Canada Research Chair in Care, Gender, and Relationships
Director, Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice
Associate Professor, Department of Family Relations & Applied Nutrition, University of Guelph
NOTE: As instructed, I listened to episodes 2.1 and 2.30, and I choose to listen to episodes 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 2.6, 2.7, 2.8, 2.9, 2.11, 2.25, 2.27, and 2.29. I’ve responded to the “Audience,” “Organisation, Episode Content, and Style,” and “Overall Evaluation” Questions in one cohesive response because I found that parsing out my answers to the questions fragmented my impressions and thoughts.
A. General Content
What are the overarching objectives of this podcast series? Does the second season present a uniformity of purpose? Does it cohere? How?
In Season 2 of Secret Feminist Agenda, Hannah McGregor aims to offer “contemplations of the mundane, nefarious and insidious ways we enact feminism in our daily lives.” She delivers on this promise through prying open and sharing nuanced reflections on some of the more persistent and pressing issues that feminists across North America confront in the rhythms of our daily lives. Especially appealing is her use of plain and uncompromising language; translation of complex concepts into digestible sound bites; honing of a politically challenging yet personally welcoming voice and stance; paying of attention to accessibility features such as content warnings and written transcripts of episodes; and focus on young and emerging intersectional feminist voices and perspectives. Also commendable is McGregor’s emphasis on small ‘a’ activisms; exploration of sensitive topics in simultaneously vulnerable and informed ways that bring head and heart together; centering of a dynamic range of intersectional feminist perspectives in choice of topics and guests; and her uptake of some of feminism’s more charged and sidelined issues, such as the movement’s collective amnesia surrounding white privilege/supremacy and its histories and legacies of collusion with colonial and capitalist systems of inequities. In her lively and lucid discussions with a diverse range of differently located and embodied folks, she surfaces the many forms that oppression of and aggression against women and other aggrieved groups can take, as well as the micro- and macro- activisms feminists have improvised to push against and dismantle these in the social and cultural worlds we occupy.
Of particular note are the episodes that she calls her “minisodes” (every second podcast), which I’d describe as mini political-philosophical meditations delivered in a spoken-word format that invite audiences to stop the noise of their everyday preoccupations for a few minutes and join her in reflecting on experiences that otherwise might pass by unremarked. For me, this is where and how the podcast really shines, by deftly moving from highly personal takes on a range of topics such as self-care, play, joy, accountability, tenderness, and vulnerability to big-picture analyses of these same topics – that is, to mediating on some of the highly specific ways that these themes materialize historically and spatially in differently positioned people’s lives. One example is “On Being Seen” (Season 2, Episode 3) in which she invites us to pay closer attention to the politics of recognition in our engagements with cultural texts (films, essays, fiction, art, etc). By this she means both the “ethical demand” to attend to representations that challenge us to imagine ourselves into the bodies/minds of others (those who are radically different from us) as well as representations that reflect the non-normative, different or rejected parts of ourselves, the parts that tend to be mis-, under-, or un-represented in the existing cultural field, and to experience the fullness of being that occurs when these “othered” aspects come into focus, even if fleetingly. Other examples are found in her meditations on “White Feminists & Listening to Criticism” (on accountability in scholarship and acknowledging missteps, transgressions and harms), “Playing, Losing, Failing” (on the politics and productive possibilities of failure), “Knowing Your Limits” (on the limits of knowing oneself and knowing others, especially the arrogance of white logics that falsely assume everyone/everything can be known/mastered/controlled), “Soft Bois aka Tender Masculinities” (on the importance of representations of tenderness and gentleness in men as a counterpoint to toxic masculinities in popular culture), “Rereading/ Rewatching/ Rethinking” (on re-watching, rereading, and reconsidering previously traversed cultural texts as our identities shift and change) and many more!
McGregor intersperses her “minisodes” with engaging and informal interviews with a host of feminist-identified people who speak on wide ranging topics—from feminist friendships to space-making for fun. Other episodes cover topics as diverse as the heteronormativity of law school, sexual harassment on Canada’s literary scene, the political uses/limits of empathy, the gendered dynamics of gaming, the ways that women create intimacies outside the given scripts of romance and sexual desire, and how we might bring our whole selves to work as a strategy for disrupting neoliberalism’s productivity-obsessed, dehumanizing logics. Especially appealing is the spontaneity and immediacy of the flow of conversation and the pleasure-work that host and guest(s) do together to broaden and deepen their and our understandings of the topics/issues under discussion. While the conversations and meditations are broad in content and scope, the whole podcast is stitched together and coheres around a few key themes: the micro-politics of oppression and resistance at work, school, play, and beyond; intersectionality in speech and action; the operations and impacts of patriarchal, capitalist, colonial, ableist and white logics on women’s psychic and social lives; everyday strategies and activisms that enable folks to survive and push against oppressive representations and systems; feminist friendships, communities, and cultural practices as world making; and the hidden politics and pleasures of other fun, frivolous and outside-the-box topics. McGregor herself speaks to this final point in Episode 2.10 (3:29), noting that “the secret of this entire podcast is giving feminists the platform to talk about shit that they think other people don’t care about but guess what? It turns out other people do!”
Does the podcast contribute to scholarship by presenting new research or by offering a new understanding of, or approach to, familiar material?
What is most valuable about this podcast series is its centering of young and emerging feminist activists and thinkers who represent different positionalities and bring diverse perspectives, interests, insights and expertise to the conversation. Any professor who teaches in gender, sexuality and feminist studies or in another social justice program will find a wealth of knowledge and richness of perspectives from which to draw in developing their course materials and resources. Not only do the interviews bring exciting new voices into the centre of feminist discourse, but the links to supplementary materials that McGregor provides with every episode offer additional resources for those interested in deepening/expanding their knowledge and understanding of the issues explored. The podcast has the potential to engage a greater number of students than a textbook (as an example) given that it addresses topics of particular relevance to young adult women (who represent the largest demographic in gender studies programs) and given that the format itself allows feminist scholars to respond to/offer analyses of emergent political issues in more immediate and perhaps less mediated ways (in the sense of requiring less editing and polishing, etc.) than that of the format of an essay, journal article, book or film. The medium of voice productively narrows the distance between speakers and listeners, bringing a greater sense of immediacy and emotional/intellectual connection with the speakers and their words than written texts can provide.
In what ways does the podcast relate to scholarship in its field(s)? Is the scholarship sound? Do you have suggestions for improving the podcast’s engagement with existing scholarship?
The scholarship is sound. The links provided ground the conversations and meditations, and work as citations for listeners and readers wishing to expand their understanding of the theories and perspectives introduced in the episodes. I have a few suggestions for improving the podcast’s engagement with existing scholarship.
Episode 2.6, “Capitalism & Colonialism is Killing Us All with Alicia Elliott” could have engaged more explicitly with how and why colonial processes have imposed heteropatriarchy onto Indigenous communities and nations and what the impacts of these processes have been on Indigenous women and gender nonconforming people and on Indigenous conceptualizations of gender relations. This may have required more preparatory research or perhaps necessitated a different format (given that no one person, even someone as articulate and insightful as McGregor (!), can know everything about every topic related to her podcast). Alternative formats to consider include hosting a dialogue or a roundtable between Alicia Elliott and other Indigenous feminist scholars/writers/activists. Similarly, in Episode 2.4, “Bringing Yourself to Work with Baharak Yousefi” I wanted to hear more about the author’s analysis, specifically the challenges that she and her co-authors have confronted in trying to bring their embodiments and differences into their workplaces, how they have managed to carve out spaces of inclusion, when they’ve had to negotiate across (seemingly) incommensurate differences, for whom the spaces have worked, and what inclusive workspaces look like/how they feel.
