Category Archives: cultural anthropology

Cillini: Infant Burial Practices in Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Inspired by my intense desire to hop a plane back to Ireland today, I decided to share this bit of scholarly work about a fascinating topic in the anthropology/archaeology of Ireland. I wrote this a few semesters ago and became fascinated by the topic of infant burial practices in Ireland. On my trip to the old sod in January, I managed to ask a few nice locals whether they knew about any cillini nearby–having read so much about this topic I was eager to visit one. The two older gentlemen I asked were aware of these sites but emphasized that cillini were a part of Ireland’s past–the sites they knew of had all been grown over by brush. One emphasized that all souls in Ireland were offered a “proper church burial” these days. I felt like one of these men was embarrassed that I had asked and didn’t press him further. However, I emphasize that this essay is about historical burial practices. If you want to find out about contemporary infant burials in Ireland, see Garattini (2007), cited below.


Infant Burial Practices in Ireland

Across Ireland, archaeological sites of human burial have been found inside of old abandoned churches, in prehistoric megalithic tombs or monuments, against boundary walls or ditches, on the shores of lakes or oceans, and on the north side of Catholic churchyards. These sites are colloquially called cillini, or children’s burial grounds, and have been identified through oral histories as the place where unbaptized infants have been put to rest. Common understandings of cillini emphasize the importance of Catholic doctrine about the afterlife to explain the proliferation of these sites across Ireland.

The heavy influence of the Catholic Church on culture and social life in Ireland forbids infants who die before receiving baptism from being buried in Catholic Church yards or traditional cemeteries. Catholic doctrine has changed over the years to approach this difficult subject. Originally, St. Augustine of Hippo stated that “the souls of unbaptized infants were condemned to hell because of their Original Sin” (Murphy 2011: p. 410). This ideology was especially harsh on the Irish culture, which placed such importance on Catholic doctrine about the afterlife. Parents who lost children before they could be baptized often felt a deep sense of personal shame and fear about the idea of their lost newborns perishing in Hell for eternity. St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval church changed St. Augustine’s strict doctrine by creating the concept of Limbo, which assured that while unbaptized infants would not be going to heaven, they would not suffer in hell for eternity either.

There is very little evidence that cillini were used before the 17th century in Ireland. Murphy (2011) writes that from 1966 to 2004, sixteen cillini sites in Ireland were excavated, and dating evidence proved that these sites demonstrated that they began to be used in the post-medieval period (p. 410). Therefore, cillini can be specifically tied to Catholic teachings. It is also worthy to note that in areas of Ireland where the Protestant Church of Ireland had many followers, cillini are less prominent. This is because the Protestant Church held less strict teachings about unbaptized infants, allowing for a “modified form of burial service for unbaptized infants of tender age, the offspring of Christian parents” (Murphy 2011: p. 411).

It is a commonly held opinion that while cillini were a reaction to Catholic doctrine, they also reflected the secretive and shameful nature of the loss of an infant in Irish culture. Finlay (2000) has written that the exclusionary nature of sites chosen for cillini reflects the “ambiguous category of the dead infant” and the “liminal state of the infant soul” (p. 408). Finlay (2000) writes of cillini: “Paradoxically, cillini are a visible, but yet concealed presence in the landscape. This ambivalent state between the known purpose and function of these sites…is mirrored in the frequently marginal and liminal locations in field corners, by roadsides as well as in abandoned monuments and disused buildings” (p. 419). Murphy (2011) argues against this hypothesis, claiming that connecting cillini with liminality and ambiguity is too simplistic of a conclusion that ignores the agency of grieving parents who used cillini to bury their unbaptized dead infants.

Murphy (2011) writes that the classic analysis of cillini as liminal and the conception of dead infants as marginal pieces of Irish family life ignores the presence of women and their lived experience of grief. Murphy (2011) writes that this popular notion reflects a “phallocentric nature of knowledge” that exists across the disciplines which very often ignores the experience of women (p. 411). Murphy challenges a simplistic reading of Irish infant burial practices that looks only to big institution like the Church for explanations of human behaviors and looks to the more complex patterns of behavior and emotion that were very real on an individual level for women and mothers. In her study of Irish oral tradition and folklore that describes aspects of women’s experiences with pregnancy and childbirth, Fionnuala Nic Suibhne (1992) states:

…even though there seems to have been an acceptance of the Church’s teaching…insofar as people believes the souls of unbaptized children went to Limbo, and insofar as they buried such children in unconsecrated ground, there often appears to have been a strongly felt respect and affection for unbaptized children in the account of many women. (p. 69)

Murphy urges readers to consider infant burial practices in Ireland as something that does not merely reflect the important influence of Church doctrine, but also as a practice that illuminates how Irish families interpreted and acted in response to that doctrine.

Murphy (2011) has recorded archeological evidence that points to cillini as sites for active remembrance of lost infants rather than simply liminal sites where the bodies of those infants went to be hidden and forgotten. Murphy (2011) is again arguing against Finlay (2000), who stated: “The simplicity and frequent absence of grave-markers serves to emphasize the anonymity of the infants and individuals interred within, turning the sites into passive memorials rather than places of active remembrance” (p. 419). Murphy cites numerous studies (Crombie 1990; Dennehy 1997; Nolan 2006) that have connected material topographic features with infant burials. Physical features like small stone markers or physical demarcation of the graves of infants in Ireland show that parents or kin did make an effort to mark the site of burial of their infants.

