I am gathering up my papers at the end of class when an earnestly intelligent young woman approaches me. ‘I have a question about our research assignment,’ she says. ‘Do you have time to talk now?’ ‘Of course,’ I reply, though my next class starts in a mere ten minutes and I really need to get a coffee, having dropped my first one in the subway station that morning. As I stood there, staring at the brown puddle on the tiled floor, another patron stopped and sympathetically remarked ‘that’s sad, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes it is,’ I nodded as our eyes met in shared recognition of the utter hopelessness of the human condition. It was magical. Back to my brain-foggy classroom: ‘I want to analyze the representation of women during the early modern period by comparing a European print with an Asian one, drawn from the university’s collections.’ ‘That’s a great idea,’ I respond, pleased that she has understood my you-must-work-only-from-original-sources tyrannical style. ‘Once you have selected your images, come and see me to discuss the literature on this topic; it is quite extensive.’ ‘I know,’ she continues. ‘I have already read a few articles, including some of your publications. I also found your blog.’ At this point I hesitate, trying to recall my most recent post, and then shout ‘Oh no!’ She has no doubt been learning about my partner’s junk; you remember, right, my discussion of his stunning scrotum, my extolling of his handsome hacky sack? The serious student pauses before admitting: ‘I had to ask myself: Is this the same person?’ Her bafflement is sincere. ‘No,’ I reassure her, ‘it is not the same person. Not at all.’
This post is about what happens when worlds collide. I came out on campus yesterday, giving a talk called ‘Visual Politics at the Gym: The Adventures of Feminist Figure Girl.’ After teaching my second class—blathering on about Piero della Francesca with a fresh coffee in hand—I went home to change into a tight tank top, black mini skirt, and ass kicking Fluevog boots, slapping on extra eye make-up and lippy before marching back to campus as FFG, my alter ego. I considered pumping up before hand, to have at least some arm definition, and even did a few curls with my heavy purse in the ladies’ washroom but that quickly grew tiresome. Though I am accustomed to public speaking, it was unsettling to be FFG in front of my colleagues and students. As you know, I would rather not have my undergraduates reading about my renewed fertility or drawer full of cordless multi-speeds. That’s right, I said full. Well it’s too fucking late now! That’s right, I said fucking [and you’ve missed my bursts of profanity, haven’t you, my loyal darlings?]. This reference to planet smashing might surprise you, since this summer I had already discussed my project with the media, including the efficient promotional machine at the University of Alberta, being featured on both faculty and departmental web sites. All the same, I was discomfited as I walked briskly down the hallways on campus as ‘Professor McTavish,’ surrounded by pictures of a bikini-clad FFG stuck to office doors and bulletin boards, advertising my talk. ‘Don’t be such an idiot,’ I admonished myself, ‘one goal of your research is to combine your academic life with your gym-rat existence.’ Clearly I had been thinking more about taking the academy to the gym than about bringing bodybuilding to the university. Perhaps it’s for the best that the cat is now entirely out of the bag. Aside: I am not making reference to Endora, for she could not find her way out of any bag; nor can she use her paws to open a door that is already ajar. All the same, she is not a pet; she is a constant companion, recently re-re-named ‘The Muff Warmer.’ In keeping with my ‘all is revealed’ blogging persona, here is a photo that I awkwardly took of us sitting in front of this laptop, writing this post, at this very moment:
At the end of my talk—it was the least theoretical presentation I have ever given, indicating that I remain in the thick of research, reluctant to arrive at the usual gender-class-sexuality-race conclusions—I asked ‘Does anyone have personal questions? There is no need to hold back because I have already discussed every embarrassing detail in my blog.’ My witty repartee received the desired laughter, but my insinuation was serious: Is nothing private anymore? Plus what the fuck am I really doing here? I think that my unease with the possible conflation of Professor McTavish and FFG [please note that Lianne is another overlapping yet separate entity, known only by close personal friends and some family] had to do with their distinctive performance styles. The Professor is decisive, organized, and annoyingly confident, lecturing without referring to notes, whereas FFG is predominantly strong, tenacious, and somewhat humourous. FFG tries a lot harder to please others and is in a strange way more honest about her intentions. After my talk I responded to a query about the status of women within the academy by admitting my particular privilege and blurting out: ‘Well I am a full professor, very successful and with an impressive publication record. At this point in my career I can do anything I want, and that is exactly what I am going to do.’ In this case The Professor was candidly arrogant, when she should have feigned a modicum of modesty. Regret. The enfleshed Professor McTavish is usually under control, keeping her private life and inflated ego to herself, while the largely virtual FFG eschews self-surveillance, spewing sordid information about her body along with the occasional swear word. During the discussion period, these two modes of self-presentation fought it out—kind of like last week’s epic battle between McLovin’ and RenMan—resulting in what The New Young Pony Club would call ‘confusianity.’