Are there competing or comparable podcasts in the field(s) and how does this series compare to them? Are there books or other digital research projects that might be considered comparable to this podcast series? If so, how does the podcast compare?
The tone and style of the podcast reminds me (as both Season 1 reviewers noted) of Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist. As I listened to episodes pushing back against establishment (white) feminism and problematic cultural narratives about difference I was also reminded of Mia McKenzie’s blog, Black Girl Dangerous, a site that similarly interweaves theory and activism and that is dedicated to “amplifying the voices of queer and trans people of color” (https://www.bgdblog.org/about-bgd/). Though I’m a big fan of podcasts and listen to offerings like 2 Dope Queens, Nancy, and Reid My Mind (and guiltily to Criminal, Serial, and other, more salacious podcast series), I know of no other podcasts, digital research projects, or books in the field of feminist studies and activisms that are comparable to this podcast.
To what audience(s) is the podcast directed? Will it serve only specialists in the field(s), or will scholars, broadly, find the podcast of interest? Is the podcast likely to appeal to an audience of non-academic listeners? Would you have use of this podcast in a course? If so, how might you use it with students? In what courses might you use it? In what other ways might a scholarly audience make use of this podcast?
I’ll comment first on the content warnings and written transcripts accompanying every episode/ “minisode” (though it is important to note that currently the transcripts are uploaded sometime after each episode airs). These features are useful for listeners and instructors who want to integrate multimedia materials such as podcast segments into lectures or to assign specific podcast episodes alongside conventional academic texts. As co-editor of the first-year textbook Gender and Women’s Studies: Critical Terrain (with Prof. Marg Hobbs), and as a disability and fat studies scholar committed to increasing the accessibility of critical theory to non-academic and non-normative audience members, I am always on the lookout for quality feminist and non-normative activist materials in multiple genres and formats, including visual art, video, poetry, story, creative non-fiction, infographics, newspaper articles, interview transcripts, reports and more. Adding podcasts to this repertoire expands the modes of communication and knowledge sources that feminist instructors, professionals and other workers have at our disposal, allowing us to introduce counter-hegemonic ideas in ways that engage a multiplicity of learners, especially those with diverse and non-dominant aural/auditory learning styles/requirements. In fact, one major thread running throughout Critical Terrain, Snapshots & Soundwaves, (which features lists, nuanced definitions of concepts, activist insights, and other supplemental materials), would have benefitted hugely from incorporating material from the Secret Feminist Agenda podcasts. I wish that we had known about this project sooner! The inclusion of range of young and emerging voices engaging in lively and smart conversations would have strengthened our book, especially by appealing to the largest demographic of readers in the gender studies classroom and speaking directly to the issues that they in particular confront.
I was impressed with McGregor’s audience of 5000 listeners (noted in Episode 2.30) and wonder how this reach compares to the reach of other feminist podcasts. (On a related note, I estimate that the reach of Gender and Women’s Studies: Critical Terrain over the past four years has been approximately 12,000 undergraduate students.) The significant audience already engaged by Secret Feminist Agenda (with its low production costs) in only a year underscores the enormous potential of the podcast genre to translate and extend the influence of feminist thinking far beyond the academy. With its many references to the academic world, Secret Feminist Agenda likely has greater appeal to those situated in, or tangentially connected to, the university system, especially in Anglo-Western contexts, but the diverse range of topics and germane takes on the issues explored suggests that the series would hold appeal to anyone who has passed through an institution of higher learning or who is invested in feminist and other progressive politics.
C. Organisation, Episode Content, and Style
Is the organisation of the podcast’s second season appropriate? Do you have suggestions for improving its organisation? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the overall form and style of the second season?
Of the episodes you listened to—please identify them by number for reference—which were the strongest and which were the weakest? Why? The second season includes episodes that alternate between the podcaster’s commentaries (“minisodes”) and the interviews with guests. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this structure to the podcast series? Are the lengths of the episodes appropriate? Would the podcast episodes benefit from being shortened or lengthened? If so, why? Do you have any suggestions for the improvement of the podcast, related either to its organisation, content, or style?
Of the Season 2 podcasts that I listened to, I deemed the strongest and weakest episodes to be one in the same: Episodes 2.1 and 2.29 were the most memorable and my mind, the strongest and weakest. Season 2, Episode 2.1 explores the challenges of listening to criticism, which, as McGregor acknowledges, is a hard thing to do and especially so when the individual called to account for their actions is a public figure who is being held accountable for their missteps and the impacts of these on aggrieved groups. While it is entirely appropriate (and necessary) to expect accountability in public scholarship, I suspect that it is extremely difficult to know how to respond to criticism in authentic, meaningful and justice-seeking/redistributing ways when one is a public intellectual who has missed the mark and caused harm. As feminists committed to justice, we have few (if any) models for how this might be done. McGregor’s focus in Episode 2.1 on Margaret Atwood’s defense of a creative writing professor accused of sexual misconduct offers a great entry point into the discussion of public accountability, and she bookends this discussion in the second-last episode of Season 2, Episode 2.29, by reflecting on Judith Butler’s more recent defence of another professor similarly accused. Not only do these events make great bookends for the whole season, but more importantly, they are critical events to cover in a feminist podcast given the ways that they have rocked the world of academic feminism in North America, sparked heated discussions in our academic and literary circles, and raised meta-ethical questions about the power and dangers of being a public intellectual (a role that anyone who is invested in reaching audiences beyond the academy is likely to be slotted into).
Both episodes, while they raise urgent issues of profound relevance to feminist knowledge production and mobilization (such as issues related to the creation of a feminist star system, the creep of neoliberal logics of hyper-individualism and competition into our scholarly worlds, the legitimate critique and spurious criticism/harassment/violence that feminist public intellectuals confront, etc.), also miss the all-important opportunity to delve into the messy dynamics surrounding criticism and accountability. Each of these commentaries and its follow-up episode would potentially have been more powerful had McGregor moved beyond critique of Atwood’s and Butler’s (highly questionable) actions and her own experiences of online abuse toward a discussion of reflexivity, vulnerability and accountability in public scholarship. McGregor does gesture toward thinking about the vulnerability of feminist public intellectuals where she notes, “The individual never needs to be the locus of attack because there is always a community there able to join in and help” (Episode 2.30, 18.20) but she doesn’t link up her discussion of the emotional tolls of being trolled as a feminist public figure with the serious responsibility and need for accountability that comes with this role/territory. Follow-up episodes featuring panels of feminist scholars, educators and activists could have opened space to reflect on ethical processes of speaking out and listening to criticism—on how critique might engender difficult emotions such as anger and shame in panelists, on how they’ve worked through these emotions, and on how attending to difficult emotions can lead to new learning. Overall, this could have moved conversations (happening on- and off-air) beyond critique to constructive meditations on practices of accountability in social justice communities (and on social media generally), and in so doing, contributed to knowledge generation. Here I’m thinking about how such conversations might have extended Elspeth Probyn’s compelling work on the productive possibilities of shame in the context of settler colonization, how shame can compel folks, as individuals and as members of settler colonizer groups, to question our/their actions and our/their relations with Indigenous peoples. I am thinking here, too, of Rachel Flowers’ work on the transformative potential of Indigenous women’s rage as a means of disrupting settler colonial relations and thought systems. I make this suggestion (to interrogate accountability and responses to criticism) not to equalize transgressions, omissions and harms, but rather to complicate and extend our narratives beyond critique, and to avoid setting up a firm binary between radical/reactionary feminists.
