Women, words and writing
Traversing the genteel palaces of 16th century England through to the supernatural Hellmouth of 21st century Sunnydale, Dr Trisha Pender is challenging assumptions regarding the roles of women as cultural influencers and producers.
Having published two books, co-edited a third, and close to finishing her fourth, Trisha is leading the charge in the expanding international field of research into early modern women’s writing, with a sideline interest in gender and popular culture.
In her latest book, I’m Buffy and You’re History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism (I. B. Tauris, 2016) Trisha explores one of the most widely analyzed texts of contemporary popular culture, particularly investigating its gender and feminist politics.
Trisha completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Sydney, before a Fulbright scholarship took her to the USA, where she spent 12 years earning her doctorate at Stanford and teaching as an Assistant Professor at Pace University in New York City.
Upon returning to Australia to take up a five-year UON Research Fellowship in 2007, Trisha and Associate Professor Rosalind Smith initiated the Early Modern Women’s Research Network (EMWRN), which has continued to gain momentum and global recognition since its inception in 2007.
Trisha has matched her prodigious publication history with funding wins, having attracted more than $1 million in grants since arriving at Newcastle.
The Rhetoric of Modesty
Trisha explains that the term ‘early modern’ is preferable to ‘Renaissance’ to identify the era of focus in which she is a research leader.
Where the term ‘Renaissance’ has been used in the past to signal the ideological triumph of an elite group of Protestant men, ‘early modern’ places the period in a longer historical perspective, and includes the concerns of marginalised groups such as women, the working classes, and religious and racial minorities.
"Early modern takes away that triumphal rhetoric; it then becomes a more historicist perspective."
Assisted by funding from UON and the Australian Academy of Humanities, Trisha published her first book, Early Modern Women’s Writing and the Rhetoric of Modesty (Palgrave) in 2012.
“It was basically a book length argument against people reading early modern women writers too literally,” Trisha explains.
“Women in that period were constantly apologising for not being good enough, and not really being a poet or writer, just a woman.”
“We don't believe Milton when he says ‘I'm unworthy to write this poem!’ and then he writes Paradise Lost.”
“My argument is it that feminine modesty is just a trope.”
Broadening scope to include the activity and influences surrounding early modern women’s writing, in 2012 Trisha and Rosalind Smith lead a group of international EMWRN scholars on an ARC Grant project to investigate Material Cultures of Early Modern Women’s Writing: Editing, Reception and Mediation.
By studying material cultures, the team focused not so much on the authors and their biographies but on what they wrote and how it was disseminated. Part of the project is researching the history of the book.
"We looked at the production, transmission and reception of the work. How was it produced in print? How was it circulated? How have these been received?"
Trisha explains that this project aimed to transform early modern book history by considering agents and forms of literary labour that have previously been deemed marginal to the discipline as a whole.
"In doing so, we challenge and refine categories of authorship that have been defined in almost exclusively masculine terms, providing a more complete and historically nuanced account of authorial institutions crucial to the future of early modern literary studies."
Institutions of Authorship
With the aid of another sizeable ARC Discovery grant, Trisha is investigating early modern women’s roles in publishing, extraneous to writing, in even greater depth. Her third book will focus on this topic, Early Modern Women and Institutions of Authorship.
“I am looking at women not so much as writers, but as patrons and translators and editors," Trisha says.
“It's all those, what I call, “extra-authorial” tasks. That has opened up to me this really interesting world of women who are cultural producers that influence the culture in interesting ways.”
Trisha explains that there is a surprising amount of preserved historical material relevant to this topic, and that she is even discovering resources that have not yet been subject to scholarly analysis.
Some of her findings challenge the assumptions of previous generations of feminist scholarship.
“I decided to focus on the early modern period because I didn't want to just reinforce my own ideas about gender; I wanted to challenge that with historical difference.”
Dissecting the Slayer
The fictional adventures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer began with the movie’s release in 1992. Director Joss Whedon resurrected, relocated, and remodelled Buffy for the television series of the same name, first airing in 1997 and continuing until 2003.
Trisha admits to being fascinated with all things Slayer from the outset.
“I think I first fell in love with the show because it was about the struggle to remain human when you are fighting the bad guys all the time.”
“I love Buffy because she is a fighter. My book is about how it is a feminist TV show, it is about fighting against injustice.”
“Watching Buffy kick ass is a very vicarious thrill because those of us who are fighting social injustice normally don't get such spectacular results,” Trisha says, laughing.
But this book is no fangirl tribute to Buffy. Trisha also identifies problematic elements within the show, such as, “a blonde middle class American white girl saying to the rest of the world this is how you become empowered.”
The essays within Trisha’s book examine the Slayer’s postmodern politics, her position as a third wave feminist icon, her placing of masculinity in extremis, and her fandom and legacy in popular culture.
Humanities for Humans
Challenging perspectives and reviewing traditional outcomes of the study of humanity and its cultures is the impetus behind Trisha’s involvement in the UON’s new Centre for 21st Century Humanities.
“I am interested in how the Centre might make humanities research accessible to the public, by trying to make research in the humanities relevant to real people.”
“I like to think of it as humanities for humans, rather than humanities for academics.”
“The Centre is obviously very academically rigorous and does fantastic work, but this is my particular interest in its potential.”
It is this interest in reaching, and empowering, regular humans that also fires Trisha’s passion for teaching.
“One of the reasons I wanted to go into academia is that giving people the tools to fight back against power is part of teaching.”
“It is that attitude of privilege and elitism that my work, both the early modern work and the postmodern work, is arguing against.”
Ever humble, Trisha credits her own success to consistency and good fortune more than talent.
“I work hard because I love it, and I think it is a privilege to be able to do what I do. That privilege is an onus on me to do it well.”
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