As ancient texts, depicting cultural traditions that we no longer live with, these stories seem strange -- irrelevant, even. In that strangeness, they can help us express what we consider to be ‘normal’ and can prompt questions about it. These stories complicate our assumptions about what we take for granted, about our society as it evolved from earlier cultural values. Interpreted with care, they help us see what theatrical director Anne Bogart calls the ‘solidity of stereotypes’ -- their persistence, the ‘root of the problem’ that helped create our assumptions in the first place.
Discovering this solidity, in turn, can help us to transform it. In this way, the study of literature from any era can be a portal to a fuller understanding of our own assumptions about what social power looks and feels like, how it hides in and emerges from the conflicts and resolutions imagined by storytellers, and what kinds of actions are sometimes required to bring about those resolutions, and transform the status quo.
Our work this semester will be to develop skills in close reading, critical analysis and effective research, and to use these skills to organize our responses to these stories into essays. Each skill will develop your interpretation of each story, and collectively they will reveal your developing ideas about the legacies of women’s power. I look forward to working with you all!
Readings will include The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Euripides’ The Bacchae, The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Stories of monsters have a reputation for igniting fear, fascination, and wonder; they also represent powerful ideas about gender, race/ethnicity, and the body. Tracing depictions of monsters and monstrosity from ancient Rome to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the increasingly popular zombie apocalypse genre, this course critically analyzes literary representations of monsters with a special focus on how they construct, complicate, and challenge our understandings of "women" and "culture," two slippery terms we will interrogate. While we will think about how tropes of femininity and masculinity impact how women are depicted in monster literature, we will come to understand gender as one factor in more complex systems of representation. We will ask: How do the literary texts we will read mark bodies and behaviors as "monstrous"? What do these representations of monstrosity teach us about power and identity formation, especially across gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, immigration status, dis/ability, and age? How do the texts we will read both define and reimagine the monster figure in unexpected ways, both resurrecting and upending culturally-specific notions of masculinity/femininity, human/nonhuman, sanity/insanity, mind/body, life/death, and modernity/primitivism? How do other genres of representation -- science, medicine, religion, law, war, politics, television, art, etc. -- explicitly and implicitly reproduce the monster figure? Put simply: who is made to be monstrous, and to what ends?
Readings are subject to change, but literary texts will likely include: Ovid, "Tereus, Procne, and Philomela"; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Edwidge Danticat, selections from Krik? Krak!; Begama Rokeẏā, "Sultana's Dream"; and Isabel Allende, selections from The Stories of Eva Luna. We will enrich our analyses with a variety of other historical texts, excerpts, films, and interdisciplinary scholarly articles, such as: René Descartes, excerpts from Meditations on First Philosophy; Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny"; Michel Foucault, excerpts from Birth of the Clinic; Gloria Anzaldúa, excerpts from Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza; Donna Haraway, "The Cyborg Manifesto"; Andrea Hairston, "Disappearing Natives: The Colonized Body is Monstrous"; Neel Ahuja, "Abu Zubaydah and the Caterpillar"; George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead (film); and Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, selected scenes from Westworld (TV series). All readings will be on reserve at the Barnard Library, available for purchase nearby at Book Culture (not to exceed $50 total), or handed out in class.
In this section of Women & Culture, we’ll examine storytelling and narration through the lens of gender. How are constructions of gender used to police what kinds of stories are told, who can tell them, and who is believed? What forms and strategies of narration are available and to whom? How have women engaged and re-deployed existing myths and narratives? How is the self both constructed and policed through narratives of gender, race, class, sexuality, family? How are these narrations mediated through the body? In our analyses, we’ll work to challenge fixed or binary understandings of gender and power by asking how these writers engage and challenge the various ways in which the category of “women” is constructed within culture.
Readings are subject to change but may include The Hymn to Demeter, selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, selected poems by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Yvette Christianse’s Castaway, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and/or selections from Cherrie Moraga’s Loving in the War Years and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and critical conversation texts by authors including Gloria Anzaldúa, Sara Ahmed, and Audre Lorde.