Women’s studies transcend gender boundaries
Love, evolution, and male biker culture discussed in multidisciplinary field
By Aki Petteri Lehtinen
“In motorcycle culture, various models of maleness and relations between men are clearly to be seen”, says Kirsi Kinnarinen, describing the topic of her research. She is writing a doctoral thesis on biker culture and being a man. The thesis is being written for the Christina Institute for Women’s Studies at the University of Helsinki.
Women’s studies is currently gender studies, in which various information, cultural, and societal phenomena are examined as systems of meaning with a gender-based background. From Kinnarinen’s point of view, men in motorcycle clubs construct vehicles, and their identity.
“Now that debate about women’s studies has emerged, confusing conceptual overlaps should be cleared up.”
Kinnarinen refers to the decision not to fill the professorship in women’s studies that was open at the University of Helsinki, as well as the assessments of a Helsingin Sanomat panel which recently pondered whether or not women’s studies could be considered serious science.
Gender studies are not a separate “science” in the strict sense of a natural science, but rather a field of research combining the humanities and social studies. The purpose of the multidisciplinary approach is to transcend the old borders between subjects of study in order to find new points of view.
Kinnarinen’s educational background is in science of religion and social anthropology.
“In my study the investigation of men and masculinities combine with anthropology and the study of popular culture. In addition to interviews and personal observation, her material includes books, magazines, and films with motorcycles as their subject.”
Also emphasising the multidisciplinary nature of gender studies is Maija Urponen.
Urponen, who is trained as a sociologist, is writing her thesis on Finnishness, and multicultural marriages, by studying the 1952 Olympics and Armi Kuusela, the Finnish winner of the Miss Universe pageant in the same year.
“I started studying today’s debate on multiculturalism, but as I collected material, I stumbled on Armi and the Olympics, and never got away from that”, Urponen laughs.
The material for the study includes contemporary articles written on the events, which shows how the boundaries of Finnishness were tested by Helsinki’s international big event, and concern about relationships that Finnish women might have with “male Olympic guests”, as well as by the marriage between Kuusela and the Filipino Virgilio Hilario.
Cultural ideas of gender are also reflected in texts aimed at the public at large concerning the theory of evolution. Venla Oikkonen, who graduated at the English language department, is writing a thesis on depictions of gender and sexuality in popular science books and novels concerning evolution.
“Talk about evolution affects what kinds of sexual practices and concepts of gender are seen as normal and natural”, Oikkonen says.
She uses the methods of literary research to investigate how cultural understanding on gender builds on fashionable explanations of evolutionary psychology.
“My thesis project is also part of scientific research, which examines scientific practices as part of the surrounding culture.”
Gender studies also involves sexual minorities, but Eva Maria Korisaari is particularly interested in heterosexual love relationships.
Kotisaari, who completed her thesis three years ago, is “the second doctor of women’s studies of the University if Helsinki in the entire universe”. Her thesis Tule, rakkaani! (“Come, My Love!”), published in 2006, got a good deal of media attention when it appeared.
“In the core of my study was ethics between lovers - that is, questions of how the relationship between people who are in love could be implemented without either one trying to take control of the other.”
She criticises the myth of melting together in love, and seeks, through the analysis of material that she takes from literature and philosophy, to rethink relations between the genders, and love.
“It is important to study close and carnal human relationships, because ethics should be implemented even in our most intimate relationships, and it should bet its strength from that which is lived and experienced in it. Ethics cannot be based exclusively on ideas, or apply only to our relationship with those whom we do not know.”
According to Korisaari, the line of questioning, and the material affect the choice of the methods of study.
Women’s studies have been criticised as being politically biased, and as lacking methodology, especially by male journalists outside the scientific community. Harri Kalha, a docent of art history and women’s studies points out that there are hardly any fields of study that would be completely free of ideological attitudes.
“A gender critical agenda sensitises us to seeing the infiltration of ideologies also in places where their presence might not be immediately recognisable”, says Kalha, who has led the Pornoakatemia (“Porn Academy”) study project of the Academy of Finland for the past three years.
“What was previously called a ‘women’s point of view’ is today a variety of theoretical possibilities affecting the work of all conscious scientists, expanding their horizons.”
Kalha has studied issues such as the controversy over the alleged indecency of the Havis Amanda statue on Helsinki’s Market Square, the court case involving the Neitsythuorakirkko (“Virgin-whore Church”), a work by artist Ulla Karttunen, as well as the paintings of the male form by artist Magnus Enckell.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.5.2009
AKI PETTERI LEHTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat