Feminist Technoscience Activism: A Double-Stranded Reading of Dr. Bodnar's Ig Nobel Striptease

Clare Jen


[1] A feminist technoscience lens is necessary for reading representations of gendered resistance in science media. Readings of postfeminism could avoid summarily dismissing forms of "feminist technoscience activism" for their semblance to dominant sexist imagery and, instead, recognize acts of gendered resistance that are localized to science culture. I use "feminist technoscience activism" to refer to resistance strategies and acts that are: (a) ground in the experiences, struggles, and knowledges of women; (b) positioned against systems of intersecting dimensions of oppression; (c) concerned with "science" as powerful institutions and cultures of knowledge-practices that have historically excluded women and produced ideologies to legitimize inequalities; (d) engaged with technological artifacts as possible objects in larger apparatuses of resistance; and (e) frequently contoured in "sticky" articulations of nerdy humor. Dismissing these localized forms of technoscience activism as mere acts of postfeminist ignorance is shortsighted, and it unnecessarily builds disciplinary and political walls between feminist cultural critics and feminist scientists. I argue that feminist media scholars need a feminist technoscience lens in order to provide more complex readings of gendered resistance in science media representations.

[2] This paper provides a double-stranded close-reading of Dr. Elena Bodnar's acceptance speech and her The Emergency Bra (EBbra) demonstration at the 19th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. On October 1, 2009, the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) awarded its Public Health Prize to Bodnar for her EBbra invention—a brassiere that converts into a pair of protective facemasks. Approaching Bodnar's EBbra demonstration as a "public health striptease," I break its choreography into four motions that I later describe in more detail. The first strand in my close-reading stresses Bodnar's use of a neoliberal, postfeminist sensibility that plays with significations of silly seduction, nerdy humor, terror, and civil defense. A reading that stops here, though, too easily indicts her performance as detrimental to the progress of women in science, technology, and society. In the second strand of my reading, I build upon the first and add a feminist technoscience lens that takes into account gendered, classed, and sexualized subjectivities in the history of scientific knowledge production. A double-stranded reading more fully captures Bodnar's performance as a form of feminist technoscience activism that parodies sexism in science culture and its collusion with neoliberal defense projects.

[3] Considering how she sets the scene for risk and terror, Bodnar's acceptance speech and EBbra demonstration employ articulations of "choice" that are far from haphazard. Sonia Correa and Rosalind Petchesky (1994) explore feminist thinking about "choice" in reproductive and sexual rights politics. They seek to complicate a classic rights discourse model that is primarily centered on personal liberties, and they advocate for policies and programs that establish needed structural conditions. While scholars, such as Correa and Petchesky, consider rights discourse as it informs political activism, commercial enterprises increasingly appropriate the language of rights and "choice" and, in turn, gut the core intent of feminist projects. Bodnar's articulations of "choice" conjure imaginings of commercialized, neoliberal, and neoimperialist appropriations of women's rights paradigms. To work through these appropriations, I draw from theorizations on "postfeminist sensibility," "neoliberal governmentality," "sexual entrepreneurship," and face-masked figures as specters of emergency preparedness.

[4] Analyses that address the "postfeminist sensibility" of representations emphasize self-objectification, particularly self-sexualization, of gendered neoliberal subjects through supposedly autonomous consumer-oriented choices (Gill 2007, 2008). By "postfeminist sensibility," I refer to Rosalind Gill's approach to postfeminism as a critical object of analysis, rather than as a theoretical perspective (2007). She notes: "Nowhere is this clearer than in advertising which has responded to feminist critiques by constructing a new figure to sell to young women: the sexually autonomous heterosexual young woman who plays with her sexual power (2003, 103). According to Angela McRobbie, postfeminist cultural representations are "self-consciously 'sexist'" and assert feminism's irrelevance in young women's lives (2004, 259). By claiming that equality is already achieved, feminist accusations of 'sexism' are deemed 'out-of-touch' and laughable; in other words, dowdy 'old-school' feminists obviously do not 'get' ironic 'sexist' humor (McRobbie 2004).

