Abstracts By Alumni

As the culmination of their tenure in the Joint Master of Arts in English and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies degree program, Brandeis students prepare a significant research paper under the supervision of two faculty readers. We invite you to explore the abstracts posted here, listed alphabetically by student. 

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Lily Beaumont, Joint MA’14 : A Sailing Away and Dipping Onward: Form, Gender, and Decentered Subjectivity in Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda has had a long and contentious critical history; famously, F. R. Leavis proposed excising the novel's "bad half" and retitling what remained as Gwendolen Harleth. Somewhat more generously, later criticism of the novel has suggested that Daniel Deronda's formal peculiarities—up to and including its notoriously bifurcated ending—are tied to problems of both genre and gender. With his final nation-building voyage to "the East," Daniel takes on all the vague but impressive grandeur of the hero of romance or epic; Gwendolen, meanwhile, remains behind in the firmly realist world of nineteenth-century England, apparently excluded from the redemptive possibilities of Daniel's quasi-Messianic project. In this paper, then, I aim to further explore the relationship between gender and form in Daniel Deronda by drawing on Elaine Hadley's theory of "abstract embodiment"—the practices that, in marking an individual as both disinterested and engaged, universal and particular, effectively instantiated nineteenth-century liberal subjectivity. Thus, I argue that while cognitive detachment (and, in particular, a kind of cultural identification) becomes the paradoxical means by which Daniel's identity as an individual is constructed and shored up, the efficacy of such practices hinges on his particular positionality as a well-off and (at least visibly) racially unmarked male. By contrast, for the novel's female characters, the experience of detachment is one of fragmentation and alienation, even on the level of narrative structure; in shunting aside Gwendolen's tragic narrative in favor of Daniel's narrative of cultural and individual progress, the novel formally replicates the kind of marginalization of the (gendered/raced/classed) other on which the construction of the liberal subject relied. Ultimately, I suggest that the novel's split structure is less the reflection of two different (and gendered) kinds of narrative than it is of two different (and de facto gendered) experiences of narrative; whereas narrative, for Daniel, is an exercise in both individual and communal agency—an arena, that is, in which individual and communal claims align—for Gwendolen, as well as for Daniel's mother Alcharisi, it is a process of erasure in which subversive individual desires are violently assimilated into a teleological narrative of progress.

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Audrey Cerchiara, Joint MA’14 : Sustainable Gender and Pedagogies of Rebellion in The Hunger Games

Drawing on feminist theory, in particular Judith Butler's theory of performativity, andecocriticism, in particular theories on the use of nature metaphors in literary texts, this paper reveals the Hunger Games trilogy as working machinery against binary gender systems. The novels provide an alternative performance that can be understood as a sustainable gender, wherein one constructs a gender out of available resources in order to navigate social structures. Through an ideology of empathy, the novels are specifically designed to communicate to adolescent readers a methodology of understanding and navigating social power structures, most importantly, the interconnectedness of these structures. Just as the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, finds a connection between her gender and her hunger, so the reader may find connections between heteronormativity and classism, for example. These connections allow one to form a deep understanding of natural and cultural environments.

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Larrisa Cvach, Joint MA’17: Punks, Bulldaggers, and Poor, White Trash: Reading for Coalition across Marginalized Positions in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina and Sapphire's Push

One day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, people around the word participated in an international women's march. The march was a site where people could raise awareness for any issues that impact women around the world. Whether the march succeeded or failed, it raised questions for those invested in coalitional politics: who profits from the labor of whom, who may be allowed to be representative of which issues, how is womanhood experienced differently at different intersections, and who is allowed to claim legitimate womanhood. It is especially timely to undertake scholarly research that attempts to think through these questions. This paper undertakes the question of coalition, especially in regards to how one looks for strategies to form coalitions across different(ly) marginalized identities. I engage with Cathy Cohen's "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?" (1997) as a structural framework for my readings of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) and Sapphire's Push (1996). Reading these texts together offers us the opportunity to think about how to look for and draw lines of alliance across marginalized positions. I read the representations of abuse suffered by the protagonists as metaphorical for the ways girls and women are victims of institutional violence. I argue the girls form communities with queer women who become adoptive maternal figures, suggesting the need to look beyond the (inherently violent heteronormative patriarchal family for repair. Finally I argue that not only may we read these texts together, but in fact, we should and must read them together, as the shared reading constitutes a praxis of Cohen's theory, forcing us to read these texts across race, temporal setting, geographic location, and literary genre. Rather than ignore or dismiss identity differences, I read for the ways identity constructs experiences differently, and for the ways female adolescent protagonists form queer kinship communities as a means of survival.

