The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles.
Jia Yi Loh '21, English
"Gender Ecosystems: Responsive Gender Development in Twelfth Night"
Abstract: Through reconceptualizing Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night," or "What You Will," I propose the novel concept of a gender ecosystem, where gender comes into being in the spaces in between individual bodies. I argue through "Twelfth Night" and the character(s) of Viola/Cesario/Sebastian for the potential of gender as a collective, mutually responsive construct rather than an internal, individual one. Viola, the self-described “all the daughters of [their] father’s house, / And all the brothers too” (2.4.132-133), dismantles the singularity of the individual and provides us a conduit through which to explore the interconnected web of characters that form Illyria’s gender ecosystem. Where a child-parent relationship and femaleness are constructed in the space between Viola and their late father, a sibling relationship and maleness are constructed between Viola and their brother. Gender is constructed through what is made meaningful between characters, rather than what is true about a character in themself. Using this framework of the gender ecosystem, I reconsider the final scene of the play, generally deemed to be a restoration of hetero- and cis-normative ideas through marriage. I distinguish between the technicalities of the marriages involving two bodies, and the collective assemblage that these marriages perhaps function as conduits into.
Was there anything surprising about the work you did?
I think the most surprising thing about the work I did was how my central research question refined itself and evolved quite naturally out of trying to follow the logic of the form of "Twelfth Night." Having the time and resources to do this fellowship gave me both the framework of a research community as well as the freedom to take my research at the pace that I needed. This allowed me to engage in an iterative process of refining the logic of my research question in a way I had not gotten the chance to before. I was thus able to spend time refining my argument and following the turns that unavoidably come during the research process, instead of simply trying to barrel ahead with my initial idea.
How will you use your research in future studies?
The concept of gender ecosystems that I built through my work this summer will form a significant foundation of the theoretical framework for my senior thesis. I will be extending the concept of ecosystems of identity formation into the linguistic identity of multilingual writers.
How did you choose your topic?
My topic stemmed from work I had done in prior classes in the field of Early Modern Trans Studies, particularly in the realm of contextualizing historical views of gender and sexuality with the understandings of biology and bodies that do not fit in modern-day concepts of binary sex. While my primary research question has been refined and has changed a fair bit since I first proposed it, it is still rooted in the intrigue that I had about the ways in which we study (or do not study) gender performance and presentation in works of the early modern era, particularly in my dissatisfaction with how "Twelfth Night" and Viola/Cesario as a character is typically read as a “cross-dresser” and nothing else.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences. The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.