Patricia Leavy: Feminist Author Blurs the Arts and Sciences
February 02, 2012
by Lauren Sardi
Her Circle Magzine
Patricia Leavy is a feminist sociology professor and author with a passion for blurring the arts and sciences. With a dozen books to her credit she has become known for advocating innovative and artful approaches to conducting social research as a means of getting at the complexity of lived experience and linking the "inner worlds" of women to the social contexts in which they live.
She published a startling three books in 2011 including the novel, Low-Fat Love which launched her cutting-edge Social Fictions book series. In the interview that follows I ask Dr. Leavy about the art-science divide, Low-Fat Love and her new book series.
Lauren Sardi: You are the Founding Director of the Gender & Sexualities Studies Program at Stonehill College and you've published nearly a dozen non-fiction books with strong feminist messages. Most recently you published the feminist novel, Low-Fat Love. Before we get into a discussion of Low-Fat Love I want to address some of the background that ultimately brought you to write this book.
In recent years you have become a vocal proponent of arts-based research which you write about in your book Method Meets Art. Can you tell me a little about that and why, as a feminist sociologist, you are advocating for this kind of work?
Patricia Leavy: Well, those are really good questions. To begin, I have spent more than a decade writing about how to conduct social research that is both vital and ethical-particularly research that is concerned with social justice issues, feminist and critical race perspectives. Through this writing I have come to realize that many traditional methods for conducting social research are not suitable for addressing the concerns and experiences of marginalized groups. Moreover, most academic research is completely inaccessible to the public. It is jargon-filled and published in highly specialized and hard-to-find academic journals. I want to produce research and writing that is meaningful for women's lives and it has to be accessible.
Arts-based forms of research-from short story writing to plays-are not only accessible to diverse audiences but also have the potential to unsettle stereotypes, challenge dominant ideologies, build bridges across differences, promote understanding, foster empathetic connections and raise critical consciousness. These are all vital aspects of feminist research. I advocate that feminist researchers in the social, behavioral and health sciences use arts-based forms of representation when appropriate.
L.S.: There is a great divide in academia between the "sciences" and "arts." Can you talk a little about that and why it matters?
P.L.: The polarization of the arts and sciences is based on the false notion that these forms of knowing are at odds with each other. That is totally untrue. Both the arts and sciences are used to shed light on the human condition, illuminate social conditions and portray people's lives in meaningful ways. These are not separate projects as some may argue. It is also important to remember that the history of dualistic thinking has not helped women's interests.
Consider for example the male-female, mind-body, intellect-emotions and objective-subjective dualisms and how they have systematically favored men, men's institutions and men's interests. I suggest the art-science dualism has the power to be equally dangerous-favoring the status quo in academic research institutions which are traditionally patriarchal domains. If the goal is to learn about people's lives and the contexts in which they live out their lives, then all available and appropriate mediums for doing so should be explored. Moreover, a compassionate research practice demands that we attempt to create understanding across differences which the arts are uniquely suited for.
L.S.: Is this why you developed the Social Fictions book series?
P.L.: Yes. Many social researchers are now taking their research and representing it through the arts, for the reasons mentioned. The problem is: where to publish this research and how to publish it in ways that make it accessible to the public. With these questions in mind I developed The Social Fictions book series. The idea behind the series was to publish full-length books that have been informed by original social research but that are written entirely in literary forms (such as novels, plays and short story collections).
I partnered with Sense Publishers because they publish innovative books in the field of Education. As series editor I am looking for books that are informed by social justice research and tap into issues with real-world value for marginalized groups.
L.S.: You wrote the first book in the series, a feminist novel titled Low-Fat Love. Can you tell us what inspired you to write the book?
P.L.: I have been teaching courses about gender, popular culture and relationships for more than a decade. During this time I also conducted extensive interview research with women, mostly college-age women, about their relationships, gender and sexual identities, body image and related topics. I had presented my research at conferences and written academic articles; however, I felt that those formats did not allow me to fully express what I had learned and what I wanted to share with other women.
I have learned a lot over the years from my students and interviewees about the pressures they feel, their insecurities and dreams, and how media culture impacts their sense of self. I decided to write a fictional work in order to more fully express what I have learned and to do so in a way that might resonate with female readers. Low-Fat Love is written in the "chick-lit" format in an effort to use and subvert the dominant form that often stereotypes women. I wanted to draw on the pleasure, familiarity and emotional capital this genre has for many women in an effort to communicate feminist messages.
L.S.: It's a very catchy title that speaks to the kind of relationships you write about in the book. Can you explain the term "low-fat love"?
