the failure to accommodate the needs of disabled athletes. And for some, participation in sport is simply too shaming a possibility to face; it is hard to be a fat body, for example, in an environment so strongly oriented towards the elimination of fatness, and where access to size-appropriate equipment and clothing may not be available.  Race also serves as an axis along which discrimination persists, with ideas of sporting ‘fit’ closing off opportunities and limiting choice. For example, the whiteness of my own sport of swimming remains mired in notions of the incompatibility of blackness and swimming, and in particular, the myth of higher bone density as a precluding factor; it is a prejudice of significant consequence when we realise that young black boys are far more likely to drown than their white peers.

Sport, then, can be understood both as a mirror of the social and a means of its reproduction. Attempts to figure sport as outside of politics (for example, in the Olympic movement, or in recent debates about ‘taking a knee’) obscure its status as an intensely political site, not only in national and international settings, but also at the level of individual bodies as they variously challenge and sustain what counts as the ‘good body’ in contemporary society.

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Thanksgiving: the relationship between sport, society and oppression (6/6)

By Rodanthi Tzanelli

Football mobilities: Between the Scylla of ethno-racism and the Charybdis of neoliberalism

Football rituals are embedded in contemporary Gesellshaft structures (a-la Tőnnies), constantly updating the mechanisms with which societies change from within and without. Football is the maiden of globalisation: it instigates multiple mobilities of ideas, humans, emotions and technologies. This becomes even more evident when we look closer at the ways individuals and whole imagined communities use the sport to negotiate their place in globalised ethno-racist contexts.

It was football the ensured black migrants’ upward social mobility in postcolonial contexts such as those of Brazil, where originally black workers were seen as less human than white populations (hence not suitable to become professional players). Notably, their professional entry into the sport was equated with an entry into civilised Western modernity, thus bringing together questions of global class and racial hierarchies. Today famous players such as Pelé embody the Brazilian nation’s participation in Western and European mobilities, now supported by global corporations and international organisations. At the same time, such football ‘tokens’ of civility fuel nationalist clashes to promote individual nations in regional contexts – take for example how conflicts between Argentinian and Brazilian fans during matches are filtered through the worship of national players (Pelé  vs. Maradona – Carmo, July 7, 2014).

If historically football is an aspect of soft colonialism (the English invented and imported the sport in the ‘developed’ world), its contemporary role in world societies as an arbitrator of (in)justice is far more ambivalent. As a technology of the body, it ‘flags’ the player’s (and his nation’s) ethno-phenotypical fixities, but as a technology represented, interpellated or simply mediated by other technologies (TV and internet industries), it places players and their nations on a global neoliberal map. And there is more: in more recent decades, players such as Pelé, used the power of neoliberal mobilities to also turn themselves into independent brands, thus allegedly escaping harmful ethno-racial stereotyping (as cosmopolitan professionals).[1] It seems that at least for black football players, the sport offers an either-or interpellation of agency: ethno-racialized or neoliberal.

Such interpellations have serious consequences in ritualist terms, both liberating and fettering. Take for example the loud disapproval of Colin Kaepernick’s ‘taking to one knee’ during the national anthem when he played for the San Francisco 49ers, in protest of police brutality against black Americans. Likewise, at the day’s first football game at Wembley Stadium this year, twenty-seven players from the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens dropped down and took a knee on the field to the sounds of the anthem (St. Félix, September 24, 2017). This ritualised performance, which both negates and worships the ‘nation’, transfixes audiences and fans: as a transgressive act in front of the camera, it asserts the players’ individualistic identity vis-à-vis that of a national collectivity. Note the tweet by Trump (ironically, a proponent of neoliberal risqué individualism) about the ‘son of a bitch’ N.F.L. players who ‘disrespect’ the ‘Flag (or Country)’ (ibid.) with their bizarre genuflection. This reaction missed the point: ‘there did not appear to be any white players taking a knee’ (Ingle, September 24, 2017). Hence, such defiance could also be read as a sign of deep respect to the ‘nation’, despite its historical and contemporary contributions to racial inequality – a need to both be a cosmopolitan individual and belong. It is as if, on and off the field, football’s ritualist ambivalence bears the mark of black strangerhood (a-la Simmel): never accepted entirely as part of the imagined community, it allows the player to move across semantic fields as a stranger or citizen, who, during the process is often appropriated by global audio-visual markets and turned into a mobility token.


