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Think Piece

Can we do this in English? Scandinavian Idéhistorie and the Language Question

By Vigdis Andrea Evang

Who has not, at some point, been frustrated by a language barrier? An article with a tantalizing abstract in English but no translation; a Spanish book reviewed in Italian; a 19th-century German-language tome hiding, somewhere within its vast bulk, just the one date you need… In moments of frustration like these, we often ask ourselves why anyone would publish a brilliant piece of scholarship in a language inaccessible to most of their colleagues. What use is an article in Bulgarian, say, to me? Why not just publish in English?

As I set out to write about idéhistorie, the Scandinavian cousin to English-language intellectual history, I will display works and publications ensconced behind a particular language barrier, one which allows for Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian to communicate while holding most other languages at bay. In doing so, I intend to familiarize the Anglophone reader with a field that has grown on the other side of that barrier, shielded there the way a wall may shield a garden from the wind. Today, the increased use of English opens breaches in that barrier, allowing more people access – but, perhaps, putting the garden at risk.

What, then, is idéhistorie? What is its relation to intellectual history? What the two disciplines share is a propensity to raise just that question, searching for a self-definition without necessarily arriving at a definitive answer. Idéhistorie has been used to refer to a vast vestige of the old university Bildung: a vibrant and venerable branch of the history of science, a critique of modernity, a high school subject, a student-led Marxist initiative in the spirit of ’68, a useful master’s degree for aspiring journalists and editors, and finally whatever one imagines Michel Foucault was doing, as the latter is frequently given the epithet idéhistoriker; one who practices idéhistorie (In fact, Foucault is technically a failed idéhistoriker, as his doctoral thesis at the University of Uppsala was rejected by professor of idéhistorie Sven Lindroth).

If the above description seems more eclectic than most, it is because it refers to not one scholarly tradition but several. Idéhistorie is practiced throughout the Nordic countries in related yet different ways. It emerged in Sweden first, then Norway, then Denmark (I regret I cannot discuss Finland here; the Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligible and form a language spectrum, whereas Finnish comes from a different language group). However eclectic, all forms of idéhistorie share an interest in past thought, in the ways how people have sought to understand the world. As a student, I learned that an idéhistoriker should make the unfamiliar familiar, seeking to understand past ways of thinking now foreign to us, and thereby make the familiar unfamiliar, denaturalizing the givens of the world of today.

To summarize the approach of idéhistorie, if we want to understand something, we should look less at how it is defined and more at how it has been and is currently being practiced. However, before we consider the paths idéhistorie took in the Scandinavian countries, it is necessary to clarify how similar and how different the three languages are.

By analogy, the relationship between Norwegian and Swedish can be compared to that between Scots and English. In this analogy, Norwegian would be Scots, as it is the smaller and historically the less institutionally grounded language. Norwegian and Danish have a relationship not unlike that of modern English to the way English was written in the 18th century. Norwegians historically used Danish as a written language and, from the 19th century onwards, instituted a series of language reforms. The speakers of each language can understand each other with relative ease. This intelligibility allows for the existence of a radio program likeNorsken, svensken og dansken, in which a Swedish, a Norwegian, and a Danish journalist discuss current events, each from their particular point of view, for a mixed Scandinavian audience. The boundaries between the three languages are fuzzy.

Regarding idéhistorie, when the journal Lychnos was first published in 1936, serving as a yearbook for the field of idéhistoria in Sweden, it was with clear inspiration from history of ideas as practiced in the US. Its reach surpassed national borders, as the Scandinavian language spectrum allows for a wider readership than the national one. However, despite this connection, the development of idéhistorie in Norway and Denmark would follow quite a different path from that of Sweden.

In Sweden, from its inception in the 1930s, idéhistoria was closely connected to the history of science. Anton Jansson writes of idéhistoria in its early period as “a relatively broadly conceived discipline, with connections to positivist history of science as well as hermeneutic historiography.” He adds that “a literary but accessible style was expected from a budding idéhistoriker” and that many found their place as public intellectuals. This type of idéhistoria was particularly representative of the University of Uppsala. In Lund, the professor of theoretical philosophy Gunnar Aspelin practiced a more historically grounded approach to his field than the analytical approach of most of his colleagues. Through him, Swedish idéhistoria gained a connection to the history of philosophy; an element, as we shall see, much more present in Norway and Denmark than in Sweden.

In Norway, the first professor of idéhistorie did not have a background in philosophy but in European literature. Andreas H. Winsnes became a professor of idéhistorie in 1946. His aim was to counter the positivist-adjacent turn taking place in the philosophy department and to preserve a classical European university education in which Christianity and Antiquity played a pivotal role. From this rather conservative starting point, idéhistorie in Norway later maintained its critique of modernity while changing its ideological tenor. By the time the journal Arr (“Scar”) was created in 1989, idéhistorie had become a place where students read Lyotard, Foucault, and McLuhan on the dissolution of modernity.

In its shift to the left among idéhistorikere, Denmark went further than Norway. The appointment of the theologian Johannes Sløk as professor of idéhistorie at the University of Aarhus in 1967 similarly took place against a backdrop of an analytical turn in the philosophy department, which intellectual history was meant to balance or counter. However, this kind of classical Bildung clashed with the spirit of 1968. By 1972, Marx was an obligatory reading, and Sløk took a leave of absence. When he returned in 1974, it was not to decide the ideological profile of his department but to teach Kierkegaard. In 1983, when idéhistorie struggled to stay afloat, the journal Slagmark (“Battlefield”) was created. There, Habermas and Lyotard first appeared in the Danish translation: a sign of changing times.

What does this short survey of the history of the discipline in the three countries tell us? First, there is a great deal of variety within this area of study; more, I believe, than many Scandinavian idéhistorikere are aware of. Second, idéhistorie is a field of long-standing and deep roots, one which is more frequently associated with philosophy than with history departments – even as it defines itself in opposition to the former. Consequently, in Scandinavia, it would not be unusual to invite “historikere og idéhistoriere” to attend a conference. In Anglophone academia, it would make less sense to invite “historians and intellectual historians.” Idéhistorie is very much its own discipline.

Another thread to pick out from this short history of idéhistorie is that which connects the journals Lychnos, Slagmark, and Arr. As language is much under consideration in this essay, and as much has been made of the linguistic overlap between the Scandinavian languages, the reader might wonder whether these journals live up to expectations and publish in their neighboring languages. Indeed, they do, though they could stand to do it more often. Yet that is not the most intriguing thing about them.

Lychnos, as a yearbook, is a useful window into the world of Swedish idéhistoria, as it includes not only articles and book reviews but also descriptions of PhD dissertations. One finds the most English here out of the three journals, including abstracts and some articles in the language. Lychnos is usually, but not always, themed. Last year’s issue was dedicated to the baroque, the one before that to Latin America and Europe, preceded by internationalization. The Danish journal Slagmark appears more frequently, always with a given theme. The last few issues have been dedicated to medievalism, the materiality of the life sciences, and Karl Marx. Norwegian Arr, too, has themed editions, offering its readers such diverse topics as education, travel, the countryside, emotions, and the pig.

While the reader will hopefully be able to discern something of the tone and tenor of these publications, this is not the most interesting thing about them either. Their most intriguing trait is that they are read by people who are not academics.

