Blogs > Cliopatria > Boobs on the blog: some thoughts on Diana Blaine and topless professors

May 10, 2006

Boobs on the blog: some thoughts on Diana Blaine and topless professors

From Bitch Ph.d, I've learned about the interesting case of Diana Blaine, who teaches gender studies at nearby USC. 

I ought to have heard of her before; we're about the same age, we both have doctorates from UCLA, and we both teach gender studies.  But the feminist community is both busy and parochial, and I am always learning about new and fascinating folks in our world.  What's got Blaine noticed these days is that a few of her students discovered that from her blog, she links to her Flickr photo site where she has a couple of topless pictures of herself.  The story got picked up by Channel 4, the Los Angeles NBCTV affiliate, and it's landed Professor Blaine in a bit of hot water. 

Even though Blaine is untenured,the university, I am happy to say, seems to be backing her to the hilt; the blog is her personal web page and not maintained on USC's servers.  Both her academic and personal freedom mean that her job is not in jeopardy.  (And may I say that I am, reluctantly, greatly admiring of the growing progressive majority at the University of Southern California.  A school once thought of as a mecca for the suntanned, the privileged, the vapid, and the reactionary has become renowned for its commitment to diversity and its particularly strong program in gender studies.  Almost makes me want to say "Fight On for old 'SC!"  Of course, being married to an alumna who bleeds cardinal and gold helps.)

Here's a lengthy excerpt from one of Blaine's posts about her decision to post semi-nude pictures of herself:

The couple of conservative USC students who have dedicated themselves to attacking me clearly grew frustrated at my refusal to react to them, so they upped the ante and contacted the media about my nudie pics. One station bit, and voila, we have a scandal. It was fun watching the broadcasts about me throughout the day as I do what I am trained to do as a gender scholar, interpret media representations; it's just in this case I was the subject...

Anywho, first we can see the obvious puritanicaldynamic that the United States has had since, well, the Puritans came over from England where their particular brand of fanatical Christianity proved too much even for the fanatical Protestants breaking away from the Catholic Church in the Reformation. The Puritans loathed the body and tried to exert strict controls on sexuality, particularly female--read The Scarlet Letter for all you'll ever need to know about this. We continue to have their reactionary discomfort with the body, and so we too find it an object of obsessive fascination. Basically, by making nudity taboo, we've guaranteed its centrality. As Feminist Scholar Susan Griffin notes, the priest and the pornographer operate on the same value system--both mark human sexuality as disgusting, and then one says "turn your eyes away," while the other says, "look here, look here!"

So these kids were hoping to capitalize on our Puritanical sense that we should be ashamed ofsomething as banal as our own bodies, trying in effect to mark me with the Scarlet Letter. "Ummmm, let's tell on her," is in effect their motivation (which my husband has aptly branded "juvenile"), and that way we can get her in trouble with patriarchal authority, in this case the administration at USC. That will show her for disagreeing with us! Put her in her place!

Now we need to take responsibility for our part in this. These young people were raised by us, and we are the ones who have taught them that they should have revulsion for nudity and sexuality. We have also taught them that it's appropriate to police women's sexual behavior, that they have the privilege to interfere in female self-determination. As Americans, we have failed them, and I hope that we can continue to evolve as a culture in a direction that is more life-affirming and less fear-based. I have dedicated my life's work to this type of education, one that shows the history of and contexts for our current beliefs and actions and therefore gives us the power to change, should we so choose.

There's a lot to digest there from a feminist perspective.  First off, the historian in me feels compelled to shriek at the notion that The Scarlet Letter offers an accurate portrayal of Puritan life!  Hawthorne wrote in 1850, some two centuries after the zenith of American Puritanism -- and he was, to put it mildly, no historian.  Want to understand Puritan sexuality in all of its contradictions and complexity?  My good buddy Richard Godbeer (formally at Riverside, now at Miami) has the book on the subject: Sexual Revolution in Early America.  Read it, and you'll see how wrong Hawthorne was.

But I'm not here to quibble with Blaine's reference to Puritanism, even if it is a bit inaccurate.  In the main, she's right that we live in a culture that is extraordinarily ambivalent about nudity and sexuality.  She's right too that the young (apparently male) students who "turned her in" for her topless pictures were trying to "police her sexuality" in a way that is fundamentally very traditional.

Clearly, Diana Blaine is doing her best to "match her language and her life".  In line with many "sex-positive" feminists, she argues for a radical revisioning of sexuality and gender.  She is highly critical of traditional sexual mores, perhaps particularly because those mores have alternately repressed and exploited women.  And on her eponymous blog, she's going to make it clear -- in her words and pictures -- that she lives a  life that is fully congruent with her expressed personal and intellectual values.    In that sense, she's doing what all good feminist teachers do: she's inviting her students to look at her as a role model for a particular way to live out one's ideological commitments.  Her topless photos are, it seems, clear evidence that Diana Blaine will not be bound by a traditional understanding of what is appropriate for a woman, a scholar, and a teacher.  I'm sure she hopes to give inspiration and encouragement to her students; judging from the laudatory reviews she's received, she's clearly succeeded.

If you hunt around in my photo albums, you'll find a pic or two of me showing as much skin as Diana Blaine does.  I've put up a few pictures of me running (or collapsed after a run).  My male privilege allows me to put "topless" pics of myself on my blog without significant criticism.  Diana Blaine and I are a lot alike: two married UCLA Ph.Ds who teach gender studies and maintain blogs that mix the personal and the professional.  We both have pictures of our naked chests on display.  But for any number of reasons -- most of which are rooted in the very sort of traditional mores that Blaine finds so troublesome -- my bare chest is unremarkable while hers attracts calls from the Oprah show.  That is sexism at its most absurd.

Of course, I've made it clear on my blog that I am trying to do something fairly difficult: I'm trying to match a passionate commitment to the traditional goals of secular feminism with an even more passionate commitment to evangelical Christian faith.  On issues like abortion, for example, this has left me tied into knots of nuance where I end up alienating everyone with my tortured and self-indulgent ambivalence.  On other issues, such as pornography, my feminism and my faith lead me to precisely the same conclusion, and I can speak clearly.  On this blog (and sometimes in the classroom) I also talk about my own experiences with abortion and pornography.  My students deserve to know that I do match my language and my life -- they need to know, too, that my theories are rooted both in intellectual inquiry and in personal experience. 

One of the classic battle-cries of feminism is that "the personal is political". In different ways, with differing views of feminism, Diana Blaine and I are both living that out in the conscious decision to blur the line between the public and the private self.  While I sense that she and I would differ on many issues, she has my full and complete support in her decision to reveal so much of herself -- literally and figuratively -- in her very public blog.

Alas, not all feminists are as approving of the personal decisions of their allies. In the comments section below Bitch Ph.D's post on the subject of Diana's blog, a "dr. igloo" writes:

...I personally find her feminist street cred slightly tarnished by the fact that she has apparently taken her husband's last name. Is there really a credible feminist defense of this practice?

Aha.  So when Diana Blaine makes the CHOICE to put topless pictures of herself on her public blog, she's a "good" feminist, but when she makes the CHOICE to create unity with her spouse by sharing the same last name, she's a bad one?  Lordy, I hate the feminism police. 

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 5/11/2006

Hawthorne doesn't represent "memory" of Puritans; instead, he represents the stereotypical, creative use by a novelist of snippets of printed archival source material published since the late 18th century by the Massachusetts Historical Society, and further sources put out by Shurtleff and Pulsifer, editors of the records of Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony in the 1850's. So while he is worth studying for his own period and its view of the past, he's not preferable to the sources he cherry-picked if one wants to know about Puritans and Pilgrims.

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 5/11/2006

Actually, the House of the Seven Gables works even better for studying the *memory* of Puritans. I've actually taught the novel in that context pretty successfully (if I do say so myself).

Ralph E. Luker - 5/11/2006

Hugo, I know you've defended both Ward Churchill and Jacques Pluss, but do you really think that they ought to be teaching young people in American higher education? We are not talking about the church, where presumably all sinners are welcome. We are talking about the classroom, where some fools probably don't belong.

S J - 5/10/2006

I still haven't decided if it is a good or a bad idea for me, as a young academic, to blog. Sigh.

Christopher Newman - 5/10/2006

Based on the only evidence I've been offered, she is not only vapid, but she can't write very well, and she seems to reason very poorly.

Whether or not professors are required to be "professional" at all times, I would think they would want to appear *competent* most of the time.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/10/2006

I would hate for Miriam to think I was treading on her territory, but I think it's entirely possible to use works like Crucible and Scarlet Letter as historical texts in several ways:

1. as evidence not of the Puritans but of the memory of the Puritans at some remove

2. As evidence of the issues which concerned the writers, who are using history to more safely address contemporary issues.

3. as partial evidence of Puritan society, which did have elements on which these writers were drawing.

4. As part of an exercise in historiography....

Surely you folks can come up with more.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/10/2006

I'm not defending the blog: I'm simply pointing out that the offered citation was not in any way proof of what it was supposed to be.

I don't have that much interest in reading the blog just to participate in the discussions. In principle, why is "vapid" problematic? Because it's "unprofessional"? We are not required to be professional at all times, is being nude necessarily unprofessional.

if the level of "thought" she engages in on her blog represents the level of "thought" she engages in in the classroom...
If, if, if. Yawn.

Christopher Newman - 5/10/2006

Dennis, Dennis, Dennis,

"Tacky" sounds like hate speech in this context; it clearly functions as a way to displace your fear and loathing of the disruptive female body onto an outmoded concept of social propriety.

I'm sure, however, that in her wisdowm and charity, the courageous Dr. Diane will forgive you. And she just might save the life of a woman in Iran in the process.

P.S. It seems to me we should be more concerned about boobs *who* blog (or teach at major universities) than about boobs *on* blogs.

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/10/2006

For heaven's sakes, folks, who among us who blogs hasn't posted similar sorts of things? If Diana is vapid, then I, well, am hopelessly insipid and self-indulgent --not to mention filled with moral vanity!