Murphy (2011) also urged readers to recognize that most families in Ireland in the post-medieval era would not have been able to afford elaborate headstones or burial markers for any family members, let alone stillborn infants. She writes that wooden or iron crosses have been seen across Ireland as grave markers for individuals of any age and may have been used for infants who were buried outside of formal graveyards as well. These materials do not hold up in the archeological record as well as stone and may have been lost, moved, or stolen. Therefore, the absence of material culture at infant burial sites like a cillin does not necessarily prove the liminal nature of these individuals or their burials.

Murphy (2011) also notes that the discovery of white quartz in unconsecrated infant graves suggests a more complex understanding of cillini as sites for active mourning and familial remembrance. Archaeologists (Crombie 1990; Dennehy 1997) have noted that small pieces of white quartz (sometimes alongside smooth sea pebbles) were often recovered from enclosed infant graves or found in large quantities among larger cillini sites. Crombie (1997) notes that white quartz, seashells, and sea pebbles have been used for decorative purposes since prehistory (p. 27). Crombie (1997) suggests that, depending on the historical context, white quartz may have symbolized a merging of traditional Irish Celtic mythology and Catholicism. In both contexts, white symbolizes purity, and white quartz has specifically been used for purifying or healing purposes. Murphy (2011) argues that the use of white quartz on the burial sites of unbaptized infants could symbolize a desire to bring religious or spiritual meaning to the cillini.

Murphy (2011) challenges another myth that is often associated with cillini and their popular image as a secretive, marginal site for liminal individuals. It is often stated that the burial of unbaptized children took place secretly, at night, and was performed by the father or a male relative of the infant only. Family and kin (according to popular understandings of cillini) were not expected to attend the burial or to acknowledge or mourn the infant at all. Murphy (2011) writes that these practices may have been “reserved for the burial of an illegitimate child or an early miscarriage” and cites oral history of cillini which present evidence for public, daytime burials (p. 424).

The absence of women from the burial of their dead infants may have other explanatory factors. Murphy (2011) writes that their absence may simply be connected to general rituals and practices regarding childbirth at that time (p. 424). Women were generally expected to practice a “laying in” period after giving birth. Nic Suibhne (1992) writes that this period of confinement could last anywhere from 9 days to two weeks (p. 21).  In some areas, they could not leave the house until being “churched” or blessed, by a Priest. Murphy (2011) concludes that even following a live birth, a mother would often not be expected to attend her child’s baptism (p. 424). She also stresses that it should also be remembered that the ability to give birth was considered a sacred duty of a wife, so besides intense grief, a mother who had lost an infant would have felt a sense of shame and failure (Murphy 2011: p. 425).

Dennehy and Lynch (2001) also challenge some of the more simplistic anthropological understandings of cillini as merely “children’s burial grounds”. When conducting test excavations at an abandoned church site called Killalee, which was assumed to have no human remains (because the church did not have a formal cemetery), Dennehy and Lynch (2001) found twenty-three graves containing human remains. Of the four graves that were wholly analyzed, two infants of less than six months old were found. Upon this finding, Dennehy and Lynch (2001) assumed they had happened upon a cillin. However, when the next two skeletons were analyzed, they were found to be two adults: an adult female of undetermined age and a middle-aged adult of undetermined sex.

While a later analysis of the incomplete human remains showed that the site represented a bias toward burials of children, Dennehy and Lynch (2001) were puzzled by their finding of adult skeletons (p. 22). They also found many remains of older children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old. Dennehy and Lynch (2001) write, “The presence of older children and adults should not hinder the interpretation of this site as a cillin” (p.22). They emphasize that cillini, though named after the infants they so often contain, were very often used for other categories of people who were not deemed fit for a proper Catholic burial. Other archaeologists have recorded that suicides, strangers or foreigners, shipwrecked sailors, criminals, and murderers and their victims are also found in cillini across Ireland alongside unbaptized infants.

The adult female skeleton excavated at the Killalee site by Dennehy and Lynch (2001) was found buried with two coins and a porcelain bead. The authors write that the “inclusion of grave-goods went against Christian belief, with its particular abhorrence of the placement of coins in graves” (p. 23). The presence of these coins found under the hip of the skeleton implies that she was buried fully clothed. Dennehy and Lynch (2001) write that “criminals and victims of disease or suicide were not accorded traditional burial rites and were often buried fully clothed” (p. 23). By carefully analyzing the material culture existing at sites of unconsecrated burial, archaeologists are able to better analyze social and cultural context of mortuary practices. We see that cillini were not simply sites for the burial of unbaptized infants, but complex community sites where the religious, moral, and social significance of dead human bodies were interrogated and created.

Murphy’s (2011) arguments against a simple understanding of cillini as marginal sites for the secretive burial of marginalized individuals also speak to broader arguments about the conceptions of infants and children in history. McKerr, Murphy and Donnelly (2009) write that while in modern life, children are seen as the “primary focus of parental concerns,” there is a belief held by some that prior to the eighteenth century, parents did not value their children as individual people (p. 111). McKerr, Murphy, and Donnelly (2009) write that this “indifference hypothesis,” which supposes that the high mortality rates among children made emotional investment in one’s offspring undesirable, is largely connected to the work of Phillippe Aries in his book Centuries of Childhood (1973) (p.111).