P.L.: "Low-fat love" is a concept about settling for that which cannot fulfill us. It is about settling in relationships because either we don't believe we deserve more or we try to convince ourselves that the relationship is better than it is-that it is enough. I think many women, particularly younger women, experience these issues.
I am interested in using fiction to explore how women are often drawn to people who withhold their support (with lovers, friends, family members and colleagues) and how women can confront the psychology of negative relationships-including with one's self- and build the lives they really want.
L.S.: Can you tell us about the novel?
P.L.: Low-Fat Love unfolds over three seasons as Prilly Greene and Janice Goldwyn, adversarial editors at a New York press, experience personal change relating to the men (and absence of women) in their lives. Prilly lives in between who she is and who she longs to be. She falls in love with Pete Rice, an unemployed and curiously charming aspiring graphic novelist. Prilly begins to unravel through the course of their on-again-off-again love affair. Janice, a feminist-in-name-only, burdens Prilly, her underling, and undercuts Prilly's professional identity. Janice's life is set on a new course when her alcoholic father is in a car accident and she is pushed to face her own demons.
Ultimately, each woman is pushed to confront her own image of herself, exploring her insecurities, the stagnation in her life and her reasons for having settled for low-fat love. In short, these women traipse around New York repeatedly tripping over their own insecurities. Along with Prilly and Janice, a cast of offbeat characters' stories are interwoven throughout the book. Low-Fat Love is underscored with a commentary about female identity-building and self-acceptance and how, too often, women become trapped in limited visions of themselves. Women's media is used as a signpost throughout the book in order to make visible the context in which women come to think of themselves as well as the men and women in their lives. In this respect the book offers a critical commentary about popular culture and the social construction of femininity.
It is my hope that women will read the book for pleasure and that they will identify with the characters and thus reflect on their own lives. Although it is a novel, Low-Fat Love opens with a short academic preface. It is my hope that professors will use the book in college courses that deal with gender, relationships, popular culture and/or social problems.
L.S.: The ongoing narrative about popular culture in the book, and women's media in particular, is very powerful. Can you expand on your approach to incorporating a commentary about pop culture in novel?
P.L.: The popular culture is not kind to girls and women and this is a part of the context in which women develop their identities. As a sociologist, even when I am focusing on the psychological profile of a character-their "inner world"- I also pay attention to the larger context that has shaped their identity. I thought it was very important to include this in the book. Therefore, women's pop culture is used as a series of signposts throughout the novel in order to show the pop culture context in which women develop their identities and their ideas about relationships. There are extensive pop culture references woven throughout the novel and each one has been carefully considered.
To begin, Prilly and Janice are book editors publishing a line of women's memoirs and are shown reading some of those books. Also, Prilly routinely watches "women's television", home shopping and entertainment tabloid shows. The dominant construction of femininity espoused in these media forms is evidenced. Further, readers are exposed to Prilly's psychological process as she consumes pop culture-such as endlessly comparing herself to celebrities.
When Prilly watches home-shopping and makes purchase I then use her feelings about her purchases to mirror her two major relationship mistakes: settling for less than she wants and seeking external validation to feel good about herself. Books, music videos, films, plays, and even celebrities are referred to throughout the book to further highlight the larger context in which these women have come to think about themselves and their relationships. Through employing pop culture references I was able to offer a feminist reading of women's pop culture within the narrative without distracting from the pleasure of reading the novel as a novel.
L.S.: What can we expect in the future from the Social Fictions series?
P.L.: The second book in the series is a play written by Diane Conrad titled: Athabasca's Going Unmanned: An Ethnodrama about Incarcerated Youth. Based on extensive research with "at-risk" youth and incarcerated youth, the play addresses a range of real-world issues with race, policy and educational implications. The play is set in a youth offender jail in Alberta, Canada and tells the story of three incarcerated youth and the corrections staff who work with them.
The story centers on an escape plot hatched by the inmates and ultimately examines the needs of incarcerated youth and the prospects for offering them programming with transformative potential. The play aims to engage a diverse audience and engender empathic understandings of the experiences of incarcerated youth leading to more constructive attitudes regarding their needs, with the potential for radically re-envisioning social relations.
The fictionalized format invites readers to engage with complex questions without relying on an "authoritative" text that closes off meaning-making. Rather, readers are invited into the meaning-making process as they engage with the play and its alternative endings. It is my hope that Conrad's powerful play will be used in college courses as a springboard for conversation and that it may positively impact policies that impact incarcerated and "at-risk" youth. I envision publishing more innovative and socially minded projects in the future of the series.
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.