Unruly Instruction: Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Unruly Woman

Hello world! It is a pleasure to be the blogger this month for Metathesis and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on a few different topics with our readers. Don’t forget—if you like this blog YOU, TOO could be a contributor. Check out our CFP here

For my first post I thought I would share a (very) condensed version of a paper I presented at Syracuse’s annual Future Professoriate Program Conference in Spring 2013. Last year, a colleague of mine (and, full disclosure, editor of this blog) organized a panel on “embodied pedagogy” and invited me and a fellow colleague to participate. I had never deeply considered the term “embodied pedagogy” before, yet a recent course evaluation had me questioning my physical presence in my classroom and its relationship to my pedagogical strategies. On an evaluation for my British Literature survey course, a student responded to a prompt to “comment on the quality of instruction in this course” with this remark: “She reminds me of Lena Dunham if she were a professor (This is a huge compliment).”

What was I to make of this?

Given my own research interests, I often discuss topics related to feminism and gender within my courses, possibly linking me with the self-proclaimed feminist Dunham.(For one of many examples of her discussing her feminism, you can read excerpts of her interview with NPR’s Terry Gross.) Yet I could not shake the feeling that, along with the contents of my course, my very body was enabling this comparison.

For in addition to her feminism, Dunham is also often discussed in terms of her physical appearance. A brief scandal erupted when New York Times writer Ruth La Ferla commented on Dunham’s “pulchritude” (a word associated with fatness) in relation to Dunham’s appearance at the 2013 Emmy awards, and it is perhaps no surprise that the artist’s rendition of this very photo which recently appeared above a critical essay of Dunham seems to exaggerate, among other features, her weight:



Dunham herself has suggested that one of the most positive aspects of her show Girls is its refusal to hide the bodies of “women who are not a size 0” or restrict them to weight-loss driven plotlines . Dunham’s feminism is linked, for many critics, reviewers, and fans, directly to her body and her refusal to cover it up.

Like Dunham, I am frank about my feminism. And, like Dunham, I occupy a body that does not easily fit into the Western ideal of beauty. What caused my student to compare me to Dunham, I believe, is best described by the scholar Kathleen Rowe in her book The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (1995)

Taking Roseanne Barr (among others) as a primary example, Rowe argues that women who refuse to bend to the will of patriarchy are ‘unruly.’ Specifically for Rowe, an unruly woman is characterized by her inability or unwillingness “to confine herself to her proper place.” She is often “excessive or fat, suggesting her unwillingness or inability to control her physical appetites,” speaks in an excessive “quantity, content or tone” and “makes jokes, or laughs herself.”  Her behavior might even be “associated with looseness and occasionally whorishness” and she is often perceived as a woman on the margins of polite society. I would argue that Lena Dunham, like the subjects of Rowe’s book, challenges patriarchal authority through her unruly behavior. Indeed, the recent outrage over some of her admissions regarding previous sexual experiences in her memoir Not that Kind of Girl underscore my point.

Now what does this all have to do with “embodied pedagogy?” From the tone of my voice and gesticulations to my dress size, my body’s unwillingness to be bound by patriarchal norms of femininity underscores the feminist commitments of my pedagogy. My insistence on voicing feminist challenges to patriarchy, particularly in a potentially unlikely class like a British Literature Survey implicitly codes my pedagogy as unruly for it refuses to limit conversations about gender to sanctioned academic spaces such as our Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Coupled with my occupation of a fat body, I signal as excessive and uncontained. By being a loud, large, female graduate TA who espouses explicit feminist concerns, I embody my feminist pedagogy. Thanks to Kathleen Rowe, I have a lens through which I might understand this at first perplexing, but now flattering, student response.


Melissa Welshans is a PhD Candidate in English at Syracuse University and is currently working on her dissertation The Many Types of Marriage: Gender, Marriage and Biblical Typology in Early Modern England. Melissa’s research is concerned with issues of gender and sexuality in early modern England, especially as it pertains to the institution of marriage. In her free time Melissa practices her nail art skills and snuggles with her husband and their two cats. 


  1. Great post, Melissa! I am always interested to hear the ways that people use Rowe’s unruly woman paradigm to make sense of their position –and their bodies– in society. What I find so interesting about Rowe’s conception of the unruly woman is her understanding of masquerade, and the ability of one to pick up and discard femininity at whim. (For example, she discusses Miss Piggy’s ability to adopt coy language and an ultra-feminine French accent… right before punching Kermit the Frog.) So you mention your body’s “unwillingness to be bound by patriarchal norms of femininity” and I am struck by the ways that your body registers as traditionally feminine in many ways– your love of the color pink, your fashionable dress style and feminine scarves, the ways your teaching clothes supplement your teaching style. To me, these feel very much like things that position your body within norms of femininity. But, for me, then, the question becomes: how do you use these things advantageously? Do you feel like you advantageously masquerade femininity? Furthermore, thinking of Dunham as unruly with respect to masquerade, we should consider the ways she might take up and enact certain versions of femininity. I don’t think unruliness is necessary in opposition to femininity but, rather, it’s about how one self-consciously enacts different versions of femininity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellently put, Staci. I address this somewhat in the longer version of my paper, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to discuss it here. In terms of feminine masquerade and its advantageous usage, I see myself primarily using my femininity to challenge institutional norms and students’ and colleauges’ potentially preconceived notions of professionalism. My goal is to wear it in such a way that, like Miss Piggy and her surprise karate kick, it highlights the constructed nature of gender. In my paper I give an example of a moment when, in the department office, a male colleague of mine criticized my professionalism when I admitted I preferred to grade with pink or purple ink. While this colleague instantly assumed that pink ink would somehow be coded as unprofessional for, (what he may or may not have consciously understood), its feminine connotations, I use pink ink PRECISELY for the way in which it can serve as one small way of challenging the idea that femininity in academia is a sign of frivolity or intellectual inferiority. I feel similarly about my dress. My penchant for all things pink (glasses, nails, scarves, phone, computer, etc) similarly codes, I believe, as an implicit challenge to the assumption that femininity is anathema to serious scholarly work. (A recent article that smartly speaks to the stereotypes of feminine dress in academia is Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/oct/26/-sp-female-academics-dont-power-dress-forget-heels-and-no-flowing-hair-allowed. )

    In terms of Dunham, I would have to consider it more. I do believe that she frequently appears to be using the strategies of feminine masquerade on the red carpet in particular. If we take the above Prada dress as an example, it is notable for the very large red flowers featured all over the dress (a feminine hallmark) and its ball gown-esque bottom. Everything about it is feminine, yet its femininity also seems exaggerated. And, again, her dress for the 2014 Emmys is an exercise in feminine excess: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/fashion/the-carefully-scripted-red-carpet-look-of-lena-dunham.html?_r=0. Both dresses are feminine, expensive, and adhere to the norms of female red carpet culture, yet Dunham approaches them with an irreverence that challenges the norms of Hollywood glamour and feminine demure. She joked that her 2013 Emmy dress was like something out of Delias (the pinnacle of affordable and fun teen fashion for many small town girls like myself: http://store.delias.com/home.do?brandid=BRA1234) and tweeted the following in regards to her Giambattista Valli dress: “All I’m gonna say about my Emmy dress is that it looks like cake and feels like sweatpants #loveandjoy.” As I say above, I would have to consider your questions in more depth, but for a start I would argue that her red carpet performances in particular seem to be an example of feminine masquerade that have the effect of challenging the norms of female beauty precisely through the deployment, and then irreverent undercutting, of those norms.

    Thanks for your comments!!!


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