“Doing gender” in critical event studies: a dual agenda for research | A summary

Katherine Dashper1 & Rebecca Finkel2
1 School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds;
2 Queen Margaret University Edinburgh, Musselburgh

Gender is a practice that pervades all aspects of social life and interactions, including events, leisure and tourism. However, the field of critical events studies has, with a few exceptions, largely failed to engage with wider gender theories and concepts. In this article, we introduce critical gender theory to the field as a productive approach to examining the various ways in which gender permeates all aspects of events. We argue that feminist and intersectional perspectives can challenge normative ways of thinking about events and their wider role(s) in society, which may ultimately lead to different ways of designing, implementing and experiencing events.

We begin by introducing some key aspects of feminist and gender-aware theory, focusing mainly on the concept of ‘doing gender’ that has developed from the pioneering work of West and Zimmerman (1987)[1]. Such an approach recognises gender as a ‘doing’ rather than a ‘being’, something that has to be continually done in interaction with others. Although the ways in which we ‘do’ gender are constrained by culturally and socially specific norms and expectations, there is always the possibility to do gender differently, to undo or redo the limiting and restrictive practices that currently characterise gender power relations. Gender is usually conceptualised as a binary – male/female, masculine/feminine – yet this is not illustrative of the full spectrum of how people identify. More open approaches to understanding gender can question deep-rooted systems and ways of thinking. By challenging gender binaries in this way, possible routes emerge to ‘undoing’ gender. Events may be spaces through which such challenges are enacted. We suggest this offers a fruitful theoretical lens through which to examine events.

We then go on to review the limited research that explores events as gendered spaces and practices. We focus on two key areas. First, we discuss an emerging body of research that explores gendered safety in festivals. Numerous high-profile cases of gendered violence (mainly against women) have brought attention to some of the risks and controversies surrounding festivals when viewed through a gender-aware lens. For example, the La Manada (wolf pack) case at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona in Spain in 2016, wherein  an 18-year-old woman was gang raped, revealed the ways in which festivals provide spaces for (some) men to express problematic aspects of masculine behaviour, such as excessive drinking and sexual violence, with impunity, while women are required to remain hyper-vigilante and self-censure their behaviours and self-presentation in those same spaces. We suggest that, while providing ‘safe spaces’ for those who feel vulnerable in festival and event environments offers some security for some individuals, more far-reaching structural change is needed to address the underlying causes of gendered safety (and lack thereof) and violence in events. Exploring these issues from a critical gender perspective helps highlight how the ways in which gender is done in these events spaces is revealing of wider gender power relations that position men and women, and their bodies and actions, very differently in the public space of a festival.

Second, we discuss research which suggests that festivals and events also provide opportunity to disrupt and challenge gender power relations in ways that can reimagine them as more inclusive and open spaces. From LGTBQ+ Pride Parades, to heritage events and local community festivals, exploring events and festivals through a feminist or gender-aware lens illustrates how they can sometimes be sites for change and transformation. Although these kinds of events can often reproduce restrictive gender norms and practices, and are frequently underpinned by neoliberal and commercial ideals, they also offer sites for disruption and reworking of gender norms in often small but significant ways.

As part of investigating the ‘doing’, ‘undoing’, and ‘redoing’ of gender in event spaces, we suggest that critical researchers must ask: how are gender identities being (re)negotiated in festival and event landscapes? How are structural inequalities being represented and performed in experiential environments? How might events provide forums for disruption and challenges of dominant power relations with regard to gender?

Although there is some interesting gender-focused research emerging in critical event studies, it remains marginal and indicates a lack of acknowledgement of the importance of gender power relations to all aspects of events. We suggest this limits the development of the field, and propose an agenda for research to begin to address this gap. We argue that events researchers need to move beyond seeing gender as merely a variable or characteristic of individuals and more as an intrinsic part of social life and interactions, and integral to all aspects of festivals and events. This is important for advancing the field of critical event studies theoretically and practically. It is only by examining power relations related to gender and other axes of power, such as race, disability and class, for example, that events and festivals can be reimagined in ways that are more inclusive and welcoming for a broader range of people.

Copyright © Katherine Dashper & Rebecca Finkel 2021

[1] West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender & society1(2), 125-151.
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