[5] Gill calls for further consideration of the relationship between postfeminism and neoliberalism: "Could it be that neoliberalism is always already gendered, and that women are constructed as its ideal subjects (2008, 443)?" The neoliberal citizen is a rational autonomous subject who makes calculations of costs, benefits, and consequences as individualized consumers (Brown 2005, 37-59). Furthermore, in Brown's words, neoliberal governmentality "normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life. It figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for 'self-care'—the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions" (2005, 42; my emphasis). Laura Harvey and Gill name this new mode of postfeminist femininity—as inflected by neoliberal governmentality—as "sexual entrepreneurship"; "This modern postfeminist subject...is incited to be compulsorily sexy and always 'up for it,' and interpellated through discourses in which sex is work that requires constant labour and reskilling (2011, 56). Similar to Gill's query about postfeminism's and neoliberalism's ideal subjects, I suggest another convergence—one that depicts the sexually entrepreneurial figure of the North and West as in opposition to "third world women"/"brown women" who are in need of savior by neoimperialist "feminist" politics (see Reilly 2011 for a concise overview of how a "women's human rights" paradigm has been used to justify U.S. militarism). As an example, the gendered sexual entrepreneur is drawn as a foil to the vulnerable, yet risky, "masked Asian/American woman."

[6] In U.S. mainstream media, the face-masked Asian woman emerges as a visual configuration of crises in public health and U.S. border security. Brown describes the "transformation of American liberal democracy into a political and social form...organized by a combination of neoliberal governmentality and imperial world politics, shaped in the short run by global economic and security crises" (2005, 51; my emphasis). As an example of a health security crisis, during the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the human-technology-border figure of the masked Asian/American woman visually represented foreign contagion risk to U.S. populations. At the same time, her vulnerability discursively necessitated urgent protection by public health agencies, specifically World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from the Chinese government's alleged SARS cover-up and lack of transparency (Jen 2013). Her exigent savior—like that of Chandra Mohanty's "third world women" (2003), Gayatri Spivak's "brown women" (1994), and Kelly Oliver's Arab-American "women of cover" (2007)—legitimized neoimperialist incursions into the East and South. These gendered, raced, and nationed figures stand in contrast to Gill's "sexually autonomous young woman" and ideal EBbra consumer. Bodnar's lingerie-clad, bra-masked woman is both at risk from terror and contagion and is on call to save "othered" women.

[7] Primarily, I use feminist thought on neoliberalism and postfeminism to frame the first strand of this close-reading. For the second strand, I draw from feminist science studies critiques of scientific knowledge production and, in doing so, employ a feminist technoscience lens to an analysis of feminist activist possibilities in popular science culture. Just like base pairs connect a DNA molecule into a double-stranded helix, I work with Sara Ahmed's concept of "affective economies" and "sticky" signs, as well as Judith Halberstam's alternative modes of knowing, in order to assemble a more complex double-stranded close-reading of Bodnar's acceptance speech and EBbra demonstration.

Silly Sexy Nerdy Humor

[8] Ig Nobel Prizes are "intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative—and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology" (Improbable Research). Annually broadcast on National Public Radio's Science Friday and co-sponsored by Harvard-Radcliffe's Science Fiction Association, Society of Physics Students, and Computer Society, the Ceremony recognizes "achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think" (Drew 2009, 6-17; emphasis mine). Science and technology news media described the Ceremony as "just the right blend of serious inquiry with unbridled silliness" (Tonic 2009) and its participants as "geeks celebrat[ing]" and "scifi nerd homeboy[s]" (Newitz 2009). The gala also attracted the participation of actual Nobel Prize Laureates (Drew 2009, 6-17). Bodnar addressed her speech and demonstration to a 1200 person turnout in Harvard University's Sanders Theatre and to an eventual YouTube audience of more than 100,000 online viewings [1]. The following is an excerpt from Bodnar's acceptance speech:

