About Emma Louise Backe

I graduated from Vassar College, which makes me an official liberal-arts witch, where I majored in Cultural Anthropology and English. I focused on the intersection between medical anthropology and folklore, indigenous narrative practices and healing techniques, and the role of language and storytelling in healing. I'm a logophile at heart--the bookish type that's always carrying around three or four books, loves experimenting with language, and has something of an Indiana Jones complex. I've worked in South Africa at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit; interned with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The NAMES Project Foundation, and the UCLA Center for Art and Global Health; served as Head Consultant of Vassar College's Writing Center; volunteered with Peace Corps on community health empowerment; and worked as the Research Assistant at The Global Women's Institute at George Washington University. I have spent most of my professional career working on human rights issues, specifically violence against women and girls and reproductive health rights. I am currently pursuing my Master's at George Washington University.

Feminist Anthropology

The first article in my two-part series on feminist anthropology featured by Lady Science.

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What Women’s Rugby Can Teach Us About Body Positivity

Originally published on Medium.

It’s a brisk fall day in Poughkeepsie, the bleachers full of shivering fans as they await the referee to call, “Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage.” The two teams rise and crash into one another, the oblong rugby ball barely visible amidst the skirmish of legs and dust. With a howl from the opposing side, the ball breaks loose from the scrum, deftly picked up by the scrum half and flicked along the back line. On the sidelines, my grandfather, a pilot during the Cold War, and my father, a dedicated football fanatic, cheer in unison. I don’t think either would have ever expected to have a granddaughter and daughter playing one of the roughest sports in the world against Army’s women’s rugby team. But the rugby pitch is the one place where I’ve felt most liberated and alive in my body. Without trafficking in platitudes, women’s rugby teams are composed of a constellation of shapes and sizes, builds that rupture conventional notions of the aesthetics of athleticism and forge a sense of solidarity that has allowed me to travel the world. I’ve played in South Africa and Ireland, swapped strategies with ruggers on the beaches of Barbados. If you consider cross-cultural exchange an essential element of the Peace Corps, I taught my home stay family that women, too, can be strong and fast, joining the all male rugby matches on the school fields of my village at dusk every night. Any female rugger will tell you that it’s not simply a sport — rugby is an exercise in grit and resolution, learning to love our bodies for the incredible work they do on and off the field.

The Rio 2016 Olympics this summer have been dogged by controversy — political unrest and protests around government corruption, an economic recession, displacement of favela communities, fear of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and now another doping scandal. The ongoing issues plaguing the Rio Olympics also come on the heels of the U.S. Women’s soccer team’s demand for equal pay and safe playing conditions. Yet few have discussed the premier of rugby sevens at the Olympics this year. Rugby was dropped from the summer Olympics in after the 1924 games, despite the fact that it’s the second most popular game in the world. To an outsider, the sport, often referred to as “football without pads,” may seem inherently masculine — you must scrum, ruck, maul, punt and tackle your way up the field to score a try, lining up in rows like soldiers in the heat of battle. Despite the international rugby fan base, however, women’s rugby has been largely marginalized, victims of the same flawed promotional logic which presumes that people don’t want to watch women play sports. Yet with the competition of women’s rugby teams alongside men’s at the Olympics this year, female players were finally provided with an international spotlight to showcase their incredible athleticism and skill.

I started playing rugby my freshmen year of high school, having tried to join and been promptly denied a spot on my middle school’s football team. The injustice of the denial stung in part because I knew, with many of the players still in the beginning pangs of puberty, I could likely tackle most of the boys on the field. As a travel soccer player for seven years, I was known to take the instruction of tackle a little too literally. I’d been a multi-sport athlete for years before I discovered rugby but my body never seemed to quite fit in the other games I played. I had the endurance and the on-field aggression, but no matter how much I ran and trained, I never cut the willowy figure of so many of my female peers. It sometimes seemed like my place on a soccer team felt as much tied to size as how many points you scored in a game. Girls would examine their bodies in the mirror of the locker rooms, comparing weights and skipping meals even after a hard training session. Even the skimpy running shorts of my cross-country team made me uncomfortable — with no thigh gap to speak of and specks of cellulite, it was hard to feel confident during a 5 K race.

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Rugby was a whole other animal entirely. Perhaps due to the tenacious nature of the game, rugby attracts a certain strength of character in players. You have to not only be willing to throw your body against an oncoming opponent — you have to look forward to it, relish it. It’s not bloodlust so much as an opportunity to test the boundaries of your body in a way that is rarely afforded to women. In an expose on the history of women’s sports forThe New York Times, Padawer explains how sport, as the province of strength, has traditionally been thought of as a masculine domain. People worried that women would become too “mannish” and unattractive if they developed the kinds of musculature needed to compete. Athletics were so stratified along gender lines in the early 20th century that a Women’s Olympics was established in 1922, which, despite the success, recapitulated sexist conceptions of sport. The controversy over what kinds of sports women were permitted to play often swirled around discourses of propriety, beauty and femininity. It’s not surprising that the rise in diets and exercise among women was also contemporaneous with the shift in the beauty paradigm towards the celebration of slim women. Particularly during the aerobics craze of the 80s and 90s, women were encouraged to tone and sculpt the presumably plasticine female form into a trim and fit figure. Fat shaming partially emerges from the perception that body transformation is possible so long as you have the right will power. And yet women are expected to run, lift weights, and strength train not to improve the functionality of their muscles, but rather to fulfill the aesthetic pleasure of a “healthy” body. Let us not forget how Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was castigated for being “too fat” to compete in the London 2012 Olympics or the intense body scrutiny and shaming female gymnasts are subject to.

Harvard Women’s Rugby, Rugged Grace

Harvard Women’s Rugby, Rugged Grace

Perhaps part of the reason women’s rugby has remained on the fringes of sport culture is that rugby, more than any other sport I’ve played, accepts all bodies as good bodies. What matters most is your ability to handle the ball, run fast and hit hard. Women who might be characterized as overweight in other settings are celebrated in the forward line for their ability to hold up a ruck. It doesn’t matter if you can run a six-minute mile as long as you can crash the defense and stay onsides. In part due to the physical nature of the sport, rugby also engenders a new relationship with your body and the bodies of your teammates. You might spend most of the game with your head in between the thighs of the locks or looping your arm around the crotches of the first row in a scrum. There is no room for insecurity about your weight if you’re being lifted by two women in a lineout. Your body is not only the vehicle for winning the game — it’s the barrier the stands between a defender and your teammates on the back line.

The women on my high school rugby team were self-possessed in a way I’d never even imagined. I’d grown up thoroughly uncomfortable in my own skin, constantly pinching my stomach and my hips like calipers to measure the body fat. I hated my body — it always felt too big, too broad, the “wrong” side of athletic. I’d go on dates and men would comment on the breadth of my shoulders, the distinct curvature of my calves and I’d wince, unsure how to respond. Rugby changed the way I looked at myself and fundamentally altered my relationship with my body. Suddenly, my shoulders were hailed as battering rams for tackling, my big thighs perfect for pushing through a maul or throwing off a defender. I came to value my body for its strength rather than its size, the girth of my arms an indicator that I had been training well and would be able to throw that much further. I ran mile after mile not to whittle my waist down but so I knew I could stay in for both 40-minute halves and still outpace the defense. For so long I’d been self conscious about wearing shorts or skirts. Yet after games or on the ride back from tournaments, we’d lovingly compare incipient bruises, wounds from the battles we’d fought. I suddenly found myself wanting to show off my body, picking outfits that would flaunt my cuts, scrapes and purpling bruises, as well as the muscles that had helped us win so many games.

Rugby has inspired healthy body image for many of its female players. Back in 2014, the Harvard Women’s Rugby Team published “Rugged Grace,” a series of photographs of the players in their bras and underwear with inspirational messages scrawled across their shoulders, stomachs and legs, notes from teammates about what they appreciated about one another’s bodies. The images include phrases like “so strong,” “ripped,” “power ≠ size,” “battle scars” and “fearless.” These women joyfully flaunt their bodies, unabashedly exposing their body hair and stretch marks to completely dismantle the ideal body type and instead celebrate the kinds of bodies that make up a team. The project emphasizes a more inclusive notion of beauty. Recently, Emory Women’s Rugby launched the “Because of Rugby” campaign to spotlight the incredible capacity for rugby to empower its players. Bethany Studnicky, who has been playing rugby for 15 years writes, “Because of Rugby I am proud of my body.” Other testimonials discuss finding strength in beauty and beauty in strength, becoming more confident in their bodies and overcoming mental health issues through rugby. Photographer Alejandra Carles-Tolra also documented the women’s rugby team at Brown University, noting, “I hope people see my photographs as a celebration of these women’s strengths and identity, which I believe play an important role in challenging the meaning of masculine sports, and pushing the boundaries of female identity.”

