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An Interview with Patricia Leavy, the High Priestess of Pop-Feminism

Gender & Pop Culture: A Text-Reader Edited by Adrienne Trier-Bieniek and Patricia Leavy
Gender & Pop Culture: A Text-Reader Edited by Adrienne Trier-Bieniek and Patricia Leavy
Photo contributed by Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.

Get to know Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. who is one of the editors of this book

Patricia Leavy, PhD is an internationally known author (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College). She has published a dozen non-fiction books including the best-seller Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice, and Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies and Fiction as Research Practice. She has also published two novels, the award-nominated American Circumstance and Sense Publisher’s top-selling title, Low-Fat Love. She is the editor for four book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. Frequently called on by the media, she has appeared on national television, radio, is regularly quoted by the news media, publishes op-eds and is a blogger for The Huffington Post. She frequently makes presentations and keynote addresses at universities as well as national and international conferences. The New England Sociological Association named her the “2010 New England Sociologist of the Year” and she has recently been nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry and a Special Achievement Award by the American Creativity Association.

What is the book about?

Gender & Pop Culture: A Text-Reader is about how popular culture shapes and transforms our ideas about gender. We sought to unpack much of what is taken for granted or assumed to be natural with regards to gender, but actually has been constructed within a social historical context. Gender and our ideas about it are not natural; gender is not the same as biological sex. For example, the book looks at how our ideas about masculinity and femininity are created, reinforced and at times challenged through music, television, movies or the Internet. The book considers how gender impacts who gets to create media culture and how people and issues are represented. We call the book a text-reader because we have written an in-depth introduction with a lot of background information and that sort of thing, as well as a conclusion with ideas for what to do with the insights learned from the book, and the rest of the book includes seven chapters by leading scholars in the field. They write about how media impacts children, advertising, music, television, film, sports and technology. Thinking about how it might be used in classes, all of the chapters also include discussion questions and activities and we’ve also included suggestions for further readings as well as web sources. At the end of the day I really think about this as a book that looks at how our lives, meaning our sense of self and our opportunities, are impacted by popular culture in pretty profound ways. The book explores how our media environment impacts our identities, ideas about gender, participation in pop culture and very materially, our life circumstances.

Who should read this book and what do you hope readers get out of it?

We wrote the book with college students in mind. It’s intended to be useful for classes that deal with gender, media or pop culture but truly, the audience could be much broader. I personally think high school students would benefit enormously from reading the media analysis presented by the contributors. It would heighten their media literacy which is critical in the time in which we are living. I also think that anyone could read this book and get something out of it. The issues covered impact everyone and a lot of people are interested in learning more about the relationship between pop culture and gender. One well-known media critic, Jackson Katz, said that the book should be required reading for “for anyone who's ever watched TV, gone to a movie or put on a pair of headphones!" Obviously it’s a huge compliment but it really points to the fact that we are all impacted by popular culture and how popular culture portrays and shapes gender, particularly in such a media-saturated environment here in the States. None of us are immune from the impact of pop culture and Adrienne and I hope this book will arm readers with a new lens through which to view and think about the images and narratives that are often taken for granted. When the book is used in classes we hope it prompts self-awareness, social reflection and spirited conversations. That kind of dialogue and exchange is so important. But really we hope that any reader who chooses to pick the book up with be left with food for thought and new tools or perspectives for thinking about the pop culture they consume and what it means for girls, boys, women and men. The book could be eye opening for many. The contributors all have different writing styles so there’s something for everyone. The examples they draw on go back sixty years or more and also include the most contemporary stand-out pop culture moments and performers. So from the movie Grease to the controversy surrounding the song “Blurred Lines” to one of Beyoncé’s latest hits, there are loads of relatable examples that should appeal to different readers.

What was it like collaborating with your co-editor?

Well, my co-editor Adrienne is a friend. In fact we came up with the idea for the book while she and her husband were visiting my family at our vacation place. Collaborating with a friend can be really tricky, if you value your friendship and want to remain friends [laughs]. But this wasn’t the case for us. We actually co-authored together before we knew each other personally. I saw something online about Adrienne’s work. At that time she was working on her dissertation which focused, in part, on the music and fans of Tori Amos. I emailed her and offered my assistance and we soon became email and social media friends. We say we were modern-day pen pals. Then I was invited to write a chapter for a book about art and social critique and I asked Adrienne if she wanted to write something with me. We co-authored a chapter about the music of Tori Amos and feminism. It wasn’t until a while after that we finally met in person. So I think because we really began as colleagues and co-authors and then became friends, we didn’t have fear about taking on a project together. In the end I look at the final book and I know it is different and I think much stronger than it would be had I done it on my own. Over the years I had opportunities to write or edit a book like this on my own and I’m glad I didn’t. When collaborations work well you can look at the final product and see how it is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s how I feel about this book. Adrienne and I are both deeply committed to feminism and gender equality and we both have experience writing and teaching about popular culture. Those interests brought us together in the first place. But we also brought different ideas and strengths to the table. We have our own ways of thinking about and writing about these issues, our own ideas about what examples to include and so forth. For example, the last chapter of our book, which I think is one of the most unique features of the book, consists of ideas for how students or any readers can take what they have learned in the book and go beyond the classroom, into their communities to apply what they have learned. I think it’s one of the best features of the book and it was Adrienne’s idea. Had I done a book like this on my own at some point it wouldn’t have that ending, which I think really makes the book. That’s an example of how a good collaboration bears fruit in the final output.

