The Tragedy Paper needs to check its privilege.

The Tragedy Paper needs to check its privilege. 

~Daisy Hughes

Reading for my tragedy essay this week, I came across a really great quote. The writer was saying of the ability to aestheticize suffering in tragedy that, “that vantage point, surely, is available only to those who can afford the most comfortable seats.”

She then moved swiftly on, but my interest was piqued. She seemed to be making a really great point about privilege.

Last week, my supervisor advised me that I might want to take a less “single-mindedly feminist” approach to the tragedy paper. I was angry. But it was good advice. Within the terms of the paper as it stands, a consistently feminist approach is a disadvantage if you want to do well. (“Well”, of course, in the limited sense of “get a good mark.”)

The reason for this is, in part at least, that by taking a feminist line of analysis, by pointing out critically the instances of patriarchal female oppression, misogyny and gynephobia (not to mention the frequent and explicit violence against women) that permeates tragic texts, you are “missing the point”. “It’s all art,” we’re told, so part of what we have to write about is why it’s beautiful. We’re meant to detach ourselves, perform “objective” criticism (as though that is even possible) of “the work itself”.

The problem is that the ability to perform the kind of criticism the paper asks for depends, absolutely, on privilege. To be “objective” in these moments, requires that you don’t feel overwhelmingly personally and politically engaged with the material.

I want to talk for a moment about the idea of “triggering” subject matter. “Trigger warnings” are a relatively new phenomenon and have not yet become widely accepted beyond certain corners of the internet. Part of the problem with this is that society has yet to place any concrete – or perhaps political – value on psychological “harm” to an individual. (Hence the persistent liberal objection to “no platforming,” but that’s a different discussion…)

In reading tragedy we all, of course, face material that is potentially triggering. So, before you start getting worried and asking “what about the men?”, I’m not denying that (white, able-bodied,) male privilege precludes the possibility that men may be triggered by tragedy.

What I’m saying is that while men may face triggering material based on their individual experiences, women and other communities facing oppression face triggering material precisely because they belong to that community – because they face systematic and structural oppression, on top of any individual trauma they may have encountered.

So in ignoring the implications of triggering for the study of tragedy, Cambridge and the English Faculty are enabling the academic privileging of the already privileged. They require of students that “vantage point” described at the beginning, which “is only available to those who can afford the most comfortable seats.”

The problem is also that the paper is compulsory. We do not enter into it having been offered the opportunity to consider and accept the ways in which this privileging of privilege may play out for us personally. We are forced into this traumatising term of studying potentially damaging material, and yet when we point out its damaging nature, we are penalised for a lack of “aesthetic appreciation” and told to broaden our approaches.

What I want to know is, why is is considered as “repeating content” for me to write three “feminist answers” in my exam when it is perfectly acceptable for the faculty to set content which is consistently (if not exclusively) patriarchal, misogynistic, gynephobic, and violent towards both the women characters and the women readers?


  1. Concerned

    I have two thoughts:

    1) Your supervisor has given you misleading information about the exam rubric. The order not to repeat material does not at all prevent you from thinking about texts in feminist ways in all of your answers, so long as your answers look at different texts/critics/contextual information.

    2) This kind of thinking is actually exactly what the Tragedy paper encourages. The paper does not ask you to aestheticise suffering–it asks you to think about the implications of the aestheticisation of suffering. You have concentrated on male privilege; but there was actually a question a couple of years ago, for instance, which explicitly asked you to think about the extent to which tragedy is a manifestation of western privilege. Using your exact argument, it is probably in fact fairer to say that tragedy is an expression of western privilege, full stop. It would be interesting to see statistics on the race or nationality of candidates as well as their gender.

  2. Haze

    (I’m not an English student.)

    I think it’s fair enough for the examiners to want you to prove that you can look at a text from more than just the feminist angle. Feminist theory will tell you a lot about a text, certainly, but there’s also a lot it won’t tell you. I’d question an exam process that criticises you for writing a single essay just about issues of gender, but if you write three answers wholly from this perspective it is going to look like you don’t know anything else about literary theory – whereas presumably the tripos is supposed to ensure you have a good broad knowledge.

    Remember also an exam is a test, not to any great extent an opportunity for activism. Only one or two people are ever going to read your answers; they’re not going to change the world. There’s nothing to stop you writing feminist critiques of tragedy as much as you like in the rest of your time.

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