What Can Methods Do? Using Drama Methods To Explore Embodiment Of Gender On Campus

by: & Helen Cahill , May 15, 2019

Feminist new materialist (Taylor & Ivinson 2013; van der Tuin 2014; Fox & Alldred 2015; St. Pierre; Jackson et al. 2016) and non-representational (Thrift 2004; Vannini 2015) ‘styles’ of theory and research are burgeoning in the intersecting fields of education, sociology, and visual and cultural studies. These approaches extend from the post-structural focus on discourses as the basis for subjectivity and social life, and draw from the ‘vitalist’ philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari (1987), along with Barad’s (2007) theories of agential realism on the intra-active constitution of matter; and Braidotti’s (2013) theories of post-humanism to revalue the importance of matter in human practices (Edwards & Fenwick 2014). These perspectives also re-frame the question of social construction to one of production, moving away from social constructivist views of bodies as relatively passive expressions of socio-cultural orders and structures, to explore bodies themselves as lively and dynamic processes which are productive of the social world. Feminist new materialist perspectives direct attention to the ways in which ‘material things act on and with us’ to produce human practices (Taylor & Ivinson 2013: 689) in an effort to account more fully for the complex processes by which social ‘realities’ come to be, and could be otherwise (Houle 2011). This theoretical perspective encourages recognition of the intra-action between the human and the non-human, incorporating the relationships between forces, events, material objects and humans, insisting on the ‘meaning, force, and value of materiality’ (Alaimo & Hekman 2008: 10).

The question of how to engage with the ‘fullness of materiality’ in research assemblages, and the ways in which the material world, as well as discourses, are implicated in the production of embodiment and subjectivity, has been a focal point in developing feminist new materialist methodologies (Taylor & Ivinson 2013; Coleman 2014; Fox & Alldred 2015; Lenz Taguchi 2016; Mazzei 2016). Coleman and Ringrose urge attention to the ‘performativity’ of method and the ways in which ‘social science methodologies not only describe the worlds they observe but (at least in part) are involved in the invention or creation of the world’. (2013: 1). As qualitative and arts-based feminist researchers, this encourages us to consider and draw out the significance of method in producing ‘research’, asking what do our methods do?

Feminist new materialist scholarship has drawn on Barad’s concepts of diffraction and intra-action to foreground the entanglements which comprise research assemblages (Lenz Taguchi & Palmer 2013; Renold & Ivinson 2014; Ringrose & Renold 2014; Ringrose & Renold 2016; Renold 2018). The work of a ‘diffractive reading’ entails a ‘respectful, detailed, ethical engagement’ with ‘data’ and all aspects of the research assemblage (see Hickey-Moody 2015: 808). It foregrounds the researcher within the research assemblage, and acknowledges the researcher’s role in terms of ‘an ethico-political commitment where the production of knowledge is about making a difference in the world and understanding the what, where, when, how, and for whom differences matter’ (Barad 2007 in Ringrose & Renold 2014: 1-2). The approaches to bodies and matter afforded by these theoretical perspectives have led to the use of a range of creative pedagogies and research engagements which have aimed to produce social justice gender initiatives. Prime examples include a project led by Emma Renold and Gabrielle Ivinson (see Ivinson & Renold 2013; 2016; Renold 2018) which employed feminist new materialist methods and agitated the Welsh government to modify and implement respectful relationships education and projects in education using creative or arts practice-based learning (Hickey-Moody 2012; Hickey-Moody 2013; Harris 2016; Ringrose & Renold 2016). This applied orientation reframes gender as a complex relational assemblage produced through affects, relations and ‘doings’, negotiated between forces of territorialisation and the openness inherent in the production of bodies (Coffey 2016). Gendered embodiments are approached not simply as the reproductions of dualist gender formations; rather, gender is engaged, negotiated and produced continually through affects and relations. This enables the ambiguities and complexities of gender to be explored, as well as binary categories and hierarchies. These forces together can be used in feminist new materialist research, analysis and activism to contribute a fuller picture of the dynamics by which gender assembles.

Embodied, drama-based methods offer an opportunity for participatory enquiry into the fluid and material nature of human experience (Cahill 2001, 2002 & 2005). The workshop methods we used aimed to mobilise bodies to ‘imagine’ and respond to different ‘everyday gender’ scenarios via collaborative efforts with the others in the room. In this we departed from more traditional qualitative focus group and interview methods which tend to harness the individual ‘mind’ through talk, neglecting the potential of moving bodies to create a response. We consider the implications of these embodied methods as generative within a feminist materialist interest in collaborative enquiry with research participants. We share specific detail of the activities and methods used to explore their everyday experiences of gender. We build on prior use of such methods to explore experience through co-created embodied fictions (Cahill & Coffey 2015; Cahill 2016). We also draw from Renold and others’ suggestion that ‘arts-based practices that encourage some form of experiential engagement…have the potential to ignite inventiveness’ (2018: 39) and ignite the potential to become-otherwise in contexts which may have previously been particularly constraining or repressive (Renold 2018: 39). We attend to the embodied, affective and more-than-human contexts as central in what the methods ‘produced’. We work with rhizomatic and diffractive methodological practices (see Hughes & Lury, 2013; Taylor & Hughes, 2016) to explore the significance of these methods for the potential opening to the difference they may enable.


The Workshop: Encountering Gender

The workshop [1] was advertised on a university campus in New South Wales, Australia as seeking participants who identified as female to take part in a workshop exploring ‘everyday experiences of gender’, using drama-based and qualitative research methods. Eleven university students participated, aged 18-25. Two identified as Aboriginal/Australian, seven identified as Australian, and two identified as mixed Australian or other ethnicity. Seven identified as heterosexual, and four identified as bisexual. Most respondents identified that their parents’ educational status was senior High school or Technical and Further Education, with three parents named to have tertiary degrees. Employment status of parents ranged from unemployed, to administrative, trade, teaching and retail jobs. The participants were variously enrolled in degrees in arts, marketing, business, environmental science and management, teaching, early childhood education, social work, and sociology. Some participants knew one or two others through their studies, however, the group was mostly unfamiliar to one another.

The workshop was conducted across 3 hours, with a short break for refreshments. It included warm-up games, followed by a series of collaborative activities which asked participants to work together to imagine and present different ‘gendered’ scenarios in their everyday lives, and on University campus. Each activity or exercise was followed by an opportunity for discussion and reflection to the larger group. The activities were audio and video-recorded, photographed, and transcribed. Some photographs are included in this article and have been edited to preserve anonymity.

Drawing on Barad’s notion of the ethico-onto-epistemological response-ability, we sought to engage an ethic of care amongst the small research community oriented towards exercising an ethical response to each intra-action in the workshop activities. For example, we clearly explained our intent, methods and purpose, talking to the plain language and consent process. We highlighted the fact that as the workshop was collective in nature, participants should be mindful to share only that which they were comfortable to share. Reminders were given that even through the research writing they would be anonymised, it was possible that they could be recognised by their photos, and that other parties in the workshop may refer to data shared in discussions with their own communities. We requested that the participants assist us to respect the privacy of the other workshop members by not passing on personal stories. To further promote an ethic of care and respect, we began the workshop with some playful games to encourage interaction, provided refreshments and time for informal talk midway through the morning, and invited participants to join us for a picnic lunch in the nearby garden following the workshop completion. All parties elected to join us for lunch.

Below, we provide a narrative which weaves the workshop activities and qualitative methods with analysis of embodied and spoken ‘data’ generated through the workshop encounters, in this favouring attention to the intersections between method and data. In doing this we draw on Deleuzo-Guattarian concepts of the rhizome and bricolage alongside Barad’s (2007) concept of intra-action to describe the inter-connective, collaborative, and unfolding processes by which gender was embodied and assembled in the workshop encounter.


Opening Moves: Attending & Attuning

In the first workshop activities, the ten women sat in a circle with the two of us as investigators. We have a video camera and voice recorders running. We invite them to play two games to open initial conversations about gender. The first was the ‘Mirror Game’, played in pairs. Players stand opposite each other. One plays the ‘lead’, and the other the reflection, mirroring their movements. They take it in turns to lead and mirror. Following the game, we return to the circle and ask: What do you see in this game that you also experience in relationships? When or where else do you feel under the gaze? Who do you believe is looking?

We chose this game as a way to centre embodied engagements and intra-actions between moving bodies. The work of mirroring entails mutual attending and attunement. It draws attention to the work of construction and replication. It provides a metaphoric frame through which to approach recognition as registered through others. As Butler argues, ‘The norms by which I recognise another or, indeed, myself, are not mine alone; they function to the extent that they are social, exceeding every dyadic exchange that they condition’ (2007: 31). We observed that this game made the fluid performativity of bodies visible through mimicry, and prompted recognition of the body as watchful and watched, working and worked upon, and as both individual and social.

The image below shows only a still point in that movement, yet it conjures the seminar space we worked within, and the bodies at play together. We offer it to sketch in the embodied nature of the early phase of the workshop event, in which a sit-down-for-class space was colonised for exploratory play and the creation of intimacy of exchange and recognition. The work of attending and attunement is evident even in this brief capture, as eyes, hands, hips, and feet seek symmetry.