Murphy (2011) notes that many anthropologists have taken issue with twentieth century historian’s views that parents in the past did not love their children as much as parents today and mourn them just as much when they died. She cites the work of Linda Pollock, (1983) who criticized earlier historians for their biased sources and publishes oral and written history accounts which show that “most parents were highly anxious and upset by the ill-health of a child—the high rate of infant mortality would appear to have only intensified this anxiety” (Murphy 2011: p. 414). Murphy cites the words of a mother writing in 1893 who, upon hearing that her friend had lost her young infant to scarlet fever, wrote “I think there must be no heartache like that of losing a child—for lover’s love, children’s love, husband’s love, and none of them so deep and high as mother’s love” (pg. 414). Murphy uses these sources to argue against the “indifference hypothesis” and argue that the parents of dead infants experienced grief, loss, and mourning, and would have used the cillini where their children were laid to rest as a site for remembrance and mourning.

Lally and Arden (2008) write that “few archaeologists have specifically considered how infant bodies were perceived and constituted in the past” and that this lack of inquiry about the concept of the infant body is based on a reliance “on the modern humanist biological model to explain social constitutions of the body…” (p. 65). Bodies are not only biological but are constructed at the intersection of the biological, social, and material world. These authors challenge simplistic readings of infant burial practices and urge archaeologists to consider the specific social and material meanings of infant internments.

Works Cited

Crawford, S. (2000). “Children, grave goods and social status in Early Anglo-Saxon England” in Joanna Sofaer Derevenski (Eds.), Children and Material Culture (pp 169-179). London: Routledge.

Crombie, D. (1990). Children’s burial grounds in County Galway. Unpublished Master’s thesis, National University of Ireland, Galway.

Dennehy, E.A. (1997) The cellunaigh of County Kerry: an archaeological perspective. Unpublished Master’s thesis, University College Cork

Dennehy, E.A. and L. G. Lynch (2001). Unearthed secrets: a clandestine burial-ground. Archaeology Ireland, 15(4), 20-23.

Finlay, N. (2000). Outside of life: traditions of infant burial in Ireland from cillin to cist. World Archaeology. 31(3). 407-422.

Garattini, C. (2007). Creating memories: material culture and infantile death in contemporary Ireland. Mortality, 12(2), 193-206.

Hamlin, A., and C. Foley (1983). A women’s graveyard at Carrickmore, County Tyrone, and the separate burial of women. Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 46(1), 41-46.

Lally, M. and T. Arden (2008). Little artefacts: rethinking the constitution of the archaeological infant. Childhood in the Past, 1(1), 62-77

Mays, S. (2000). “The archaeology and history of infanticide, and its occurrence in earlier British populations” in Joanna Sofaer Derevenski (Eds.), Children and Material Culture (pp 180-190). London: Routledge.

McKerr, L., E. Murphy, and C. Donnelly (2009). I am not dead, but do sleep here: the representation of children in early modern burial grounds in Northern Ireland. Childhood in the Past, 2(1), 109-131.

Murphy, E.M. (2011). Children’s burial grounds in Ireland (cilliní) and parental emotions toward infant death.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 15(3), 409-428.

Mytum, H. (2006). Popular attitudes to memory, the body, and social identity: the rise of external commemoration in Britain, Ireland, and New England. Post-Medieval Archaeology, 40(1), 96-110.

Nolan, J. (2006). Excavation of a children’s burial ground in Tonybaum, Ballina, County Mayo. In O’Sullivan, J. and Stanley, M., (Eds.), Settlement, Industry, and Ritual, National Roads Authority, Dublin. 89 – 101

Turner, V.W. (1964). Betwixt and between: the liminal period in Rites de Passage. Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, 4-20.

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Hysteria: A Double Take

Editor’s Note: Sorry for the delays in posting this week. Today I am featuring an awesome guest post by Marissa. 

I wonder why it is rare in film to see women partaking in rebellious activities, rather than activities that are not rebellious whatsoever, but somehow claim to be. Hysteria, a newly released film directed by Tanya Wexler, examines the invention of the vibrator during Victorian England, and depicts female orgasms as the cure for the contrived illness of “hysteria”. Why is female sexual desire– especially the idea of a woman having an orgasm– still something that feels so taboo?  How is it that a film such as Hysteria can exist based solely on the shame surrounding the idea of a woman as a potentially sexual being, the comedic elements relying on shame-induced laughter? And lastly, why do we continue to tell the offensive and oversimplified story that all an uptight woman needs in order to feel liberated is sex?

Hysteria centers around Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy), a young and educated British fellow, who wants to innocently dedicate his life to helping others (and also make lots of money).  Granville is portrayed as a progressive/liberal character, because he believes in “modern medicine” and specifically the futuristic idea of germ theory. He favors all things modern and looks down on those he believes to be stuck in the past. The beginning of the film depicts him struggling to find someone who will bless his naïve eagerness and hire him. The only person who will give him a job is Dr. Robert Dalrymple (played by Jonathan Pryce), a “women’s doctor”. Dr. Dalrymple has two daughters, Charlotte (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Emily (played by Felicity Jones).  Charlotte is “feminist” because she is loud and reactive, while Emily is quiet, obedient and clearly missing out the exciting life that Charlotte the feminist leads.  Charlotte punches men in the face when she is angry, and Emily just doesn’t get angry.  Dr. Dalrymple treats hysteria by giving women orgasms via pitching a puppet-show-like tent around their waists. Then, while they’re lying down so they cannot see him, he rubs them off. This is all unbeknownst to the women, who are depicted as having no idea that they are even feeling sexually aroused, and furthermore may not even know that they are capable of these sensations.