Carmo, M. (July 7, 2014) Canção de “Maradona maior que Pelé” foi “ensinada” a argentinos um dia antes da estreia na Copa, BBC Brasil. Available at www.bbc.co.uk/portuguese/noticias/2014/07/140707_argentina_musica_wc2014_hb_mc.shtml.

Ingle, S. (September 24, 2017). Donald Trump defied at Wembley as Jaguars and Ravens kneel for anthem. The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/sep/24/donald-trump-defied-wembley-jaguars-ravens-nfl-kneel-anthem.

St. Félix, Doreen (September 24, 2017). What Will Taking the Knee Mean Now? The New Yorker. Available at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-appearances/what-will-taking-the-knee-mean-now.

Tzanelli, R. (2013). Olympic Ceremonialism and the Performance of National Character: From London 2012 to Rio 2012. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] ‘Pelé is known in print-capitalist circuits through his best-selling autobiographies, his starring in several successful documentary and semi-documentary films, and his composition of numerous musical pieces, including the soundtrack for the film Pelé (1977). In 2009 he cooperated with Ubisoft on arcade football game Academy of Champions: Soccer for the Wii in which he voiced-over the coach (Scullion, 2 June 2009). His sign value in global industrial systems makes him both a national and a transnational good – a new cosmopolitan subject’ (Tzanelli, 2013: 116).


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The unseen hazards of researching sugar

by Karen Throsby

A few weeks ago, as part of my ongoing research on the social life of sugar, I set myself the task of watching a series of anti-sugar, and by extension, anti-obesity, documentary films. How do they tell the story of sugar in contemporary society? What evidence do they draw on? What imagery do they use? Who are the authoritative voices of anti-sugar? How do gender, race and class figure in those narratives?

Over just a few days, I watched Cereal Killers, Run on Fat, The Big Fat Fix, What the Health, Fed Up and Carb-Loaded. I watched each one twice; the first viewing was to get a general sense of the film, and during the second, I took detailed notes. It sounds leisurely and entertaining to watch films for research, but by the time I got to What the Health – an anti-sugar, anti-dairy documentary promoting a whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet – I started to feel inescapably sad at the overwhelming fat-hatred that runs through the films. I took stock and revisited my notes. They recorded over and over again the use of what fat activist, Charlotte Cooper calls the ‘headless fatty’ images – fat, headless torsos, thighs or backsides, often with hands clutching packages of fast food, from which we are supposed to deduce a lifetime of poor choices and devastatingly expensive health problems. A parade of ‘experts’ – predominantly white, male, middle class professionals – proclaim the catastrophe of the fat body, and especially in the case of children. In Fed Up, we meet 12 year old Maggie, who cries in despair and shame because she hasn’t lost any weight. Only her body size matters to the filmmakers, and the commentary ignores how articulate she is, how insightful, or how much fun we see her having in clips of her swimming and kayaking with her friends. These ‘failed’ bodies are contrasted with the ‘good’ bodies of predominantly male athletes whose lean, able-bodied physicality signal the normative self-control of the disciplined subject. None of the films talk about the constraining effects and pressing demands of poverty, or the gendered labour of shopping for and preparing the fresh, whole food they recommended.

The fat-phobia of the films started to weigh heavily on me. The films are hate narratives parading as entertainment and they are stained with contempt for the fat body. I felt poisoned by them, and in spite of my very critical understanding of fatness, I had inadvertently made myself a target of their fat hatred simply by virtue of watching the films. It was dispiriting; a concentrated encounter with the hatred that the visibly fat encounter every day, and one that brought my enthusiasm for my new project temporarily to a grinding halt.