Transcript: Ladies and gentlemen, isn't it wonderful that women have two breasts and not just one? We can save not only our own life but also the life of a man of our own choice next to us. I would like to thank my colleagues from the University of Chicago. Even more, I would like to thank my dear husband whose extensive expertise on bra clasps came in very handy when I developed my first prototype...it is important to mention that it only takes 25 seconds for the average woman to use this protective personal device; five seconds to remove, convert, and apply your own mask; and, twenty seconds to wonder who the lucky man is she is going to save. Well, the times of naiveté and unpreparedness have passed. We have learned to accept risk, and we have learned to appreciate preparedness and prevention. That's why I always wear convertible bra-mask. When I am here next year I hope every woman in this auditorium will also be wearing one. (2009)

[9] This paper seriously considers Ig Nobel's evaluative criteria. What is it about Bodnar's EBbra that makes her audience laugh and then think? Why does the audience laugh when it imagines women's sexy lingerie doubling as neoliberal, paramilitary technology? How are feminisms and femininities shaped by science cultures, and, in turn, how do they shape science cultures? What cultural forms could "feminist technoscience activism" take?

[10] To explore these questions, I consider the cultural politics of humor during the staging of emergencies and, in particular, the deployment of "silly sexy nerdy" humor. This humor is not just for laughter's sake; it is strategically deployed to accomplish particular types of cultural and political work. Sara Ahmed (2004) demonstrates that "affective economies"—circulations of emotions as declared, performed, and attributed to "sticky" bodies and objects—"do" political work with material and representational repercussions with respect to issues of justice. I work with "sticky" signs circulating in popular culture that configure bodies, genders, and technologies. By drawing from, what Judith Halberstam terms, "low theory" and "popular knowledge," I risk not being taken seriously—that my academic engagement with "silly" science, science fiction, and popular culture is seen as "frivolous" pursuit (Halberstam 2011, 2, 6). Counterintuitive sources of knowledge may lead us down unexpected paths of inquiry, towards accounts of the world that are less disciplinarily predetermined (2011).

[11] I find myself traveling unanticipated paths through pop cultural moments as I trace the EBbra's "history of articulation" (Ahmed 2004; 92). The humor of EBbra texts emerges from its language play; it hops, skips, and jumps through significations of feminism, postfeminism, neoliberalism, and masculinist science culture. The audience's lively response to Bodnar's acceptance speech and demonstration constitutes currency and labor in an affective economy of "silly sexy nerdy" humor that partially underwrites postfeminist media culture and U.S. neoliberal governance. This paper asks whether Bodnar's acceptance speech and EBbra demonstration enact a postfeminist sensibility and/or bears feminist possibilities. Ultimately, I contend that Bodnar strategically deploys a postfeminist sensibility—with an emergent brand of silly sexy nerdy humor—in order to launch a sly feminist scientist challenge to masculinist knowledge production and neoliberal governance, especially during states of emergency.

[12] Returning to her acceptance speech, the playful formality of Bodnar's address ("Ladies and gentlemen") is followed by surprisingly kinky science fiction imagery ("isn't it wonderful that women have two breasts and not just one"). To imagine a woman with one breast, outside the severe imagery of post-mastectomy cancer survivors, possibly references an inversion of Total Recall's (1990, 2012) iconic three-breasted prostitute [2]. The one-breasted woman presents not an excess of sexuality, but an unlikely natural biological deficiency. In the first sentence, she launches the audience into a realm of curiously erotic and amusing science fiction. In effect, the normalcy and naturalness of a woman's two-breastednesss become unexpected fodder for adolescent male, science-fiction fantasy. In the second sentence, she expands from scifi into feminist cliché. She calls upon a collective sense of feminist and heterosexual female empowerment by addressing the audience as a "we" with the capacity to take charge and save both women's and men's lives. Uniformed in an EBbra, a woman is armed with a "choice" to decide which man to save.