A major reason that I wanted to explore this film was because I find it simultaneously troubling and fascinating how we all too often underestimate the psychological strength of medical labeling (for example when words such as “sick” or “crazy” are used to describe a person). Labels like these carry much weight, and can easily encourage the formation of intense, dominant/submissive relationships (between friends, family, doctors and patients, whoever). This film is shocking because it does not portray hysteria accurately, but attempts to make light of it.  It does not depict the pain and suffering that many women experienced during Victorian England. It does not do justice to what hysteria really was—a contrived medical diagnosis that gave men the power to oppress women, to strip them of their rights and to delegitimize the way that women felt. I argue that the film reflects how many of these misogynistic ideas have still managed to linger around. The female characters in the film are not complex individuals, and as a viewer, I wondered how they really felt about what was going on. Obviously, if we cannot acknowledge past suffering we cannot honestly move on.  The diagnosis of hysteria was never humorous, and fully worked to further sexism and the violence against female-identified bodies. Hysteria may aim to lovingly mock the past, but in reality, it winds up inadvertently displaying how little feminist and queer efforts have impacted the major film industry and society at large.  I realize that Hysteria was not meant to be a “serious” film, but the point is precisely that it is grappling with very serious topics. Although it may have intended to be a retrospective, tongue-in-cheek look at the invention of the vibrator, it fails to tell the whole story, which I also realize is generally difficult (if not impossible) to do.  The danger is that the film masks itself as feminist, telling a story pitched to female viewers, intending to give women more power by telling us to just laugh off the past. We absolutely cannot laugh off the past, especially when it comes to issues of inequality.

Hysteria uses similar logic to beauty magazines: a woman must suffer and sacrifice in order to be considered worthy. I would like to seriously question this: should we really always suffer for what we want, or even need? I’m not arguing against the concept of hard work, but I am arguing against the idea that abuse, self or culturally inflicted, is okay if there is a positive outcome. In Hysteria, Charlotte is financially dependant on her father (whom she despises), and in the end she is only satisfied when Granville gives her money so she can pursue her dream. However, in order to get Granville’s money, she had to go through hell. There are plenty of feminists who are not simply reactive—they are thoughtful, brilliant, and yes–often very angry, but for the most part (if they have the financial means to do so) rely on themselves and their support systems for their needs rather than the forces that oppress them. Why is it that there are not more movies made about women starting revolutions, loving each other, and achieving their goals without requiring the approval of men?

In Hysteria, a woman can quite literally only have an orgasm at the hands of a man (until the end when the portable vibrator is invented) and the film completely disregards women who might use their own hands to induce orgasms. Hysteria pities women who are not like Charlotte, who may actually be comfortable in their submissiveness (such as Emily). What about those women who fully embrace their positions of submission and subordination and might even enjoy it?  Are those women considered less worthy of respect? How does this film account for them, besides including a character that is a former female sex worker, and who is often the unfortunate subject of jokes?

The medical diagnosis of hysteria is not taken seriously within the film, and this creates a lack of acknowledgment that distorts the very real, very serious, and very legitimate feelings that women experienced (and still experience!). Consider the trouble that would occur if a comedic film were made depicting the logic of a group of oppressive people? It would not be funny at all! This film fails to show how women really felt (and feel), and furthermore, the ways in which patriarchy is still alive and kicking today, just in a slightly different form.

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Childhood Innocence and the Emergency Imaginary

The following academic paper is a criticism of the film Born Into Brothels (which can be watched by clicking the image above) as a form of visual ethnography.

In this paper, I will define the term emergency allochronism and explore how the child subjects of the humanitarian documentary film Born Into Brothels embody it. This film represents a semi-autoethnographic project that is complicated by traditional binaries of ethnographic representation. While anthropologists attempt to represent the lives of their subjects through ethnographic films, autoethnographic projects focus on reflexivity, allowing typically marginalized subjects to represent themselves and reverse the binaries that have historically played a part in their oppression or misrepresentation. In Born Into Brothels, director and photographer Zana Briski originally takes on the role of the anthropologist, attempting to represent the lives of the women through her own lens. However, the project expands when Briski meets the children who also live in the brothels. Briski begins teaching the children photography and asks them to take photographs of their surroundings in an attempt to “see this world through their eyes”.

