DANIELLE EGAN has many fascinations.
An accomplished author, educator and psychoanalyst, Egan chairs the Gender, Sexuality and Intersectionality Studies Department and also sees patients at her private practice in Stonington, Connecticut.
Egan, who joined Connecticut College in 2017, has written three books, a variety of scholarly articles and has garnered international recognition for her work as an analyst and researcher on topics like gender relations and the sex industry.
CC Magazine sat down with Egan in January to discuss the changing dynamics around gender, race and sexuality, and to get her take on a unique moment in American culture and the impact of the #MeToo movement.
CC Magazine: You’re doing some interesting research about how people learn certain biases and prejudices. Can you talk about that work and how you’re approaching it?
Danielle Egan: The project is in the formative stages, but it fuses several of my interests. There’s a lot of data that show that trauma is transmitted from generation to generation. We know that if you look at data on poverty, for example, there’s evidence that the stress of poverty or the trauma of a violent partnership can have physical, biological impacts that are inherited—it actually affects mitochondria and fetal development. I’m interested in examining the inverse. If trauma gets passed through the generations, how is it that certain ideas about whiteness, or about cultural dominance, or about inequity are transmitted? Does it work similarly? If so, when does it get transmitted? People often talk about nature vs. nurture, but that’s a false dichotomy, because they’re intertwined.
CC: Is it possible people learn certain racial, cultural or gender biases earlier than we thought?
DE: The development of unconscious bias may happen at a very young age. Right now, I’m looking at those types of questions through the lenses of affective neuroscience, music theory and psychoanalysis to see how it is that ideas about dominant culture may be transmitted before our language even forms. It may be that certain ideas that saturate our culture get transmitted to us prelinguistically and actually form the unconscious itself.
CC: So parents are completely unaware of how their childrens’ perspectives are being shaped in certain ways, even while they’re still in the crib?
DE: Right. That’s not an uncommon idea in psychoanalysis—the idea that parents transmit ideas about sexuality and gender to their children unconsciously. These anxieties are passed on from generation to generation then form the unconscious and are often only triggered by our first intimate relationships. I’m expanding that idea to think through why it is that at certain times these irrational responses explode in us.
CC: The #MeToo movement has exposed the damaging behavior of some powerful men and has dramatically changed the conversation around gender relations. But critics of the movement claim there’s a “war on men.” Is that hyper-defensive backlash simply a natural response to cultural change, or is there something deeper going on?
DE: It’s probably more than one thing. You have a lot of people who would say, “Whiteness is under attack, or traditional masculinity and traditional values are under attack.” I think some of that is about displacement. In a situation where you may feel powerless, you take that feeling and you project it onto someone else or something else. What interests me is how that type of projection or scapegoating is fueled by unconscious biases.
CC: A lot of the issues you talk about can be uncomfortable or emotional for students. How do you navigate sensitive discussions?
DE: It’s really important that discussions about sensitive issues don’t become hostile or aggressive, but I also don’t want anybody to feel ignored or for their frustrations to build up. One thing I do with my students is to have them fill out log cards. During the last five minutes of class students can write anything they want. They can be mad at me, they can talk about the dynamics of the class or about how they hated the reading. It’s not graded, and it’s only to me.
What I’ve found is if they’re not holding that in for an entire semester, it gives space for the class to be more productive and students can engage with each other in a more reasoned, less explosive or hostile framework.
CC: With all the progress we’ve seen in recent years when it comes to awareness of gender identity, sexuality and issues of race, do we, as a society, need to pay more attention to the mental health and development of straight, white men, for example, who are responsible for the vast majority of mass shootings?
DE: Yes, it’s definitely something that needs more attention. The American Psychological Association recently released its report on men and boys—something they’d previously done with a variety of other groups, and it found that dominant masculinity is harmful, which I agree with.
Certain forms of traditional, dominant masculinity can engender loneliness and also have a taxing quality of making men feel they have to prove themselves over and over again, which leads to disproportionate numbers of heart attacks and other problems. I do think dominant masculinity plays a major role in that.
CC: How do you explain to people who may be unfamiliar with the work you do what intersectionality means and why gender studies is so important and relevant?
DE: Intersectionality centers on the idea that historically we have thought about topics like gender or sexuality or race in isolation. It’s about taking a more holistic approach to examining them and how they relate to each other as opposed to using a narrow, compartmentalized focus.
Exploring these issues is essential to understanding the history of inequity and who bears the burden of something more than someone else. I don’t think it’s important that everybody become a feminist, and I’m not interested in political indoctrination. But we need to think through why certain forms of bias are so persistent and repetitive throughout history. That those patterns have a biological impact is fascinating to me.