Forging new paths of intersectionality
Jeanne Scheper to lead UCI Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies
Since its inception in 1975 as the center of feminist scholarship at the University of California, Irvine, the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies has been dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of gender and sexuality in their articulations of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality and socio-economic class. Jeanne Scheper, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies, has recently taken up the position of chair of the department. Under Scheper’s leadership, the department is expanding its areas of studies to include Black feminist theory and cultural studies.
Scheper is a scholar of feminist performance studies; visual culture and activism; cultural studies and cultural criticism; and theories of race, gender, & sexuality. She is the author of numerous articles as well as the book, Moving Performances: Divas, Iconicity, and Remembering the Modern Stage (Rutgers University Press, December 2016), which tells the stories of four early twentieth-century divas—Aida Overton Walker, Loïe Fuller, Libby Holman, and Josephine Baker. Here, Scheper shares her vision for the department.
As the new chair of the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies, what do you hope to accomplish?
I’m fired up to see how our department will contribute to the major changes happening right now. I can share that we are hiring for a new tenure-track assistant professor position in Black feminist theory and cultural studies. This is a historic hire – the first in this scholarly area for our department and it comes at a critical time when the nation and the university are engaging seriously and in unprecedented ways with confronting racial injustice. UCI is leading with the Black Thriving Initiative and the School of Humanities is leading with its newly established climate council. My vision for GSS is that the work we have done up to this point to form the field of feminist transnational studies will be complemented and expanded by our future work in Black feminisms. This synergy can produce a real and lasting impact on the field of gender and sexuality studies.
I am also committed to learning how we can make positive changes to the experiences of college for our students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). I want GSS to be a scholarly homeplace for what I think of as our larger community of feminist voices at UCI.
What makes UCI’s Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies distinct from other programs?
The way we ask and answer questions is unexpected, and you could even say incendiary! We’re not asking: Is it a boy or a girl? Instead, we are asking how and why the El Dorado Fire (September 2020) was sparked by the pyrotechnics of a gender-reveal party? In other words, we look at the everyday world and ask: What are the social and cultural investments in gender? Why do they take the shape that they do? And, to extend the El Dorado Fire as a metaphor, what combustible impacts do investments in gender have? GSS classes are not going to use one method or perspective to examine these questions. Students are going to draw from sociology as well as poetry, from military history as well as environmental science, as they look at how gender and sexuality operate in different national and global contexts. We start by challenging Western frameworks that all too often miss the complex genealogies of feminism. I often think when students take our classes, they do not find what they expected. For instance, in “Gender and Popular Culture,” I like to start by de-bunking the expectation that what we will be doing is looking for “good and bad images.” Rather we ask: What are images and popular media doing? How is power operating? Who is benefitting? What is the larger context in which popular culture operates? That line of inquiry—a form of political economy critique—produces very different and interesting results.
Why is it important to study issues pertaining to gender and sexuality today?
It’s a cliché to say there’s never been a more important or interesting or critical time to study gender and sexuality, but it’s true. We returned to the university this fall, still in the midst of a global pandemic that continues to reveal, as did earlier events like Hurricane Katrina, that such crises are not “natural or biological disasters” but indeed human-made catastrophes driven by underlying and persistent structural and power inequities. We are seeing how Black people are experiencing the highest rates of severe complications and death from the coronavirus and finally seeing the mainstream media report on how systemic racism has fed health inequities in our country (for example, see this New York Times piece by our colleague Sabrina Strings, associate professor of sociology). We are only just beginning to understand the impact of the “gendered shutdown”—how women were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic from losing or leaving employment—to bearing the lion’s share of care-taking responsibilities that often mean effectively home-schooling while working from home (which, as a working parent, I am doing right now!). And more urgently, we need to examine who even gets to be a mother – which mothers are “disposable” and can be summarily separated from their children at the border?
Here’s what’s key: we need to study the systems and processes that brought us to this point. How have slavery and colonialism contributed to our ways of seeing and performing gender? This means examining society’s ideas of who counts as a “woman” or even who gets to have a gender. How have Black women been excluded from the category of “gender” altogether? And you can’t ask about categories of gender and sexuality without understanding how they are mutually constituted by race, nation, class, disability and so forth. Thinking about the complexity of power and social inequities is at the heart of Black feminist thought and one of the key terms for this method is “intersectionality.” It’s never been more important to understand the history of this term because it has been weaponized and misrepresented in this election cycle. That’s why students in my “Feminism and Social Change” course right now are reading How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, which includes interviews with the feminists who formed one of the most important organizations to develop out of the antiracist and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s and pairs this with an interview with one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. What students are noticing and getting excited about are the very local ways that organizing takes shape – from retreats and reading groups and community actions that resonate with the forms of mutual aid that are having a renewed importance during this time of global pandemic.
What about UCI and the UCI community makes it an ideal spot for studying these topics?
Let me speak to this moment. I have one student who works in L.A. at a flower shop and her experience of this pandemic was going from making bouquets for happy occasions to realizing she was going to be making a slew of arrangements for funerals. Her shop served a community that was hard hit, and they began to gift those arrangements because people didn’t have the resources for them. That’s a powerful standpoint from which to view the pandemic and give testimony. Students connected the ideas of community self-determination in the Combahee River Statement to the L.A. mutual aid project Community Fridges. Years ago, when I was new to Irvine and UCI, one of my students introduced me to leaders in the UndocuQueer movement, a network of queer undocumented immigrant activists, and she developed curriculum that is now a regular part of my courses. Today, UCI has a Dream Center and the GSS department is in its second year of hosting a DREAM fellow as part of our team of feminist scholars. In answer to your question, when you bring together first-generation college students, transfer students, BIPOC students, Latinx, and Asian American students from a variety of backgrounds and communities, and you have a strong cohort of LGBTQ students, it’s a rich environment for students to bring their life experiences into the academic conversation in ways that expand the significance and meaning of abstract concepts like “patriarchy” or “hegemony” and they challenge each other to think of how these terms operate in different cultural and national contexts, or in different time periods. I know I’m always learning.
What can we look forward to from the department?
This Fall, I welcomed GSS faculty, students, staff, community, family, friends and allies back to the new academic year: remotely yet engaged. While I hope to never have to have another year of remote learning, I want this one to do the work of connecting us—for now—in our shared labors as feminist scholars and scholar-activists. We are working not only during a pandemic, but also during an uprising against anti-Black police and state violence—the conditions of which and the resistance to which are not new, yet have risen to a new level of visibility in the public sphere and in the business of the university and in our homes and communities. We are now having a different kind of conversation about Black Lives Matter, a movement founded by Black Queer Feminists, Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, & Patrisse Cullors, and led by Black Womxn in the most inclusive possibilities of that term. As GSS scholars, we continue to work every day to understand the intersectional composition of gender, sexuality, and race—to understand how power operates across bodies and identities, to challenge structural racism, and to work to undo the harmful effects of gender norms and racial violence.
Our work this year will take up many of these pressing issues whether through our courses, through film screenings and watch parties, public lectures, workshops and works-in-progress presentations by our graduate students and faculty affiliates. We will also be celebrating the recent publications of our faculty: Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies Laura Kang’s Traffic in Asian Women (Duke University Press, 2020) and Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies Catherine Sameh’s Axis of Hope: Iranian Women's Rights Activism Across Borders (University of Washington Press, 2019).
Again, we look forward to working together, remotely and collectively engaged.
Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI