“Hidden Figures” and the pursuit of excellence through diversity

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A couple of weeks ago, I watched the film Hidden Figures, after a friend (thanks, Donnamarie!) recommended it to me. As a black British woman, she was blown away by this piece of history – three African American women who contributed, as NASA employees, to putting an American into the Earth’s orbit. What we both liked about the film was not just the uncovering of the phenomenal achievements of these women against the obstacle of white supremacy and misogyny, but how much the story still relates to current times, both in terms of issues and the kind of rhetoric that is used.

For example, in the film, there is a scene at a barbecue where NASA employee Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monaé) talks to her husband about going to court for taking classes to become an engineer. Jackson is generally encouraged by her friends and the Jewish scientist she is working with, because her potential success might open up paths for future generations. Her husband, however, initially cautions her against entering a system that is effectively designed to take its fuel from her while burning her in the process. This tension is still very much present in contemporary debates, for instance, the one surrounding ‘why is my curriculum white?’: should we, as non-white students and academics, join the academy and attempt to make it less racist, or should we try and create something outside of a system that is racist in its foundation? This conflict has, for instance, been sharply dissected in the work of Kehinde Andrews.

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A key moment in the film, for me, was the scene where the white boss of Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson), an incredibly talented black mathematician, asks: “why are we not as good as the Russians?”. While asking this question he is surrounded by all the talent that could help them achieve the same or better results, but is completely oblivious to it. Neither Goble nor the brilliant supervisor and programmer Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), nor Mary Jackson – or any of the other African American “computers” – are even recognised as humans. They are even denied access to the very means – programming books, computers, classes, scholarships and even toilets and coffee – that would enable them to contribute. Everything about that moments feels totally nonsensical: the space race feels like an idiotic alpha male competition that somehow made it to the international scale, the absurd extent of racism and the resources put behind it adds another layer of incomprehension, and, overall, the way the project is managed seems utterly in opposition to what is desired to be achieved. As another friend cynically put it: exploitation works best if everyone is exploited equally and made to want to be exploited.

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Having recently done some work in relation to the Race Equality Charter Mark, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the current rhetoric of “excellence” in diversity committees. There, the argument that is often made is that diversity is needed to achieve excellence. At the same time, it is plainly obvious that while this rhetoric is rolled out at every opportunity, the most brilliant people are still being systematically pushed out, often by the same dynamics as shown in Hidden Figures (all-male panels and decision-making boards, moving the ‘finish line”, lack of support, ignorance towards other embodiments of excellence). What Hidden Figures highlights against this background is that real excellence is not actually desired, because it would mean disturbing the way things work and disturbing the narrow logic of competition to which we have become accultured. To me, it is no coincidence that nearly all of my living intellectual heroes are working outside of the academy, in sports stores, FE colleges, manual jobs, where they have no institutional support. The few who manage to remain in academia, often as tokens of ‘diversity’, often have to make do with insecure contracts, are pressured into leaving or are simply not promoted. Many are moving abroad, through the added injustices of Brexit and other destructive immigration regulations.

A recent article in the Timed Higher Education touched on this issue, sadly without getting to the bottom of it. The author lamented that “young academics’ research is elegant but not interesting”, because they are afraid to speak out and end up self-censoring. Instead, according to the author, it was the senior academics who seemed to present more daring arguments. What is missing from this analysis, again, are the ‘hidden figures’: the people whose work is too challenging for hiring panels, for funding bodies, or whose work is being appropriated by professors without credit. ‘Excellence’ is rarely found at academic conferences, but in the growing para-academic spaces that frequently overlap with activist and artist circles. As Jack Stilgoe put it in a related rant in The Guardian: ‘excellence tells us nothing about how important the science is and everything about who decides’ (for a more elaborate analysis, see this article by Moore et al).

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The film also nicely showed how efforts to progress are being undermined by supposedly natural allies, in this case, white women. Not only did Kirsten Dunst’s supervisor character “Mrs Mitchell” participate in the oppression of her black co-workers, but she effectively sabotaged herself. Another layer of failed alliances was added through the reviews of the film where at least one woman performed the same move as the white female supervisor by devaluing the race dimension. And, like her, she would probably have to reacted to the criticism in a similar manner:

Mitchell: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.”
Vaughan: “I know you probably believe that.”

This line is brilliant, because it so poignantly summaries the kind of rationalising that people perform to justify violence. The allies who supported the women in the end were men – the women’s husbands, the Jewish scientist and the boss who desperately needed the black women’s skills (partly also in order not to lose his own job, or, as one reviewer put it, he is ‘too busy to hate‘).

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What makes this film so successful (quite a few people I have spoken to since have reported standing ovations from black audiences), Donnamarie suggested, is the fact that is provides so many different angles on the subject. Everyone can find a way into discussing it, whether through race, gender, family and workplace dynamics, science etc. This certainly worked at the café where we talked, and there have, of course, been many articles in the media, from the NASA website to black community newspapers. While progress might not proceed in linear ways, a film like Hidden Figures illustrates that the lucky constellations that bring progress do not just depend on co-incidence, but also determination. The film’s clear parallels with today give a prompt to all possible audiences of this film to not repeat history, but continue the work of creating a better one. As “Mary Jackson” put it at the start of the film, when the three black women manage to turn a potentially dangerous traffic control by a white male police officer into a police escort to take them faster to work: “I’ll tell you where to begin”.

“I don’t think they’re coming back”: Abandoning ‘reality’ in ‘Adore’

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A few months ago, I watched the film Adore (also known as Adoration, Two Mothers, Perfect Mothers etc – glad I’m not the only one struggling with titles!) by Anne Fontaine. The film is based on a story by Doris Lessing and was released in 2013. It had totally slipped under my radar, and I’m not even sure I would have sought it out at the cinema, but, like many accidental finds, it helped me to process some things for my writing, and I find myself going back to it again and again. What makes the film so compelling for me, most of all, is that it allows for so many different interpretations.

Reduced to its basic story line (spoiler alert!), the film is about two women, Roz and Lil, who have been close friends since they were children. They eventually got married and each had a son. Lil’s husband dies at the beginning of the film, when Ian is still a child. The film then zooms to the present where both women are still very close, so close that Roz’ husband Harold feels excluded from their relationship. When Harold is offered a great career opportunity in Sydney and wants to move, Roz refuses to come with him to stay with Lil and their more remote Australian seaside paradise. Lil’s son Ian ends up falling in love with Roz, and they end up sleeping together. They get found out by Roz’ son Tom, who immediately takes revenge by seducing Lil. Both couples end up forming loving relationships, and Roz eventually divorces her husband, without telling him about Ian. After a while, the men start university and jobs, and the women prepare themselves for being left by them. At the same time, they try to prepare the young men for finding a more normal life with younger women, despite the pain this will cause them. Reluctantly, the men end up doing so and even start families, but eventually (it’s more complicated than that), they end up back with the two older women.

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Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright)

After the film, I was curious what other reviewers thought of it. I expected there to be a lot of comments on the age and look of the lead actresses (Robin Wright and Naomi Watts): whether they were appropriately cast, how they looked for their age, and the usual ageism that women tend to face. Of course, I did not have to look far. Reviewers reduced the film to a story of ‘wish fulfilment’ of aging women, who apparently would never end up with such young lovers in real life, or at least would not be able to get away with that level of ease and glamour. As one reviewer stated:

“…let’s applaud these two insanely talented actresses for gamely lending real vulnerability to these broken, fantastical creatures — but it’s a catastrophic one, because it threatens to bring Adore into the real world, and that’s not a realm where this story can survive.”

In contrast with the reality strugglers, other reviewers struggled with bonding issues:

“However, for a story with so much feeling, there’s surprisingly little emotional resonance in “Adore.” There’s heat and passion enough to make the innocent blush. We were struck by the beauty, both of the setting as well as the characters (we would gladly trade Nicolas Winding Refn retiring from film in exchange for Wright’s beauty secrets), but we didn’t connect with the characters. We weren’t sure where this film—that at times feels like a classical tragedy—would ultimately take its characters, but we also didn’t really care. By treating its central issue as a relative non-issue, “Adore” works to distance itself from its audience. We wanted to care far more than we actually did.”

Predictably, many reviewers were upset about the lack of critical engagement with the potential surrogate lesbian/oedipal/etc relationship. The film was aestheticizing and apparently celebrating something that would normally be deemed an abusive or at least asymmetric relationship:

“It is worth noting that the same movie about a couple of dads sleeping with each other’s 20-year-old daughters would need, at a minimum, to confront the ickiness of the situation. Really, such a movie would be unlikely to make it into theaters, in spite of the commonness of real-life relationships between older men and younger women.”

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Ian (Xavier Samuel) flirts with Roz

What surprised me was the lack of references to films such as The Dreamers or Heavenly Creatures. While many reviewers diagnosed a life set in a ‘bubble’ or an unhealthily close relationship, no one cared to make links to these familiar film tropes, and how these were handled – and, one could argue, subverted in Adore.

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Scene from The Dreamers (Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel)

In The Dreamers, the three youngsters, too, create their own bubble that enables their incestuous and quasi-incestuous relations and revolutionary fantasies. When the bubble is literally burst by a brick being thrown through a window by student protesters, the dreamers join the protest, but, coming from a different reality, they engage in extreme behaviour that leads the protests to escalate. In Adore, the characters’ bubble has basically been classified as a privileged middle class paradise that enables the prolonged fulfilment of a transgressive sexual fantasy. Yet at the same time, the film’s unflattering portrayal of the alternative ‘normal life’ seems to ask: who is actually living in a bubble? The two women and their sons who are having an unconventional relationship, or everyone else who insists that the social norm of the nuclear family or of the couple with ‘appropriate’ age difference is desirable?

The ‘other bubble’ is obviously very powerful. Ian and Tom, the two sons, are pushed out of their paradise, half by the two women who don’t want their lovers to be socially disadvantaged, half by the force of social dynamics. Tom succumbs to the pressure first, after a woman (his future wife Mary) suggests that he might be gay. Yet he is also the first to break down and lead a double life with Lil. Ian continues to fight for Roz who wants to end the relationship both for his and Lil’s sake. When he has a one-night stand out of frustration and revenge (with his future wife Hannah), the unprotected sex results in pregnancy, also trapping him in the correct narrative. However, when he finds out that Tom is sleeping with Lil again, he immediately exits his prison, and confronts both wives with the truth. Horrified, the Mary and Hannah leave with the children for good, exorcised like a bad nightmare. While this behaviour may seem reckless on part of the men, their wives’ subservience to the normativity bubble, including their desire to keep their children firmly inside, feels equally disturbing, in fact, so disturbing, that one feels relieved when the two sons get back together with each other’s mothers.

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Marriage of Tom und Mary (Jessica Tovey)

It is also interesting how Adore handles the ‘scary intimacy between women’ trope. Heavenly Creatures is a key example of this genre. It shows how a close female relationship is pathologised, instead of the circumstances that give rise to the fantasy world that the girls create as a coping mechanism. Especially close female relationships have become pathologised in film, from predatory lesbians to the seemingly inevitable death of Thelma and Louise. While films such Heavenly Creatures usually show what gives rise to close relationships and the unhappy fate of the people involved in them, they also end up reinforcing the belief that great intimacy results in insanity, isolation and overall negativity. Intimacy is threatening through its self-sufficiency and refusal to submit to an outside.

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Melanie Lynskey as Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet as Juliet Hulme

In Adore, Lil is pursued by a male colleague, and, to fend him off, Roz insinuates that they are a lesbian couple. The women know that this is the easiest explanation, because people have been wondering about their ‘unnatural’ closeness for a long time, and lesbianism is the most natural diffusion of this tension. People would continue to be disturbed by any alternative intimacy. It is rather amusing for the viewer that the women prefer to take on the stigma of homosexuality than to publicly admit to their actual heterosexual relationships or extremely close friendship. Again, the characters’ recognition of the different ‘bubbles’ plays into the handling of the situation: the outside bubble is kept intact to pass as ‘normal’ inside of it and to protect the alternative at the same time. This way, no harm is done either way. The women know too well how entrenched the other bubble is to attempt to engage with it – after all, their relationship has been under constant scrutiny, and it does not take much to extrapolate from it – and perhaps they also don’t care enough, since they have learnt to manage it well enough with little energy. (Here, the film does the exact opposite as ‘We need to talk about Kevin‘, which has a similar ‘bubble’ theme).

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Saul (Gary Sweet) asks Lil out while Roz watches on

One could argue that, because of such lack of confrontation, Adore is a very apolitical film. Despite major transgressions, no one attempts to change particular norms or make a critical standpoint. It’s basically four hot people with an age difference making out in a beautiful setting. On the other hand, the film’s strong aestheticisation precisely functions to create ambiguity and confronts the viewers with their own normativity. Is it okay that the two women sleep with each other’s sons, as everyone seems to enjoy it so much (including the viewer)? Is it responsible to enter normative relationships without being convinced by them and hurting others in the process? Like Roz and Lil, the viewers first have to acknowledge that they are shaped by the same norms as the ‘outside bubble’, and then have to ask themselves how far they are willing to move away from them, and how public they would be prepared to be about it. This does not have to be something as drastic as sleeping with your best friend’s kid, as already minor transgressions such as childlessness or older women’s sexual confidence are policed quite heavily. In this sense, if Adore is seen as a fantasy, then it is perhaps due to the viewers’ own limitation of their social imagination.