[13] On her website, she promotes the Original Red EBbra with the following advertising tagline: "Be Sexy Be Safe." The EBbra-adorned woman is "sexy" and enacts the power of sexual choice. Not only just a choice, it is a relatively languorous event ("five seconds to remove, convert, and apply your own mask; and, twenty seconds to wonder who the lucky man is she is going to save"). Here, "choice" is tinged with heterosexual desire; the woman assumes the active role as pursuer, and the pursued man is deemed "lucky" to have been chosen and desired. Bodnar encases her appropriation of sexual and reproductive rights in a sexy seductress narrative. She pushes this romance one step further by personalizing these roles; she thanks her "dear husband" for his "handy" and "extensive expertise on bra clasps." The double entendre of "handy" elicits audience laughter and applause. She intends the audience to read her body as desired by a heterosexual male gaze and her sexuality as confident and empowered in her self-determined audience consumption.

[14] Midway through the acceptance speech, she introduces the language of neoliberal governance into this mixture of adolescent nerd boy humor and silly feminine seduction. As quoted in Bodnar's speech, a new era has arrived in which "naiveté and unpreparedness" are passé, risk is present in everyday life, and the EBbra answers the call for the model neoliberal citizen subject's moral responsibility towards "preparedness and prevention." The EBbra is technological armament in the face of disaster. As a sexy, empowered, and Prize-winning scientist, Bodnar declares that she "always wears a convertible bra-mask." She has taken the lead in assuming individual responsibility for saving not only her own life but also the man of her desire. As a dual role model for emergency preparedness and sexual autonomy, she hopes that by next year's ceremony all women in the audience will practice self-care and uniform themselves in EBbras. She evokes an apocalyptic mood that sharply contrasts and heightens the silly sexy nerdy humor of one-breasted women imagery and lingerie weaponry. In her acceptance speech, she begins to frame the EBbra as adult toy, emergency preparedness education and pedagogy, and technoscientific artifact. The intelligibility of this framing depends upon its play with significations of neoliberalism, feminism, postfeminism, popular science and technology, and a post-9/11 state of emergency. The audience responds to this blend of scifi nerdiness and kinky humor—in the midst of omnipresent risk—with laughter, hoots, and applause. This affective state intensifies in the following EBbra demonstration.

EBbra Demonstration as Choreographed "Public Health Striptease"

[15] I read Bodnar's striptease as two interwoven strands. First, she employs a postfeminist "sexual entrepreneurship" that mockingly capitalizes on neoliberal paramilitary tactics (Harvey and Gill 2011). As a performance of post-9/11 emergency preparedness and response, it is a comical throwback to Cold War civil defense practices. Second, she slyly stages an act of feminist technoscientific activism in a challenge to institutionalized scientific knowledge production. She casts herself as "wanton" witness to spellbound boy scientists. Without a feminist technoscience lens, a postfeminist reading would stop short of this second strand and merely indict Bodnar for self-objectification in the pursuit of profit.

[16] I approach the EBbra demonstration as a composition of four motions: Bra Removal (Motion 1); The "Choice" (Motion 2); Bra-Masked Men (Motion 3); and Woman Masks Self (Motion 4). While Bodnar and her gaze literally take center stage, she is hardly the only performer. The onstage male Nobel Laureates, engaged auditorium audience, YouTube viewers and, of course, the EBbra play significant roles. In this section, I describe these four motions.

[17] Bra Removal (Motion 1): The emcee announces, "Now, I believe we have a demonstration by the inventor." Bodnar responds, "I would like to ask for three volunteers, preferably Nobel laureates, to assist me in demonstration." The audience loudly laughs. Three male laureates—Wolfgang Ketterle, Orhan Pamuk, and Paul Krugman—queue to Bodnar's left as volunteers. Facing the audience, she reaches behind and underneath her form-fitting black velvet top. She peeks and reaches into her cleavage, while the audience hoots as it anticipates her disrobing. The three male Nobel Laureates stare with wide-eyes and giggles. They confer cheerily with each other. Bodnar unleashes a neon pink and black-laced bra-mask and lifts it high over her head for the audience to observe. She unclasps the bra in the front and raises the separated masks into the air.

