Revisiting the AAR

As the semester draws to a close, I wanted to revisit the inaugural post of my blog, in which I discussed some of my thoughts and impressions of the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta last fall.

At the time, I was highly distressed by the amount of “masculinity” that I encountered during the conference: there were substantially more men than women in attendance, and the women for the most part seemed to be performing more muted femininity.

Though not surprising for academia (especially for the Religious Studies field), I now wonder if my initial comments were a bit harsh.

I wonder if I could have seen my surroundings in a more nuanced light, rather than taking a solely condemnatory stance. Could I, for example, instead take into account concepts like disidentification, as discussed by José Esteban Muñoz?

In his book Muñoz discusses the ways in which individuals and groups who fall outside of normativity (specifically with regard to race and sexuality) must often form their identities through a failure to interpellate within the dominant public sphere. For Muñoz, for many there is no complete assimilation into the dominant culture, just as there cannot always be complete rejection.

The fiction of identity is one that is accessed with relative ease by most majoritarian subjects. Minoritarian subjects need to interface with different subcultural fields to activate their own senses of self.*

I don’t think that (mostly white) women in the academy were quite what Muñoz had in mind when formulating this concept, but I think that it can still apply.

At the time when these women were entering into the academy (and even today, to a large extent) there were not models within the academy with whom they could identify- i.e. other women. In order to “fit in” and continue their work, they had (and still have) to find a way to negotiate the awkward space of the double bind: you can’t be too feminine if you want to be taken seriously, but you have to be feminine enough so you don’t come off as cold or b*tchy (Think about all the buzz about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits over the years).

Identifying in complete opposition to their male counterparts isn’t really an option, especially if they want to succeed within the academy. And of course they can’t completely identify with these male counterparts and be taken seriously.

I want to rethink my initial reactions to the gendered expressions as I interpreted them at the AAR. After all, who wants to wear lots of glittery make-up after a long flight? And who wants to wear six inch heels to walk around a conference for four days? 

* José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 5.

Reflections on the AAR

This weekend I attended my first ever AAR (American Academy of Religion) national conference. I was not presenting a paper, but decided to go anyway (as it was only a four hour drive from my university) to get the feel for networking and just take in the vast world of the academy.

What I took in was…a whole lot of masculinity.

Honestly, I am not surprised. It is no secret that “the academy” has traditionally been a male dominated arena. Religious studies, specifically, has been made up of mostly men until pretty recently. This is not to say that there weren’t a large number of women (and others) in attendance, and to be fair I have not examined statistics of who was at the conference*. Overall, though, I saw an awful lot of masculinity. A vast majority of the women who I saw seemed to be taking on more masculine modes of dress. The skirts and dresses that I saw could be described as “smart”. There were a lot of muted colors and neutrals. I did not see anyone presenting in a way that I would call “high femme”- no bright colors, no glitter, etc.

To me, this reemphasized that the academy is a masculine world. Whether or not these individuals (men and women included) dress in the same way when they are not in a specifically academic context makes no difference in my opinion. It was clear to me that the general consensus was that to be taken seriously in academia, and/or at the AAR one had to take on a certain level of masculine dress and presentation.

I also wish to make a few notes within the context of the specific panels I attended. Most of these were specifically focused on queer theory and its various applications within the study of religion. One, in particular, was focused primarily on “Engaging Trans Studies in Religion”. In this context one can expect a level of understanding of issues of gender that differs from that of the whole. Yet still the dynamics of the room were interesting for me to observe. The panel was made up primarily of men. The moderator, and three of the panelists were trans identified men, all but one of whom were not immediately readable as trans- the only way that we would have known is through their own self-identification. There was one AFAB (assigned female at birth) genderqueer identified person, who presented their gender in an androgynous-to-masculine way. There was one trans woman. All but one of the panelists was white: one identified as having a latino heritage, but was also not visibly readable as non-white without their self-identification. All were explicitly Christian, and one was Jewish. In the audience was one trans feminine person. I can confidently say that the two people in this room were the only obviously trans feminine people I saw during the entire conference**.

There were a few genderqueer/non-conforming people (including myself) at the LGBTIQ specific events throughout the conference, but the vast majority of them were white and more masculine presenting. Again, I don’t have statistics, and so am relying merely on the interactions I engaged in and witnessed. But I don’t think that I’m wrong. There was a definite lack of what is typically considered “feminine” at this conference. And I have noticed that this is the case in academia overall.

While the academy, and specifically Religious Studies, has begun to be less dominated by men, it is still a highly masculine place. I don’t think that simply allowing women to enter into the field is enough to end the male-domination of this space. Masculinity itself needs to be addressed and even confronted, looking at how women and other non-men are forced to align themselves with masculinity in order to be taken seriously in positions within academia.


* I would also like to note that these observations are not based upon interactions with many of the people I saw at the conference. I do not know what the gender identities of the thousands of individuals at the conference were. I am commenting here only on the gender presentations I witnessed within my panels and the conference as a whole.

**Again, there could have been other trans feminine people in attendance whom I did not encounter, or whom were not identifiable as trans. But I think that this speaks to a larger issue.