Let us return to the question that I opened this essay with: what use is an article most academics cannot read? While an article in Bulgarian may be of no use to me or one in Norwegian of no use to my Bulgarian colleague, this, I believe, is looking at the situation from the wrong angle. Rather than ask what use an article is to us, we should ask what use it is to readers of Norwegian and Bulgarian – most of whom are not academics. The humanities cannot thrive in a closed circuit, passing from one academic to the next. What good does it do society if a small, isolated group is highly knowledgeable about its past?

To fill their public function, humanists must be able and encouraged to make themselves accessible to the public. “The public” is not some nebulous mass but consists of many groups of people who read and listen to certain things through certain channels, in certain languages. This need not be prohibitive. Journals with a close connection to academic and non-academic audiences in a smaller language than English can allow English-speaking scholars, too, to reach those audiences through translation. When Lychnos functions as a nexus for idéhistoria in Sweden, or Arr receives an award for its style and accessibility, that is a potential boon for all who publish there, no matter what their first language might be.

Even if we were all to agree that it is best to write both in English and our many other languages, we should choose which language to use for each publication only after careful consideration of who will benefit the most from reading it. Even if we were all to pledge to translate more often and explore the many gardens half-hidden by language barriers, it is not enough to appeal to the virtue of individuals when larger forces are in play.

Nobody is calling for abolishing all languages but the lingua academica. Yet smaller languages may still lose ground as academics feel a growing pressure to publish in renowned international journals – that is, almost invariably in English. The ability to write academically in one’s first language is not inherent but a skill that must be cultivated and maintained. If academics become incapable of expressing themselves in a given language, that language will suffer the lack. No idéhistoriker is blind to the importance of concepts, nor are intellectual historians deaf to the relevance of language. Do we think it is unimportant whose words must be italicized?

The increased use of English in an era of digital connection means there are now many formerly secret gardens to explore. The precedents we set now, the practices we adopt, are likely to cast long shadows. There is a danger; that a future generation of English-speaking academics will find themselves cut off from many of the societies they are supposed to serve, unaware of the loss that has taken place just on the other side of the linguistic garden wall. The possibility is that of opening a door in that wall, connecting without destroying.


Vigdis Andrea Evang is a PhD Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Geiranger in der Tiefe. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Think Piece

“Fake” Refugees in the Dutch Republic, ca. 1680-1700

By Lotte van Hasselt

In the spring of 1688, an important newspaper in the Dutch Republic reported that a group of six to eight men and women “who had impersonated French refugees” were sentenced to walk through the streets of The Hague until they were standing outside the city gates. The whole time, they were carrying a sheet of paper on the front and back of their body, reading: “valsche vluchtelingen” or “false refugees”.

Who were these ‘false’ refugees? And if these people were ‘false’ refugees, who were the ‘true’ refugees? I will try to answer these questions by examining events that took place in the years preceding 1688. During this tumultuous time, a large number of French Protestants, also known as Huguenots, fled France and settled in the Dutch Republic. In the process of deciding who deserved support and administering charity, a growing concern emerged around the idea of  the ‘true’ refugee. 

Since the 1660s, the Catholic king of France, Louis XIV (1643-1715) had increasingly aimed for unity in his realm, including religious unity. As a result, French Protestants, who had formed an important minority in France since the Reformation, were more and more constrained in their religious and public life. Their oppression culminated in the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

The Revocation meant that Protestants could no longer attend Protestant services, their ministers had to leave France within fourteen days, all Protestants schools and churches were to be closed or destroyed, and emigration was prohibited for lay Protestants. Despite the prohibition on leaving, many Huguenots fled France to neighbouring Protestant countries, including the Dutch Republic. 

Image of the persecution of the Protestants in France, etching by Philip van Gunst, ca. 1685-1732. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

To begin with, towns and provinces in the Dutch Republic, as elsewhere in Europe, were interested in attracting uprooted French refugees. This hospitable attitude seems to have derived principally from the expectation that refugees would benefit the local economy. In the Dutch Republic, many towns, among them Rotterdam, Middelburg, Leiden, Groningen and Amsterdam promised extensive privileges to French refugees if they settled in their town.These privileges usually included free citizenship, free admission to the guilds or permission to work outside them, and exemption from certain city taxes. 

Many towns publicly advertised privileges they granted to the French refugees. Leiden and Middelburg, for example, announced them in the Gazette de Leyde. Newspapers in French published in the Dutch Republic were smuggled to France where they reached their intended audience. In 1686, the provincial authorities of Groningen also promoted the benefits of settling in the region by highlighting the healthy air, fertile soil and favourable location of the town near rivers.

To make sure that the French refugees knew about these benefits, the province printed five hundred copies in French and send them to Tjaert Gerlacius (1628-1694), deputy of Groningen at the Dutch States General (the States General was an assembly of delegates from the seven provincial states). Gerlacius was to distribute newspapers among French refugees who often arrived in the western provinces of the Dutch Republic. With these advertisements, towns hoped to attract French craftsmen who could boost local industries, such as textile manufacturing. 

The expected place of French Protestants in Dutch society was evaluated in terms of how they met economic needs of provincial and municipal governments. However, their economic value was not the sole motive for granting privileges to the Huguenots. In the announcements of extended privileges, town councils imposed specific criteria on who could claim these privileges. Most criteria did not reflect economic expectations about the Huguenots; instead, they were mostly concerned with the Huguenot’s predicament as persecuted, displaced, and Reformed. 

That the recipient should be Reformed is not surprising. Reformed Protestantism was the official public religion in the Dutch Republic at the time. Other confessions were tolerated as long as they did not worship publicly. The Reformed identity of the French refugees also related to other criteria for privileges. The Huguenots fled France because of religious persecutions and, in the eyes of the Reformed community in the Dutch Republic, had suffered for the “true” faith. According to town councils and provincial states, the persecution and subsequent displacement of the Huguenots was a sign of steadfastness and loyalty to the Reformed church, making privileges and charity a reasonable response. 

Image of the persecution of the Protestants in France, etching by Jan Luyken, 1684. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 

The criteria set by town councils reveal historical conceptions of what a ‘true’ refugee supposed to be. This definition is illustrated by a disagreement in Groningen between the surgeons’ guild and the town council regarding privileges for the French Protestants. In 1682, the guild complained to the council about the large number of surgeons present in Groningen, caused by the influx of French refugees who were able to practice without being a member of the guild. The town council argued that in this case it was not against regulations, because the “foreigners” were “persecuted because of their religion.” Thereby, the town council asserted that one of the reasons the Huguenots deserved and could claim support, was because they had been persecuted. 

In other meeting minutes, which record the decision-making process of town councils, as well as in requests for privileges by the Huguenots themselves, these criteria were further defined. Recurrent themes in discussions around privileges for the French refugees were the persecution in France, the hardships during their flight, the abandonment of all their possessions in France, and their loyalty to the Reformed Protestant faith.These descriptions of the Huguenots’ plight indicate who was eligible for these privileges and ‘deserved’ charity—and who did not. 

These considerations are further explicated in a pamphlet published by the town and province of Groningen in 1686. It is the same pamphlet in which the town promoted the benefits of settling in Groningen by describing the healthy air and fertile soil. It also outlined the privileges Groningen had granted to French refugees. The town council paid specific attention to those who, in their opinion, abused the charity extended to the Huguenots. They were especially concerned that Catholics would pose as Reformed refugees and would receive privileges they did not ‘deserve’. 

To be sure that no Roman-Catholics, under the pretense of being Reformed refugees, will receive any money, the States of Groningen have agreed / that the refugees who will come to Groningen / will be examined and interrogated, and if it is found that someone uses the name of the Reformed refugees unjustly / will be punished as an example, to which end the States of Groningen have agreed and resolved and will make this known through publication / in order to make it known to everyone [author’s translation].

This pamphlet also shows how the organization of charity and privileges, especially for displaced people, emphasized religious demarcation lines and identities. The conception of ‘true’ refugees did not include Catholics in the eyes of the Reformed community. Notions around the concept of refugee were hence confessionally determined. The fear that the privileges would fall into the hands of ‘false’ refugees was also prompted by disappointment about the economic contributions of the Huguenots.

David van der Linden has argued in his 2016 book Experiencing Exile that many French refugees had difficulty making ends meet and had to rely on local poor relief. This situation made town councils even more alert to individuals who, according to them, unjustly claimed the extended privileges. The town council of Groningen stated that incoming refugees would be examined and questioned to make sure that nobody could pose as a Reformed refugee. Whoever pretended to be a Reformed refugee would be punished. The pamphlet does not state what kind of punishment the ‘false’ refugee had to expect. However, my initial example of publicly shaming ‘false’ refugees in The Hague provides an illustration of the kinds of punishment that could be imposed. 

Image of the exterior of the Walloon church in Amsterdam, Walenpleintje 155-167. Wikimedia Commons. 

By combining the pamphlets, meeting minutes and correspondence of town councils and provincial states, a broader picture emerges of what was meant by ‘false’ refugees in the context of late seventeenth-century The Hague. The men and women who were led through the streets of this town, wearing a sign reading ‘false refugees’, did not meet the criteria set by town councils and provincial states, and were seen as having likely claimed charity unjustly. In the complex process of negotiating who deserved charity, a concept of ‘refugee’ was shaped. Discussions around privileges for the French Protestants in the Dutch Republic show that there was a relatively organized perception of religious persecution as a premise for helping displaced people. 

This  premise was the result of earlier migrations and refugee communities in the Dutch Republic, which shaped narratives around Reformed exile. Persecution and displacement triggered the need for asylum, protection and support. In the process of administering and negotiating who could claim these categories, concepts of ‘true’ or ‘deserving’ versus ‘false’ or ‘undeserving’ refugees materialized. As such, the ‘false’ refugees in Dutch Republic emerges as a complex case-study, which prefigures later international frameworks under which refugees could claim legal rights and protection, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

Despite these continuities, however, the concept of the refugee is “never stable and ever changing.” As Peter Gatrell argues in his The Making of the Modern Refugee, “there has never been a ‘one size fits all’ definition of refugees” and many different people are excluded from this category at different times. Today, with violence and persecution continuing to displace millions of people, the long history of our discourse around the idea of the refugee remains as relevant as ever.


Lotte van Hasselt holds a BA in History, a BA in Archaeology and Prehistory, and a RMA in History. She currently works as a PhD-candidate in the NWO VICI-project The Invention of the Refugee in Early Modern Europe. Her research focuses on the emergence of the concept of ‘refugee’ and refugee protection in the Dutch Republic.

Edited by Alexander Collin

Featured Image: Protestants fleeing from France after the Revocation of Nantes, 1685-1686. “Het weg vlugten der Gereformeerde uyt Vrankryk” (title on object), etching by Jan Luyken, 1696. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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Think Piece

Mad About Marriage? Vestiges of the American Housewife

By Maria Wiegel

When Betty Friedan gave ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ an actual name—in the Feminine Mystique (1963)—she wrote that “[o]f the growing thousands of women currently getting private psychiatric help in the United States, the married ones were reported dissatisfied with their marriages, the unmarried ones suffering from anxiety, and finally depression.” Little did she know that half a century later, another Betty would be illustrating those very same observations. Betty Draper, unlike Friedan a fictional character, performs the feminine mystique like no other.

One might wonder: what is the purpose of her performance as the housewife in Mad Men (2007-2015)? Is she merely a cliché the audience is supposed to be astonished by or to laugh at? Or is her character pointing at a more prevalent problem in contemporary American culture? Another late-50s, early-60s housewife prominently appearing on TV is Miriam Maisel from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-today). I argue that the depiction of housewives in both series, rather than merely reproducing stereotypes, reflects contemporary problems white middle class women are still facing in 21st century America. 

First of all, the housewife is an American hero. After WWII women increasingly left the workforce to find their place in society as homemakers, who provided a peaceful and idyllic home for their freshly returned men. And so, by the 1950s, a myth was born. A myth that has been kept alive by, among others, actress Donna Reid with her The Donna Reid Show (1958-1966), First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, or Phyllis Schlafly. The latter’s STOP ERA movement was the countermovement to second wave feminism, which was associated with feminist such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug. America’s obsession with housewives up until today is reflected in the production of TV shows centering around homemakers, such as The Desperate Housewives (2004-2012), but also the ongoing reality franchise The Real Housewives (first aired in 2006).

No wonder Betty Draper is such an important and interesting character in Mad Men, a show focusing on her husband Don who works at an ad agency. While most of the plot lines have to do with the agency’s working environment, another line focuses on Don’s past as Richard “Dick” Whitman. Don’s is a ‘from-rags-to-riches’-story which is also reflected in his professional relationship to his secretary Peggy Olson. Throughout the series, Peggy becomes a copywriter and has a success story of her own.

The female characters in Mad Men each reflect stereotypical female figures from the 60s, as Erika Engstrom observed drawing on Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 1977 book Men and Women of the Corporation. Kanter assembles a number of archetypes in the workplace, among them the corporate wife who is ideally an asset to her husband’s image in the corporation. After all, women’s place in the early 1960s was still often enough assumed to be at home. They were wives, mothers, and most importantly homemakers. 

Yet Kanter’s inclusion of the housewife into the corporate milieu shows the housewife’s relevance for the workplace outside of the house, while emphasizing that women are reduced to stereotypes in the process. As an asset, housewives must be pretty and hospitable. We can see the former in Betty Draper, who was brought up to simply “be beautiful,” as Kimberly Wilmot Voss argues. Betty does not only learn this set of priorities from her mother, but she also passes on her knowledge about the value of beauty to her daughter Sally. In one episode she punishes her for cutting her own hair. This in turn raises the question if this is to be seen as a rebellious act on Sally’s behalf against her mother’s beauty standards (S4, Ep5). 

We gain even deeper insight into a woman’s maintenance of beauty from another fictional mid-twentieth-century character: Jewish-American housewife Miriam “Midge” Maisel, from Amy Sherman Palladino’s series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The end of Midge’s marriage marks the beginning of the show which tells her story of becoming a comedian. In the very first episode, Midge performs a detailed beauty routine which reminds of contemporary beauty tutorials on YouTube.

Like Betty, Midge submits herself to the beauty standards of an ideal woman as advertised on TV, in movies, and lifestyle guides, such as Helen Gurley Brown’s books Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and Sex and the Office (1964). Midge pursues this routine secretly at night so that her husband does not see how much effort she is putting into being a ‘natural beauty.’ As we learn later on, her mother does the same, suggesting that this behavior is modeled and passed on from generation to generation. TV shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel hence aim to demonstrate how engrained it is for women to merely serve the male gaze.

Further, a strong emphasis on women’s beauty produces a problematic power dynamic in which women are held responsible for making their marriages work. It creates what British feminist Florence Given calls the ‘normalization of abuse.’ In the Drapers’ marriage we see this normalized abuse, for instance, when Don accuses Betty of flirting with his boss, Roger, although he had approached her. After dinner, Don once more puts emphasis on his wife’s beauty while disregarding her integrity and morality (S1, Ep7).

Him patronizing his wife is a regular occurrence throughout their marriage. Midge, on the other hand, loses any chance of getting back with her husband, when she persuades a career as a stand-up comedian, since Joel refuses to be married to a woman who talks about him on stage. Since his own failure at stand-up comedy led to him leaving Midge in the first place, one cannot help but wonder if it is her having a career—and especially in a branch in which he failed—that keeps Joel from getting back together with his wife. 

Shows, like Mad Men and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, although at first sight reproducing those standards, rather deconstruct them. More than just showing us how absurd they are, they map those standards from the 1960s to contemporary America. (Sexual harassment did not only happen on screen, but also shaped Mad Men’s production conditions, since creator Mathew Weiner faced allegations of sexual harassment by one of his writers.)

Both shows reflect the desire for marriages in 1960s American society as a means of organization. They also show how deeply marriage is ingrained into contemporary American society, while postfeminists and neoliberals proclaims that there is already equality between genders and classes and that thus everyone has the same opportunities. Postfeminism, which started to dominate the Western media landscape in the 80s, suggests that women can achieve anything, if they want it enough and work hard for it. 

Although, at first sight, this view may sound empowering, it often ignores structural obstacles and blames women for not Having it All, as the title of Gurley Brown’s 1982 book suggests. What we learn from postfeminist depictions of romantic relationships, therefore, is that if women just work hard enough, they can make even the most stubborn man fall in love with and commit to them. When we look at current legislation, society still seeks for this kind of organization, when asking for the marital status on forms, but also when it comes to inheritance and adoption laws or the right to gain medical information concerning one’s partner.

Which brings us back to the question of why marriage, although frequently also expected from men, is still especially demanded from women? Women do have careers now—it is part of Gurley Brown’s postfeminist ‘having-it-all’-doctrine, after all (and by the 1980s apparently even more than marriage, as she claims in Having it All). Divorce ceased to be a taboo by the beginning of the new millennium, although and very interestingly, divorce rates have hit a 50-year-low in 2020 with only 14.9 divorces in 1000 marriages in the US. Even though women “are a rich man” now, as Cher would say, the narrative of having a happy life as a happy wife is still deeply engrained in women. 

Postfeminist media, such as Hollywood movies, but also reality TV, still mainly suggest that finding a man and having children is part of the achievement of ‘having it all’ (see, for instance, shows that have marriage at their center and a female audience as their target group, such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Married at First Sight). Looking at statistics, however, it is hardly imaginable that women can have it all. The Pew Research Center published D’Vera Cohn, Gretchen Livingston, and Wendy Wang’s research results on the rise of stay-at-home-mothers in 2014.

Especially striking is their discovery that finding a job is still challenging for mothers. And even if both parents are working, most tasks concerning family life and the household are performed by women, as a Pew Research Center Report from 2015 reveals. It seems that marriage remains a desired goal in today’s American society, and that, in those marriages, women are still most likely to be the homemakers—even if they have a full-time job.

Thinking about beauty standards, Given argues in her book of the same title, that women don’t owe you pretty (2020). Nevertheless, Given explains that women are still subjecting themselves to beauty standards and that, although this subjection is widely discouraged by feminists, life is easier when being “beautiful,” since this brings something Given calls ‘Pretty Privilege’ with it. (Again, this is not exclusively experienced by women, since there are also beauty standards for men. The extent to which the female body is subdued to the neoliberal gaze, however, is greater, if we think about e.g. the cosmetics industry).

Both, Betty and Midge, live off their pretty privilege, since they both find husbands that enable them to live an upper-middle class lifestyle, while less “beautiful” women in both shows, such as Peggy in Mad Men and Susie in Mrs. Maisel, have to work for and still can only afford to live in shared apartments. Centered around white upper-middle class characters, both series depict a rather limited image of the American housewife and only occasionally give glimpses of the lives of non-white American women. We do not get any insight into the lives of black women in America. Mrs. Maisel, however, with Susie as a main character and driving force, provides a queer character and thematizes non-heteronormative sexuality in the early 60s. The idea of intersectionality and inclusion of diversity of third wave feminism is not present in both series. 

Mrs. Maisel’s openly talking on stage about her life as a woman, however, I argue, contains elements of fourth wave feminism, with its idea of speaking up on the internet and on the streets (e.g. on Women’s Marches). This is a reaction to women not complaining and not making their needs clear (think about the depiction of Britney Spears’ breakdown in 2007, which Lena Dunham commented on in an Instagram Post in 2021).

This might be because they are constantly in a position between fearing to be not enough, if they don’t succeed in looking a certain way, or achieving certain goals, and being too much, when expressing needs and concerns (see, for instance, Marisa Melzer’s This is Big (2020), Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl (2014), Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud (2017), and Rachel Bloom’s I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are (2021)). 

The depiction of 1960s housewives, such as Betty Draper in Mad Men and Midge Maisel in Mrs. Maisel, are the result of the having-it-all-doctrine that millennial women have incorporated as a default setting (Meltzer, for instance, makes this visible at the example of the dieting industry, and Dunham, shows this relating to her very own upbringing). Viewers look at them in astonishment, for they believe they are an archaic picture of a certain kind of woman that has ceased to exist.

Yet, popular culture shows that ‘the feminine mystique’ still exists, after all, and is still part of the feminist struggle. It also tells us, however, to speak up and to make our needs clear. Women should keep in mind that they do not have to submit themselves to and thereby reproduce traditional standards and expectations. Instead, we should reshape them, and ideally get rid of them once and for all.


Maria Wiegel is a PhD candidate in North American Studies at the University of Cologne and works at the intersection of history, fiction, and gender studies. Her current research focuses on the depiction of the 1960s in American literature published after 9/11. She is especially interested in paranoia, surveillance, cultural memory studies, and metamodernism. Her writings and reports have appeared in Critical IntertextsFood, Fatness and Fitness and HSozKult, and are forthcoming in zeitgeschichteonline and the collective volume Encountering Pennywise: Critical Perspectives on Stephen King’s IT.

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Housewife shopping in supermarket (Gisella), 1957. Photographer: Thomas J. O’Halloran. Source: LOC. Public Domain.

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Intellectual history Think Piece

Romanticism before Romanticism?: Anglo-Rioplatense Cultural Encounters in the Early Nineteenth-Century (1806-1834)

By Daniela Paolini

Chronologies do not necessarily match among different societies, and the variation in Romantic periods across the globe is a good example of that. We could say that Britain, along with Germany, was the birthplace of Romanticism, an aesthetic tendency that emerged at the end of the 18th century, spread through Europe during the first decades of the next century, until it reached the Río de la Plata region –most of which would become present-day Argentina and Uruguay– thanks to the poet Esteban Echeverría, who brought the literary novelties from his trip to Paris. Thus, influenced by French Romanticism, Echeverría published Los consuelos, usually considered the first Rioplatense romantic work, in 1834, at a time when British Romanticism was extinguishing. This is a general but well-established approach to the diffusion of Romanticism as a literary movement, which goes from the center of Western culture to its margins with a certain delay, as if the “denial of coevalness” –the distancing in time of contemporary cultures made by the anthropological observer– could also be applied to processes of transculturation. However, before the alleged incorporation of French Romanticism via Echeverría, the creole elite of the Río de la Plata saw Britain as a desirable ally and model for the future nation; furthermore, economic, political, and cultural relations were frequent between the two during Britain’s Romantic period. Is it possible then to think that the cultural practices and discourses of Romanticism could have had an earlier impact in this part of Latin America, through the bonds that Rioplatenses and Britons forged in the first third of the 19th century?

This question is the starting point of my research on the cultural encounters between Great Britain and the Río de la Plata between 1806 and 1834, in which I consider the synchrony of these encounters with the rising of British Romanticism. Taking this into account, I turn to the analysis of periodicals, letters, poems, memoirs, biographies, historical essays, and travel narratives that deal with these Anglo-Rioplatense networks and that indicate changes in Río de la Plata’s ways of perceiving, understanding, and feeling, which can be related to the cultural sensibility emerging in Britain during the Romantic age. The chronological frame covers the period of British Romanticism’s major activity and ends up before the rise of the avowedly Romantic 1837 Generation, a group of young intellectuals led by Echeverría, whose literary and political programs would be tied to the fight against the second government of Juan Manuel de Rosas (1835-1852). Prioritizing direct encounters –i.e., those that occur by in situ contacts through wars, travels and settlements– and readings that are not mediated by other cultures –in English and in Spanish, or in translations between these two–, I focus on four contact zones: the British occupations of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (1806-1807), the diplomatic journeys to London during the revolutionary years (1810-1816), the British residences in Río de la Plata since the British Invasions until the beginning of Rosas’s second government (1806-1835), and Rudolph Ackermann’s publications for Latin America, which circulated in Rioplatense society through this period (1823-1829).

The British invasions into the Río de la Plata marks a first contact zone, a concept that emphasizes the interactive, unforeseen, and mutually significant aspects of cultural encounters, even if they are determined by asymmetrical relations. While Britain turned its imperial ambitions to this part of Spanish America –conceiving the capture of Buenos Aires on the 27th of June 1806 as a chivalric enterprise, part of its crusade against Napoleonic expansion– the Rioplatenses experienced the loss of the Viceroyalty’s capital as a shock of modernity that disrupted the peaceful and stable course of colonial life. After forty-six days in which Buenos Aires belonged to the British Crown, the locals gathered in newly formed militias that recaptured the city on the 12th of August, a victory that infused, in the words of the British Major Alexander Gillespie, a “new spirit of chivalry” (Gleanings and Remarks, 1818) among the Rioplatenses, so initiating a militarization process that would later be crucial in the emancipation of the Spanish American colonies. In this sense, the war with the Britons modified the self-perception of the people of Buenos Aires as patriots and warriors, in a similar way as how Romantic Britain saw its fight in the Napoleonic wars through an imaginary recovery of Medieval values, like bravery, honor, and spiritual devotion. The second British attempt to take Buenos Aires over in July 1807, made while seizing control of Montevideo, brought with it a new media and visual experience, expressed in the circulation of British propaganda and of a bilingual periodical, The Southern Star (1807), which inaugurated the print culture of the Banda Oriental (present-day Uruguay). These materials politicized the Rioplatense public sphere by spreading ideas of free trade, freedom of expression and religious tolerance that advocated for new ways of living and engaging with the world, challenging the foundations of the colonial system.

After this frustrated enterprise, Britain became an important supporter of Spanish American emancipation, which was a means to expand its commercial and political power through alliance rather than formal imperial dominance. During the revolutionary years that led towards independence in the Río de la Plata (1810-1816), London was a key destination –and lieu of the second contact zone– as a negotiation center to open the local economy to the British and international markets, as a place of mediation in the disputes between the former colonies and the metropolis, and as a meeting point with other Spanish-American revolutionaries. However, far from being an ideal scenario, the English capital presented a complex situation, because the British government was trying to appear neutral in the conflict between Spain and its colonies, among other circumstances that hindered diplomatic relations. In this context, Rioplatenses envoys like Manuel Moreno and Vicente Pazos Kanki found another way to fulfill their missions through their insertion in the London periodical press and book market, partaking in the same cultural scene in which the British Romantics intervened. After the failure of the mission assigned to Mariano Moreno, who died at sea before reaching London, his brother Manuel Moreno had to find other means to fulfill the trip’s purpose and vindicate the memory of Mariano, accused by his opponents of being a Rioplatense version of Robespierre. With that in mind, he wrote and published in London the biography of his brother, Vida y memorias del Dr. Don Mariano Moreno (1812), where he depicts a moderate concept of the 1810 May Revolution more attractive to the conservative British eye, and an image of the deceased revolutionary that consecrates him as a civic hero, who sacrificed himself for an ideal. For Vicente Pazos Silva, the London experience meant an identity transformation, because during his stay he converted to Anglicanism, and on his return to Buenos Aires he adopted his mother’s indigenous name, replacing “Silva” for “Kanki”. This transformation can be linked with his future role as a cultural organizer in the Rioplatense press and with his way of recovering the past, customs, and languages of the Native-Americans in his Letters on the United Provinces of South America (1819), which manifests his interest in historical reconstruction to better understand the contemporary situation of the South American countries. Thus, Moreno’s and Pazos’s literary operations can be associated to the formation of Romantic culture in Britain, characterized by the disenchantment with concrete political action, the propagation of nationalist sentiments and historicist discourses, and the construction of the Romantic hero as a misunderstood and sacrificed genius.

In the 1820s, British interest in Spanish America began to increase as a result of invitations to emigrate and to invest economically in the promising new republics. In the Río de la Plata, the Minister of Government in Buenos Aires, Bernardino Rivadavia, applied a modernization plan that encouraged a considerable number of British foreigners to reside and establish their businesses in the region, whose residences shaped the third contact zone of this research. A group of them, including Santiago Spencer Wilde, financed the creation of a park inspired by London’s Vauxhall Garden, the Parque Argentino, where people could promenade in an environment adorned with exotic plants and be entertained by theatrical and circus performances. British merchants influenced the acquisition of a local taste for foreign commodities, popularizing tableware patterns with rural and exotic motifs, which embodied the feeling of romantic nostalgia in the face of advancing industrialization. The social ties between Britons like John and William Parish Robertson (Letters on South America, 1843) and members of the Rioplatense elite like Ignacio Núñez (Noticias Históricas de la República Argentina, 1857)and Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson (Recuerdos de la Buenos Aires Virreinal, c.1860) inspired the adoption of new habits and manners, such as greeting each other at the table with a glass or walking arm in arm, practices that are associated with the shape of a more modern and liberal society. These changes in customs and fashions and in ways of inhabiting the land which separates work and leisure, public and private, rural and urban spaces are sustained by a romantic experience of the visual, leading to a gradual awareness that the visible depends as much on the perceptible as on the imagined.

Rudolph Ackermann’s cultural project for Latin America is the last contact zone of this series. The German publisher, bookseller, inventor, and businessman, settled in London since 1787, was a relevant figure that contributed to the shaping of middle-class culture in Early 19th century Britain. He saw works of art as commodities that could facilitate the democratization of good taste, and his colorful plates and engravings, magazines, and other publications meant to teach cultural literacy to their audience. This type of undertaking attracted the attention of Spanish-American representatives in London that wanted to civilize their countries through the dissemination of enlightened knowledge, like Rivadavia, who attended Ackermann’s literary meetings in the 1810s. Rivadavia, who later became the first president of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (1826-1827), arranged with the businessman the importation of magazines (e.g. Variedades o el mensajero de Londres, 1823-1825), books (e.g. Spanish Translation of Ivanhoe, 1825), literary annuals (No me olvides, 1824-1829), and secular catechisms made by a group of liberal Spaniards exiled in London, among them José María Blanco White and José Joaquín de Mora. These writers –often included in what is called Transatlantic Romanticism– managed to use Ackermann’s publications to disseminate their aesthetic and ideological interests, which contrasted with what they considered “frivolous” aspects of sections dedicated to fashion or picturesque travel. Such contrasts materialized the disputes at stake in Romantic era Britain, transmitting tensions between high culture and mass culture, knowledge and entertainment, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, to the Rioplatense reading public.  

These encounters between Great Britain and the Río de la Plata show the many forms in which cultural connections can be manifested, such as through sociability, intervention in the public sphere, taste acquisition, or cultural ventures. This way, we seek to detect unexpected phenomena of transculturation, that are affected by an emerging state of new experiences –which we can critically described as “romantic”– in a period of Argentine and Uruguayan cultural history considered predominantly Neoclassical. By looking for transformations in sensibility –changes in ideas and concepts, but also in emotions, beliefs, values, and perceptions that are not necessarily defined or rationalized at the moment they are experienced– we can explore how contact with British culture prepared the sociocultural setting of the Río de la Plata for the assimilation of Romantic sensibility at a time prior to its appearance as a literary movement.


Daniela Paolini is a doctoral candidate at the Universidad de Buenos Aires working on cultural encounters between the Río de la Plata area and Great Britain during Britain’s Romantic Period. Currently, she also teaches 19th century Argentine Literature at this university and, as a doctoral fellow, she develops her research at the Instituto de Literatura Hispanoamericana. She has published an article on Mariano Moreno’s biography in Cuadernos de Ilustración y Romanticismo and a chapter in a book on Gothic Fiction in Argentine Literature, both in open access.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia.

Featured Image: La Reconquista de Buenos Aires (1909) by Charles Fouqueray. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Think Piece

Listening to Geese: The Non-Human, Art, and The Possibilities of Global Thought (Part I)

By Nina Fouilloux

One of the most prevalent issues in Canada today, that has dominated media coverage, the Supreme Court, scholarship, and activism, is the concession of land in Canada to its Indigenous peoples. Countless court cases have been held over decades, where judges and Indigenous advocates are left to interpret the vague land claims in Canadian law. Although many successes have been achieved, notably the creation of section 35 in the Constitution Act which grants Indigenous peoples land claims, the more court cases arise, the more the court is left to interpret what exactly these land claims entail: R. v. Sioui (1990) left the court wondering whether or not land agreements made in the eighteenth century were still valid in contemporary times, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997) left judges debating whether or not oral history could be used as evidence for a land claim, and Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014) highlighted whether a land claim required regular occupation of the land in question. This large disconnect between what the law addresses and what cases are actually being brought forward is emblematic of the competing theories at stake when it comes to managing land in Canada: there is Indigenous land theory, which has been given little to no authority for centuries, and Euro-Canadian theory, which has dominated and structured all of Canada since its colonization period. Reconciling these theories has proven to be a highly emotional and contentious affair, worsening national division, and echoing issues of land, belonging and borders across Turtle Island and the world. What I propose in this study is a mediation to this debate, an encouragement to broaden our use of theory, and a uniquely Canadian solution: listening to geese.

We all have memories of them, whether it be getting pecked in the park or discovering a flock in a corner of the Earth you never thought possible, every Canadian remembers looking up at the sky in bewilderment at a large “V” formation, with its sporadic loud cackle drifting away in the wind. The beaver may be the national animal of Canada, and the polar bear may be its rarest sight, but the Canadian goose is truly Canada’s national symbol. My mother used to point to them in the sky when I was young and cup her hands to yell: “You’re flying the wrong way, Mexico is that way!”. Despite her comedic attempts, the geese were most likely flying the right way. In fact, geese have a strict migratory pattern determined by the seasons: in colder months, they fly down south to escape the chill and find food, and in warmer months, they fly back north to reproduce. Due to this, Canadian geese can be found in most parts of North America and have a unique reputation for not respecting boundaries: geese are often considered pests for nesting on private properties like golf courses and will even be culled in areas where they are deemed unwanted. Despite this, the geese do not cease; they are not interested in performing border politics, they cannot differentiate private property from public, and they interact differently with land than most humans do.

In response to the debate mentioned above and the theoretical limitations that exist, I will attempt to demonstrate how considering an undervalued theoretical angle: that of the non-human, can help broaden our use of theory to find solutions to global and complex issues. On top of this, I will vow for the use of creative art in helping provide theoretical framework in which to conceptualize global theory. In relying on the framework set out by researcher Thom van Dooren on human and non-human relationships, this study will find that theorizing the movement and behavior of Canadian geese allows for the exploration of concepts related to land, such as borders and private property, in a broader way that creates a dialectical process between the human and non-human, which in turn, participates in the creation of a more holistic approach to theory.

Known for his pioneering research on crows around the world, Professor Thom van Dooren is an advocate of “field philosophy”, a type of philosophy which emphasizes a hands-on approach to theorizing the world, a method which van Dooren utilizes heavily in his study of the non-human. It is out of this that van Dooren elaborates his theory on “multispecies ethics” which operates on the basis that it is possible to live in harmony with other species when considering different world views around an issue, for example, climate change and its effects on humans and crows. Therefore, in studying different crow groups around the world, van Dooren was able to create a “two-species ethics” for how crows and humans can interact with their environment; he does so by outlining how each group interacts differently or similarly with concepts such as hope, community, and sacrifice. The main aspect of van Dooren’s research that is relevant to us is his push to “think with others”, which he describes as a “philosophy that is engaged and committed, interdisciplinary and experimental, grounded in collaboratively imagining, understanding, and crafting better possibilities for life.” It is within this push to “think with others” that I propose to “listen to geese”. Listening to geese is similar to thinking with crows: it does not entail extracting how the non-human thinks about an issue and then attempting to respond in that exact same way, but rather it is about broadening our philosophical landscape, collecting data from different sources in order to find solutions that cater to a larger group. Therefore, the first concept Canadian geese and their interactions with land allows us to reflect on in that of borders.

For Canadian geese, borders are determined by physiological changes in their bodies, not by politics. Studies in goose migration find that there are several physiological reactions that make geese know when and where to migrate, including sun positioning, olfactory stimuli, and magnetoception. All of these methods give Canadian geese somewhat of an internal compass, but it remains difficult for scientists to explain exactly why geese know where to return to the same places every year. Nonetheless, since geese must travel and follow their internal signal to ensure their survival, they naturally cross borders without question: geese can be found all over Canada, the United States and in northern Mexico. Beyond North America, the geese have been introduced in Europe in countries such as the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden, but also in places such as New Zealand, Chile, and Japan. It is this seeming boundlessness and global citizenship that has made the goose a symbol of freedom and a sort of challenge to the idea of nationally constructed borders. Here, we see the idea of borders themselves as challenged by the goose’s movement: they cannot respect politically determined borders as they simply do not see them and cannot respect them at the risk of their livelihood. Thus, by considering that the non-human, in this case, geese, do not see borders and thus cannot follow border politics adequately, we are then capable of putting the notion of borders into question and considering their fluidity and potential to change, as well as the potential for territory to be shared throughout different seasons and between different species and people. However, goose theory can go much further.

Another concept that Canadian geese compel us to think about in relation to land is that of “private property”, notably due to the fact that geese are considered pests when they are on “human property”. In fact, in areas where they are considered pests, hunting will be increased. In New Zealand in 2011, farmers who deemed Canadian geese as damaging to their crops successfully lobbied the government in order to have the geese be considered as abundant hunting game, putting them on the same scale as sparrows and pigeons, considerably increasing their risk of being killed. On the other hand, in 2018, the West Essex Golf Club in England, employed hunters in order to control the number of Canadian geese on their courses which they deemed got in the way of player’s shot’s. If we consider the point made earlier, that geese do not perform borders like we do, it is easy to see how, when putting the non-human and human in relation to each other, some ideas, here, that of private property, simply cannot coexist, compelling us to remember that the concept itself is a Western European construct that is not necessarily incontestable.

On top of these lessons which rely mostly on the freedom of the goose’s movement, there are many we can learn from their compromise as well. In fact, despite its seaming boundlessness, the Canada goose does know the “here” from the “there”: even if it does not understand crossing borders in the way we do, it still physiologically recognizes when it is in breeding grounds versus its feeding grounds, in some way meaning it can conceptualize borders similarly to how humans do. Thus, the Canada goose’s unconditional defiance of borders might actually not be much to romanticize. In fact, it has been shown that border walls, such as the U.S. – Mexico border can confuse Canadian geese during their migration, due to things like noise and light pollution, making them unable to migrate adequately, therefore putting their populations at risk. Similarly, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl has actually been shown to not be able to cross the U.S. – Mexico border walls, thus affecting its livelihood. Here, we see the emergence of an interesting dialectic between the human and non-human: it is not just that we as humans must “listen to geese” in order to find inter-human solutions, but that we must also create interspecies dialogue in order to mediate the negative effects that inter-human debates have on animals. Essentially, this requires reflecting on the concept of coexistence, something van Dooren places at the center of his multispecies ethics. Thus, when considering land and borders, it is relevant to explore what these concepts mean to all species involved. In doing this, dialogue on the need to reevaluate the ethos of borders can be created to mediate land debates in Canada. Moreover, this type of dialogue can go beyond the idea of borders and private property but can perhaps also allow for the revaluation of concepts such as land value, tradition, and community, which affects Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, but also the non-human.

When it comes to the land debate in Canada and similar debates around the world, there is no catch-all solution: Canadian geese themselves are not the answer, and exclusively theorizing the non-human is not the theoretical push needed to breach the limitations presented by the land debate. However, by listening to geese, we can remember to think, because in doing so, one can deconstruct ideas such as that of borders, challenge them, meditate on their meaning, which in turn, has the potential to change in order to promote harmony. It is this reevaluation of borders, through the lens of something that views them drastically differently than we do and is affected by them differently, that will help us enrich our global thought.  

Theorizing the non-human to discuss concepts of land may be novel, but in some ways, this theorization has already been occurring for decades in the works of Canadian artists, who’s creations are rarely ever considered as intellectual material with the potential to participate in the creation of theory. Part II will discuss how artists have been “listening to geese” for centuries and how art can pose as valued theoretical material.


Nina Fouilloux is a MA student at the University of St Andrews in Global Social and Political Thought. Her primary research interests revolve around Canadian politics and Indigenous studies, specifically Indigenous political thought and intellectual history, reconciliation, and decolonization. She holds a BA from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with a double major in Political Science and Art History.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Geese Family in Dowtown Toronto, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Think Piece

In Defense of Vanilla: Decolonizing a Historical Metaphor

By Ulrike Schaper

What can metaphors tell us about historical analysis? Why is it important to keep in mind the conceptual history of certain terms? And what has vanilla got to do with it? In his recent book Sex, France and Arab Men 1962-1967, Todd Shepard introduces the metaphor of ‘vanilla histories of the West’ to criticize histories that “erase the importance of people of color” and “ignore or ghettoize” their voices. Drawing on the US-American association of the term ‘vanilla’ with conventional sex, Shepard also argues against ‘vanilla histories of sex’ that “pretend that its multiple valences and diverse forms are best ignored” (16). In doing so, Shepard refers to two colloquial usages of vanilla as an adjective, one meaning “sexually conventional,” the other “racially white.” A term loaded with racialized and sexual connotations, vanilla history points to potentially productive overlaps and interrelations between race and sexuality.

Thus ‘vanilla’ is frequently used as a label to criticize historical research that omits people of color and non-normative sex as well as their intersections. In doing so, vanilla histories ignore the significance of race for sexual politics and desire. Distancing herself from vanilla histories, in Insurgent Intimacies, Chelsea Schields explores precisely this intersection of sex, race and politics, when she examines the significance of sexual politics for anti-racist activism of Antillean leftists in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles in the 1960s and 1970s. Analyzing decolonizing struggles through the lens of sexual politics, Schields attempts to reconceive the “substance and geography of the sexual revolution.” She relates her approach to a larger project of overcoming vanilla histories: histories with a “white cast of characters” (99) that were exclusively centered around Europe and the US. 

Similarly, in 2021, Schields organized the panel Beyond Vanilla History that assembled perspectives on both non-heteronormative sex and non-white and (post)-colonial contexts and actors. Furthermore, in a roundtable discussion, Shepard’s book was acknowledged for foregrounding the close connection between sex and politics. The success of this endeavor was linked to a peculiar use of the term ‘vanilla histories’ which provocatively dwelled on the multi-dimensional connotations of the metaphor ‘vanilla’ and the political fantasies it congealed.

The term vanilla history as it is currently used therefore provides a strong and multi-faceted image in which racial and sex-related associations intersect. However, I argue that it is not enough to use its imaginative implications that link race and sex. We also have to critically reflect, historicize, and expose the images this term evokes in order to not perpetuate its problematic meanings. If we want to take the metaphor of vanilla serious, we have to take a closer look. Before delving into a new reading of vanilla histories, I will illustrate some of the problematic implications the term vanilla histories in its current usage holds. I argue that the term fails to give credit to the complicated history of vanilla—both the spice and its metaphor—and even helps to consolidate colonial and racist ideas.

My reflection on this metaphor started with a confusion. A fan of vanilla flavor, I was struck that a spice with such intensity of taste became a label for boringness, normality, and “lacking distinction.” I am not alone in stumbling over this paradox which is usually explained with reference to vanilla being the most basic ice cream flavor by the 1950s. In Vanilla. The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance, Patricia Rain, too, argues that ice cream was the most common vanilla product once the spice became widely available. Because vanilla contained no other ingredients and had a subtle taste and color, it became synonymous with plain and common. Rain traces this use of vanilla from the aviation industry in the 1940s to the clothing industry in the 1950-60s. She only vaguely alludes to the appropriation of the term in queer and BDSM movements. In the 1970s, especially in the US gay movement, vanilla came to refer to conventional, particularly non BDSM sex. 

Bruce Rodger’s dictionary of gay slang, Gay Talk. Formerly entitled The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon, lists vanilla as non SM (184) or “rigid, conforming, goody-goody” (205). This usage of the term, is however, important for Shepard’s coining of the term vanilla histories of sex. I argue that Shepard’s idea of vanilla histories is Anglo-centric, or even US-centric, as it relies on the already metaphorical use in the English language the—association of vanilla with whiteness as well as conventional/non BDSM—without exposing, the extent to which the concept of vanilla histories is embedded in this cultural context.

If we label histories of the West as ‘vanilla’ that omit people of color the term serves as a metaphor for whiteness. But if ‘vanilla’ symbolizes all-white histories of the West, its antithesis is lingering just around the corner: chocolate. In Chocolate and Blackness. A Cultural History, Silke Hackenesch illuminated the often troubling entanglements between  the two. Following cocoa production and its links to slavery and colonialism and unveiling how tightly chocolate and Blackness were linked in advertising and popular culture she shows how chocolate has been used as a metaphor for the racialization and eroticization of Blackness.

Bearing in mind this history, I wonder if the term vanilla does not undermine the attempt to take people of color as historical actors seriously. If the term vanilla history marks a hegemonic white perspective which erases the views and actions of people of color, does this not implicitly associate these alternative narratives with ‘chocolate,’ thus burdening histories beyond vanilla with racist imagery?

Even more importantly, and quite ironically, the term ‘vanilla’ undermines the attempt to achieve more diverse, inclusive and decolonized narratives. We need histories that include people of color with an openness to how that inclusion changes our perceptions of developments that are usually imagined—at least implicitly—as white. Striving for such histories is part of a broader attempt to make marginalized voices heard and ongoing repercussions of colonialism visible; an attempt which draws on discussion within post-colonial theory and black studies. 

In this vein, I value Shepard’s marvellous contribution to this endeavor as he systematically reconsiders the role of Arab men in the French sexual revolution. “Against (French) vanilla history” (14), he weaves together histories of migration and sexuality. However, I do not think the term ‘vanilla history of the West’ is wisely chosen to label the antithesis of what Shepard and others aim for. Nor does it help the political agenda to go beyond white histories.

After all, the vanilla spice—the referent behind the metaphor—has in fact a long and complex colonial history that is anything but white. Obtained from the pods of the vanilla plant (vanilla planifolia), which originated in Mexico, the spice was and still is mostly cultivated in areas (formerly) colonized by European powers. In New Noir. Race identity, and Diaspora in Black Suburbia, Orly Clerge connects the erasure of Black people from history with the history of vanilla. 

Edmond Albius, inventor of a technique for hand pollination of the vanilla plant

In 1841, Edmond Albius, a young enslaved Black man, discovered the pollination technique for cultivating the vanilla plant in the French colony Réunion. This revolutionary discovery—which enabled the cultivation of vanilla outside of Mexico—was soon denied by a slave owner in the region who falsely claimed he had invented the technique. For Clerge, this erasure of Albius’s achievement from history resonates with the twisted image of vanilla representing whiteness in US-American culture; twisted not least, because vanilla, a dark brown spice that used to be called ‘black flower’ is now perceived as white (163). Associations of vanilla with whiteness are fueled by the fact that vanilla flavored products often use cheaper synthetically produced white colored vanillin instead of natural vanilla.

The fact that vanilla represents whiteness goes back to the erasure of its own colonial history and the Black history of its cultivation. Historians that use the term ‘vanilla history’ usually seem not to be aware of these erasures when criticizing vanilla histories. They rather build on and replicate highly problematic associations of vanilla with whiteness when they use it as a label for the kind of history that needs to be overcome.

In its current use, vanilla histories of the West represent the exclusion of everything vanilla might stand for: the Mexican origin of the vanilla plant, Edmond Albius’ contributions to the colonial history of vanilla cultivation, and the discursive processes in which vanilla came to represent whiteness in American culture. The term thus undermines the attempt to make visible, acknowledge, and reintegrate people of color into histories of the West.

Finally, the term vanilla histories is problematic, if it is taken as a metaphor that refers to vanilla literally rather than in its already cultural embedded meaning. When Clerge points to the color paradox of a dark brown spice representing whiteness, she refers to vanilla as a spice rather than a metaphor for white/conventional. Describing actual colors when talking about social categories comes with the price of buying into racist ascriptions of skin color to a visible sign of race. This ascription, however, is a consequence not the origin of racist categories. In Desiring Whiteness. A Lacanian Analysis of Race, Kaplana Seshadri-Crooks argues that the cultural order precedes the racial differences that we see. Race, for her, is thus a regime of looking, a practice of visibility. She argues that we “believe in the factuality of difference in order to see it” (5).

However, even if the color paradox is set aside, the metaphor of vanilla history runs counter to the culinary logic of the spice. In a pudding made with natural vanilla, a small amount of pulp, originating from and being cultivated in socially non-white contexts, gives the pudding its particular vanilla taste. Culinary speaking, one might hence argue, that it is precisely the non-white minority-ingredient that defines the dish’s taste as ‘vanilla.’

Instead of using ‘vanilla’ as the epitome of an all-white history, I therefore propose to reverse and decolonize the metaphor. Vanilla histories, in this understanding, could be histories that draw their attention to agents of color or from (post-)colonial contexts that shaped and defined—or flavored—processes usually narrated as white histories. Such a usage of the term would acknowledge the colonial and Black history of the spice while also commemorating the attempts of its erasure. Vanilla histories in this sense would aim to reveal the often neglected Black and colonial dimensions of their own stories. 

Quinn Slobodian’s Foreign Front could in this sense count as a vanilla history, as it traces the importance of African, Asian, and Latin-American students within the emergence of the West-German students’ movement. It makes visible their contributions to this movement, usually narrated as being driven by white actors alone. Bearing in mind that vanilla is considered an aphrodisiac, and that etymologically, the term vanilla is related to the term vagina, an alternative usage of vanilla history would not even lose the ability to point to the complex intersections of race and sex. Using vanilla history in such an affirmative way contradicts a long-standing and seemingly self-evident metaphorical use of the term vanilla as either white or conventional. Why should that stop us from starting to use it differently?


Ulrike Schaper is Junior Professor of Modern History at the Free University of Berlin. Her research focuses on the global history of Germany in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is currently working on debates in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s that dealt with sex tourism and marriage migration. She has worked extensively on German colonialism and received her Ph.D. in 2010 with a study on law and jurisdiction in Cameroon, published in 2012 as Koloniale Verhandlungen – Gerichtsbarkeit, Verwaltung und Herrschaft in Kamerun 1884-1916 by Campus Verlag. 

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Vanilla plant. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.