[18] The "Choice" (Motion 2): Bodnar turns on her heels and strides toward the male Nobel Laureate volunteers. She approaches the nearest Laureate, Ketterle, and leans into him as if to bra-mask his face. However, she abruptly halts, as if changing her mind, and pivots past the next Nobel Laureate, Pamuk, in order to reach her target—Krugman. She leaves Ketterle looking bewildered as the audience lavishes Bodnar's display of pickiness with laughter.

[19] Bra-Masked Men (Motion 3): Having chosen Krugman, she bra-masks his face. The audience's amusement heightens. She returns to Ketterle, whom she first passed, to choose as the second "lucky man" to save. This is the perceived climax. Once masked, he double thumb-ups the audience whose laughter and applause crescendos as he nod-bows in dénouement. The audience continues its applause as it gazes upon two bra-masked Nobel Laureates on stage.

[20] Coda (Motions 1, 2 and 3): Bodnar sets an unexpected coda in motion. She surprises the men on stage and audiences by repeating Motions 1, 2, and 3 before concluding with Motion 4. Having already bra-masked two out of the three male volunteers, she returns to the podium and states, "I have a suggestion. If you are ever going to an event where you can actually be surrounded by more than one Nobel Laureate, you better have more than one bra." The audience laughs. (Why is this funny? Is laughter due to relief because the audience realizes Bodnar will indeed enable the remaining unmasked Nobel Laureate to save face and, too, be a "lucky man?" Or, does the audience imagine a hyper female sexuality—a secretive abundance of lingerie hidden under one's clothing due to an extraordinary excess of breasts?)

[21] Bodnar retreats from the podium, while once again reaching behind and underneath her top. She pulls another bra from her cleavage and hoists it high for the audience to see.

[22] She sidles towards Pamuk, the final un-masked Laureate, and chooses him. He smiles and raises his eyebrows in amusement. The audience laughs and applauds.

[23] Bodnar bra-masks Pamuk's face.

[24] Woman Masks Self (Motion 4): Bodnar deftly masks herself with the remaining bra cup. She bows to signal the concluding act. The audience cheers.

[25] When these motions are sequenced into a choreographed performance of emergency response, they coalesce into a "public health striptease." Earlier I asked whether Bodnar's demonstration enacts a postfeminist sensibility and/or bears feminist possibilities. I suggest Bodnar strategically deploys a postfeminist sensibility—with an emergent brand of silly sexy nerdy humor—in order to launch a sly feminist scientist challenge to masculinist knowledge production and neoliberal governance during states of emergency.

Sexy Self-Help Defense

[26] In what ways does Bodnar's public health striptease deploy a postfeminist sensibility in its challenge to post-9/11 neoliberal governance? How is her criticism rendered more palatable through the use of silly sexy nerdy humor? I argue that she employs a "sexual entrepreneurship" that capitalizes on, what Ahmed terms, an "affective politics of fear" during states of emergency (Ahmed 2004, 62-81; Harvey and Gill 2011). A global economy of fear circulates sticky bodies and objects that signify terrorist threats to the Homeland. This circulating fear functions to "other" those deemed border risks—specifically, those framed as Middle-Eastern, Arab, Muslim, and South Asian (Volpp 2001; Ahmed 2004, 78).

[27] Bodnar situates her bra mask's utility within a state of emergency that foregrounds the risk of terrorism. Her patent specifically cites the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center: "...people tried to cover their faces with handkerchiefs" to "avoid breathing the contaminated air. An item of use that could have been used as a face mask...during these attacks could have been the cup of a bra" (Bodnar 2012). In the promotional brochure, three beachside, honeymoon-like snapshot photographs feature the EBbra in various stages of its transformation; "Fashion-to-Facemasks in 1, 2, 3 in the event of an emergency." A young couple—culturally intelligible as white, heterosexual, and middle-class—takes a pleasurable jaunt hand-in-hand along the shore. He is dressed in a carefree white linen-like shirt, while she wears a strapless red EBbra and red sarong. In another photo, her wedding ring in plain view, she holds a bra-mask to her face as well as his. Bodnar configures the responsible "at-risk" biopolitical subject as the white, middle-classed, heterosexualized woman. The EBbra functions as representation, practice, and performance of emergency preparedness and response.

