During her keynote address, Professor of Chinese Literature at Northwestern University Paola Zamperini expressed that engaging in conversations of gender and sexuality are important for granting oppressed persons the language to resist exploitation.
In an effort to join forces, Assistant Professor of Classics Hilary Lehmann and Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Otilia Milutin teamed up to prompt a discussion about the roles of gender and sexuality in ancient Greece, Rome and Japan, particularly noting how they overlap. The colloquium, titled ‘Gaia and Genji: Gender and Sexuality in the East and West,’ took place on Oct. 6 and 7 and covered topics such as the creation of gender, masculinity and the feminine identity through different cultural lenses.
While conversing during orientation week, Lehmann and Milutin noticed similaries in themes in their fields of study and took these realizations as opportunity for a collaborative effort. Milutin mentioned how, when teaching Japanese mythology, she often points to examples of Greek mythology that may be more well known. Lehmann noted sexuality between older men and younger boys as another point of connection between the cultures.
“I didn’t realize that institutional pederasty was such a big deal in samurai culture, because that’s a major aspect of classical Greek culture,” Lehmann said. “So that was really what sparked the thought that we have to do something with this.”
Milutin hopes that the colloquium will give rise to the idea that the Japan’s identity lies separate from the rest of Europe and Asia, and that the joint presentation will establish an idea of equality among different cultures.
“Coming from Asian Studies, we’ve always had to deal with that problem of sort of starting with European research. I think it’s a really good step to know that the two can work in conjunction and not just subordinate one to the other,” Milutin said.
In addition to establishing the East and West as their own, rather than counterparts of each other, Lehmann hopes the panels will challenge conservative ideas of gender and sexuality. She feels that, while some are committed to rigid roles of gender and sexuality that they believe have always been in place, they may not be aware of different ideas across time and cultures.
“I’m aware that there are people that look to classics, like Greece and Rome as being really conservative and white, and male,” Lehmann said. “For a conservative person to look to the Greeks as role models, I think they should know that what they’re actually looking up to are predominantly homosexual relationships.”
During the keynote address, Zamperini focused on Chinese novel of the Ming Dynasty Jin Ping Mei which covers themes of sexual violence, identity and feminine virtue. The plot follows a Chinese woman, Pan Jinlian, who is sold into marriage to a dwarf she later murders. The novel contains explicit themes of sexuality with emphasis on the fetishization of foot binding and the shoes worn by women with bound feet. The shoes, Zamperini noted, are emphasized throughout the novel, representing the source of feminine identity and virtue.
“There’s always a point [in the novel] where bound feet are mentioned . . . Pan Jinlian’s red shoes are the marker of her identity,” Zamperini said during her address.
Several of the attendees had some background in Greek or Japanese culture, many of them having taken or currently taking courses in the fields taught by Milutin or Lehmann. Even with their background, students expressed that much of the information presented in the panels had been previously unexplored by them.
“[The panels] are really interesting, honestly. I’m learning a lot. I knew a little about the Ancient Japanese culture, but barely anything at all about the Ancient Greek culture even though I’m like really into mythology. So it’s interesting to see the comparisons that I never even knew about,” junior Lin Friedberg said.
Lehmann hopes that the event sparks other faculty members to consider interdisciplinary work with other faculty. She is considering more events like this and is looking forward to collaborating with other faculty members, specifically in the science fields. She hopes that this discussion instigates a spirit of collaboration on campus.
“I want people to walk away knowing that the world is so much bigger than they thought it was,” Lehmann said.