The product of Briski’s autoethnographic initiative for her child subjects is twofold. First are the photographs produced by the children, which were then sold in order to help finance their educations. Second is the film itself, which chronicles Briski’s experience teaching the children photography, but also doubles as a traditional ethnographic documentary that shows the lives of the children. The film Born Into Brothels will be the focus of this paper. Though the film incorporates self-reflexive interviews with its subjects and displays the photographs taken by the children, it remains bound by the problems of traditional ethnographic films, namely, allochronism. I argue that the film fails to reverse ethnographic binaries merely because its focus on children enforces allochronistic mediations of its subjects. By “allochronistic mediations,” I mean to refer to the way the film’s stylistic and dialectical choices activate an allochronistic understanding of its subjects. Allochronism, a term coined by Johannes Fabian, refers to the tendency of anthropologists to place the subjects of anthropological discourse in a temporality other than their own. I will discuss how allochronism becomes linked to the emergency imaginary in the context of this film. I will also discuss how innocence is inherent to representations of children in anthropological discourse. I will explore the film’s reliance on visuality and how its themes of prostitution further activate ontologies of childhood by focusing of issues of gender and sexuality.

In his book “Time and the Other,” Johannes Fabian argues that in “anthropology’s temporal discourse…there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act” (Fabian, 1). He defines anthropology’s ontology of the Other as being dependent on relationships of time. Fabian calls this relationship a “denial of coevalness,” or “allochronism,” which he defines as “a persistent and systematic tendency to place referents of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (Fabian, 31). Allochronism is one of the binaries of traditional ethnographic discourse that autoethnographic and self-reflexive initiatives attempt to reverse and distort.

The temporality of the other is typically understood only in the concepts of a “present” and a “past,” where the producer of anthropological discourse exists in the present, and the referents of anthropology exist in the past. However, the “emergency imaginary” is another form of time that is often applied solely to those deemed other. The term was coined by anthropologist Craig Calhoun, who writes: “…the emergency is a sudden, unpredictable event emerging against a background of normalcy, causing suffering or danger and demanding urgent response” (Calhoun, 30). The emergency imaginary is typically evoked in humanitarian crises: anything from natural disasters to AIDS outbreaks to genocide. The emergency imaginary is a new temporality of the other, one that is not bound by the internal culture of the other, but rather by circumstances outside of the other.

How does Born Into Brothels activate the emergency imaginary when the “emergency” that the film attempts to save its subject from is not concurrent with Calhoun’s definition of emergency? The problem that the film attempts to solve is literally that children are “born into brothels”. Briski’s initiative is not attempting to save the children from something that affects them currently, but rather to prevent them from entering into a life that she believes is unsuitable for them. The goal of Briski’s project and film is not to represent her subject’s lives, but to help them remain “children” in the Western definition of the word. The film is actively engaged in maintaining the potential of its subjects. The emergency of Born Into Brothels is the impending point in time when the child subjects of the film will become completely corrupted by the life of prostitution that surrounds them.

I argue that the form of allochronism activated by the film is inherently linked to the temporality of emergency. I call this “emergency allochronism,” which points to the way that traditional ethnography speeds up time for the subjects of anthropological discourse when their surroundings are understood within the emergency imaginary. In emergency allochronism, the lives of anthropological subjects are not represented in stagnation or an ahistorical past, but in terms of a rapidly approaching, politicized future. Emergency allochronism is most likely to affect our mediations of child subjects because of the sharp contrast between innocence and corruption that is created by Western narratives of childhood.

The function of visuality in Born Into Brothels enforces the assumption of innocence on its child subjects.  In the opening credits, the camera focuses in on the eyes of children as they take in the sights of a brothel. They watch women undress, put on make-up, and stand outside the brothels, presumably soliciting sex. This moment in the beginning of the film cements visuality as an important sense for the film’s subjects. Similarly, Briski explains that her goal in working with the children became, “to teach them and to see this world through their eyes [emphasis mine]” (Born Into Brothels). Framing vision as the dominant sense allows the film to use the eyes, photography, and that which is seen to highlight or hide corruption of childhood innocence.

Briski’s desire “to see this world through their eyes” activates a humanitarian trope of childhood described by Liisa Malkki as “children as seers of truth”. Malkki writes that children are often hailed as “small humans with the capacity to see through ‘barriers’ of culture and nationality, race and class (Malkki, 67). With the assumption that the ability to see through barriers of culture is an asset, the visual focus of Born Into Brothels removes its subjects from their sociopolitical surroundings. This is exactly what the film attempts to do, for it also relies on the argument that childhood is a universal experience that should not affected by political realities. Emergency allochronism holds the threat of corruption of innocence through a politicized future over the heads of the children in Born Into Brothels. The film links children with cameras (as a visual medium) to emphasize their ability to “see truth,” and to recognize the universal childhood that they are missing out on.

Briski’s project to teach the children photography also emphasizes visual epistemologies of truth. The fact that the photographs were taken by the film’s subjects within their world assumes that the photographs reveal the reality of the subjects’ lives. The photographs taken by the children, which are shown throughout the film, act as an anchor into childhood. Because the photographs must be taken, then developed, then viewed by the children, the time that elapses before the children can view their own photographs could be the difference between their innocence and their corruption. In the film, the photographs, which naively depict friends, siblings, bedrooms, and animals, are proof that the children’s innocence has remained intact since their last roll of film. The photographs prove that they are still “seers of truth” (Malkki, 67).

When innocence becomes mandatory in considering anthropological subjects who are also children, these discourse create the ways in which children are allowed to be autonomous subjects. Erica Burman describes the way in which a focus on innocence for child subjects coerces them into passivity. Burman writes:

“Alongside the dominant cultural distribution of innocence and experience… runs a parallel discourse of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ children. Children who work are unnatural, as are children who do not live within recognizable cross-generational family units…. If the price of innocence is passivity, then the cost of resourcefully dealing with conditions of distress and deprivation is to be pathologised. Notions of knowledge and responsibility are so intertwined that we seem to find it difficult to treat children who ‘know’ as children, since their innocence has been compromised” (Burman, 244).