Mutual attending was marked through slow and extending rhythms. Pairs discovered what their dyad could do. Girls laughed as they experimented with the being of ‘leader’ and ‘follower’. It was possible to tell who was lead and who reflection – leaders more gleeful yet gentle as they extracted emulation; followers attending and anticipating next moves. Most worked through hands, which led arms in accord but left feet holding their place in the room. Bodies both stuck and in movement, at the same time.


After this game, participants reported that the game made them feel aware of their attunement to others, and how they aligned their bodies and movements in response to others present and imagined. They compared the ‘normal’ mirror image of themselves with the sensations they felt in the activity which required anticipating and responding to others’ cues, and how these sensations reminded them of their performance efforts in broader settings.

Steph: I can predict what I’m doing. But I can’t predict what other people are doing if that makes sense.

Julia: So it’s more – do you mean it’s, like, more unpredictable with other people and, like, you have to kind of be more responsive or something?

Steph: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know why I said that. It just feels more, like, yeah…

Mon: Like, you’re not making a conscious effort when you’re looking at yourself…

Steph: Yeah. Yeah.

This activity began the work of recognising the production of gender through and with their bodies: embodied through the aesthetics of responsiveness to others. Their discussion surfaced examples of the elusive workings of gendered norms and expectations embedded in social interactions, noting their efforts to adjust and accommodate. In this, they began to deconstruct the workings of gendered binaries of masculine and feminine roles within presumed heterosexual relationships, and the ways these binaries manifested in micro-bodily gestures such as the volume of speech and laughter:

Joni: Thinking about it now, like, I guess you don’t really notice it when you’re doing it. But even just the way you speak or the way you laugh or the volume with which you speak, I guess, if you are consciously trying to be more feminine you’ll be quieter, you’ll laugh more, you’ll speak less, you’ll – yeah, which is kind of sad I guess.

Nicole: Don’t say too many smart things to intimidate the men.

Joni: Yeah. Yeah, you – I guess you feel if you’re being – I feel like if I’m being myself I can be intimidating to the opposite sex and I’ve been told that in my relationships as well. Like, ‘Oh, you’re too – you’re too authoritative and you’re too confident and you’re too – those masculine traits. Like, play it down a little bit because maybe he feels intimidated’.

Stacey: Even if you’re with a group of friends, they might say ‘Oh don’t do this because he won’t like it’. Well, why should I change for him?

The mirror exercise drew attention towards automatic embodied enactments through which young women are expected to enact gendered ways of being, such as through presenting agreeable, amenable, matched, and recognisable dispositions to those they’re interacting with. This surfaced a range of tensions and misgivings related to the inequity of such gendered performances in the context of dominant heterosexual gender relations.


Directive Dance: Shaper & Shaped

We invited the participants to return to their pairs, to play the ‘Robot and Controller Game’. In this game, the Controller stretches out their arm, palm held forward. The Robot must keep their nose equidistant from the Controller’s palm. This necessitates following whatever movements the Controller makes. They swap roles midway through the game. Then return to the circle to discuss – What was it like to be the Robot, directed by the hand of the Controller? What was it like to be the Controller? What does being Robot or Controller remind you of in the everyday lives of young women? Who or what do you believe is looking or shaping?

The volume rose. Girls’ voices, laughs and shrieks filled the room as they moved into this strange activity which had them defy conventions of personal space and deportment, interacting with each others’ bodies in ways that they would never usually do (the ‘controller’s’ hand so close to the ‘robot’s’ face, moving them like a puppet). Both Controller and Robot were confronted by this jarring of the convention. This showed differently in their bodies. The Controllers were the ones shrieking, perhaps generated by the transgression of getting in someone’s face and dominating their bodily movements in such a deliberate and overt way. The Robots were smiling too, but in a way that suggested they were working at being complicit, ‘putting up with’ and ‘going along with’ the controller’s power.


The game provided both a metaphor for power, inequality and the labour of followership and materialisation of this through the moving bodies. In working first through the intra-actions between moving bodies, and then through conversation, the participants explored the fluid nature of power relations and the work it put upon them as interacting agents. In talking into the metaphor, they charted the similarities between the embodied experience as Robot or Controller, and experiences of dominance and submission in relationships. As in the previous game, the work of connection and co-creation commenced at a bodily level, by playing together, and amongst each other. It then progressed to a more personal and biographical level as people shared life experiences.

The embodied experience of participating in this game brought out a discussion of structure and power relations. When asked what the activity reminded them of, Mon said ‘being objectified’, and the group murmured agreement. Affirming murmurs were part of the bodily response through which the participants breathed into the data together. Mon’s point led to a lengthy discussion of instances of sexual harassment and assault in public spaces; in particular, pubs and nightclubs, with different participants chipping in agreement, and supporting statements of similar experiences. Breaths of affirmation and recognition provided a background of care into which others spoke. Voices inter-threaded with other voices to co-create the narrative. As researchers, we supported this ethic with our embodied attending, and by refraining from over-talking respondents as the passed the talk between them. Variously and collectively, the young women recounted being groped, having their physical space and bodies violated by ‘all the hands’.

Nicole: It reminds me of clubbing. Where you have to, like, walk through and you’ve got to, like, have [overtalking, sounds of agreement] all the hands that are trying to – you’ve got to – or, like, you’re standing still and someone, like, tries to get past you and you get the, like…

Mon: The running the hands [overtalking, ‘yes, yes’].

Nicole: … and you’re, just, like, ‘Oh…

Penny: Like, ‘Don’t touch me.’

Nicole: …you turn around to confront them but they’re gone. They, like, disappear and you’re, like, that asshole touched me!

They described methods they would use to negotiate these intrusions by pronouncing ‘I have a boyfriend’, in this appealing to heterosexual relationship norms of male ownership over their bodies as protection from strangers’ advances. Mon said the activity reminded of her of how she had to ‘follow her boyfriend around’ when they were out at night in crowded spaces because ‘he’s my protection’. Others agreed, though also agreed with Penny that ‘sometimes that doesn’t even work’. Using other men or male partners as strategic protection was described as the ‘only’ way of warding off unwanted advances from strangers because ‘they’re persistent, a lot of guys will not give up because they feel like you might cave or something’.

Another strategy Penny described was to seize power, be confrontational and try to intimidate them in return – to be ‘a bitch’:

Penny: Like, every time I’ve said no it’s been really, like, if someone was, like, coming up close to you or doing something like that, if you just kind of show that you’re really confrontational and, like, kind of intimidating they’re just, like, ‘Oh, oh, like, yeah, get away’. 

Mon: And then they’re, like, ‘You’re a bitch’.

Penny: Yeah. You’ve got to be a bit of a bitch about it.

They pinpointed ‘rape culture’ as working in ‘those kind of spaces’ which are thick with alcohol, crowds of people, and include areas of darkness and shadow which obscure groping hands. Darkness and crowded-ness are material elements of the spaces which enable predatory men to hide crimes amongst moving bodies. The young women’s accounts of themselves as ‘vulnerable prey’ in the dark and crowded spaces of nightclub dance floors echo findings of studies which highlight nightclubs as ‘sexualised social spaces’ where sexual harassment is so widespread and common it is seen as normalised (Mellgren, Andersson et al. 2017). The accounts described here echo Kavanaugh’s (2013) study of women’s experiences of ‘opportunistic predation’ in nightclubs, where men will take advantage of the conditions such as numerous bodies packed tightly on a dancefloor to grope and/or harass. Numerous other studies have shown the ways young women bear the onus of responsibility to manage and negotiate risk in similar venues which share a sexualised ‘vibe’ (Kavanaugh 2013; Fileborn 2016; Mellgren, Andersson et al. 2017; Nicholls 2017).

The group conversations following these opening ‘games’ were collaboratively produced, working as a bricolage (Handforth & Taylor 2016), with the voices and affirming breaths painting in aspects of a larger shared story and registering common experiences of gendered harassment. The groping hands’ example was striking as each of the women described the routine of being groped in the nightclub space. In making their shared experience visible, these games had a powerful impact in disrupting the individualising effects of gendered harassment, and recognition of shared experiences became a primary focus across the rest of the workshop.


‘Gendered Feeling Spaces’ on Campus

In the next stage of the workshop, participants were asked to form groups of three or four to create a freeze-frame image with their bodies (either a naturalistic or photographic image, or a more abstract sculptured form) depicting the position of ‘the female undergraduate student on campus’. We ran the audio recorders in each task group to capture the discussions as they worked to design their freeze frame ‘scenes’. The recorders picked up the loud hum of discussion in the room; with many of the groups’ narratives and exclamations running into and across each other, difficult to distinguish.

The following section presents a verbatim section of the transcript from one group [2] as they came up with their ‘scene’, followed by a photo documenting the image they produced and the subsequent interpretation of that image made by the larger group. This detail of making, showing and responding is important as it shows the rhizomatic and bricolage processes producing the image, and its impact, thus drawing attention to what the method can produce in exploring the production and performance of gender in the young women’s lives.

Mon: I personally really like uni. But I still, you know, there still is always that concern – as females, we’re constantly on edge. I feel constantly on edge when I’m alone.

Steph: And walking to my car sometimes can be really scary. Like in [suburb] recently –

Mon: That guy … [3]

Steph: I remember reading that and walking back to my car at uni, I felt so scared I almost went to the security shuttle. But then I felt uncomfortable doing that too, like will they be thinking ‘you stupid girl’ – 

Mon: …but you just don’t know. That’s the constant thing, you always have to be on edge I think. Even today, I was walking from my car and, like, I’m not wearing a heaps supportive bra – as I was walking a car with two boys drove by and I instantly switched to, like, I feel like they’re looking at me and objectifying me and looking at, you know, my boobs, like. [overtalking 0:02:14.1]

Mon: Yeah, and you’re just, like, I feel so sick and uncomfortable. It’s like nobody can just, like, look at me without me being a sexual object. Or, look at me without saying, like, you know, you need to cater to the needs of males or something. It happens all of the time.

Steph: Yeah. Definitely. I so agree with that.

Mon: So, what if we have the chairs set up like a bus and then you’re just, like, like, once you’re sitting there like…

[overtalking 0:04:17.4] Like this is me when I’m on public transport [arms and legs crossed, looking down].

Steph: I was in an environmental course, and they were actually having a massive go at feminism. Saying…there’s always a feminist explanation for everything. I was there and I couldn’t stand up for it because I was really intimidated..

Mon: Because you have to kind of evaluate, like, is this going to put my safety at risk? If I stand up for myself is it going to make this environment unsafe?

Steph: Yeah, are you going to get attacked, like…

Stacey: Yeah.

Steph: Like, verbally attacked?

Mon: It’s not worth it. Like, even physically, like – that is my concern, like, if I stand for myself is this person going to find me in the car park and then say something to me and then overpower me?

Steph: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.

Mon: Like, I’m so paranoid because I’m constantly thinking, like – and I think it’s a product of, like, my mother because my mum told me – when I turned 18 she was, like, ‘I’m – do you know how happy I am that my child has made it to 18 without being molested or raped or sexually assaulted .

Steph: That’s sad [overtalking 0:06:03.1]

Mon: But that’s real.

Steph: But it is. It is. 

This section of transcript illustrates the significance of material objects (bra, car, security shuttle); and the materiality of the young women’s movements through defined and liminal spaces (classroom, campus, car park and public transport).

Threaded rhizomatically into the present and local were accounts of local-historical events referring to violent sexual crimes committed by ‘that guy’ in the immediate area. The crime has an affective presence and does not even require a naming to achieve recognition. These accounts carried embodied affects of being ‘constantly on edge’ and ‘scared’ and in University spaces. Spaces including university buildings (the classroom), public spaces (pathways, busses, carparks), which we usually take to be ‘the fixed material backdrop of human agency’ (Lenz Taguchi & Palmer 2013: 672), can be seen themselves as key co-constitutive agents in producing gendered feelings and embodied sensations of being unsafe.

This example surfaced affectively as a ‘hot spot’ (MacLure 2013) for embodied feelings of being ‘unsafe’: on edge, scared, sick, and uncomfortable. The participants described the process of mediating these embodied sensations in relation to male bodies during the walk to the carpark –Steph through imagining security will think her a ‘stupid girl’ if she calls them to accompany her to her car; Mon through ‘immediately switching’ to be on alert, hyper-aware of her body, and feeling regret at ‘not wearing a heaps supportive bra’, and becoming ‘looked at and objectified’ when two boys drive by. Steph connects these visceral concerns with classroom events, describing feeling intimidated by the loud opinions of men on the topic of feminism in a particular tutorial as she was worried disagreeing with them could cause them to ‘find [her] in the carpark later and overpower [her]’. Mon describes being ‘paranoid’ because of her mother’s own fears for the likelihood of her suffering sexual violence as a child and young woman. These fears are present and ‘real’, as Mon and Steph agree. (Local crime statistics show significantly higher rates of sexual offences in the region compared to NSW.) [4] As is heard here, a history of sexual attacks in local places can cause scarring and impacts which resonate through bodies affectively across generations (Renold & Ivinson 2014). Local-historical affects such as these are ways through which ‘becomings emerge through ongoing practices that are entangled with place, history and landscape’ (Renold & Ivinson 2014: 363).

Gender here can also be seen as being produced through processes of transferred affective attachment (Hemmings 2005) in these examples, where the participants describe the feelings associated with reading their bodies as objects through the eyes of the more powerful. It manifests as anticipation of harassment (‘as I was walking a car with two boys drove by and I instantly switched to, I feel like they’re looking at me and objectifying me’) and anticipation of ridicule for being afraid (‘I was so scared I almost went to the security shuttle, but then I felt uncomfortable doing that too, will they be thinking ‘you stupid girl’).


Depicting ‘Gender on Campus’

The above photograph captures the image the group presented following this discussion. They chose to show a scenario located within an everyday seminar space, despite that much of their initial talk was about fear and groping. The rest of the group immediately ‘read’ this scene as depicting two women and two men in a classroom: the women ‘shy, looking down’, avoiding eye contact, trying to cover up and shrink themselves to be littler’ in that ‘masculine space’. In contrast, the ‘men’ have ‘open body language, confidence’, ‘so, so open’, with legs spread. For the women, the groin is ‘protected’, for the men it is ‘displayed’.

With mirrored similarity, each of the other three groups produced uncannily similar images, each of which featured students seated inside a lecture theatre or seminar room. As in the above image, those playing females showed them shrunk small, legs closed, withheld bodies. Those playing males sat with opened groins, splayed legs, taking space from those around. They read each other’s images, noting the ‘shy looking girl, looking at the ground, not really looking at any one thing’, in contrast to ‘Yeah the men are taking up space, the girls are trying to make themselves small. Yeah, like in that masculine space’.

The activity of creating and collectively reading these scenes produced discussion about their own experiences of gender in everyday life and on campus. The micro-bodily gestures and movements of women working to ‘be small’ whilst men dominate the classroom space are not felt to be limited to the classroom – they exceed this space and are carried around in the bodies of the women as they move between spaces on the walk to the car park or bus later that evening.

Penny described certain places around the campus, including the classroom and outdoor spaces such as courtyard having certain a gendered ‘feel’ about them:

Penny: There are male-specific feeling places and female specific is something that happens now and that can be – and if you’re out of your comfort zone if you’re a female in the male-dominated class, then it can be really especially scary being an undergraduate. 

This description of ‘male’ and ‘female specific feeling places’ highlights the ways that gender is imbued affectively through the engagements between spaces and bodies. Rather than the classroom being felt like a ‘safe’ space, classrooms were felt to be potentially constraining and intimidating spaces, physically but not ontologically marked from spaces where overt physical harm could occur (as Mon said, ‘if I stand for myself in class is this person going to find me in the car park and overpower me?’). Gender is produced and felt rhizomatically across and through the girls’ intra-actions with these spaces. These gendered processes were seen, felt, recognised, and experienced collaboratively through participants’ own and each others’ bodies and movements.

In the following activity, the groups were asked to re-create their images to show any changes they would see as the accomplishment of a preferred future of life on campus. They were tasked to present their images by first juxtaposing their initial image of gender in the everyday on campus with their second image of the preferred future. As the groups read each other’s image, they work to name what they saw shown, and what must have shifted for this ideal to occur.


Their ‘preferred future’ image reassembled classroom bodies showing them ‘open’, turned to each other, attending, and smiling. This photograph captures the image created by the group whose work is discussed above. It shows the collective tilting towards each other through which they signified community. Fellow participants read the image as showing people in community or connection with each other, and as depicting ‘equality’: ‘It’s respectful and sort of, like, being able to meet each other and have a conversation’. They noted changes in the bodies as ‘now they’re all looking at each other’; ‘they seem to be on equal footing’.Crucially, the group also noted that the bodies were no longer strongly gendered, despite that the two playing the males still tilted knees apart somewhat, and those playing females held their thighs somewhat closed: ‘now it’s just a group of individuals’. The comparison between these two sets of images showed that not only did they have feelings of gendered separation, watchfulness, fear, and intimidation on campus, but they also felt that a sense of community, register, recognition and connectedness was missing in the everyday.


The Potential for Gendered Embodiment to ‘Become Otherwise’

To complete the workshop, the participants were invited to share something they intended to take away to make valuable from their workshop experience. We chose this question to signal the impending dissolve, as the group who had assembled for this research event was soon to conclude its work together. We were curious to know what they would take and make for themselves, and in asking, also to signify our wish that the experience had been of value to them, as well as to us.

They each spoke about how the collective experience of the workshop was ‘really positive’, strengthening, or even ‘life changing’: describing that the workshop and feeling of community it produced was powerful in bringing about the realisation their experience was not singular or unusual but shared.

It seemed that despite the sharing of troubling and limiting experiences, the workshop encounters and intra-actions created a line of flight through the gradual and building surge of energy (intensity), and the work of re-cognition, in ways similar to Ringrose and Renold’s research which points to ‘ruptured contemporary and historical affective resonances of sexual regulation and violence’ (2014: 5). The participants wanted to ‘do something about it’. The participants valued what they had enabled each other to see, do and feel, and they expressed this as something that was changing them.

Nicole: I’d just say this has just been really positive for me, like, I feel like this has made my week, my month and, like, I feel like this has really, like, changed a lot of my perspectives. Just having every single person’s opinion in this room goes much further than what I would have touched on. Like, this is a bit of a life changer in a positive way.