"Because of Rugby," Emory Rugby, Buzzfeed

“Because of Rugby,” Emory Rugby, Buzzfeed

The inclusion of women’s rugby in the Rio 2016 Olympics this year is not merely a matter of gaining a more international audience. While Title IX often makes the news for college sexual assault scandals, the law was also enacted to ensure that men and women have equal opportunities to participate in athletics. When I got recruited to play rugby in undergrad, I was lucky enough to attend a Seven Sisters college that had championed women’s sports since the 1800’s. Many women are not given the same opportunities to play or to see women’s rugby teams compete on a local or a national scale. Female rugby players are not only demonstrating that their athleticism and skill is equal to that of their male counterparts, but they also offer an alternative to prescriptive health and beauty norms. We can celebrate the US Women’s Rugby team for their tenacity on the field, their handling skills, and their endurance without quibbling over whether or not their weight in any way undermines their status as Olympic level athletes. Young girls and boys were able to watch the women vie for the Gold Medal, subverting conceptions of masculine sports and proving that women, too, can be warriors.

Consumption, Performance and Identity in Cosplay

The identity politics and moral economy of cosplay and fan culture.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

Featured Image by Secret Identity Cosplay and Buzzfeed. Other images included in the article were taken by the author.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans congregate at conventions like San Diego’s Comic Con, Atlanta’s Dragon Con and Emerald City Comic Con, to name a few. Cities play host to a variety of visitors and spectators who coalesce around their mutual appreciation and celebration of certain forms of media: manga, anime, science fiction, fantasy, comic books, video games, zombie narratives. Some of these fans extend their devotion to a series or character through cosplay, a word speculated to originate from the combination of costumes and play (Winge 2006, Plunkett 2014). The history of cosplay itself is contested. In a recent article in Racked, Culp (2016) contends that Myrtle Douglas and her then-time partner Forrest J. Ackerman initiated the cosplay sub-culture in North America in…

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Free Kesha: Rape Culture and the Failure of our Justice System

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(Originally published on Medium)

This past week, Kesha lost her injunction against Sony, a legal bid to be released from her contract with producer Dr. Luke. The injunction was filed after a formal complaint against Dr. Luke in October 2014. The complaint charged Dr. Luke with physical, sexual and emotional abuse against Kesha over a duration of nearly ten years, violations of her integrity, dignity and safety that his record label, Kemosabe, and Sony were aware of. Two testimonials particularly stand out: Kesha was twice forced to ingest substances that incapacitated her, only to wake up and discover that she had been raped. Dr. Luke’s sexual exploitation was coupled with an emotional abuse and a controlling supervisory style. Based off of the depiction in the complaint, their relationship had all the characteristics of intimate partner violence.

Kesha, after hearing the verdict of her injunction

Kesha, after hearing the verdict of her injunction

The condition of fear in a household of domestic violence often renders victims silent. Just as mothers may be fearful of the safety of their children, Kesha was “threatened that if she ever mentioned the rape to anyone, he [Dr. Luke] would shut her career down, take away all her publishing and recording rights, and otherwise destroy not only her life but her entire family’s lives as well” (7). Beyond the personal and familial peril that Kesha likely experienced, media and public response has not been especially kind to women who stayed in abusive relationships. The emotional, physical and sexual coercion that occur within such relationships are “private traps,” snares rendered only more dangerous by the lack of empathy for women who stay.

Kesha’s bravery to come forward, and her willingness to abandon her music career in an effort to liberate herself from Dr. Luke and sound the alarm within the music industry, is incredible. Despite the fact that the judge threw out Dr. Luke’s countersuit against Kesha’s mother and manager earlier in February, however, the judge’s decision to hold Kesha to her contract is emblematic of the larger problem of how the justice system handles sexual violence. Criminal courts have historically been unkind to survivors of gender-based violence, in part because the onus is placed upon the survivor to produce evidence that would “substantiate” their claims. The procurement of evidence is complicated by the very nature of sexual violence and the ongoing contestation over the notion of consent. Women who are inebriated, under the influence of substances, or incapacitated are legally incapable of giving consent, yet their incapacitation may also make it difficult to provide a “reliable” account of the event. Sexual violence can also be a traumatizing experience, one that has psychological consequences like short term memory loss, dissociation, lack of affect, and poor episodic memory, meaning that testimony may seem contradictory and therefore fictitious. The criminal justice system, often reliant upon police intake reports, tends to script the sexual violence encounter, a narrative that rarely affords legitimacy to survivors’ stories that deviate from “the truth.” Police officers may also harbor rape myths that survivors are lying or trying to get attention by making rape accusations. The archetype of “the perfect victim” continues to plague the survivors who decide to report.

Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula on NPR

Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula on NPR

Other evidence can be collected through Forensic Nurse Exams conducted by trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE). Because these exams are usually conducted with the purpose of filing a report against a perpetrator, the survivor’s body is treated as a field of evidence, one that must be prodded and scraped for data. Hospitals may not be properly equipped to sensitively handle the intake of sexual violence survivors. The exam itself can also be re-victimizing, including some painful procedures that medically invade survivor’s bodies. Nurse examiners can also demonstrate the same callous attitudes as police officers, believing that some women were “asking for it.”

That is, if a survivor can even get to a hospital or a police station. Abusive partners will do everything within their power to keep the victim from seeking help. Since fabrics like clothes or bed sheets may contain incriminating evidence, perpetrators will often wash or dispose of any materials that would link them to possible allegations of violence. Abusers often monitor the movements of their partners and prevent any personal time or freedom that would provide an opportunity to report or seek treatment. If a survivor finally decides to break their silence days, weeks, or months after the most recent physical altercation, however, there may be no evidence left to collect. Even lasting physical injuries are difficult to convincingly attribute to alleged perpetrators.

If a survivor manages to make it to court, she will be forced to relive her violation day after day, cross-examined by lawyers and impelled to recount her experience. If she is unable to provide evidence from a forensic nurse exam, then her only evidence is testimony, which, as discussed, may be disoriented by the psychological trauma of sexual violence. Lawyers and judges are likely to ask why they didn’t come forward earlier, why they didn’t scream out, why they didn’t fight back; all questions that fail to understand at the most fundamental level the gendered powered dynamics inherent in sexual violence or the neurological consequences of trauma, the body and mind’s fight to survive under life-threatening circumstances.

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The justice system is not set up to support survivors. The judge who denied Kesha’s injunction for emancipation from her abuser employed the kind of logic endemic of rape culture, stating that the dismissal was the “commercially reasonable thing to do.” When profit and corporate contracts are more important than the human rights of men and women, that is rape culture. When a survivor simply wants separation from the very person who has violated them, and that desire elicits a poll on Billboard about whether or not music executives believe her, that is rape culture. When Newsweek decides that responsible journalism is a story about the “other side of the college sexual assault crisis,” that is rape culture. When an alleged perpetrator’s word is taken as more convincing evidence as a matter of fact than a survivor’s and a woman’s, that is rape culture. We don’t only need to free Kesha. We need to address the chains that keep survivors shackled to their abusers and a system that tacitly condones such abuse.

2015 in Review: Geek Girls and Gender

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

For several years, TGA founder Marie-Pierre has been conducting research on the fraudulent phenomenon of “fake geek girls,” a category of women who ostensibly “pretend” to be geeky or interested in geeky things for male attention. This supposition that the geek identity is predominantly male and that geeky space must subsequently be policed for inauthentic intruders came to a head during the 2014 Gamergate controversy, in which certain groups of men not only felt that women participating in the gaming industry were somehow less committed or faking it, but also believed that feminist oriented criticism would destroy the industry and undermine creativity. While the bias that drove Gamergate may seem to be fairly niche, many of the sexist ideologies spill over into the broader entertainment industry, sphere of pop culture, and conception of “strong female characters.” The same logic of “fake geek girls” is…

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Why I’m Angry About Attempts to Defund Planned Parenthood

Living as a woman in this country, it’s hard not to get angry—our contribution to the economy through formal and informal labor is undervalued, our ability to lead and innovate is undercut by persistent stereotypes, and our value is judged by our reproductive capacity, despite widespread institutional and cultural impediments to reproductive health, maternity leave or child support. Girls are socialized from a young age to believe that it’s not appropriate to be angry at the injustices we suffer—rage is not feminine or desirable. This is a part of our indoctrination into a society that willfully disavows our right to be angry. So we learn to tolerate certain injustices, become flexible and understanding of a system that values certain qualities and rights while denying women and girls access to the very mechanisms that would protect those rights. American women have learned to hold our tongues and to pick our battles— but a body can only contain so much anger before it starts to breed resentment of a system disproportionately stacked against women and consistently unwilling to acknowledge inequities and discrimination. Conservative attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, however, have filled me with such frustration that I am forced to break the social norms of female silence to tell you why I am especially angry and why you should be angry too.

