As some of you know, this week I’m having my 15 minutes of fame in a very public arena. I’ve had my first fan mail. I’ve heard from friends I haven’t talked to in twenty years. I’ve seen an uptick in traffic to my teaching blog (which uses my real name) of something in the neighborhood of 1000%. I read recaps of the events written a la sports summaries, posted by a Chicago classical music DJ, who moonlights as a college sports announcer. And I’ve had the weird experience of seeing total strangers discuss me in a public forum, weighing in on my intelligence, my bitchiness, whether I am “hott” or a witch or possibly some combination of the above. I’ve also seen people in the fields in which I work weigh in on my representation of said fields (those, thank goodness, were mostly positive). And yesterday, someone posted to the professional listserv for my field about my appearance, and included links to my teaching website, my dissertation summary at my university and my academia.edu account profile. This resulted in an extended discussion of my on-screen performance by some of the most well-known people in my field in the most public forum of my profession. This is all a lot to take for someone who is, by nature, something of an introvert. And yet I’d be lying if I said part of me didn’t like the attention.
But it’s the twitter discussions that fascinate me most. I discovered them when one of one of my colleagues in this venture hooked up with me on twitter. I haven’t been much of a twitterer until recently, when I’ve had to use it for work. I followed some of the links she posted and found a whole community of people who spend an alarming amount of time thinking about the medium of my national attention. As soon as I saw them, I knew I’d be better off turning them off. But they were strangely compelling. Kind of like a train wreck.
There are a couple of things that interest me about the scrutiny. One, it’s completely impossible to take this kind of stuff — positive or negative — personally. It’s too ridiculous. And two,the gendered nature of the discussion is hard to miss.
When I was introduced on day two of my appearance, I mentioned my dissertation topic, which involves women. “I think there’s a lesbian in the house,” tweeted a commenter. Three women in competition with no men elicited, “What are the categories going to be today, cooking, cleaning and bad driving?” The day before when I’d bested two men soundly, there was no mention of my hotness or sexual preferences, only about my runaway victory. What is it about women working together or competing together without men that brings out this aggressive sexism?
This is nothing new. In fact, looking at this type of commentary is a fundamental part of my research. I study reception history of female performers. I’m working in an earlier century, so there was no twitter, no facebook, and no computers. But looking at critical reviews of concerts by women in the 19th century often looks a lot like the twitter responses to my public appearance. There are a number of tropes. Women who are good performers are special cases, endowed by nature (implication — they don’t have the stamina for real education or the brains to handle it if they did). Women who perform are libidinous with questionable morals. Women who perform do so for the pleasure of the male eye (the ear, even for female musicians, is often irrelevant to the critics).
Stating only these tropes is misleading. There is also plenty of criticism that takes women performers seriously. But there is unquestionably a cultural norm that allows for the easy denigration of women in this particular way, and the format doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last 150 years. Only the forums have evolved. And even those haven’t evolved much. In the last quarter of the 19th century, arts coverage often merged with the society pages, which offered unasked-for opinions on the behavior of the community’s elite. Critics and society reporters were often hiding behind pen names, much as twitter handles often obscure the true identities of the posters. Apparently we behave no better in the electronic world than we do on paper.
Despite the reinforcement of centuries-old prejudices, the whole experience was a trip. I’ll write more about it eventually, possibly under lock in key so I don’t have to do the whole cloak and dagger thing to protect my tenuous anonymity. But for the moment, I have a lot of emails to answer.