Mon: It is, it’s just a – it’s a nice, safe, comfortable space. I feel like it’s just a group of people that have met who have shared a bond over this, you know, curiosity for gender in everyday life. And we’ve learned off of each other and been able to bounce too off of each other’s experiences and really empathise and build on that. Because, yeah, I do, I do feel like it changes perspectives in a certain way.

Joni: Yeah, this has, like, got a really positive impact on everyone here’s life.

Steph: Yeah.

Joni: Yeah, I think as well – it’s, like, hopeful for the future because, you know, we think about all the inequalities that exist at the moment and like, everyone here saying, ‘Oh, like, it happens to me too. I want this change too’.

Mon: Even, like, we all did very similar scenes of being an undergraduate where we felt, as women, we were kind of shoved to the back or made to feel as though we were belittled in the classroom. It’s really eye-opening that the majority of the females in here feel like that. And I thought I was the only person who would walk to the car and feel, you know, objectified or feel threatened by any male that walked past me. But to realise that it’s a massive societal issue is, you know …

Stacey: I also feel like this has been, like, a big self-confidence boost in a weird way. Like, I, like, I do, like, I feel heaps more confident about being me and just being able to walk down the corridor and just be myself and not have those, like, silly thoughts in the back of my head. Like, I feel a lot more confident and I think a lot of that will be more after today.

This conversation charts the affective power of recognition and community produced through the workshop encounter. The new realisation that they had shared concerns and experiences produced the feeling of ‘bond’ and ‘coming together’. This feeling of camaraderie or collectivity was quite different from the singular, isolated vulnerability described in their narratives of walking, sitting, and learning in everyday life on campus. Mon describes the shift in power from the embodied recognition that she’s not the only one who feels objectified and threatened by any male when she’s walking to her car. She also registers a politicised response in her realisation that ‘it’s a massive societal issue’. Stacey finds the political in the new possibility that she anticipates ‘just being able to walk down the corridor and just be myself and not have those, like, silly thoughts in the back of my head’. This collective recognition is the affective energy producing the ‘big self-confidence boost in a weird way’ (Stacey). This connectivity between micro and macro of gender workings is indicative of the inter-threading that happened across the workshop, as the young women mapped bits of their own intergenerational biographies onto their shared institutional worlds. It makes evident the ways in which the assemblage of gender in the everyday was produced in the intra-actions between bodies, histories, spaces, storylines, discourses, objects; and the embodied everyday movements of sitting, walking and talking across campus and other spaces.


Discussion: What Can Embodied Methods Produce?

Working from the insights of feminist new materialist efforts which register the significance of bodies and materiality, we have aimed to show what particular, deliberate methodological choices can produce in our efforts to surface and disrupt the commonly invisible constraints of gendered inequalities. The workshop methods specifically aimed to mobilise the bodies to ‘imagine’ and respond to ‘everyday gender’ experiences.

The collection of embodied activities shifted participants in and out of role as performers, observers, narrators, and theorists as they engaged with and through bodies to play, plan, construct, perform and interpret. The participants worked across different embodied registers of movement, stillness, performance, accounts and listenings as they captured and responded to each other’s offerings. The performative modalities of the games and non-verbal dramatised play invited participants to communicate first through bodies and movement, and then to progress to words. The shifting between making and performing fiction, as a means to draw upon and represent both individual and shared biographies focused attention to the performative and embodied nature of gender work. The use of embodied methods propelled participants to paint impressionistic pictures which were in themselves open enough for further readership. The scenes they depicted, for example, contained not so much a representative ‘truth’ as articulated embodied details and collective experiences which could then be further layered, left behind, and returned to with additional examples.

The rhizomatic metaphor of multidirectional complexity is useful both for understanding dynamics of intra-connection between participants in the workshop, and for understanding the wider assemblage of spaces, bodies, and other material objects which were harnessed to experience and to share about gender in the everyday. This metaphor permits attention to the non-linear flows which drew in multiple, intersecting aspects of young women’s everyday lives. It permits attention to the ways in which the materially absent was nonetheless present in the embodied memories, as when ‘that man’ was present when walking the carpark when nightclub hands were felt in the body-memory whilst walking the campus corridor. This absent present was not only heard but felt in the register of affirmative breaths called forth in response to accounts made by others. Conversational motifs wove reports of embodiment and vulnerability in nightclubs into accounts of vulnerability and visibility within campus car parks, classrooms, footpaths and lecture theatres. Other heterogeneous elements surfaced in the telling, including references to objects (bras, cars), bodies (security guards, boyfriends), and discourses (associating femininities with corporeal and spatial vigilance; compliance). These motifs flourished and fed evolving responses, working betwixt and between accounts throughout the workshop activities and discussions. The workshop methods both fed and evoked the rhizomatic processes by sifting individual with collective accounts, juxtaposing the metaphoric with the literal, and opening the offerings to readership by the group.

