Part One: The Pink Penis on my Desk (A Lengthy Introduction)
In addition to the random smattering of papers, books, and other odd objects that are strewn across my desk at various points, there are a few items that are consistent adornments—there are the practical things: the external hard-drive , the file folder, the stapler; and the sentimental things—a stained glass cross I was given upon graduating from div school, a wine cork that reminds me of a particularly happy time in my life, and a bedazzled pink penis.
Often, people don’t comment on the pink penis, probably because they’re embarrassed, or think I’ll be embarrassed. But occasionally, the bold ones will ask,
“Why do you have a pink dildo on your desk?”
I explain to them that, actually, it is not a dildo, but rather, a water gun. When this answer proves unsatisfactory or incomplete, as is often the case, I tell them a version of this story….
In my final year of divinity school, one of the courses I was in, “Black Intellectuals and Religion,” was particularly challenging for me. Though, I am not speaking about the material or the pedagogy—these aspects of the course were undoubtedly challenging, but in the good/productive way…the instructor and the content were amongst one of the highlights of my divinity school career. What made the course so difficult, rather, was (some of) my classmates.
I was one of two women in a course of about forty. I also want to note here, in the body of this essay as opposed to relegated to a footnote, that the population of the course was predominately white. I am white, as is the other woman who was in the course, and as are most of the men who comprised the course…. But more on this later…
The gender and racial makeup of the course, to be fair, was not at all uncommon. Generally speaking, Duke Divinity was quite male dominated (and quite white). The entering class the year after mine was over 75% male. Moreover, it was a course in theology, which meant it was all the more unlikely for me to find myself with any fellow female colleagues, let alone with, shall we say, a critical mass. While I was constantly frustrated by this reality, it was something I had grown somewhat accustomed to. However, this class proved to be particularly challenging. Perhaps it was that I was especially irked by the quickness at which white men would speak with authority about black intellectuals and black religious life. It very likely could have been that these white men also spoke with such authority on black female subjectivities and experiences. Maybe it was just that this particular constellation of students seemed especially eager and especially confident (one might say arrogant), and would constantly interrupt, diminish, or dismiss me on the rare occasion when I spoke. Or maybe I was just tired, and this was simply the straw that broke the camels back, so to speak. By the middle/end of the semester, I would find myself in tears during or after almost every seminar.
So, one day, the other female in the course, who happened to be one of my dearest friends, came to class and informed me she had a gift for me. She then opened her backpack and pulled out this, the aforementioned pink penis that now adorns my desk and befuddles visitors:
“Now you have one too,” she tells me. “Plus,” she quips, “when the jerks won’t shut up, you can just shoot water at them. That should get their attention.”
Now, this bedazzled pink penis-shaped water gun sits at my desk as a reminder, encouragement, and inspiration. Whenever I am in an experience where I feel overwhelmed or frustrated by the predominance of white men in the theological academy and the all too often accompanying posturing, pride, and piety, said pink penis reminds me not only that I can do the work that I am doing, but why I am doing the work I am doing.
I wish I could say that this bizarre little totem of mine is barely needed, that it serves more nostalgic than motivational purposes….
In day to day life, that may be the case.. I’ve found a way to surround myself with a broad diversity of folks with a broad diversity of theological interests. I’ve also been careful to surround myself with folks who, regardless of interest, are aware of and attentive to the racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc… of the theological academy. Moreover, I’m now at an institution that is quite aware of social location and situated-ness and the ways such things intersect with and shape academic discourse. While Vanderbilt definitely has its problems, the institution has an ethos that at least somewhat engenders critical reflection and concern around the various “isms” that plague the theological academy, the broader academy, the church, and the broader culture. This is evidenced in the very makeup of the student body. The Theology and Practice fellowship program I am a part of can boast of the most racially/ethnically diverse doctoral programs in religion in the nation (as well as the highest GRE scores). In theological studies, right now, there are more women in the program then men. Sure, Vandy still has a lot of work to do, and can often hide or mask its problems under these statistics, but, comparative to other schools….
But, in the broader scheme of things, as a Ph.D. student in theological studies, and especially as someone who is interested in some of the more “systematic/traditional” thinkers and themes (Bonhoeffer, Barth, atonement, nature/grace stuff, etc…), it is damn near impossible to avoid the culture that inspired said gift of the pink penis. One of the ways I often encounter this culture is at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion….
I can cite numerous stories here—of being in the minority, and often the only female, in a conversation or session, of being ignored or dismissed, etc…. But for the sake of time, I will save those for another day. Rather, here, I want to reflect on the question of why this occurs, and then offer some brief suggestions for moving beyond it.
I offer these reflections in conversation with, and as critical but constructive response to, Tony Baker’s recent reflection on “Gender and the Studio.” I was one of the six women in the room, though, when I was there, I only counted four—Sarah Coakley, Mandy (the Duke student who asked the question that prompted Tony’s response), myself, and one other woman I did not know—amongst 47 men (I make it a habit of counting these things. Also, I have to say, I actually found myself surprised at the ratio, as usually, its worse…). I appreciate/commend Baker for reflecting on this important reality on his blog—it says a lot that one is even willing to reflect upon these matters… That being said, in the spirit of dialogue, I want to contend with Baker’s reflection—with his suggestions for what “Christianly-gendered” theological work might foster, and how the Theology Studio might help create said space—keeping in mind that I believe that Baker and I have similar aims, at least ultimately: the full flourishing of all of humanity towards/reflecting the glory of God.
My critique comes in two parts: first, I suggest that Baker’s proposal is inconsistent—that he calls for an attention to and affirmation of “female receptivity” without actually engendering said attention/affirmation in the discourse, and without attending to the material realities of bodies (this, admittedly, is a broader critique of the theological academy, not just of him). Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, I want to argue against Baker’s account of gender. Relying on gender theorist Judith Butler, as well as a Barthian account of the relationship between nature and grace, I want to suggest that the association between receptivity and femininity, and the reification of femaleness at all, is problematic socioculturally and theologically.
All to say, stay tuned… I’d also love to hear any initial thoughts y’all have: if others had similar concerns or reflections–or if anyone has any pushback to my initial critique– following the studio event or Baker’s blog.