So what’s a researcher to do? Clearly, leaving the films unwatched and unexamined is not an option, so instead, I instigated an anti-sugar film self-care regime. The first step was to abandon my binge-watching strategy and pack away the films; I took a whole week off from watching and instead burrowed my way through a pile of feminist technoscience studies gems that restored my faith in the world and in my research. The second step was to move to a schedule of no more than one film per week; and then finally, to follow each film immediately with a book of such incisive and feminist potency that the fat-phobic stain simply couldn’t withstand its force. The take away lessons from this experience are: (1) pace yourself, especially with potentially upsetting material; and (2) never underestimate the restorative power of feminist literature.

Karen Throsby is researching the sociology of sugar. Read more about the project here:





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My Degree Explained: Gender Studies MA

By Olivia Morris


When I tell people that I’m studying an MA in Gender Studies, I’m typically faced with some pretty poor and misinformed reactions including: “Eh? Gender Studies? Is that just a bunch of women sat around complaining about men?” “Are you going to be able to get a job with that?” “There can’t be that many people on your course…” “Are there any boys who do it?” and so on…

The amount of students on the course offered at the University of Leeds almost doubled from 2015 to 2016 with an additional 12 students taking the MA. There are a variety of people on the course who represent various gender identities, come from all kinds of different backgrounds and cultures, and between us there are more than 19 different languages spoken, including a student who can sign-language.

Students with a masters in gender studies go on to do a wide range of careers including: teaching, working for NGOs, campaigning and activism, further study, journalism, law and many more.

The research, analysis and communication skills that the course provides you with means there are plenty of options for students to go on to do. The course in general provides us with an overview of the gendered inequalities that we face in society both in the past and now, and what we can do to tackle these issues.

So what exactly is a MA in Gender Studies, and why is it becoming more popular? With the help of some fellow students and lecturers, I want to bust a few myths about Gender Studies at Master’s level, explaining what it’s really about and why it’s so important, from those who actually do the course.

Francesca Taylor, Student

“In September 2015 I began volunteering for a local women’s charity Support After Rape and Sexual Violence Leeds. It was through delivering frontline women’s services as a helpline volunteer, supporting survivors of sexual violence, that I fully realised the extent of gender discrimination and the necessity for more conversations and studies about gender inequality.

“Flash-forward a year on and I’m studying for my M.A in Gender Studies at Leeds with a view to work for a gender based charity in the future.

“The course offers an in-depth insight into feminist, queer and postcolonial theories (among many others); ways that we might research gender in a sensitive, effective way; and discussions revolve around important relevant examples relating to gender in the changing, technological world in which we live.

“If you are interested in how gender is experienced differently and want to learn from other’s experiences by having important conversations, then I would wholeheartedly recommend studying gender at master’s level.”

Karen Throsby, Associate Professor

“An understanding of gender relations in society has never been more important, locally, nationally and globally. Courses like those at CIGS (Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies), and those run by other feminists across the country, enable students to think critically and reflexively about gender relations in all their complexity, and in ways that enable them to engage politically with the social world.

“These programmes also enable students to form alliances with feminists from around the world that will endure well beyond the degree programme itself.

“In a moment when the future president of the United States can talk unashamedly about sexually assaulting women and still be elected, I can’t think of anything more important than trying to understand gendered power relations and our own complicated relations to them, as well as seeking out points of intervention and resistance.”

Georgie Oi, Student

“I applied to do an MA in Gender Studies because I had been working in the public sector for sometime and wanted to specialise in sectors where a knowledge of gender issues would be useful. For example, working with survivors of domestic violence.

“On a personal note, I have experienced sexism all throughout my life and I wanted to empower myself to challenge this.”