I had already been thinking about the historical invention and decline of privacy earlier that week, when the topic was broached by my French conversation tutor, a naturally beautiful graduate student from Uganda. Relatively new to Canada, she is always well prepared, bringing pointed questions to our sessions en français. She has asked me to explain, for instance: ‘What is a lottery?’ ‘Why do people living in such a wealthy country nevertheless murder each other?’ ‘Why do the young people here constantly wear ear buds; doesn’t that undermine a sense of community?’ I think you can see why I admire this bright woman and look forward to our meetings. This time my personal language trainer inquired about the widespread use of facebook, ‘a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study, and live around them.’ International and local amis were encouraging her to join, but she refused, fearing a loss of personal space and privacy, not to mention all that productive time spent taking ‘what kind of pervert are you?’ quizzes instead of writing. I admitted to being both a ‘flasher’ and a regular facebooker, using it to keep in touch with friends and family, most of whom live far from Alberta. Posting regular pictures of me, my cat, and my cleavage, I obligingly display my ‘mandatory enjoyment’ of life [please see the previous post with this title], proving that I am worth knowing or at least worth looking at for a few seconds. I agreed that it was risky to partake of this site, and then confessed that I had made my private life even more public in a blog, even as I felt slightly anxious that weird stalker types might read it and imagine that they were having some kind of relationship with me [present company excluded!]. I reflected that I likely encouraged this fantasy with my use of direct address and inclusion of revealing photos [see above; no, really, all non-students should go ahead and take another look-see].
Later that same day I read a few scholarly articles about facebook, avoiding the standard naysaying tripe about how the networking tool is a self-indulgent attack on democracy that promotes political apathy and superficial familiarity, replacing embodied encounters with digital pictures of people drinking heavily, wearing bikinis, or otherwise making asses of themselves. In contast, ‘Friend Me if You Facebook’ (2008), by E. J. Westlake, argues that when members of Generation Y—born between 1982 and 2001; Xers like me made an entrance from 1965 to 1981—‘offer themselves up for surveillance, they establish and reinforce social norms, but also resist being fixed as rigid, unchanging subjects.’ According to the author, when using facebook we imagine the continuous presence of an unseen audience, engaging in ‘a form of dramaturgical cooperation as we watch and validate each other’s performances.’ In the end, however, this process generally reinforces conventional social boundaries, even as users continually try to push beyond that normativity. In another defense published in 2009, ‘Grizzling about Facebook’ [apparently grizzling is an Australian thing, not to be messed with], the respected cultural theorist Meaghan Morris agrees that this new form of communication is not radically destroying the world as we know it. Like Westlake, she understands facebook to be largely conservative, rather similar to such earlier forms of media as letters, greeting cards, and scrapbooks, nostalgically invoking the past instead of reinventing the future.
Although somewhat reassured, I continue to have my own personal questions about this blog. For it is one thing to expose myself on line, but what about my continual references to others, including my currently anonymous Ugandan coach, whose life I am making public despite her wishes? What are the ethical implications of this practice? Is it wrong for me to praise my partner’s nebulous nuggets while working my way through every testicular term in the slang dictionary? When reading ‘Immoral Surplus,’ he shouted ‘You are an asshole!’ but in a live, love, laugh kind of way. I was surprised that he was really only bothered by my reference to him as ‘snugs,’ one of my many terms of man endearment. I can’t explain why I am now tempted to list some of the others, especially the bizarre ones, as if to defy him. Indulge me as I explain the latest: ‘Mr Hurty Guts.’ So my partner recently returned from a week-long holiday in Las Vegas, where he played poker rather well, finishing an impressive 6 out of 650 in Event One of the WPT Festa al Lago, alongside poker pro Bryan Devonshire. My man-cakes has a mathematically sharp mind disguised within a relaxo demeanour, a deadly combination for suckers and donkeys. When he first came home, I asked him how he was feeling, knowing that he often plays for 28 hours in a row and probably went on a drinking binge with his buddy CM [Chick Magnet, thus named as a few of my friends wanted to ‘hit that’ after meeting him at my birthday party. Alas ladies, he is married]. ‘I am not tired,’ my partner reported, ‘but my insides hurt.’ Now he is doing laundry while watching Main Event Poker on TV—he has amazing skills of concentration, no?—folding 5 pairs of jeans, 5 pairs of underwear, and 5 t-shirts. You do the math.
I feel that this extra-long holiday blog has not revealed nearly enough of me, so I have added some supplements for you to enjoy:
Your blog just keeps getting better and better….I am especially interested in the back workout you ladies killed today! Lats galore…looking amazing!
Thanks hot stuff. We did your back workout today, but PDDs brought a new functional leg workout for Saturday mornings. We are now hitting legs hard twice a week and my glutes are screaming at me right now!
Very interesting post, partly because I think that privacy really came into its own as an essential identity category after the Fatty Arbuckle scandal in the US (1920s). Ever since, we’ve had an ambiguous relationship to privacy and privacy law in liberal democracies. I was at your talk and did see you switch roles several times, but I experienced this as refreshing and feminist rather than as discomfitting. Your explanation that in fact, you see yourself as working class actually serves to create a bridge between these different identities and refuse the conventions of bourgeois privacy (something your Ugandan language trainer also sees), even as it shows that your identities do not need to cohere in order to make sense. I think it’s good that FFG and the Professor are role constructions which serve useful purposes. You have transubjectivity! Yay!
Dr. Identity, you are the bomb.
Great post. It reminds me that I used to get a kick out of thinking about contextual identity and how it affects our interactions with one-another. Certainly in a University setting (especially a smaller university), one must occasionally learn how to juggle having simultaneous colleague and cohort roles with regards to profs, TAs, lab-mates, etc. Even in non-academic settings people have “friends” and “work-friends” and have to make their own decisions as to how much the two should cross-over. I can’t help but wonder if some younger folk are still shocked when they realise that what they’re vomiting onto Facebook is potentially available for their boss or mom to peruse.
But if you are inviting personal questions, what I really want to know is how did it all start? Not FFG, but your wandering into a gym and picking up a barbell, and when did it change from a thing you did into part of who you are?
Thanks boulderbird, whoever you may be. It’s hard to poinpoint this transition. I had worked out in a dedicated way when I lived in Fredericton (from 1996-2006). I could often be seen sneaking out of departmental meetings at the University of New Brusnwick early, with a bulky gym bag tucked under my arm. Working out almost every day was very important to me even then, but it was not yet part of my identity. That did not start until I began lifting weights seriously in Edmonton with my first personal trainer Gill Kovack, now an IFBB Pro Heavyweight Bodybuilder. The sensation of muscle failure was like a drug to me. I also liked feeling sore afterwards, another sensation which made my body present to me in a different way. Once I started to get bigger and my posture started to change, there was no going back. So the short answer to your personal question—thanks!—is: the Winter of 2007. FFG
I prefer my professors as kooky and foul mouthed as possible. I did my Econ undergrad at U of C and each prof was in some way
A) totally crazy
C) angry and unreasonable
D) alarmingly racist
E) perpetually barefoot
F) all of the above
It really made my degree more fun. Now in grad school at U of T I am depressed because my profs are all groomed, respectable and polite. It’s bullshit. So rock on I say.
Thanks for your comment Jill. I am okay with A, B, C, and E, but not D; I try very hard not to be racist. Enjoy the GTA! FFG