Burman illustrates the relationship between innocence and potentiality. I define potential as a form of active innocence. Children carry an assumed innocence, yet their potential is not inherent: is earned by avoiding compromising their innocence through knowledge.

The marriage between mediations of innocence and allochronism are described by Liisa Malkki, who writes: “The attribution of innocence to children suggests two things about innocence itself: first, that it is allochronic, somehow timeless, innocence; and second, that innocence is a form of not-knowing, of not being ‘worldly’” (Malkki, 63). In Malkki’s argument, the allochronism of innocence is not that it is located “in the past,” but that it is located in a stagnant passing of time.  Traditional allochronism assumes that children do not learn from experience, but remain innocent merely by virtue of being children. When placed in the context of the emergency imaginary, the allochronism of childhood innocence becomes threatened by a focus on the future. In Born Into Brothels, this traditional allochronism and the emergency allochronism I describe come into conflict with one another. Allochronism expects the child subjects to represent a passive innocence, where emergency allochronism becomes engaged in the active protection of potential against a rapidly approaching politicized future.

The child subjects of Born Into Brothels are aware that their innocence is part of their potential as human beings. During many interviews in the film, the children communicate to viewers that they remain mostly ignorant to the details of the prostitution that surrounds them. Reflecting on her mother, Tapasi says: “I know what she does for work and I feel bad talking about these things. Shanti explains, “In our room there is a rod and from there we close the curtain. That way we don’t see anything that’s going on.” While the threat of prostitution is the main source of corruption for the child subjects, even the knowledge of sexuality has the potential to corrupt the innocence that creates the image of an innocent child subject.

Malkki argues “from this pedestal, it is nearly impossible for actual children to act in the world as political, historical subjects” (Malkki, 79). Rather than granting the children any agency over their situation, Born Into Brothels enforces the idea that their innocence and potential must be guarded and that they can only be saved from their situation by others. Similarly, Malkki writes that while “figurations of the child and the human are putatively universal, they are in fact both culturally Western and quite Christian” (Malkki, 59). By framing the children of Born Into Brothels in the Western universalism of childhood innocence, the film erases and rejects the political and historical realities surrounding its subjects.

In the film, potentiality is almost solely focused on the girls. Erica Burman notes: “…little girls are the quintessential child victims. Femininity and childish dependence are here collapsed to evoke sympathy. This reinforces assumptions of children’s passivity, and reproduces patriarchal relations, both within and between donor and recipient countries” (Burman, 242). The female subjects of Born Into Brothels function in the way Burman describes. Their femininity is often played up in order to evoke sympathy. For example, there is an interesting moment in the film when one of the boys, Gour, begins speaking for his female friends. We see footage of Gour playfully tugging on Puja’s hair or chasing her around, while he reflects: “I like the way Puja behaves… I wish I could take Puja away from here” (Born Into Brothels). In these scenes, Gour creates both a patriarchal relationship and an almost romantic narrative between him and his female friends. In both of their functions, Gour’s reflections reproduce concepts of femininity and childish dependence for the girl subjects, emphasizing their passivity.

However, the representation of the young girls in Born Into Brothels is further complicated by the sexual nature of the threat against them.  The active struggle to maintain their potentiality is represented as futile as it faces something so inevitably corruptive. Briski narrates: “One of the girls was already married off at age eleven. Another one was forced into prostitution at age fourteen.… They have absolutely no opportunity without education”. Briski’s statement suggests that once a girl is married or becomes a prostitute, she has lost her fight against sexual corruption and can no longer be saved. The narrative created about Suchitra, who is eleven and one of Briski’s oldest students, also represents the futility of the struggle against sexual corruption. Puja says about Suchitra: “I know about her family…she has pressures on her. All the girls in Suchitra’s house are in the line…. Suchitra’s aunt will put her in the line because she’ll make money on her.” Gour also says “Suchitra’s mother is dead, but her aunt wants to send her to Bombay to work ‘in the line.’ She’s talked to me about it many times and asked me not to tell anyone.” Finally, Suchitra gets to speak for herself. Someone behind the camera asks her if she sees a solution to all of this. Suchitra hesitates and sadly answers, “No” (Born Into Brothels).

Suchitra’s dramatically framed yet simple statement embodies the passive innocence and lack of agency that is afforded to her as a subject. As a young woman being represented through emergency allochronism and being faced with the threat of sexual corruption and prostitution, Suchitra is not allowed to reflect on much else about her life. The swift movement of time that emergency allochronism creates narrows the amount of time a subject has before they are corrupted. In Born Into Brothels, this fact contributes to the lack of agency afforded to the child subjects. As the threat against them looms, the solution — which in Born Into Brothels is ‘education’—becomes the only thing worth thinking or talking about. This mediation, affected by the temporality of emergency, contributes to the failures of the film as an autoethnographic project because it does not allow its subjects to represent their own lives.