What does this book mean to you?

The timing of this book became really important to me. I decided to collaborate on this book shortly after leaving my job as a professor. It was the right time for me to leave my full-time teaching job in order to meet my publishing demands and focus exclusively on my writing. I had taught for more than a dozen years, a decade at the institution I had left, so it was a real shift for me. This book became an opportunity to document what I had been teaching for so many years and that’s how I came to look at it, as a chance to put down on paper the main messages in my teaching over many years. So the project sort of became a capping off or closing the door on that chapter. I’m grateful for having the chance to document some of what I taught and knowing that now others will teach with the book and students will continue to learn these lessons. There’s a real full circle feeling about it. I also have a teenage daughter and so of course I thought about her while working on the book. I thought about the world she and her peers live in, the messages they get and how hard it is to develop a positive self-concept when media spends billions trying to make girls think their worth is in their physicality and that they’re never enough. I dedicated my work on the book to my daughter and that was meaningful for me.

This book is a part of the Teaching Gender series that you edit. What is the series about?

The Teaching Gender series is a new venture that I’m really proud of. I’ve had a wonderful experience in my partnership with Sense Publishers as a series editor and so I approached them with the idea of a series that focuses on gender and sexuality. Our series is inclusive of a very wide range of topics, writing styles and perspectives. The one consistent undercurrent, aside from the focus on gender, is that all of the books are social justice oriented. I think we all want to do some good with this series, publish books that matter. We have a renowned international editorial advisory board and have signed about ten books so far, maybe more, on many different topics. I’ve received book proposals from authors all around the globe which is exciting. We recently launched the series with Gender Relations in Sport edited by Emily Roper. It’s a fantastic book with one of the best cover images I have ever seen. I was so lucky that Dr. Roper sent her proposal in at the very beginning because we couldn’t have a better launch book for the series. It has already been nominated for two major academic book awards. Whether or not one is particularly interested in learning about gender, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in sports. It’s a very cool and informative book.

You have the label pop-feminist author. Indeed, you’re the high priestess of pop feminism. What does that phrase mean to you?

I’ve taken the term on proudly. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about what feminism is and what it means to identify as feminist. There’s so much fear surrounding the word which let’s face it, is really thanks to a smear campaign by those who have an interest in maintaining the subordination of girls and women. Feminism is simply about equality, equality for all. It’s about girls, boys, women, men and transgendered people all being considered, well, just that, as people, as people with equal rights and opportunities. Feminism is about equality. There’s so much inequality when we both look globally and in our own backyards. With respect to violence, educational and professional opportunities, health care, political participation, media representation, you name it. We’ve come a long way, especially in some places, but there is so much more that needs to be done so that girls are born into a world in which they have the same rights and opportunities as boys, and not just in name, but are truly on equal ground. There’s a lot of wonderful and important work being done in academic institutions to advance feminist research. While I have great respect for all of this work and it influences my own understandings, sometimes it becomes very theoretical and philosophical and doesn’t reach the public domain. So to me, the term pop-feminist is about taking feminist messages into the popular, into the public domain. There’s no dumbing down or any of that kind of thing that some academics fear, it’s simply about recognizing that the messages of feminism are for everybody. I also focus a lot of my efforts in the area of pop culture which I think plays a central role in how we think about what it means to be male or female. So the pop-feminist label also speaks to my interest in offering feminist readings of pop culture.

Is it hard being a feminist scholar in the public domain?

Sexism, and inequality of all kinds, whether based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or disability, those things are hard. That inequality persists and that so many deny it is endlessly frustrating and at times, maddening. So naturally, thinking, writing and talking about these issues can be frustrating. Just consider this, I am never just a scholar or a writer, I am a woman scholar, a woman writer and an openly feminist one at that. But there’s no alternative. This is the work that is in my soul. As for being public, I accept that I put my ideas and work out there with no guarantee of what is coming back. I can only do my best to feel good about my intent. At the end of the day the rewards of living life authentically outweigh the challenges. And I am profoundly grateful, truly, to have opportunities to walk this path and share my work when so many are denied.

Since you had a positive experience collaborating on Gender & Pop Culture: A Text-Reader can we expect more collaborative efforts in your future?

I do have a couple of collaborative projects in the works for down the line and I feel blessed to be able to work with people I admire. You can definitely grow during collaborations. But in the immediate future I am taking some time to do my own work. There is a certain energy and process with a collaborative project and in addition to this book I have another large edited volume coming out in a couple of months, which I worked on for many years with a large team of people. After working on those projects it’s the right time to go into my own intellectual and artistic bubble for a while, which is a different way of expanding and expressing oneself. I crave the creativity that can come in seclusion. So I have a few sole authored books I will be working on before new collaborations.

What are the sole authored projects you’re working on now?

A few years ago I published a novel called Low-Fat Love and I am humbled to say that it became my publisher’s top selling book so I have agreed to write a nonfiction book, inspired by it but also that extends beyond the novel. That book is called Low-Fat Love Stories and I’ve conducted new interviews with women of all backgrounds that will inform the book. We expect to release it in a couple of years along with an expanded, anniversary edition of Low-Fat Love which I am also working on. It’s a double book project so it’s keeping me busy. I’m also finishing a second edition of my book Method Meets Art for Guilford Press and I’m working on a new research textbook for them, but I’m keeping that one under wraps for now. Suffice it to say I have taken on a massive project for Guilford. It’s terrifying but I like a good challenge.

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