Culture jamming helps shake off the chill

By Susan Knabe
January 31, 2013

Feminist culture jamming employs techniques which catch people off guard, unsettle established ideas and erode patriarchal culture by mounting a challenge from within its institutions. The witty, often irreverent, reworkings of patriarchal culture embodied by feminist culture jamming engage audiences to help dispel the tired stereotypes of humourless ‘feminist killjoys,’ channel genuine critique and anger, and engender understanding and insight.

The recent spate of reproductive legislation in the United States has proven to be a fertile site of this kind of feminist culture jamming, including congresswomen tabling legislation which would limit men’s access to Viagra.  


There are numerous aspects of contemporary culture which remain ripe for this kind of treatment. But in the spirit of ‘physician heal thyself,’ I would like to consider how we might utilize a culture jamming approach to challenge the chilly climate that, arguably, continues to blow through many institutions of higher learning, often leaving both female academics and those doing feminist work somewhat frostbitten.  

Certainly, much progress has already been made in articulating the scope of the problem and outlining necessary institutional responses. However, the cold drafts which still whistle down the corridors are not easily amenable to formal articulation or redress. A culture jamming approach that harnesses affective and intellectual responses might enable alternate ways of articulating, understanding and ameliorating this continuing chilly climate.

Indeed, a recent discussion of academic ‘mansplaining’ in Inside Higher Ed, the tumblr Academic Men Explain Things To Me and last week’s offering from Feministing, entitled How to Deal with a Mansplainer Starring Hillary Clinton in gifs, document both the contribution mansplaining makes to the perpetuation of the chilly climate in academia (and politics) as well as the subversive potential of naming (and shaming) this particular kind of academic misbehavior. Mansplaining includes the domination of a conversation by a less expert, but more entitled, individual in ways which are intended to cast doubt on another individual’s expertise. Mansplainers assume expertise where none exists, and produce condescending and often wildly inaccurate, but completely confident assertions.

For the record, mansplaining is not tied to the gender of the speaker, rather it is a function of a particular kind of rhetorical stance that most often, but not always, does have a gendered component. 

It seems to me that the term mansplaining functions as a kind of feminist culture jam, helping to expose the chilling effects of this kind of academic interaction by making people aware of the way in which specific kinds of privilege operate. While it is not exactly the same as mansplaining, the meme Privilege Denying Dude also demonstrates how specific rhetorical constructions effect the perpetuation of gender, racial, class and other forms of privilege.

Perhaps feminist culture jamming, with its innovative and provocative approaches, might also offer  potential solutions to that close cousin of academic mansplaining, namely the requirement that academic women who do their work in women’s studies or gender studies programs continually justify the existence of those programs to whomever feels compelled to ask.

While this is a question many of us who work in this area are used to fielding from members of the public (the “Why is there no men’s studies?” question posed with depressing regularity at open house and fall preview by fathers who fancy themselves wits), a surprising number of our university colleagues also feel compelled to demand, through their derision, dismissal or feigned incredulity, this justification.

Let me be clear: “How is that even a program?” does not constitute a precursor to any kind of productive, spirited exchange of ideas, much less small talk over a Great Hall veggie wrap and raspberry tart at a university function.

For those of us who work in this area, and for whom these conversations are trite, tired and very uninteresting, these encounters – be they at the conference table, in the committee room, or at an informal gathering – drop the temperature in the academy a few more degrees. They do this by effectively making both respect and collegiality contingent on our ability to respond appropriately to these gambits.

This chill is further exacerbated when our students are similarly required to defend their decision to pursue degrees in these areas. I am sure some, perhaps many, of our university interlocutors, like the witty dads noted above, are eager for some sport and perhaps a chance to mansplain why there is no reason for women’s studies, gender studies, sexuality studies or feminist research. Thus, my desire to conjure up a response that would effectively rework this particular cultural construction in a clever culture jam that would both expose and educate, if only to show you what good senses of humour we actually have.

In the meantime, however, I would like to urge my university colleagues who are tempted to demand this justification to simply ask us about our work instead. It would be nice to have a real academic conversation for a change.

Susan Knabe is a Women‘s Studies and Feminist Research assistant professor in the faculties of Arts & Humanities and Information and Media Studies.



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