The metaphor of the bricolage is also useful in describing the dynamic ways data was collaboratively produced through both discussions and performative play. Bricolage describes a process of collaborative building, or stitching of disparate parts together, as in the tradition of quilt-making (Handforth & Taylor 2016). It provides a metaphor for the active, collaborative processes by which the participants communicated with each other and built awareness of gendered patterns and inequalities as felt in the body – recognising and identifying ways in which each other’s stories were shared by all or most of them. This ‘quilting’ was evident in the conversational layering and backstitching in which participants spoke into or returned to embellish each other’s sentences. The car park and the corridors described in the morning talk re-appeared in the reflections at the end. The classroom images of contained female bodies became a reference point, like the central motif within the quilt. The mirror and robots games brought the language of the gaze and the work of complicity into talk about bodies. The concluding offerings were redolent with imagery of recognition: being seen, being able to see. This collaborative generative investigation produced the shared recognition that participants found to be the most moving aspect of the workshop. It led to them realising they shared similar concerns, had the same experiences of internalising gender confinements, and shared an omnipresent sense of eventuating harassments in the everyday. The performances, demonstrations and attending to each other’s accounts produced a palpable sense of gendering which the participants found they yearned, collectively, to disrupt.

The research-event produced the participants as themselves the researchers of gender in the everyday, in this, showing how method positions participants in relation to the question. Where often research positions respondents to provide data, collectivist methods can position participants to themselves analyse and use the data. We speculate that the embodied methods used in the workshop had an impact in making the gendered processes of production visible and felt – and played a part in igniting the beginnings of a ‘feminist fire’ (see Ringrose and Renold 2016). It seemed the young women gained a sense of pleasure through the experience of recognition and re-cognition – from the space to think and re-think with each other. All that ‘attending’ seemed to produce an intimacy of recognition: not the intimacy of knowing the detail of private biographies, but the intimacy of immediacy, resonant experiences, and shared movement. The methods invited engagement with the workings of gender at the level of affects and embodiment. Potentially transferred affective attachment (Hemmings 2005) is at work here–with participants realising they experience fear as they see their bodies and subjectivities through the eyes of others. These visibilisations or realisations generate the potential for redrawing the oppressive and closed-down affects: ‘constantly on edge’, afraid, scared. They energise more open and free ways of living in the everyday spaces and moments of their lives such as ‘walking down the corridor’ with confidence. This, in turn, generates feeling ‘hopeful for the future’.



In this article, we aimed to focus on the ways method intra-acted with embodiments and other forces of materiality. We attempted to create a space in which gendered embodied politics could be collectively shared, and potentially embodied otherwise. Our discussion of the workshop activities, methods and ‘data’ was intended to show the significance of the embodied and material ‘politics of affect’ (Renold 2018: 1). Although the lines of research/action/intervention are always blurry, and the impacts of activist efforts can never be guaranteed to be benign, the key ‘task for the feminist “transcendental” empirical researcher is to try to make a difference by figuring out what the research can “do,” what it can become, and how it can continue to affect and transform’ (Ringrose & Renold 2014: 7). We suggest that the methods described here provided ways to play with what affective research through bodies can do to affect and transform.



[1] The workshop methods received University Human Ethics approval from the CI’s institution. Ethics permission was granted by the Ethics Committee of the University of Melbourne. Ethics ID: 1647409.

[2] All photo-images were taken by the first author, with permission from participants. Due to space limitations, only one group’s discussion and images are discussed here. The second group’s image centred on the problems with courses or occupations with clear gender dominance as being ‘unequal’. Like the first group, this group also identified feeling intimidated by men in the classroom as the gendered relations they wanted to depict for this activity. In this example, however, being ‘stared at’ and feeling unwelcome or different was the main source of discomfort, rather than an implied physical threat. They identified the gendered distinctions between STEM and male-dominated fields and female-dominated fields such as nursing and social work as being problematic for societal equity in general. The third group didn’t share an image, but their discussion followed all of the same themes as the other groups: they discussed feeling intimidated on campus; and the impact of gender-dominated or delineated degrees as having a detrimental impact on gender stereotypes which are liked with continuing underpinnings of inequality.

[3] ‘That guy’ refers to a man arrested the month prior to the workshop for violent sexual assaults of young girls, one who was walking to school along a bush path. These attacks occurred in the neighbouring suburb.

[4] The per capita rate of reported sexual offences in this region is significantly higher than the state average (200 vs 167 per 100,000) in 2016-2017, and has risen sharply in the past five years (up from 173 per 100,000) (NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 2017 http://crimetool.bocsar.nsw.gov.au/bocsar/).


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