Interviews

Deviant Women: An Interview with Lauren Butterworth and Alicia Carter

Lauren Butterworth and Alicia Carter, hosts of Deviant Women podcast, discuss collaboration, the podcasting community, and the importance of women’s stories.

You can thank us later, because we’ve found your new favourite podcast. Deviant Women is created by two Australian writers, Lauren Butterworth and Alicia Carter (pronounced A-liss-ee-ah, not A-lee-sha), who are highlighting the lives and stories of extraordinary women in history and literature using the aural medium of the podcast, which is seeing a surge in popularity as well as critical and scholarly attention.

Deviant Women is a “chumcast”—a style of podcast “in which two experts or pals riff on a theme” (McHugh 105). In this case, Alicia and Lauren are both experts and pals. Alicia is currently completing her PhD in creative writing, and Lauren is an early career researcher in literary studies and creative writing. Both of them research representations of femininity in history and stories, and they also create their own representations in their fiction.

We were lucky enough to ask Lauren and Alicia about how and why they started the podcast, their strategies for functional and fun collaboration, and what they really mean when they use the term “deviant” to talk about women’s histories and representation!


Why did you start creating Deviant Women podcast?

We have shared research interests in the area of feminist revisionism, particularly representations of subversive femininity in literature.

When we did our PhDs, our creative components had some overlap, in that they both explored monstrous femininity (particularly around the body and desire!), although we approached it from different perspectives. Alicia is interested in monstrous femininity in fairy tales, myths, and folkore, and Lauren is interested in re-examining female archetypes. But we’d often have really fruitful conversations about our creative work and research, conversations about literary and mythological figures, and the ways they’ve been represented and interpreted historically and contemporarily. We always found these discussions fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable, and it was initially Lauren who, as a podcast fan, wondered if other people would want to listen to these conversations too.

The format allows us to apply our research skills outside of academia and reach a much broader audience. We get to have fun with it, and while our conversations are always founded on research and critical theory, we try quite consciously to remain accessible and entertaining, and let our sense of humour come through.

How did you find one another? How or when did you know you wanted to “invest” in each other through this collaborative-creative work? What are your criteria for choosing a collaborative partner?

We became collaborators long before Deviant Women, and even before we became friends. We both inherited roles as co-directors of a creative readings event at Flinders University and found very quickly that we not only worked very well together, but had a lot in common. We have heaps of shared interests, not only in our academic and creative pursuits, but in our general life and personalities, and so while there wasn’t a single moment when we knew we wanted to ‘invest’ in one another, we knew very early on that we worked well together and that there was a lot of potential for collaboration.

Our friendship and shared passions are foundational to how we work together, largely because this makes whatever project we’re working on never really feel like ‘work’. We trust one another and know each other well enough to play to each other’s strengths. This makes work distribution quite easy: where one of us falls short, we know the other can pick it up. Having work patterns that are similar enough that we can share goals and priorities, but different enough to balance one another, is an enormous benefit.

How do you choose which subjects to explore? What boxes does a woman need to tick to be “deviant” in the way you understand the term for the podcast?

Lauren: To me, this project is one of feminist revisionism, and as such it responds to the heart of my research interests: overcoming gender binaries in order to change the way women are portrayed in literature and cultural myths.

I’m talking about the essentialist binaries summed up by Helene Cixous in The Newly Born Woman. [1] She talks about how masculinity is associated with activity, culture, order and rationality, while femininity is associated with passivity, nature and emotion and sensibility. Historically, Western culture has further split the feminine into a polarity of light and dark, where passivity, chastity and purity mark a ‘good’ woman, and sexuality, creativity and activity mark a ‘deviant’ woman. White we’re not quite this explicitly academic in the podcast, ultimately this means we choose women who fall outside of these traditional or patriarchal expectations of femininity: those who live with agency, are creative, follow their sexual desires and demonstrate that ‘femininity’ is not a polarity of light and dark. The ‘rules’ for femininity have changed drastically over the last few decades with the rise of feminism, but ingrained cultural norms continue to be carried by women, particularly when it comes to issues of sexuality, education and employment choices.

Alicia: I think it’s that idea of the grey area that interests me. As Lauren says, ‘femininity’ is not light and dark, but a spectrum of varied roles and responses. Many of the women we discuss do conform to certain expectations of femininity. Some of them are caring and nurturing mothers or loving wives, sanctioned ‘good’ women, so they might not appear, on the surface, as particularly ‘deviant’ in a broader understanding of the term. But sometimes it doesn’t take grand or outrageous acts to buck the system. Sometimes being able to achieve the smallest victory, or finding the courage to speak up, can be a subversive act. We tend to think of women who stand out in history as ‘extraordinary’, which sets up an expectation that they are different to other women, that they stand out of the crowd for some quality the rest of us don’t possess. And yes, sometimes those qualities are a particular skill or attribute, or a cultural position or disposable income, that many of us definitely do not possess, but at the heart of it many of these women are simply women who made their own destinies. You don’t have to be ‘extraordinary’ to be subversive.

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We noticed you cover the ‘lives’ of both historical subjects and fictional characters. When you narrate their stories, does it matter if the subject is a historical figure or fictional character? Why yes/not? How so?

Lauren: We both have literary backgrounds and love folklore and mythology, so I think we felt drawn to fictional stories just as much as historical right from the beginning. In fact, the first ‘deviant’ woman I pitched to Alicia as an example for the podcast was Medea. There are feminist historical podcasts that deal exclusively with the biographies of real women, but I think it’s important to examine both historical and fictional subjects. Our cultural myths have enormous impact on the way women, particularly young girls, see themselves reflected in the world. It’s easy to be inspired by the amazing feats of historical women, or the bravery of women in our world who continue to push boundaries, but it’s important to have conversations about where our ideas about ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ womanhood come from.

From fairytales to mythology, our culture abounds with women who fall into the light/dark polarity, with stories that either put them on pedestals for their purity, or punish and demonise them. We like to consider the social contexts of their creation and dissect the limitations of their portrayals. This allows us to reexamine them as empowering figures for creating contemporary cultural mythology.

Alicia: Yeah, fiction and myth tell us as much about how we perceive femininity as women’s actuallives do. From a literary perspective, it’s often quite interesting to consider, where we can, why particular authors might reinforce or resist particular representations. In this regard, we’re not only looking at a character, but also their creator. For instance, our episode on Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Brontë’s Jane Eyre, allowed us to think about Bertha in regards to Brontë’s social and cultural world, and then to think outside of and beyond those particular circumstances when it came to considering Jean Rhys’s adaptation of the character. In the case of a myth or a folktale, there is no one creator, and so the milieu of the cultural, social, and historical that creates these stories presents a fascinating account of collective beliefs. And, as much as I love folklore, myth, and fairy tale, and the process of finding new ways to change the potency and meaning of these stories, there is also a tiny secret part of me that is in love with the idea of doing away with them altogether! Can you imagine a world that functions without the core myths and legends entrenched in ours? Mind blown.

Related: have there been women that have been suggested or that you’ve considered but have shelved or chosen not to pursue? If yes, why?

We have so many requests for women we don’t think we’ll ever be able to cover them all! There haven’t been any women that we’ve shelved, though we have had limitations arise in how much information we’ve been able to find about some historical women. Unfortunately, as history has typically been written by men, there’s a tendency for holes to exist! However, we do have a Patreon only mini-series called Holes in History to try to highlight some of these gaps, and give voice to these stories.

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What made you choose the podcast medium for this project rather than, say, starting a blog or a website or writing a column?