The failures of Born Into Brothels as an autoethnographic film highlight some of the prevailing tropes that exist in humanitarian narratives. Evoking the emergency imaginary is often a very political move. When it interacts with anthropological discourse of representation to create emergency allochronism, the results can be detrimental to ethical representation and self-reflexivity. Similarly, the focus on child subjects within the emergency imaginary enforces very specific understandings of childhood and innocence. I have proved how representation through these ideas failed in the case of Born Into Brothels, but we must be aware how the child subject functions politically in other forms of media, particularly when gender and sexuality play such an important role in the establishment of the problem. Child subjects function uniquely in ethnographic films, representing potentiality as well as a collective humanity. We must be wary, however, of how such representations limit agency and self-reflexivity. The connections between the assumed innocence and potential of a child and the universal threat of an emergency are harmful representations not only of children, but also of emergency situations. They assume that corruption is not reversible, and that only subjects with potential are subjects worth ‘saving’.

 Works Cited

Born Into Brothels. Dir. Briski, Zana and Ross Kauffman. 2005. Film.

Burman, Erica. Innocents Abroad: Western Fantasies of Childhood and the Iconography of Emergencies. Disasters Vol. 18 No. 3. (1994): pp. 238 – 251. Print.

Calhoun, Craig. “The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)order,” Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi, eds., Contemporary States of Emergency. The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books (2011): pp. 18 – 39. Print.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.

Malkki, Liisa. Children, Humanity, and the Infantilization of Peace. In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care. Duke University Press (2010) Print.

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Fat-Shaming Sunday

In a deviation from Slut-Shaming Sunday, today I will highlight a few terrible things that people think are okay to say about “fat” people, especially “fat” women.

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Sex-Positive Feminism 101

Many of the misconceptions about feminism come from a misconception about the sex-positive philosophy that runs through much of the third wave; a philosophy that fights against slut-shaming (see above), oversexualization, and restrictions of reproductive rights.

Sex-positivity gets a bad rap through scare-tactic reporting about teenage sexting, risky sexual behavior, and sexual education in schools. People often believe that sex-positive education encourages young people to have sex. As part of a very lucky minority that received and greatly benefitted from sex-positive sex education as a young teen, I would like to dispel some of the myths about the sex-positive movement.

YouTuber Laci Green produces the most accesible, well-researched, and overall brilliant sources for sex-positive information on the internet. Below is a video by Laci which explains what sex-positive means.


Sex-positivity is quite simple. It holds that there is really no wrong way to do human sexuality as long as all parties involved give their consent. The sex-positive movement is closely intertwined with feminism because the oppression of sexualities which fall outside the normative (white, monogamous, and heterosexual) is a major tool of the patriarchy. Sex-positivity therefore celebrates the diverse ways in which people choose to express their sexuality– including the choice to not have sex!

There is so much more to say about the sex-positive movement, but I would like to open up the floor for specific questions. What topics relating to sex-positivity or sex-positive sex education would you like to see me address in my next post? 


Filed under body image, cultural anthropology, feminism, gender, politics, reproductive rights, sexuality

Facebook Anti-Bullying Statuses and Imagining People Complexly

A little while ago I critiqued the anti-bullying statuses that are often circulated on Facebook. I got a lot of responses to that post and would like to share a little bit more about what I think should be a greater alternative to the proposal  that anti-bullying statues make. 

I found the above response to a Facebook anti-bullying status on Tumblr. The problem with these statuses is that they create certain ways in which we are allowed to bully people. These statuses suggest that bullying a pregnant teenager is not okay because she might have been raped and that is beyond her control. The problem with defining bullying situations so specifically is that is simultaneously says that is is okay to bully a pregnant teenager for “being a slut” if her own choices got her pregnant in the first place.

One of my favorite writers, John Green, often uses his books and video blogs to encourage people to imagine others complexly. For those who haven’t read John’s books, here is a good explanation of what that means:

“Literature is in the business of helping us to imagine ourselves and others more complexly, of connecting us to the ancient conversation about how to live as a person in a world full of other people… Let me tell you what is, in my opinion, the central problem of human existence: I am stuck in my body, in my consciousness, seeing out of my eyes. I am the only me I ever get to be, and so I am the only person I can imagine endlessly complexly. That’s not the problem, actually. The problem is you. You are so busy taking in your own wondrousness that you can’t be bothered to acknowledge mine.”

Rather than leaning on extreme examples suggested by anti-bullying statues in order to imagine why another person is who they are, we need to attempt imagine people complexly by looking beyond stereotypes whether they be bound by gender, sexual orientation, fashion sense, intelligence, or appearance. Literature and stories are a major tool in fighting the narrow stereotypes and beginning to imagine people complexly.

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Class, accessibility, and rebranding feminism

Captain Obvious has brought the news to us this weekend: abortion is not the cause of society’s ills and feminists are not all man-hating, childless, cold-hearted, career-minded bitches.

Today’s feminist movement has tackled so much, but one issue of supreme importance that is still being fought for is a more favorable view of feminism. Criticisms of feminism include the very important fact that it is led primarily by affluent, educated, white, cisgendered women. While movements to include men, women of color, and queer and trans persons have been gaining traction in modern feminism, I believe that one form of intersectionality- class – is too often ignored.