‘Is it a race thing or a lady thing?’ – the new Ghostbusters and the Academy

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Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap

When I first saw the announcement and trailer for the new Ghostbusters film, I thought I would hate it. Promoted as a film that would get girls interested in science, it seemed to reflect the usual blindness of institutional feminism to race and class. As the script itself puts it: ‘three scientists – plus Patty’. After the academic qualifications of Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) were written back out of the script of the 1984 film – no one knew he was actually a black superscientist – you would hope that the new film would be different, but it is not. On the other hand, it is not the trainwreck that I expected it to be – on the contrary.

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Image: ‘Guilty as charged!’

Many reviewers have complained that the ‘flipping’ of Ghostbusters is shallow and has failed to introduce a women’s perspective. I think the opposite is the case. In fact, the failure to recognise the female perspective is indicative of the ubiquitous white male blindness to processes of exclusion routinely faced by women and other ‘minorities’. Like the Ghostbusters’ assistant Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), white men are often oblivious to why the world works for them and why their gender or race isn’t an issue. This is especially obvious in this article in which a white male reviewer criticises the film for being apolitical and failing to produce an analysis of its time. In my view, the new Ghostbusters seems more political by going deeper into the mechanics and political embeddedness of academic exclusion than its predecessors.

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Image: ‘Let me in!’

As schemes from STEMnet science ambassadors to Athena Swan illustrate, there is a problem not only with recruiting women into science, but with retaining them. The higher you go up the career ladder, the fewer women you will encounter (in some science subjects, female students even outnumber male students, but this is not reflected in the faculty). It is the same story (but worse) for BME (black, minority ethnic) scholars, and there are also class and other biases. Even if you perform well in academia, the same factors that should have excluded you in the first instance, are likely to still work against you. This is brilliantly illustrated through the Ghostbusters characters.

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Image: Erin is denied tenure by the dean at Columbia

First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding. The film even shows how the refusal of other knowledges and experiences has shaped Erin’s private life. After her encounter with a ghost as a child, she was subjected to lengthy psychotherapy for rectification.

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Image: Patty tries to convince three white women that they have something in common

Patty (Leslie Jones) represents an extension of this theme by race and class. She is obviously very educated, but self-educated. US academia would have excluded her on the grounds of lack of funds and lack of appropriate background, most probably including schooling in non-prestigious institutions. If the film had been set in 1980s UK, she might have been an Open University student, but these sorts of opportunities have ceased to exist. Bored with her job and excited about expanding the boundaries of her knowledge, Patty decides to join the outcast women, with whom she feels a connection. The three white scientists at first do not feel or see a connection – Patty has to beg and bribe the group with her ‘benefits’ – but it gradually dawns on them that they have something in common. When she finally joins the team, Patty again takes to self-education. The scientists initially do not even consider that she might be interested in science – she is their equipment provider, ‘muscle’ and ‘native guide’ (not even historian) – but Patty observes, listens and starts to get active in the lab and in the field.

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Image: Abby has to realise that the margins are increasingly hard to find

In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.

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Image: Holtzmann: all bets (and safety lights) are off

Unlike Abby, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) seems more clued up about the constantly moving margins. She is very socially observant and knows where boundaries are, why they are there and why they need crossing. She appears to be in a constant state of adaptation, which includes making do with equipment pieced together from dumpsters and generally making full use of the freedom not to have to conform. While Holtzmann certainly delivers, her work would be considered too extreme in a university context, as it disregards protocols on any level from health and safety guidelines to outward representation. With an attitude like ‘we nearly got killed – it was awesome!’, any institution would be in constant fear of litigation and of threats to its reputation. Holtzmann is not a dutiful workaholic loner, but a fun-loving, thrill-seeking boundary-pusher. Like Abby and Erin, however, Holtzmann has a PhD, which means that, at one point, she must have managed to pass through the university system. We later meet her mentor, Dr Rebecca Gorin (Sigourney Weaver), of whom we don’t know if she was her formal or informal supervisor. This also mirrors a frequent academic pattern of how some mavericks – and black or female academics – survive. They have someone who ‘gets’ them and has their back.

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Image: This is not the solution

Overall, the four women each have developed a different coping mechanism for being at odds with the system: self-education (Patty), self-experimentation (Holtzmann), refuge in margins (Abby) and self-censorship to fit into the mainstream (Erin). Their antagonist, Rowan (Neil Casey), has had similar experiences with the system, but his coping strategy is revenge. The women understand the source of his pain and madness, but they also understand that total obliteration is not benefitting anyone and even validates the authority and prestige of the system. While prestige through validation is seductive, one also ends up reproducing the problem instead of remaining open to alternatives, including more supportive forms of co-operation. Perhaps the Ghostbusters are also more used to facing default devaluation because of their gender, and have learnt not to individualise the issue. This awareness, of course, does not render them immune to the desire to be known. When Erin is about to make a deadly mistake solely to refute another white male expert who tries to discredit her, Abby sharply reminds her ‘who cares??’ Erin succumbs anyway, and almost ends up putting everyone in jail for an inexplicable murder – there is no win situation.