Lauren: I’m the podcast fan of the two of us, and I was initially drawn to it simply because I liked listening to podcasts by others. As an audience member, I find it a really engaging platform, and I enjoy the conversational style it allows. There are already blogs and websites dedicated to this area, and so in terms of originality and carving a space for ourselves, podcasts felt like far more fertile ground. The popularity of podcasts has been exponentially on the rise for the last few years, and it’s a really exciting time to be involved with them. I think there’s also still scope for women to establish themselves as leaders in the field, and there are some extraordinary female podcasters doing some amazing things. It doesn’t feel too much like a ‘dude’ space … yet. And that’s exciting, I think.

Alicia: Podcasts, I think, really began in a time when there was no gendered ‘ownership’ over the medium. What I mean by this is that women have fought for their place in literature, film, television, radio, print media, music, etc., you name it. Mediums where you need money and backing and support to get off the ground. Someone else, some gatekeeper, historically a male one, has to deem you print-worthy, production-worthy, noteworthy. The arrival of the Internet presented this seemingly democratic space where almost anyone could produce content and distribute it globally on a fairly low budget. Of course, I say seemingly because there are still plenty of places and scenarios where this is not the case, but podcasts sprung up in this time where women could just as easily say ‘I’ll give that a go’ as men could. The podcast is about the way Lauren and I interact in the moment to follow tangents and thoughts and challenge and question each other. This conversational style simply doesn’t work as organically when you write it down. I also believe podcasts make it important to think about voice. The written word can easily obscure gender, silence it even. The podcast format puts voice front and center.

We wanted to ask a little bit about your process and your practice. We’re interested to know how you interlace the research and creative aspects of narrating the women’s stories.

We take it in turns each episode to ‘lead’, which means taking on the primary research for the episode. We look at a mix of resources, from books to peer review articles and documentaries, and the odd Wikipedia page too because it’s good to see what biographical narratives are already accessible for our listeners. Lauren organises her notes according to categories and clusters, for example early life, social context, or a particular period or significant event. Alicia usually handwrites her notes because she tends to remember things better this way. We don’t use a script, but having notes means we can go where the conversation naturally leads, and answer questions raised by the other person. That’s where the creative aspect comes in, the natural flow of conversation and our reactions to one another. We have quite a natural and (hopefully) entertaining dynamic and we tend to just bounce off one another a lot.

You cover a broad range of feminine identities across diverse historical periods and geographical locations. Has doing this work (i.e. thinking about femininity and how it has shifted (or not!) as an identity category quite broadly) changed, deepened, or challenged the ideas about gender and femininity that you had at the outset of Deviant Women?

Lauren: I think I’ve become more consciously aware of the importance of intersectionality. One of the challenges we encounter and continually discuss and try to educate ourselves about is the line between representation and appropriation. We want to ensure we are intersectional in our coverage of women, but are conscious of not accidentally drifting into appropriating the stories of marginalised women, or those of different cultures to our own. As my awareness has increased, I’ve also become more aware of the ways that we sometimes fall short, and how we can do better. Personally, I’ve subscribed to far more podcasts by women of colour and have sought out information from marginalised communities about how cis white women such as ourselves can support intersectionality appropriately.

Alicia: Yes, I totally agree. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to go beyond our comfort zone and approach stories outside of our areas of expertise, but we try to be transparent about that. This can be incredibly difficult because it does mean we are quite often concerned that we are going to get it wrong, and sometimes we do, but it’s also important to us because the whole point of the show is to think beyond ingrained belief systems, including our own.

There are a few feminist/historical/nonfiction podcasts out there that I know of, but have you noticed that there’s much of a community between/around the different podcasts?

There is among some podcasts, yes! There is an excellent group called LadyPodSquad which is a really supportive community of female podcasters from a variety of genres. They have online discussion boards where women ask each other questions, celebrate one another’s successes, and share what they’ve learned with each other. They’re also really supportive on social media, which is important for podcast growth. Within our realm of feminist history/mythology/non-fiction there are some really supportive podcasts that we communicate with, particularly Malicious Mamas and She Who Persisted: The Nasty Podcast. There is also a female podcast festival and conference called Werk It, which is all about women supporting women to succeed in this field, which was recorded and distributed as a super useful podcast.