I have worked on reproductive health issues for a number of years around the world. As Americans, we have been educated to believe that sexual and reproductive health is just a woman’s issue, one that does not affect any other aspects of a woman’s life or the wider society. This, unfortunately, is a fundamental misapprehension of the role reproduction plays in everyone’s life and the governance of our country as a whole. As a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the South Pacific, I taught sexual and reproductive health to primary and secondary school students, many of whom would never graduate high school because of unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections. I helped run maternal and child health clinics where cervical cancer was the number one killer of women in the island nation. I distributed condoms in remote villages were HIV/AIDS was beginning to rise, threatening a country already struggling under the burden of other illnesses. When I returned from the Peace Corps, I had friends ask me why I didn’t focus on something “more serious” during my service. Weren’t there other, more pressing issues I could have worked on, they asked. This question sits at the crux of the GOP’s argument to defund Planned Parenthood and the conservative efforts to limit, if not eliminate, a woman’s access to affordable contraception, abortion options, or reproductive health facilities. It stems from a broader cultural conversation that fails to link reproductive health with development, economic prosperity or social stability.

The public discourse has become more conversant with the concept of intersectionality of late, but it seems as though politicians fail to comprehend that reproductive health intersects with every other facet of a person’s life. If children and adolescents are not given comprehensive sexual education, they will not be equipped with the information they need to make healthy decisions about their bodies, nor will they be prepared with the language to negotiate healthy relationships or communicate their boundaries. This all seems very abstract, so let’s consider the life of a young girl who begins having sex in her teens, but doesn’t know about the option of contraceptives for her or her partner. She gets pregnant, but her family is poor and doesn’t have the resources to care for her when she drops out of school. Indeed, a study on teenage pregnancy found that only 40% of teen moms are able to finish high school, and of that number, only 2% graduate from college or university before the age of 30.  Unfortunately, due to our current economic climate and the qualifications for employment, that young woman will likely struggle to find a stable job to support herself and her new family, nor will it be easy to access the services she needs for a healthy pregnancy. Due to her lack of institutional or family support, she may have to seek other means to generate income or seek out partners that can financially support her, even if that means tolerating other forms of abuse. She may get involved in criminal activity or violence, risking incarceration in order to provide for her child. Even if she is able to find a job, housing and safely deliver her baby, her economic status may mean that her child could grow up in a rougher neighborhood, receive substandard education, and lack access to the kinds of opportunities needed for healthy development and positive transition into adulthood. This is how cycles of dispossession are perpetuated, how a decision regarding reproductive health bleeds into educational attainment, economic stability, financial independence, and gender-based violence. You take away women and girls’ autonomy over their bodies and you condemn communities to the forms of overt and structural violence that undermine the principle our country was ostensibly founded upon—self-determination.

Jordan Klepper looks at the issue of sex education in schools, via Jon Stewart

Jordan Klepper looks at the issue of sex education in schools, via Jon Stewart

I saw the same thing in Fiji. A developing country with a limping economy and limited opportunities for employment, the populace was still struggling to free themselves from a legacy of colonialism, dependence on foreign exports and tourism, and reliance on unsustainable foreign aid – and their primary untapped resource was women. In almost all the villages I visited, it was the women who helped to manage money, develop businesses on the side, and advocate for policies that would promote economic independence. Yet these women were rarely given any opportunities to become involved in the formal economy—many became pregnant before the age of 20, had five or more children, and suffered from the complications of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections passed on to them by their unfaithful husbands. They didn’t have enough food to feed their families not only because they hadn’t received adequate education about birth spacing and options for contraception, but because women’s place in the home precluded political representation or economic involvement beyond the informal market. A recent article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that an investment in women’s health is also an investment in the economy, particularly in developing countries. The denial of women’s reproductive health rights is a tacit permission to continue the oppression of women, and, by and large, the neglect of the state.

These issues are not unique to the United States, nor are they new concepts in the arena of public health. In South Africa, where I also worked on sexual health and education, girls are five times more likely than boys to become infected with HIV, an epidemic that cannot be uncoupled from the endemic rates of violence against women and girls that still plague the nation. Or we could look to the prison system and consider the recent reports indicating that many young women in jail are victims of child or sexual assault, as well as mothers of children under the age of 18. While running a creative writing workshop in a women’s prison in upstate New York, I encouraged the inmates to share their stories by crafting a personal narrative through poetry or prose. Women my age and younger recounted getting pregnant at fifteen, being thrown out on the streets or abandoned by their families, becoming involved with criminals in the desperate attempt to survive. There are a constellation of other reasons why a family or a young woman may be struggling, but reproductive health is often the keystone that either supports or precipitates the collapse of a woman’s ability to choose the kind of life that she wants to lead.