[28] Elements of her public health striptease—in particular, Bra-Masked Men (Motion 3) and Woman Masks Self (Motion 4)—are gendered, raced, classed, and sexualized reiterations of 1950s Civil Defense practices. Laura McEnaney (2000), Tracy C. Davis (2007), and Melvin E. Matthews, Jr. (2012) consider present day national security and surveillance as vestiges of U.S. Cold War "self-help defense" programs. "Self-help defense" shifted responsibility—most importantly financial responsibility—for nuclear survivorship from the government to citizens, specifically individuals and family units (McEnenay 2000, 7, 70). McEnaney's explanation of self-help defense strongly resonates with Brown's description of neoliberalism. The model "nuclear family" was white, middle-class, private home- and automobile-owning, and suburban. Domesticating threats of atomic warfare enabled the federal government to legitimize civil defense privatization (74). The federal government understood that privatization disparately disadvantaged poor African American populations living in urban locations. These populations—which relied on public transportation—would be at the mercy of failing public infrastructures. Most likely, they would not be able to evacuate to safer locations, nor would they have the resources to build recommended private family fallout shelters (123-4).

[29] Bodnar's EBbra—available for $29.99 and $49.99—represents privatized, sexy, self-help defense. After all, her promotional tagline is "Be Sexy Be Safe." It is marketed towards an updated postfeminist version of the nuclear "wife" who takes care of "family." That is, she masks the "lucky man" of her "choice," before she masks her own face. In doing so, she performs a postfeminist, neoliberal gesture of public health responsibility and national security defense. Cold War self-help defense prescribed gendered roles; the breadwinner father led the nuclear family as its captain, and the unemployed mother supported her husband as second-in-command and caregiver (McEnaney 2000, 70). Bodnar's entire line of products reflects gendered "self-defense." The EBbra can also be worn as a nursing bra to fulfill familial responsibility. The masculine analogue is "The Emergency Shirt"—a man's dress shirt that can be converted into a facemask. While the feminine self-defense technology is lacy brassiere and nursing bra, the masculine uniform is a professional oxford-style shirt. This reiterates Cold War gendered roles in a nuclear family that is responsible for its own survivorship. Bodnar's ideal EBbra consumer is a sexual entrepreneur who is "always 'up for it'"—with "it" referring to the "performance of confident sexual agency" while saving lives in the midst of terrorist destruction (Harvey and Gill 2011, 56).

[30] It would be acceptable to conclude that Bodnar's EBbra speech and demonstration employ postfeminist irony for her own professional and economic gain. While it is likely that she hopes to advance professionally from her invention's notoriety, it is also possible that she has intentionally accumulated affective capital in the currency of the audience's amused and open engagement. She strategically spends this capital in order to launch a scathing critique against institutionalized scientific knowledge production. She toys with bras and bodies as sticky signs in popular culture. Ultimately, she casts herself as "wanton" witness to spellbound, inexperienced, awkward boy scientists.

"Sticky" Bras and Bodies: An Affective Economy of Silly Sexy Nerdy Humor

[31] Bodnar's striptease plays and toys with significations of bras in popular culture—specifically performance variations in the wearing and removal of brassieres. Bras function as "sticky signs" in an affective economy of "silly sexy nerdy" humor. The relation between signs and bodies is "sticky" (Ahmed 2004; 191). As Ahmed explains, "emotions work by working through signs and on bodies to materialise the surfaces and boundaries that are lived as worlds" (191). More specifically, we can think of "stickiness" as that which marks and makes bodily boundaries (Ahmed 2004).