Lauren: Also, I was a big fan of My Favorite Murder before we started the podcast, and I think that’s where my initial inspiration for the conversational format of the show came from. Karen and Georgia are amazing examples of how women can discuss serious issues in an empowering, feminist and hugely entertaining way, and have serious cultural impact. I also love Singing Bones, another Australian podcast about the origins of fairytales.

Have you received or tracked audience responses to the podcast? Do you have a sense of your listeners’ demographics or the program’s reach?

Lauren: We have some stats on listener numbers and location, but not much more than this. We are actually far more popular in the US, especially along the West Coast, than we are in Australia. We have listeners all over the world though, from those you’d expect like Australia, the US, and the UK, to Japan, South Korea, the Phillipines, Peru, Kazakhstan, Mexico and many others. Those who most frequently interact with us on social media tend to be educated women in their twenties to forties. I suspect we are popular with women much like ourselves.

Alicia: That’s an interesting idea though, because ideally I’d like to be reaching a broader audience, rather than always preaching to the converted. This is another reason why intersectionality is so important.

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Have you collaborated with other podcasters? Tell us a bit about how that worked.

Just prior to the launch of the first series of The Handmaid’s Tale, we were contacted by Justin, producer and co-host of Mayday: The Handmaid’s Tale Podcast to ask if we’d collaborate on an episode. He is based in the US, so we recorded the episode over skype after quite a few emails and skype chats. The episodes went well, and inspired a mini-series dedicated to individual characters from the book/show. In future, we would love to work with other female podcasters, though. We also conducted a couple of interviews in our first season, and this is something we’d like to expand on going forward. We would like to launch an interview series to run alongside our regular episodes in order to converse with women who work in the realm of ‘deviant women’ in some way as creative practitioners, artists or academics, or engage in work that might continue to push against gender expectations today.

Why did you decide to take Deviant Women on stage? What did that in-person, physical performance space/mode offer you? In what ways did you have to adapt the stories? Is that something you hope to continue doing?

The stage shows came about for a number of reasons. While the podcast is, obviously, aural, we also try to communicate very much in visual terms. Historical portraits and photographs always inspire and fascinate us. A picture always accompanies our episodes on our website and social media, and we share other images on our social media accounts as often as we can because they add such a layer to our understanding of historical periods and places. The live shows offered us so many ways of adding visual elements to the stories we wanted to tell, from props to costumes, to animation and sets. These elements created such an engaging atmosphere that the audience responded audibly throughout! They oohed and aahed and booed and cheered in both shows, and that level of interaction was completely unique to the live experience. We also both have backgrounds in the performing arts, so it was probably only a matter of time before we ended up in costumes!

But the format of the live shows also meant that we had less space to follow all the versions of these women’s stories available to us. Because there are conflicting tales of both their lives – as there often is with our episode subjects – we needed to make decisions about what to keep and what to cut, which we don’t tend to do as much in the podcast. In the podcast we will often flag where a story diverges, or follow conflicting story lines to consider alternatives. In the stage shows we were forced to pick certain versions of events in order to give the audience enough chronology and coherence. You can rewind and re-listen to a podcast. The live show demanded more structure.

We presented the shows during the Adelaide Fringe Festival. This was an opportune time to spread the word about the podcast more generally, because there were so many international guests and performers in town and we knew it would be worth our while, as well as a lot of fun, to get involved. The response was so positive, and the experience so much fun, that we are definitely considering options for more of these in the future.

 

References

[1]Cixous, Helene and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. by. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) p.115.

Works Cited

Cixous, Helene and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. by. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
McHugh, Siobhan. “Memoir for Your Ears: The Podcast Life.” Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir. Ed. Bunty Avieson, Fiona Giles, and Sue Joseph. New York: Routledge, 2018. 104-122.

Words: Emma Maguire
Editing: Emma Maguire
Interview questions: Emma Maguire, Orly Lael Netzer, Maria Faini
Images: Lauren Butterworth and Alicia Carter

 

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