Joyce Yi, Student

“The reason why I choose gender studies is because I’ve seen loads of gender inequality issues in our everyday lives. Some women are suffering from the ideal female gender roles.

“The most horrible thing is that they blame themselves if they do not fit the ideal image of women. Men can also be victims under the typical gender stereotypes. So I’m really curious how those roles and ‘truth’ are established in the society; what things we can do to help ourselves and others to live more freely.”

Current students on the course at Leeds took a wide range of undergraduate courses including English, Theatre, Music, Sociology, History, Psychology, Politics, International Relations and many more.

In a world that is becoming ever more uncertain, it is imperative that the students of today equip themselves with the tools and knowledge to challenge what faces us.


This article first appeared on Kettle on 2nd April 2017.

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Sugar Rush: Science, Obesity and the Social Life of Sugar

by Karen Throsby


After decades of warnings about the perils of dietary fat, in recent years, sugar has stepped into the limelight as the public health bête noir. You can barely open a magazine, newspaper or social media feed these days without encountering dire warnings about the threat to health posed by sugar, or the proffering of programmes to help you quit the white stuff. It’s a concern that resonates at the global level. In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that we limit free (or added) sugars to 10% of our daily intake – less that the amount contained in a single can of Coke. And in 2016, the WHO called for the global taxation of sugary drinks to tackle obesity and type II diabetes, particularly in relation to children. Health entrepreneurs have hopped on board, and there is a proliferation of anti-sugar popular science texts, low carbohydrate dietary plans and first person and how-to guides to giving up sugar, available for purchase or via subscription access. Giving up sugar has also become a site of charitable fund-raising. For example, in February 2017, the Cancer Research Fund launched “Sugar Free February”, and in March 2017, the British Heart Foundation recruited over 16,000 participants for its sponsored “Dechox” fund-raising initiative.

With the exception of those commercially invested in the sugar industry, there is widespread agreement that the high consumption of sugar, and its almost universal presence in processed and packaged foods (approximately 75% of supermarket stock has added sugar), constitutes a public health issue. However, debates rumble on among scientists, clinicians and policy makers about what counts as sugar (all carbohydrates? Added sugars?), on the feasibility of sugar consumption in moderation (an argument favoured by the sugar industry, perhaps not surprisingly), and the relation of sugar to the familiar dietary enemy, fat. These contestations sit at the intersection of anti-obesity ideology, professional status and the authority of science, and the vested and commercial interests of ‘big sugar’ and its allies, and are central to the ways in which sugar is understood and made meaningful in contemporary society. They are also inextricable from generational, gendered, raced and classed assumptions about who the primary consumers of sugar are, how food habits and tastes are produced and sustained, the meanings of food across different contexts and how changes in food behaviour occur.

The current rush to position sugar as what anti-sugar researcher and popular nutritional science writer, Robert Lustig, describes as the “Darth Vader of the Empire” is the focus of my new project, entitled “Sugar Rush: Science, Obesity and the Social Life of Sugar”. The research, which is supported by a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, will begin from the question: “What are the social meanings and practices of sugar in the context of the ‘war on obesity’? I plan to explore this by gathering together an assemblage of discourses and materialities through which sugar is made meaningful, and through which the social life of sugar is enacted. This accumulated archive will include: policy documents, parliamentary statements; professional medical association statements; published scientific research; popular texts; websites; media reports and other sources that both reflect and produce the contemporary social meanings of, attachments to, and repudiations of sugar. I hope that the subsequent analysis will facilitate a greater understanding of the ways in which sugar is operating as node through which our anxieties about food, health and bodies are made meaningful.

My interest here is not to determine the ‘truths’ of sugar or to dictate what people should or should not eat. Instead, I want to use the rush to sugar to explore the intersection of key sites of social inquiry including: scientific knowledge production, validation and popular appropriation; the role of generation, gender, race an class in the production of embodied citizenship; the politics of food, particularly in the context of austerity; and the contemporary panics around health and body size.

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