I'm not nominating the woman for a Nobel. But as one who also stood up for Jacques Pluss and Ward Churchill, I'll stand up for a woman whose intellectual merit is far greater than either and whose sins far fewer.

Dennis R. Nolan - 5/10/2006

Vapid, yes, but what strikes me is the sheer tackiness of her blog and her photos. Does she really think that she is striking a blow for feminism or some such cause? An academic with an iota of perception would recognize how lackng in taste her postings must appear to normal readers.

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/10/2006

I'm glad you've come here, Diana -- do visit my home blog as well (hugoboy.typepad.com).

Thanks for clarifying the Scarlet Letter -- like Arthur Miller's Crucible, it uses the Puritans well to make an important point, even as it misrepresents or misunderstands the complexity of Puritan culture.

Diana York Blaine - 5/10/2006

Gosh how cool that my nudie pics have brought us to one another's attention! Of course Scarlet Letter ain't history--but having just taught it in my scandal class I couldn't resist popping it up there as what is, I believe: a good read on the disruptive female body, something as apparently apt today as either in colonial or Victorian times!

On the issue of Christianity, don't miss today's entry. Like you, I try to walk an ethical path and so must confront my own, um, sticking points, I guess you could say; one of them for me is a desire to align myself spiritually with Christians while being unable to wrap my head around the details.

How lovely we are both continuing to live examined lives! How lucky our students are!

As to taking Marty's last name, well quite simply I was not a feminist when I did so. There's a longer story there, which I will probably tell some day now that I have readers! But in brief I do recall thinking at the time that it was either my father's name or his father's name, so it was a man's either way, and that since my dad had been born Yorkunas, that York wasn't "really" my or his name anyway.

Plus I had the sneaking suspicion even pre-feminism that it was unlikely my identity was about to be or ever would be subsumed into someone else's.

Was I right about that or what?

Christopher Newman - 5/10/2006

Or consider the moral vanity and thoughtlessness of this little nugget: "Why not make peace with your own inner demons today, whatever those might be for you? You deserve it, to feel good enough and beloved, to root out fear and replace it with love. You'll find yourself losing the urge to attack other people, both in your world and around the world. The life you save just might be that of some woman in Iran."

As I said, she seems like a nice enough person, but if the level of "thought" she engages in on her blog represents the level of "thought" she engages in in the classroom, well . . . that's kind of pathetic.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/10/2006

I rather liked this section of her post: "Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, a great visonary. And peacemaking begins at home, says Dr. Diana." From Jesus to "Dr. Diana" in one sentence--and with such an original thought!

Ralph E. Luker - 5/10/2006

I don't know that that was a cheap shot, at all, Jonathan. Check out the woman's blog, then look at Soltan's University Diaries and the commenters at her site. This person's put her vapid "thought" and her boobs on her site, calls herself a "philosopher" and is sending out calls for an agent. I suppose USC is in a bind and has to defend her, but it's an embarrassment to the academic community that she has a faculty position.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/10/2006

You can get a Ph.D. on historical crime. Why not on contemporary crime? Ramsey was a child beauty contest participant, and I can very easily see feminist, cultural, etc. angles to discussing that.

I haven't actually read her blog; I just don't care for cheap shots.

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/10/2006

Well, to be fair, I think there is a public/private distinction with language on our blogs. Someone reading my posts about chinchillas and my worries about my abs would no doubt describe my interests as thoroughly unintellectual. I don't adopt my lecture persona on the blog, and I don't bore my blog readers with my research on, say, the uses of the Keeper of the Privy Seal in the reign of Edward III.

I'll read Soltan's stuff.

Christopher Newman - 5/10/2006

Ooops, never mind about the scholarship. Quoth Professor Blaine, "As my scholarship on JonBenet Ramsey has demonstrated..."

Christopher Newman - 5/10/2006

... and thank you, Ralph. You said what I was too afraid to say.

[Which is not to say that Professor Blaine doesn't seem like a nice enough person, of course, but come on...]

On the other hand, I haven't looked at her scholarship, so maybe there's a disjunction between the way she comes across on her blog and the actual substance of her work.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/10/2006

Good post, Hugo. But if Blaine is any example, I'm afraid that USC is still in vapid mode. Have you read much of her blog? Relentlessly vapid. You might check out what Margaret Soltan at University Diaries had to say about Blaine. How do people like Blaine get to teach on University faculties?

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 5/10/2006

Yes, I have to agree. Even before Godbeer we had a good idea that the Puritans were not "puritanical" about sex (read Edmund Morgan's 1949 article "The Puritans and Sex").

Nevertheless, kudos to Professor Blaine for being unashamed of her body, I think there's something really wrong with the way our society has sexualized breasts, which are, after all, not sexual organs but intended to feed and nourish.

Redneck Mother has a post today about a woman being escorted from a minor-league ballpark for...GASP! breastfeeding. Same issue, really, when you think about it.


Christopher Newman - 5/10/2006

Thank you, thank you, for mentioning the slightly inaccurate picture of Puritanism. I might add that's it's a slightly inaccurate and reductionist view of Hawthorne as well.