[32] While not literally a sticky object (though adhesive bras are literally sticky), the wearing and removal of a brassier is a sticky sign. It has accumulated the affective value of silly sexy nerdy humor through repeated iterations. In this section, I touch upon several selected moments in popular culture that I consider notable iterations. "Bra burning," for example, remains a persistent anti-feminist signifier of feminism. As Hourvouras and Carter (2008) find in their study of college students' definitions of feminism, participants who self-identified as "nonfeminists" used negative language involving bra burning to describe feminists, such "a big, bra-burning, man-hating woman" and "raging women burning bras and going crazy" (249). Media coverage of the 1968 Miss America pageant protest sensationalized feminist "freedom trashcans"—into which women were to remove "oppressive symbols," such as bras, girdles and false eyelashes—into a "bra burning" event (Hourvouras and Carter 2008, 252; Tuana 2011). News media created this "bra burning" myth as a humorous parallel to men's antiwar protests that involved, at times, the burning of draft cards (Mekkelson and Mekkelson 2000). Though evidence of feminist protests involving incendiaries has yet to surface, "bra burning" as scandalous and sexually "loose" feminist practice persists as anti-feminist fable.

[33] Perhaps the most recognizable bra removal moment in contemporary popular culture is in Flashdance (1983). The film's young female protagonist, Alex, hopes to become a professional ballet dancer. She labors as steel mill welder during the day and as bar stripper at night. According to McRobbie's analysis, the audience rejoices in Alex's eventual triumph, partially because it is relieved that she no longer has to dance in an "overtly sexual and therefore sleazy" manner (1990, 44). Lest we assume Alex and the audience are unwitting participants in a monolithic sexual objectification of women's bodies, McRobbie notes that Flashdance—as a contemporary dance narrative—offers a "feminist slant" (1990, 44, 55-56). For girls and women, dance functions as a more socially acceptable venue for taking pleasure in an erotic sexual expression that is not necessarily a "straightforwardly romantic, heavily heterosexual 'goal-oriented' drive" (McRobbie 1984, 134).

[34] In this iconic bra removal movement, similar contradictory strands emerge. Alex brings home Nick—her steel mill boss and bar patron with whom she develops a supportive romantic relationship. Wearing an oversized sweatshirt, she shares with Nick stories from her childhood, while she performs a nonchalant, yet immensely mesmerizing and seductive undressing. The camera shifts the audience's gaze from Alex's striptease to Nick's reaction. Stunned, his head pops up from where it was resting on his hand, and the audience sees his previously dull eyes brighten as they shift from the liberated bra to meet Alex's eyes. Alex's seduction of Nick and the audience is pleasurable in its effortlessness. Twenty-five years later, director Adrian Lyne is interviewed by a journalist who asks: "Here's my one burning question...You say you got the idea for Alex to take her bra off under her sweatshirt after you saw [actress Jennifer] Beals do that trick. How does that happen" (Bierly 2007)? Alex's slick, yet girl-next-door, seduction is the iconic clothed striptease.

[35] Beals's move is comically reiterated in the Friends episode, "The One with the Fake Party" (1998), in which Rachel engages in a humiliating failed seduction. Attempting to attract her prospective male's, Joshua's, attention, she trounces around in her high school cheerleading uniform, only to chip her tooth and split her lip in a clumsy cartwheel. Her friend Joey offers as a last resort, "Okay, time to take off the bra." Desperate, Rachel corners Joshua and announces with a lisp, "You know, this bra is really bothering me." She clumsily reaches behind and under her shirt to unclasp. Joshua asks, "Need a little hand there?" Rachel proudly refuses, "No, I've got this all under control." Joshua describes what the audience is thinking, "You really don't seem like you do." The audience and Joshua laugh as Rachel now uses both hands to pull forcefully on the bra strap. Out of frustration, she admits defeat; she has failed in her attempted seduction. This iteration is a comic revival of Alex's easy, nonchalant sexiness. Rachel's botched striptease adds a silly dimension to Alex's original movement. In each instance, the female protagonist manipulates her body, undergarments, and garments to invite male desire and shape the male gaze.