Feminism is stereotypically white and liberal, but it is also affluent. Feminism is lousy with privilege. Feminists are more likely to be college-educated, while the people who need feminism the most, those who are disadvantaged by working-class wages, high costs of childcare, and poor access to reproductive healthcare, are often misinformed about feminism. Breaking down the old stereotypes about bra-burning feminist is the first step in introducing feminism as a tool and an identity to the people who may be most affected by sexism, racism, heteronormativity, lack of representation, and abuses of power committed by our patriarchal systems of government and law enforcement.

This class divide within the feminist movement enforces a traditional binary within anthropology, where the educated, white, affluent person has more power, and therefore speaks on behalf of the disadvantaged person. This speaking on behalf of is a problem that contemporary anthropology tries to address by allowing the subaltern and the disenfranchised to speak for themselves. This is where modern feminism most often fails. The movement is dominated by white, educated, affluent, cisgendered women who are constantly speaking on behalf of the issues that most affect people of color, transwomen, and women in the “third world” or the global South.

One of the most important things that modern feminism can do is rebrand the movement. We need to make feminism not only acceptable, but cool, and cool from many different angles. Books like Jessica Valenti’s Full-Frontal Feminism and Julie Zeilinger’s A Little F’d Up address this issue for a very specific class and racial identity, but fail to reach out to people who may not be willing or even able to read. The ideals of feminism needs to be subliminally introduced earlier, on the Disney Channel, on reality television, in our schools, so that once young people hear what feminism is about, they won’t be automatically turned off by the image of a bra-burning, man-hating, lesbian feminist.

Important links:

Feminist class struggle by bell hooks

Enough middle-class feminism by Carrie Hamilton


Filed under cultural anthropology, feminism, gender, identity, privilege, Uncategorized

What Facebook Anti-Bullying Statuses Get Wrong

I’m sure we have all caught a glimpse of a status like while mindlessly scrolling through our Facebook feeds:

“That girl you called a slut in class today. She’s a virgin. The pregnant girl walking down the street. She got raped. The boy you called lame . He has to work every night to support his family. That girl you pushed down the other day. She’s already being abused at home. That girl you called fat. She’s starving herself. The old man you made fun of cause ugly scars. He fought for our country. The boy you made fun of for crying. His mother is dying. You think you know them . Guess what? You don’t! RE-POST if you are aqainst bullying.”

“A 15 year old girl holds her 1 year old son; people call her a slut. But no one knows she was raped at 13. People call a girl fat; no one knows she has a serious disease that causes her to be overweight. People call an old man ugly; no one knows he had a serious injury to his face while serving our country in Vietnam. Re-post this if your against bullying and stereotyping!!!! I bet none of you will post this!!!”

Statuses like these have been the standard of what many call “slacktivism,” Continue reading

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Contextualizing Boobies

Though it is (to my delight) purple this evening, the Empire State Building has been periodically pink this October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM). I am currently working on a long academic research project concerning the interacting social structures which bring breast cancer into the foreground of the public consciousness, but I’d like to take a look more simply at the contextualization of breasts within the BCAM discourse.

The Keep A Breast Campaign has manufactured and popularized these fashion accessories over the past few years. These “I Love Boobies” bracelets are problematic to me in a myriad of ways. They have become a trend with younger and younger kids– mostly among the early teenaged crowd. That alone is not call for concern, however, I wonder how many of them understand why they are wearing them. It is perhaps hopeful that these “activist bracelets,” popularized by earlier yellow Livestrong bands, promote awareness and public consciousness about a cause, but to what extent does it lull people of all ages into a false sense of helpfulness?

Many campaigns during BCAM include these small actions of charity– donating a dollar for a pink ribbon, purchasing these bracelets, or simply buying things that one would normally buy year round that are now relabeled with “pink for breast cancer”. These interactions are troublesome on both ends. First, the consumer believes that he or she has done a good deed in supporting a cause–which is not inherently negative, but again, what usefulness is there in supporting a campaign or cause that one does not understand? Secondly, the corporations which market through this rhetoric of “pink for breast cancer” often donate very small amounts of profit to various research and awareness agencies… but is this money really going to help people with breast cancer? The answer is, mostly, no.

I take serious issue with the rhetoric “we’re raising money/awareness for cancer/genocide/the poor”. Think about how often you may have heard the phrase, “We’re raising money for breast cancer!” You’re what? 

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Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Fellow bibliophiles, I’m sure you can relate to the feeling of reading a book and wondering how you were even allowed to exist on this earth without having read that book already. Some books are good, some books are great, and some books are simply essential. The works of Anne Frank, Sylvia Plath, and Frank McCourt all changed me profoundly. I last had this experience back in March when I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time. I look so fondly on the week in which I gobbled that book up– but afterward is always sadness. Where was that book when I was twelve? It might’ve given me some much-needed guidance. Why are there no other books this fabulous? I can’t even read anymore. I will just reread Francie Nolan’s story for the rest of my life and be content. I wonder if I can be a scholar of this particular book so that I can spend my life in leather armchairs getting interviewed about it for PBS documentaries…

That sort of thing.

Whenever I feel this way about a book I reflect back on this quote by the lovely Doris Lessing:

“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. ” 

I believe this is absolutely true. I read Jane Eyre at thirteen and I hated it. Despised it. I didn’t understand it. Finally, the new movie adaption that was released this past winter forced me to reconsider it. It was a glorious reread. How could I ever have hated Jane Eyre?

Most recently, this revolutionary book was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Continue reading

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