As Elizabeth Warren stated in the Senate, an attack upon Planned Parenthood is not solely about abortion but rather the belief that a woman has a right to control her own body. In fact, 42% of Planned Parenthood services go towards sexually transmitted infections or diseases, 34% toward contraception, 11% toward women’s health services such as Pap smears and breast exams, and 9% is devoted to cancer screenings.  Many young girls, women and their families rely on Planned Parenthood for basic reproductive health services, routine check-ups and contraception which allow them to strategize the best possible future for themselves and their children. Many of these individuals rely upon Medicaid. If you strip away these services they so desperately need, you are reinforcing a system built upon structural violence and eliminating one of the few avenues for empowerment these women still possess. The conservative groups fighting against Planned Parenthood have also refused to move beyond the broken and ineffectual paradigm of abstinence-only education, provide affordable and accessible contraceptives options that would prevent the need for abortive services, or implement policies that would assist mothers or their children. In point of fact, the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is a systematic attempt to reverse the progress our country has made toward gender equality. The misnomer of pro-life and the pro-life discourse is based on conservative ideology, rather than scientifically grounded fact or considerations of social justice and social welfare.

I am angry because I want to know why. Why are the politicians, elected to represent a constituency of both men and women, blind to the ways that reproductive health cuts across multiple sectors and political considerations? Have they stopped to consider the long term consequences of their actions if a bill to defund Planned Parenthood is passed? What benefits are obtained if more women die from underground, unsafe measures to abort a pregnancy, complications from pregnancy at a young age, sexually transmitted infections, or the forms of cancer that Planned Parenthood often screens for, such as breast and cervical cancer? Are these same politicians going to erect any measures for the women who did not want to become pregnant, yet had no other option, either from ignorance, lack of access to contraceptives, or sexual violence?

The reasoning that has been employed to justify the GOP’s actions is based on short-sighted moral vehemence. Conservatives continues to chip away at the gains women have fought so hard to accomplish. I’m angry because yet again this is being framed as a women’s issue and an ethical affront. We should all care about this debate and take the time to get really, and I mean really, educated on the issues at hand. Because if my anger ever dissipates, I don’t want my rights to disappear too.

Playing Along: Fieldwork, Emotional Labor and Self-Care

My reflections on fieldwork in Fiji during my service as a Peace Corps volunteer and the emotional considerations of living in another culture.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

For any practicing or aspiring anthropologist, fieldwork is the defining, almost qualifying practice of the discipline. As an undergraduate studying sociocultural anthropology, we read the seminal journals of Bronislaw Malinowski, followed by foundational ethnographic research from around the world. Even though the field has ostensibly moved beyond the “exotic”—no longer wholly consumed with discovering new indigenous communities or uncovering a culture untouched by capitalism and globalization—students are still encouraged to conduct their fieldwork in remote, isolated, and, yes, tacitly exotic locations. As my professor lectured during my Anthropology Senior Seminar at Vassar College, you have to conduct your first fieldwork abroad if you want to be taken seriously as an anthropologist. The implication was that if you don’t go somewhere distant and strange, you won’t experience the same level of cultural difference, linguistic estrangement, physical hardship, and existential negotiation that molds the student into a consummate…

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The Character of Sexual Harassment at Cons

My coverage of DC’s 2015 Awesome Con and an overview of sexual harassment at Cons around the country.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

At an event where hundreds of individuals from around the country converge in capes and costumes, the symbols and trappings of heroism, we don’t like to imagine the possibility of violence unless it’s staged to reenact a great scene from Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. But over the past several years, the geek community has come under particular scrutiny for the treatment of women at comic, anime and fan conventions. Well before #Gamergate, movements like Cosplay is NOT Consent brought attention to sexual harassment at Cons. Even though geeks have become increasingly mainstream over the past decade (see our series “Freaks and Geeks”), being a geek still carries with it a sense of stigma. Many self-identified geeks have felt otherized at some point in their lives because of their interests in comic books, otaku, tabletop gaming, LARPing, or the like. Perhaps due…

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Ferðast: A Trip to Iceland

I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on journeys. A year ago, I was departing from Fiji, walking away from my Peace Corps service on a small island in the South Pacific. It therefore seems fitting that the first international trip I take after my Peace Corps service was to another island, although one that could not be more different in custom and climate. I went to Iceland to visit my friend Sophie, whom I’ve known since studying at Vassar College. She too spent 2013-2014 in an isolated, tropical environment interning at a study abroad program at the Turks and Caicos. She too had difficult experiences with island life, complicated by institutional grievances and professional obstacles. There is this certain juncture that come after finishing your undergraduate career, where you realize that you cannot always control how the professional world will perceive you—we are intellectually qualified but practically under qualified, penalized for our young age and supposed naïveté, yet finally given a critical lens with which to see the world and understand our position within it. That liberal arts degree which trained us in critical thinking, analytic writing, rhetoric and creative problem solving suddenly isn’t applicable. Though Sophie and I both worked in grassroots, informal communities, we both learned quickly that negotiations of place and space also begin with how you orient yourself in the world, acknowledging that others’ values may run askew of yours. In these moments, it is easy to feel rudderless, even in the most beautiful of places. So we reconnected in the loveably frigid land of fire and ice over beer, adventures, and plenty of licorice candy.

I have found that the best kind of travels occur when you don’t go in with too many expectation. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be excited about a vacation, but rather that if you have an open mind about your journey, it makes it easier to be flexible with how you get there and remain open to new possibilities you couldn’t have initially planned for. Traveling used to scare me. I always wanted to travel, but I grew up in a family that bred travel anxiety into me from an early age. Every trip was planned down to the minute and there were few opportunities to stray from the path. Part of the reason why I joined Peace Corps was to become a better traveler, which I believe I accomplished to a certain extent. You can’t really plan in Fiji—there are too many contingencies to control for. The rainy season may unleash a flood you cannot ford and eliminate any possibilities of taking a bus into town. The minibus may break down halfway up the mountain. Roads may deteriorate or rocks collapse or phones malfunction and you just have to learn to sega na lega your way through. I still stressed out a lot about it, but I also learned to live out of a backpack and be appreciative for the small things—an offer of ivi nuts on the bus or a free ride from a distant cousin. I packed the warmest clothes I could find (a necessity), did some preliminary research on Lonely Planet, and flew across the Atlantic simply hoping to explore a part of the world I’d never seen before, get in touch with a culture whose infrastructure is built around their folklore, and be outside.

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I was greeted with a sunny, windy day that ended up being one of the warmest of the trip. At the beginning of May, winter is still clinging to the landscape, which has a quiet, almost desolate beauty about it. For the fields that aren’t populated with lava, basalt columns or spiny rocks, mosses and dried grasses sprawl across the landscape between rushing rivers and waterfalls. It truly felt like a Martian landscape, were it not for the random herds of sheep and ponies along the highway. You can drive for miles without seeing another car. You get the sense that Icelanders respect the ferocity of the climate—they have not tried to colonize the landscape so much as carve out small niches here and there where the cold is tolerable and the community close-knit enough to abide the harsh winters. It is hard not to be in awe of the profusion of delicate, dangerous natural formations—the bubbling hot springs, the geysers, the barely dormant volcanoes. It’s no wonder myths about trolls and faeries persist—it is a land still latent with potent magic, strength shapes scattered across the horizon that could easily be mistaken for crabbed, humanoid shapes hunkered against the sun’s rays.

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One of the things I was most moved by was the seeming lack of ownership of the land. As we turned and twisted along the highway lined with glaciers and mountains, we could pull off to the side of the road wherever we wanted to explore or stretch our legs. There was little concern about private property, apart from the errant signs warning walkers to be conscientious of the ecosystem, the delicacy and importance of their mosses. On any given stretch of the road, you could pull over to follow a river to a miniature waterfall or discover archaeological ruins, the outlines of a great hearth still piled with the shells of mussels. In the distance, you could always vaguely see the outline of a church, but the architecture was surprising and vaguely alien, bowed against the weather yet spiraling toward the clouds like a space age spiritual spine. As long as you respected the natural landscape, it was yours to explore and discover. In the process, you are constantly dwarfed by the sheer scale of things, as well as the tenacity of the farms that barely exist on the fringes of wilderness, alone for hundreds of miles with nothing bug a herd of shaggy ponies and the patient promise of spring.

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I was struck by the dogged determination a person and a culture must have to persist and remain under such conditions, as well as the kindness and care Icelanders showed to us as we traveled. Though it is a Christian nation, you can still feel the Old Gods rippling beneath the surface, nestled like barnacles into the spiritual lives of its people. I’ve always found it interesting to examine the kinds of stories and art that a culture produces and how much these narratives are shaped by the environment. In the old days of Iceland history, the composition of a poem could save a person from the gallows. Now, visitors throw Kroner into the aquamarine waters of Alþingi, the Viking Parliament, where they drowned women condemned as criminals.

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The water sparkles and glitters, as if some spirit still remains. There is both the old and the new, a combination embodied by the capital of Reykjavik. There is a certain fierceness and comfort to the land, the way that the wool clothing knitted for warmth and survival is so beautifully and delicately made, to the point where you almost forget the garment is a necessity the majority of the year. The capital is full of cozy coffee shops bursting with old portraits, idiosyncratic African masks, and tchotchkes, making even the most “commercial” café feel homey and familiar. The horrific images of Ragnarok are balanced out by diminutive cartoons like Moomin. Iceland is an enchanting land fortified by their fascinating history, incredible vistas and unique charm. And their dogs are pretty friendly too.

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A new friend in Álafoss

A new friend in Álafoss

Perhaps the most enchanting part of my trip was our expedition to Helgafell, or “Holy Mountain”. En route to Snæfellsnes Peninsula, where we would spend one night at an adorable guesthouse called Sundabakki (try the wedding bars), we stopped at a small hill called Helgafell. The hill, like many parts of Iceland’s natural landscape, is haunted. As a portal to the afterlife, moribund Icelanders would travel to the hill on their final journey into death. A small white church and a graveyard sit at the base of the hill, where Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is buried, a woman made famous from the Laxdæla Saga. As the folklore goes, a visitor to the hill must follow very strict instructions if you want to tap into the magical reservoir. Above all, you must not speak the moment you begin your trek. In mythology and folklore around the world, silence is often associated with gravesites, either out of respect or to keep the dead from awakening. Some have said that you cannot defile the hill with bloodshed, which made me wonder whether menstruating women were forbidden from visiting. First you must visit the lone gravesite of Guðrún surrounded by her own fence, before beginning the climb up the hill. Like the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, you cannot look behind you as you walk up the hill—otherwise the journey will have been made in vain. When you reach the top of the hill (about a ten minute walk), there is a sundial. You must face due east and only then can you make a wish, which may be granted by the spirits. The trip down the hill must be conducted in a similarly sedate manner.

As a lover of folklore and ghost stories, I was excited to follow the rules and make the trek myself. We arrived at Helgafell around 4:30 pm, when the sun is still high but shadows scuttle across the crenellations of the landscape. As soon as we stepped out of the car, however, fingers to our lips, we heard the bleating of baby lambs. Huddled against the larger sheep, black and white lambs were crying out, shivering in the wind surrounding the Church at the base of the holy mountain. They looked like they had only been bore days, if not hours ago. They were all standing by the graveyard, but as we approached, the mothers shuffled the babies away. Most of the livestock in Iceland are free range and permitted to wander wherever they want within the vast expanses of open farmland. But one little black lamb got separated from the tiny flock in the tall grasses. Clearly confused and scared, he scrambled over to us from a wary distance. Unable to speak, we tried to chivvy him towards the nursing mothers scattered along the graveyard’s fence. As we did so, we heard a more piercing, plaintive cry from the small grave we had driving to visit. Upon approaching the ramshackle gravesite, a small white lamb ambled out, having been hiding behind the gravestone. Having paid our respects to the grave, we began to walk toward the hill for the climb, yet the white lamb followed us, crying out and walking just a few paces behind. His cry was so sad and desperate I almost turned around, but my friend grabbed my arm. We could not look back. It felt as though the lamb was tempting us, coaxing us to look away from our destination at the top of the hill. A shiver rolled up my spine, realizing, in that moment, how easily an urban legend can slide into reality, the small indications the world gives us that there are still some elements of magic, especially in spaces where we have already populated the landscape with ghosts.

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Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir’s grave

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View from the top of Helgafell

View from the top of Helgafell

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Transitional Justice: From Sam Raimi’s Spiderman to Netflix’s Daredevil

My post on the political-historical geekout about comic book movies over the past 15 years.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

It’s hard to imagine, but superheroes weren’t popular 15 years ago. The social baggage surrounding comic books and the “geeks” who read them was still largely stigmatized, even though many of the story lines were politically oriented. Ever since the 1940’s, comic books have steadily crafted an internal mythology, built on certain principles of American exceptionalism, ideological principles of morality and our place within the larger cosmos. The first movie to truly spark the shift toward the superhero inundated pop culture we currently inhabit was Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, released in 2002 not long after the Twin Towers fell and the Iraq War began. It seems to me far from coincidental that the cinematic depiction of superheroes and the resurgence of comic book figures were virtually contemporaneous with the attacks on 9/11 and America’s subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. In the wake of police brutality and public…

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