Future plans and goals: Larissa plans to pursue her doctorate in literary studies with emphases on cultural and performance studies, eventually. She intends to continue her research on performances in music and youth subcultures. Until she returns to school, Larissa is interested in public relations and music journalism. Currently, she is taking a hiatus from academia in an effort to spend time traveling and being with family.

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Courtney Fields, Joint MA’12: Push and Pull: One Process of Queer Genealogical Re-Orientation Investigating Queer Memoir in Alison Bechdel's Texts Fun Home and Are You My Mother?

This paper explores how in both of Alison Bechdel's memoirs the author/artist is focused on ways of using the queer identity she has come to embody as a marker to retrospectively orient and dis-orient herself around her perception of her parents, creating what Sidonie Smith refers to as a "mobile subject[ivity]." Both of Bechdel's memoirs explore how recognition (in Butlerian terms) binds the author/artist to her parents. With this theoretical context in mind, this paper focuses on how Bechdel's creation of graphic memoirs employs the knowledge of her parents' experiences in order to perpetually realign her artistic construction of 'self' along a tangential axis to them both through a representational push and pull of objects and signifiers in literary space. Bechdel uses the question of her own sexuality and gender presentation as a central point from which to re-orient her identity production in relation to her parents', and in these two texts, I argue that she challenges what queer subjectivity looks like in the post-modern queer memoir through retrospective, queer, psychological spacial re-orientation.

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Emily Fine, Joint MA’13: “Why are poore women blamed”: Reinterpreting Scripture in Lanyer and Speght

Although critics recognize both Amelia Lanyer and Rachel Speght as contributing to the querelle des femmes in the early seventeenth century, they rarely discuss these two writers in conjunction with each other. In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), Lanyer transforms a poetic narrative about Christ's Passion into a powerful defense of women, giving a traditional topic an unconventional twist. Through her focus on women's honor and faithfulness during the crucifixion and on the apologia for Eve delivered by Pilate's wife, Lanyer embeds within her poetic narrative a powerful polemical argument that exonerates women for the Fall by blaming men for both the Fall and the crucifixion. Similarly, in her polemical pamphlet A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617), Speght seeks to redeem women from their inferior status by responding to Joseph Swetnam's humorously invective pamphlet, The Araignment of Lewde, idle, forward, and unconstant women (1615). She criticizes not only Swetnam's message in his pamphlet, but also his hermeneutical methodoloy, arguing that his interpretive framework for reading and analyzing scripture is incorrect. Though she is often critiqued by scholars for being too conventional in her response, she strongly disputes Swetnam's misogynist claims using scriptural authority to help establish her authorial legitimacy.

Examining Lanyer and Speght together helps illuminate their shared tactics and reveals Speght to be less conventional and Lanyer to be more polemical than each appears when she is examined on her own. Although they write in different genres and rhetorics, they share a similar strategy by relying on biblical traditions in order to undo them, and they believed themselves to be divinely authorized for this task. Both women critique religious convention withing an apparent patriachal framework and utilize the scriptural passages typically turned against women in order to shift blame for the Fall to men and to give women equal, even superior, moral status. This paper examines how Lanyer and Speght's use of scripture indicates that they did not passively receive the patriarchal values found within biblical stories and mandates, but reinterpreted the passages used to repress women in order to assert their equality.

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Melissa-Leigh Core, Joint MA’13: "Love Invents the Body that is not an Object": Feminist Body Poetics in Sharon Olds

Once proclaimed "pornographic" by Harvard poetry critic Helen Vendler, and elsewhere considered "odd" (Calvin Bedient) or "bestial" (Diane Wakoski), Sharon Olds's representation of the body in poetry has often been a target of critique. Often as she is celebrated for her body-talk, she is also shamed for what she is willing to say through the speaker of her poems. I dismantle these critiques—primarily because they seem to strike at the heart (so to speak) of her thematic pleasures and talents. The aspects of her work that make some cringe are exactly due to her rhetorical strategies and strengths, and perhaps are even misunderstood by analysts and scholars who do not situate them as feminist theory activated or embedded within poetics. I argue that Olds's work presents a markedly postmodern feminist aesthetic that eliminates the dualism between body and mind, creates a permeability between the bodies of self/subject and others, and asserts the embodiment of the political as she sketches it out of the family romance. Some of her critics devalue or perhaps fail to recognize these strategies as they are deployed in Olds's poems. Therefore, the remainder of the analysis is dedicated to examining more closely just how her feminist poetics has evolved in its expression over the course of three landmark works—Satan Says (1980), The Father (1992), and Stag's Leap (2012), particularly as the works consider the feminine speaker and her relationship to her own body and the bodies of two primary men that appear again and again in her work—her father and her husband. Most markedly, Olds makes possible what I term "a different kind of union," reorganizing power structures and reconfiguring body logics to create space for them outside of the religious or the moral and bringing them into consideration as the focal-point of a distinctly feminist poetic ethics.

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Mary Kathryn Maher, Joint MA’12: "He fumbles at your Soul": The Erotics of Death and Religion in Emily Dickinson's Canon

Many of Emily Dickinson's poems and letters illustrate her inability to separate the powerful experiences of sex, death and religion. While these facets of life evoke a superficial binary between terror and exaltation for her, Dickinson depicts their simultaneous existence.

She explores her intense attraction to extremely dark experiences through a metaphorical lens. Yet, Dickinson's attraction to such experiences does not reveal itself as dismal. Rather, her exploration of death and the erotics of religion ultimately reveal Dickinson's intimate struggle to understand God and her eventual union with Him.

Dickinson and her speakers' religion can be defined through a negative theological lens, in which their religious understanding is attained through doubt. Dickinson's vision of God is complex and tortured and focuses more on absence than presence. She explores the moments of crisis in one's religious journey. These experiences can be mistaken for doubt; yet, viewed from another perspective, it is clear that they are the most powerful religious experiences. The speakers direct struggle with God validates the relationship in a way that is not possible in the absence of such intimacy.

It is the speakers' doubt that forces them to engage in a direct relationship with the masculine other, resulting in this greater intimacy. Emily Dickinson's language poses a controversy regarding the nature of the masculine other, since her rhetoric appears the same as an address to a lover who has disappointed her. The intimacy created through the speakers' uncertainty appears as an erotic connection with a lover whom they both rebuke and adore. Yet, these female agents express their ambivalence toward God's power, not knowing whether to submit or defy Him, based on their own desires to assert feminine authority in the face of masculine domination.

The central experience of negative theology centers upon that which one cannot understand. However, contrary to prevalent beliefs, the struggle to understand God represents a mode of faith. The negative theological approach forces Dickinson and her speakers to engage in a more intense spirituality – not a lack of spirituality. The transformation of the speakers occurs when they realize that their relationships with God have become so intense that they can see in the absence physical vision; they realize an intimacy based on faith. Thus, they abandon their doubts and desire the ultimate consummation of love with the Divine in the celestial realm.

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Ashley Manchester, Joint MA’13: Why?: The "Other" Last Man: A Critical Discussion of Power, Masculinity, and the Graphic Medium

Much current scholarship on comics and graphic novels examines the relationship between author and reader of such texts, attributing authorial and creative power to both parties. In fact, scholars, artists, and authors alike have all commented on the possible revolutionary capability of comics to provide transformation, empowerment, and even reconciliation with personal or historical trauma for the reader. In this paper, I seek to intervene in this scholarship and investigate how cultural codes are embedded in graphic texts a nd how the process of reading the visual and textual together can (potentially) implicate a reader in reinforcing those same coded messages. I situate my own experience as a comics reader in tandem with a queer reading of the Vertigo series, Y: The Last Man to comment on the ways in which the comics form sometimes forecloses possibilities for readers to gain authorial power. I conclude by suggesting alternative modes of reading comics that can open up what Judith Halberstam calls a "grammar of possibility" for successfully queering graphic texts.

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Emily Niska, Joint MA’13: "Then she usurps upon another's right / That seeks to be by public language graced": How Cary's Mariam Provides Insight into Women's Use of Alternative Literacies as a Means of Negotiating Their "Official" Absence from Symbolic Power

In my Master's paper, I argue that some scholarship on the Renaissance and Early Modern period assumes a "straight-forward" approach to research, which suggests that access to linguistic and social authority happens in a singular, top-down fashion. In this top-down fashion, Aristocratic men, linguistically, socially, and intellectually superior by virtue of birth and physiology, enact a form of symbolic domination by enforcing symbolic violence on those deemed inferior; symbolic and linguistic violence occurs when an elite male reveals the inferiors' speech to be ineffective, impotent, absurd. When approaching Elizabeth Cary's text, The Tragedy of Mariam, from a "straight-forward" analysis and analyzing it according to this type of prescriptive model, Cary's vocal agency can be lost. Approaching the text as an open signifier of meaning that cannot be fully explained by a prescriptive, "straight-forward" analysis allows for the play to attest to multiple means of achieving symbolic power. A historically-contextualized approach to the text allows for the possibility that Cary achieved linguistic authority in a manner other than the "top-down" approach assumed as "official." I argue that in The Tragedy of Miriam, Elizabeth Cary asserts female linguistic legitimacy and enacts symbolic domination in a somewhat non-traditional manner. Cary resisted and quite possibly could have aided in reshaping the production of knowledge in early modern England that both enforced and was reinforced by the "naturalized" connection of masculinity, elite class status, humanism, and verbal authority. By revealing the impossibility of complete vocal control by anyone in the drama, Cary destabilized the aforementioned linkage. I see Cary as either subverting, taking advantage of, or revealing a different avenue for accessing linguistic authority and with that authority, I claim, she achieves agency and social power.

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Brittany Norton, Joint MA'13: The Reiteration of Heteronormative Kinship Structurs in LGBTQ Children's Literature

There is a great war being waged in this country over how Americans define the family in a legal, religious, moral, and normative way. These definitional battles are being waged on multiple levels and to explore some of these questions, my Master's paper examines the field of popular contemporary children's literature which features same-sex parents. In this paper I suggest that while traditional notions of kinship are being expanded to include same-sex parented families, there remains an element of heteronormativity which does nothing to eradicate the conditional nature of families as they concern parenthood and children. As a site of cultural production, children's texts are crucial in this debate because the values being presented to them are indicative both of what mainstream publishers are willing to produce, but also what schools are legally allowed to instruct on. By examining some of the most popular –– and most controversial –– children's texts on this subject matter, we can begin to develop an understanding of how same-sex parents are aligning with, complicating, and challenging the current understandings of kinship and family in contemporary American society. As it stands, the predominant conception of a family is the conventional patriarchal heterosexual family unit. The texts that have been chosen seemingly feature alternatives to this paradigm. However, I argue that not only are these couples being portrayed in hetero-normative ways, there is a conditional nature to their acceptance which is couched in the notion of "family" and romantic love. The arguments presented by the children's texts suggest that in order for a same-sex couple to achieve the status of family, a child must be involved, and they must present themselves in ‘homo-normative' ways. I argue that these texts are not to be seen as sites of rupture but rather are a reiteration of the family "values" being presented in contemporary conservative political discourse.

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Brenden O'Donnell, Joint MA’12: Toward an Aesthetics of Queer Negativity: Anti-Humanism in The Living End

Many debates in queer theory revolve around its tendency toward negativity: why is it valuable to suspect homosexuality's ability to contribute to or change the heteronormative social order? Why must, instead, queers invoke negative affects like hopelessness, melancholy, and vengeance in their processes of calling for justice or radical awareness? By navigating discussions surrounding the queer aesthetic archive, my paper analyzes how art can resist queer negativity while simultaneously refusing to disengage from it. Theorists have located negativity in the queer archive in two major ways: Lee Edelman uses a theoretical lens to analyze elitist, academic art, and Judith Halberstam uses low theory to observe pop- and sub-cultures. My paper tries to establish a new category of texts that can be categorized in either or both archives, channeling both the negative affects of Proust or Woolf and the punk aesthetic of the Sex Pistols. Instead of the bitter irony of "God Save the Queen," we can declare, per The Smiths, "The Queen is Dead": an enigmatic and affectively conflicted statement. My paper searches for these declarations in texts such as Gregg Araki's 1992 film The Living End and Oleg Kulik's 1994 performance art piece, Mad Dog: Or the Last Taboo Guarded by the Lone Cerberus. These texts mix the blatantly irreverent with the melancholic, misanthropic, or contemplative, and manage to produce a more dynamic queer negativity that does not exclude companionship, satisfaction, and even love.

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Jayne Ziemba, Joint MA’12: 'At odds and ends of time': Performative Futures in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse is widely read as an elegy, or even a tragedy, as a novel that represents an immobilized sadness brought on by death and war. Such elegiac readings of the novel risk overlooking Woolf's "mistrust" in the absolute significance of an event. I argue that To the Lighthouse is Woolf's aesthetic argument for an open-ended temporality, not necessarily an argument for progress but for potential. The characters in the novel turn toward performative modes of innovation via metaphor and identification with objects in order to find that the differences between the future and the present, between the virtual and the actual are not strict determinations but an opening up of possibilities. Resisting the precipitation of the virtual into the actual, Woolf anticipates Elizabeth Grosz's philosophy of temporality. In particular, the novel provides temporalities of futurity and possibility which perform latent or deferred significance through descriptions of "deflection," "intrication," and "elaboration." In the novel, the linguistic referent which attaches meaning to the word is made complicated through "intrication"; it ricochets through "deflection"; but it aesthetically persists through "elaboration." As I argue at length in this paper, Mrs. Ramsay identifies with the lighthouse and performs and personalizes its significance. Similarly, Lily Briscoe identifies with her process of painting and performs its "distance" and "space." These subject-object relations, in their intimacy and self-reflexivity, both enable and constrain the access to knowledge and even reality. By extension, the status of the object, in relation to the subject who defines it, designates the subject and her time as ontologically resistant; the time of the object is a "direction without destination" and selfhood is a becoming, a "movement without prediction." Ultimately, Woolf's experimental narrative temporality, when described in Grosz's terms of phenomenology, reconciles it to feminist and queer commitments to denormalization of metaphysical givens.