The structure of the Secret Feminist Agenda podcast, which alternates between McGregor’s commentaries (her “minisodes”) and interviews with guests, works well for me as a listener. The commentaries give McGregor opportunity to pull out and reflect on specific thematic and conceptual threads running through and framing of the interviews with guests. In response to a previous review, I don’t think that the episodes all need to be the same length: running at around 15-25 minutes, the commentaries work beautifully as mini reflections and I fear that increasing their length might undermine their liveliness and put too much pressure on McGregor to generate even more engaging material; and running at between 30 to 50 or so minutes, the interviews already work well in giving listeners vital glimpses into the work- and life-worlds of guests and in building a dialogic story across differences, which might be lost if the interviews were shortened or lengthened. As well, the interviews open the agenda of the podcast to a rich range of voices and vantage points, which extends and thickens our collective understanding of what constitutes feminist scholarship and activism. The show-notes associated with each episode are likewise excellent and many of them sent me down rabbit holes that significantly lengthened/prolonged the amount of time it took to write this review!!
D. Overall Evaluation
In what ways does this particular podcast series demonstrate the potential of the medium for scholarly dissemination? Are there specific ways in which you think the series could be improved in order to take advantage of the form as a way to engage listeners in new lines of scholarly inquiry? Does the podcast series, as it stands, make a significant contribution to its field(s)? How would you rate its importance and scholarship?
Over the past few years, my scholarship has focused on the multimedia story-making methodologies developed through the Re•Vision Centre for Art and Social Justice, a research creation centre at the University of Guelph that is dedicated to exploring ways that a range of communities can use arts- and story-based research to advance social well-being and justice. Broadly, we look at the power of the arts to open up conversations about difficult or sensitive topics in healthcare, education, and the arts/culture sectors. Our story-making methodology brings together majority and minoritized creators to represent previously unattended experiences (e.g., around mind-body differences, disability justice, queer sexuality, fat oppression, urban Indigenous identity, and Inuit cultural voice) through film and video, with an aim to build understanding and shift policies/practices that perpetuate barriers to justice. While in our work we approach stories as meaning-making devices, as primary ways that people make sense of/interpret the flow of their raw experiences (that are ripe for further analysis), we also understand stories as evidence—as accounts of experience that need to be attended to for how they surface/centre elements of people’s psychic and social worlds that have been disregarded. After listening to Secret Feminist Agenda, a series that at its core features and unpacks stories told by McGregor and her guests, I’m wondering whether the feminist podcast may operate in similar ways to that of our video-based storywork—both as a medium for the translation and dissemination of feminist ideas and as evidence for the legitimacy and trustworthiness of those ideas.
For these reasons, and in response to a previous review, I do think the series (or perhaps each season or specific clusters of episodes) needs an overarching structure in order to hold together as a scholarly contribution. After all, we look for some sort of cohesion in other scholarly outputs, from syllabi, Wikipedia entries, and textbooks to monographs, journal articles, art exhibitions, reports and more. Given this, one possible way of improving the series in order “to take advantage of the form [and] engage listeners in new lines of scholarly inquiry” might be to link episodes together in more intentional and consistent ways (as McGregor does in her exploration of play) and to interweave more overtly the themes of her commentaries with those of her interviews. That said, the podcast series makes a meaningful contribution to feminist knowledge translation, mobilization, pedagogy and activism, and while I am reluctant to “rate” it based on “its importance and scholarship,” I will say that I’d seriously consider integrating some of the episodes (through linking with and re-printing written transcripts) into the next iteration of my book.
Further, if we accept that translation itself represents an important contribution to knowledge, then it follows that scholarly podcasts are scholarly outputs and more, that public-facing scholarly outputs like Secret Feminist Agenda represent important new modes of knowledge production, and mobilization. At the Re•Vision Centre, we have begun pushing into podcasting as a knowledge translation and mobilization tool, and after having the opportunity to review Secret Feminist Agenda, I am even more excited to explore the possibilities of the medium. Thank you, Hannah McGregor! (And not to forget Siobhan McMenemy, Senior Editor at Wilfrid Laurier Press for supporting the peer review process).