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Recap: IRWGS/WGSS Joint Senior Thesis Presentations

May 26, 2016

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On May 3, IRWGS closed out its programming for the year with a celebration of the senior theses completed by majors in IRWGS (Columbia) and WGSS (Barnard). Evocative of the spirit of community fostered by the collaboration between Barnard and Columbia’s programs, the students cheered each other on as they presented their projects to a room packed with enthusiastic and supportive friends, faculty, and mentors.

The first panel, titled “Gender, Sexuality, and Cultural Production,” considered how various media—whether it’s an artistic medium or type of social media—represent a particular cross-section of female and/or queer experience. Tara Coury (BC) and Clara Butler (BC) examined how female artists appropriate revise art forms typically the domain of white, heterosexual men.  Coury argues that the visual yet fragmented medium of the comic panel offer graphic memoirists like Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel a tool for making their experience as marginalized persons visible without the demands of linear, coherent storytelling, whether that story be growing up in revolutionary Iran or a young lesbian’s working through her relationship with her closeted gay father. Turning to live performance, Butler argues that female stand-up comics use humor, especially abjection, to articulate what it’s like to inhabit an identity not widely understood or even legible within dominant culture.

The panel was rounded out with Dorian Barnwell (CU) and Amy Halperin Zimmerman (CU). In her thesis on Toni Morrison’s Sula, Barnwell routes her broader examination of how black queer experience is felt as being “out of sync” with the world through the novel’s representation of female orgasm. Turning to social media outlets like Tumblr, Halperin Zimmerman queries the growing interest in witchcraft in “queer, feminist spaces” populated by teenage girls.  Crafting their identities after the “feminized but not entirely feminine” figure of the witch allows teens to negotiate the damaging expectations of adult womanhood, and the rituals they practice operate as acts of “self-care” crucial to maintaining physical and mental health.

The projects presented in the second panel, “Biopolitics,” explored how the social and hard sciences as well as political decisions mobilized by scientific research reproduce dominant understandings of gender, sexuality, and citizenship. Researching the effects of US nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, G. Pe Benito (BC) argues that “proximity to harm” differentiates those excluded from the full rights and recognition granted by the state from US citizens. Peter Bruno (CU) next critiqued scientific searches for a “gay gene” for relying on a “false dichotomy” between biological determination and social construction. The premise guiding this research and its appropriations by gay rights activists is a “consumer model of social theory” which assumes that any part of human experience not determined by genetics or anatomy is freely chosen. Bruno challenges this dichotomy. Sarah Elizabeth Stern (CU) concluded the panel with her transhistorical examination of how various sites of colonial power erase Native American understandings of gender. 

The third and final panel, “Responding to Violence,” showcased theses which queried whether the state can offer justice and recognition to persons who have been harmed because of their sexuality, gender, and/or race. In her thesis on queer black women artists working in South Africa, Thando Mlambo (BC) started with the claim that the freedom following the dissolution of apartheid was actually “exclusive,” granted only to heterosexuals. Mlambo situates artists who provocatively ask such questions like “what do you see when you look at me, a black lesbian?” within the state-sanctioned “invisibil[ity]” of the “black queer body,” ultimately arguing that these artists work to “carve out a discursive space” where queer intimacy and desire can assert their presence in South African history.

 In the next two presentations, Sienna Walker (BC) and Ella Every-Wortman (BU) critiqued the appeal to criminal law in LGBT and feminist activism. Walker argues that the mainstream gay rights movement identifies gay people according to their “vulnerability to harm,” which enables them to successfully fight for “political[ly] palatabl[e]…pro-criminalization methods” without reflecting on how criminal law perpetuates the denial of rights and reduction of opportunities for people of color. Combining interviews with survivors of sexual assault at Columbia with quantitative research methods, Every-Wortman shows how survivors frequently define justice as a “healing process” oriented toward resolution and closure, and for this reason largely prefer “transformative justice”-based solutions like the “acknowledgement of harm” and reparations instead of punishment.

The evening concluded with Natasha Camille’s (BC) reflection on her goals and experiences designing a curriculum for black female high school students. In crafting a curriculum which, in her words, presented a “direct threat to the state,” Camille aimed to challenge the “silencing of black girlhood” by having students use womanist and black feminist texts as a vehicle for cultivating “autonomous, sexual selfhood.”