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Image: Now on Amazon – ghostwritten

In a twisted way, the situation mirrors the title of Erin’s and Abby’s book: the four women continue to be haunted by the ghosts of white male supremacy and ‘official culture’ literally and figuratively, whether it’s male antagonists, debunkers, saboteurs, or supposed male allies like Kevin (the latter ending up bonding with ‘debunker’ Heist over his hat). This is rendered very literal in the film’s takedown of the freshly supercharged Rowan, when he resists the women’s efforts of putting him away into the netherworld by clinging onto two skyscrapers: ‘Let’s loosen his grip’ (on Abby’s command, the Ghostbusters open fire on his crotch, not his hands) Patty: ‘That’s where you wanted us to shoot, right?’.

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Image: Patriarchy comes to haunt the Ghostbusters wherever they go

In a less obvious manner, the film reflects arguments that have been made about the status of the margins made by people such as bell hooks and Moten & Harney. The latter offer an extensive manual for dealing with academia and wider power structures in their publication ‘the undercommons’ (link to pdf): how to use spaces where you are not supposed to be. As in ‘the undercommons’, the female Ghostbusters represent “the subversive intellectual [who] came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings”. Indeed, the film shows constant attempts at repressing the efforts of the Ghostbusters from official side, even though they show ‘results’ – better results. Yet solutions are not officially allowed to come out of the margins, as much as they are inofficially needed. The illusion that the current system works must be maintained at all costs: ‘the mayor thanks you, privately, but don’t tell anyone!’

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Image: Another gatekeeper says no

In conclusion, you could say that Ghostbusters represents science accurately: not just in the ‘techno-babble’, but also in its institutional make-up. If the makers of the film think that it will attract more girls into science, they might be right. The female scientists are not only nerdy, but clever, funny and cool. Whether young women – or other ‘marginal’ thinkers – will be able to enter academia and advance within it, is a different story. Under current institutional conditions, present exclusions and hierarchies are sharpening rather than loosening up. The film seems to be aware that, for these women to succeed in mainstream science, conditions would need to be very different. Even when the Ghostbusters are finally acknowledged and generously rewarded, they choose to claim and maintain their own place. The message might be very much akin to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s strategy of the undercommons: if you do your research out of love, take what you can from the system and run.

Feminist Review CFP “Environment”

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The following call might be of interest to readers:

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Themed issue on ‘Environment’ 

Feminism has a long and complex relationship to ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’. From critiques of the gendered nature/ culture binary to ecofeminism, feminists have alternatively rejected and celebrated women’s supposedly closer relationship to the natural world. Feminism has also long engaged critically with conventional definitions of humanism and ‘the human’, especially as derived from the exclusionist and violent definitions of the European Enlightenment.

These activist and critical histories have been revised and revisited in recent years as part of a growing preoccupation in the social sciences and humanities with the environment as subject, as well as object, of study. Growing consciousness of human-induced climate change, with its vastly unequal impact on different human populations as well as the planet as a whole, adds special urgency to these concerns. Whether as part of the post-humanist critique of the humanities, the ‘animal turn’, or the ‘new materialism’, feminists and other scholar-activists are increasingly reconceptualising definitions of, and boundaries between, the human and other-than-human world.

Feminist Review invites academic articles and creative interventions for a special issue on ‘Environment’. Possible topics of consideration include:

-genealogies of feminist environmentalism, within and beyond ecofeminism
-gender, race, class and ‘intersectional environmentalism’
-postcolonialism and environmental justice
-feminist contributions to debates and interventions around climate change
-gendered histories of the environment
-memory, mourning and environmental destruction
-queer ecologies
-religious and spiritual dimensions of feminist engagement with ecology
-post-humanist approaches to environmental studies
-gendering ecocriticism
-material feminisms
-kinship across species
-feminist, queer and anti-racist interventions in animal studies
-feminist perspectives on planetary futures

Issue editors: Yasmin Gunaratnam, Carrie Hamilton and Ioana Szeman

If you would like to discuss your ideas for this issue please contact the editors at y.gunaratnam@gold.ac.uk, c.hamilton@roehampton.ac.uk and i.szeman@roehampton.ac.uk.

Full articles or Open Space pieces to be submitted by 2 January 2017.

Manuscripts should be submitted through Feminist Review’s online submission system and in FR house style. See http:// http://www.palgrave-journals.com/fr/author_instructions.html.