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Passion as Feminist Conundrum

Gendering in Research: Talk by Senior Research Fellow Kathy Davis, University of Amsterdam

2018.08.01 | Anne-Mette Pedersen

Date Thu 27 Sep
Time 11:00 13:00
Location IMC Meeting Room, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 4, Building 1483-312



Passion is a strong and barely controllable emotion. It can be intensely pleasurable and desirable, but it can also make people act in unpredictable and disruptive ways. Passion typically uproots them from the routines of their everyday lives, dissolving the boundaries between what is considered normal and what is experienced as extraordinary.  Passion can lead people astray, make them do ‘crazy’ things and prevent them from behaving rationally, with judicious moderation. And, last but not least, it may stand on uneasy footing with a person’s most cherished political and ideological principles.  
A case in point is my own personal history of politically incorrect passions. I have entertained strong enthusiasms for people, things, activities or ideas which were completely at odds with the views I held as a feminist. For example, I have at different times in my life fallen madly in love with ‘bad men,’ admired dubious male thinkers with misogynist ideas (Freud, Althusser), and engaged passionately in a host of questionable practices, from wearing high heeled shoes to watching soap operas on television to dancing tango, a dance full of hyper-heterosexual stereotypes and postcolonial exoticism (Davis, 2015). In each of these instances, my feelings of passion have collided with my – equally intense and passionately held - feminist principles that encouraged a critical stance against anything which could be construed as harmful and oppressive for women.  

In this talk, I explore how feminist scholars have engaged with the subject of passion – that is, a strong feeling for or an affective commitment to someone or something both highly valued and yet potentially problematic.  I will focus on passion in a more general sense of the word, as a strong affective attachment or commitment to a person, object, activity or idea (Hall, 2005). I will not be exploring sexual passion specifically, because sexuality is often conflated with passion, both within and outside the academy. Because I see sexuality as related to, but not the same as passion, I have, for the purposes of this talk, opted for this more general definition. 

Beginning with several early attempts to harness passion to feminism, I examine the kinds of conundrums it presents within gender studies scholarship. I then turn to the recent ‘affective turn’ in critical scholarship which has claimed to theorize feelings, emotions, and – presumably - passion in a more sophisticated and less ideological way. I will argue that feminist theorists of the ‘affective turn’ have not only been unsuccessful in reconciling  these earlier conundrums, but that they have left the phenomenon of passion as an embodied, socially embedded experience unexplored and under-theorized.  I conclude with some suggestions for a more empirically grounded and self-critically reflexive approach which might enable us to reconnect passion with (feminist) politics in a more productive and reflective way. 



Kathy Davies is a Senior Research Fellow in the PARIS research program and the Department of Sociology at the VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She has held visiting chairs and research fellowships in the United States at Wellesley College, Columbia University, the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University as well as in Germany (Maria Jahoda Chair for International Women's Studies), Sweden, Austria, and Finland.

Kathy Davis has a long-standing interest in feminist scholarship on women's bodies and health. Her work is situated at the cutting edge between cultural studies, gender studies, and the sociology of the body. She has published extensively on contemporary feminist approaches to the body, interaction between physicians and women patients, cultural constructions of beauty and beauty practices, and the political and ethical dimensions of surgical technologies. Her research interests also include sociology of the body, intersectionality travelling theory and transnational practices, biography as methodology, and critical and creative strategies for academic writing. Her most recent work is on tango and passion in a transnational perspective.



The Gendering in Research Network provides a platform for gender researchers and students at Aarhus University to discuss, collaborate, and exchange ideas. For further information about the Gendering in Research Network, please contact: Lea Skewes, IMC Theresa Ammann, IMC

The Gendering in Research Network provides a platform for gender researchers and students at Aarhus University to discuss, collaborate, and exchange ideas. For further information about the Gendering in Research Network, please contact: