[Gawain said:] “Ah, my uncle king Arthur! My good brother Sir Gareth is slain, and so is my brother Sir Gaheris, who were two noble knights.” Then the king and Gawain both wept, and so they fell on swooning.
Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver (my translation).

“Three things happen when they [women] are in the lab.… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”
Nobel Prize-winner Sir Richard Timothy “Tim” Hunt, World Conference of Science Journalists 2016.

I’m currently tinkering with the final edits to an article on male swooning in Middle English romance. Medieval romances are full of fainting men: swooning from lovesickness, losing consciousness after battle, collapsing on receipt of bad news about beloved companions. In the middle ages, it seemed to me that swooning and weeping could be used as proofs of hypermasculinity – and so an article was born. Some of you have heard it in a protoform at a couple of different conferences, and according to the journal editors, it’s almost ready to go out into the world: pages of virile men collapsing on the battlefield, in the forest and at court.

Meanwhile, the academic twittersphere has been stirred up today when the renowned scientist Tim Hunt made crass remarks about women’s place in the laboratory. According to him, women disrupt the scientific workplace because men fall in love with them, they fall in love with men – and they cry if they’re criticised. Women scientists are a threat to the masculine rationality of the laboratory. They offer the distraction of romance, and they respond to useful critique by weeping, presumably dissolving their colleagues’ ability to reason with them, like the Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch melting under a bucket of water.

Twitter has responded with its usual heady blend of sharply-articulated outrage and gleefully tongue-in-cheek jokes. Women academics have tweeted about not being able to get to work because they’re swooning over Tim Hunt, and I smiled as I read down my timeline this morning. Still, it struck me that there was a greater problem than this. Many academics were robustly defending women’s abilities to be just as professional in the lab as their male peers – which is absolutely true. And it’s easy to dismiss Hunt as a fossil, a relic of the Bad Old Days of science. But there’s a deeper issue here, which is about how we model professionalism: and what we deny when we’re doing that.

I didn’t meet my spouse at work, but I know a lot of people who did. When we go to our office, lab, store, restaurant – wherever it is we work – we don’t stop being human and become employees. We fall in love. We fall out of love. We make friends, and sometimes enemies. We cry: both because of things that happen at work, and because of things that are happening outside of work. Of course it’s healthy to have some distance between the different roles we occupy in our lives, because otherwise we’d never get anything done. But there’s a difference between drawing healthy boundaries and dividing ourselves up, pouring the contents of ourselves into smaller boxes marked with categories like RESEARCHER, FRIEND, WIFE, MOTHER, TEACHER. No one was made to live within the narrow confines of a single role, no matter how stimulating and exciting that role might be; pretending that we are not all our roles at once, even if we must necessarily allow one or other of them to take precedence at any particular moment, is to deny that we are complete human beings.

In the passage from Malory I quoted at the start, Arthur has already received the news of his nephews’ deaths. Surrounded by his knights, he swoons with grief. So when Gawain comes to tell him what has happened, Arthur must already be awaiting his arrival with dread and sadness. Gawain faints with sorrow at his brothers’ deaths, and Arthur swoons in mutual grief and in a terrible sympathy. They are not in private; they are at court. The death of two knights is as much courtly business as it is a private family matter, after all, and in my article I argue that this swooning is both both an emotional response and a political act. What we now think of as a typical association of fainting with femininity is a nineteenth-century development, when swooning became something of the home and of the weak female body. In medieval literature, women swooned; but men did, too, and they did it in public and without shame.

This isn’t to say that I think medieval people were more “emotionally open” (whatever that means) than people are today; in the past, people’s emotional responses were as strongly socially codified as they are now – but that codification has changed. Nowadays, to be “professional” is to be emotionally restrained, and the quality of that emotional restraint is subtly but definitely coded as masculine. The ideal worker in academia is intellectually engaged and rigorous, but emotionally restrained. Working in a high-intensity research environment is both emotionally draining and emotionally stimulating, as well as being full of intellectual highs and lows: and yet weeping at work is seen as weakness. That’s because it’s a disruption of the proper order, just as Tim Hunt seems to think women themselves are. “You fall in love with them,” he said, making the you who is the natural inhabitant of the laboratory a man and the outsider-them automatically a woman. Which is why I think it’s dangerous for us women to defend ourselves on the grounds that we work just like men, because that’s buying into a culture that says we are acceptable so long as we behave just like you.

It’s easy to read this example across intersectional lines, of course. It’s not just women who get criticised for being “too” “emotional”; men of colour do as well. People with mental health issues are criticised that way, too. People are are not white, abled, middle-class men don’t necessarily dress “professionally”. They don’t always speak “professionally”, and they may not have the kind of household set up that allows them to maintain a nice home and family (because Professional People ideally have a spouse and children who can be referenced in Christmas cards as proof of their Well-Rounded status) while also working the lengthy hours and at multiple locations that academic “professionalism” demands.

Right now I have an unprofessional body. Within me I’m growing another body; 29 weeks and counting, and they are definitely making themselves felt. Fortunately I live in a country where my working rights are protected, and I in fact work at a university with an incredibly generous parental leave provision. All of my colleagues have been thoughtful and considerate of my pregnant state. But there’s still this sense in the industry as a whole that the ideal professional way for women like me to work during pregnancy is to carry on as normal; to make accommodations where necessary, but otherwise to keep going. Because ours are jobs of intellect more than body, and we’ve worked so hard to find a place for ourselves in an industry that was dominated by people who didn’t have to worry about morning sickness or swollen ankles or finding nursery places.

Portrait of the expanding author
Portrait of the expanding author

Except that we are always in our bodies. I carry my child with me wherever I go; day by day the boundaries of my flesh are being expanded – sometimes with a glowing unfolding, but more often with aching strain. Even the texture of my skin is different. I am myself, and I am someone else. My emotions feel more raw these days, and that’s not because I’m “hormonal” (all human beings are hormonal all the time; that’s how hormones work), but because I’m undergoing huge physiological, emotional and, yes, intellectual shifts in this two-bodied state. That doesn’t mean that I want to sit in the common room and cry, any more than I think my male colleagues should take up strategic fainting to secure political advantages. But I’m not going to pretend that my academic, as well as my personal life, is not affected by going through a major life change. Not because I need accommodation, in that patronising sense of being treated differently from the “norm”. Nothing I’m experiencing is abnormal – but even if it were, I would still be an academic professional. I don’t have to fulfil a narrow set of socially-coded values – themselves dependent on temporally and culturally specific hegemonic norms – to be “professional”. And neither do you.

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