[36] Bodnar's performance shapes the bodies, identities, and subjectivities of the Laureates, who represent dominant and privileged male scientists. Bra-Masked Men (Motion 3) references John Hughes's Weird Science (1985). It is a performance variation in the wearing and removal of brassieres that adds a sexually inexperienced, nerdy, and adolescent male subjectivity to the sticky signage of Bodnar's public health striptease. In Steinberg and Kincheloe's reading of Weird Science, they describe the hero pair, Gary and Wyatt, as white, upper middle-class young men who feel entitled to their privileges (1998). Though flush with financial resources, the "young, nerdy white virgin[s]" spend their time obsessed with sex and attempting to find girlfriends (Whatley 1991). Hypermasculine bullies constantly emasculate them into virginal nerds. Whatley adds that their hypomasculinity contrasts with the film's allusion to the hypermasculine sexual physicality of black men (1991, 134). Gary and Wyatt act as contemporary Dr. Frankensteins in their use of computers, pornography, and plastic doll parts to build the perfect living sexual object, Lisa. They dress the doll in an oversized, cut-off sweatshirt, and panties—eerily reminiscent of Alex's dress in Flashdance. The doll lays like an anaesthetized patient on a miniature examination table, and two candles illuminate the macabre experiment. The audience enters this creation scene hearing the virgin nerds chanting indecipherably. From the doll, the camera pans up to rest on Gary's and Wyatt's upper torsos. Each wears a bra on his head. Wyatt asks Gary, "By the way, why are we wearing bras on our heads?" This scene demonstrates the ways white, heterosexual, and class-privileged male dominance is eroded through associations with femininities. More so, the audience witnesses "virgin brains"—donned in bras as skullcaps—use a magical mixture of masculine science, technology, and pornography with feminine dolls and undergarments, to create a woman to conquer sexually.

[37] Bodnar's EBbra demonstration can be read as a sly recasting of Nobel Laureates into Gary and Wyatt—from privileged, elite male intellectuals to sexually inexperienced, desperate nerds. Laureates Krugman, Ketterle, and Pamuk do not "bra" themselves to conjure a Lisa; they do not make themselves into Gary and Wyatt. Instead, Bodnar reverses the script. She resurfaces the Laureate's bodies by bra-masking them with her undergarments and vestiges of her self. She alters their identities as dominant masculine figures with global influence into nerdy adolescent males. She imbues them with Gary's and Wyatt's subjectivities—as young men of financial and material resources, yet emasculated by bullies for their intellect and sexual inexperience, and thus desperately yearning for a beautiful and sexy woman to conquer in order to prove their male dominance to their peers. Does Bodnar, then, cast herself as Gary's and Wyatt's sexy savior Lisa, or as Dr. Frankenstein's monster, or as an altogether different figure? According to film critic Denis Wood, Frankenstein's monster ultimately destroys his creator, while Lisa comforts Gary and Wyatt, as she teaches them how to "butch" up in order to fight bullies and win girls (Wood 1986). From Gary's and Wyatt's perspectives, Lisa is not a monster; she helps them "transition to manhood, to the assumption of dominant masculine power (Whately 1991, 112). From a feminist perspective, Lisa is a destructive instrument of raced, classed, and sexualized male power and privilege. I argue that Bodnar's sexy savior likeness is neither Lisa nor Frankenstein's monster; instead, I read her as a "wanton" witness.

A Feminist Technoscience Reading: Feminist Scientist as "Wanton" Witness

[38] The stickiness of bodies and objects as signs involves a temporal dimension. Ahmed draws from Judith Butler's model of gender performativity: "...the performative is futural; it generates effects in the constitution or materialization of that which is 'not yet'...on the other hand, performativity depends upon the sedimentation [92] of the past; it reiterates what has already been said, and its power and authority depend upon how it recalls that which has already been brought into existence" (Ahmed 204; 92-93). Moments in popular culture, discussed in the earlier section, form the sedimentation of the past. I approach the "not yet" of the future as possible readings of Bodnar's EBbra demonstration. I read the possibilities of her performance as feminist technoscience activism.

[39] Steven Shapin researches the siting of knowledge production in Robert Boyle's seventeenth century experiments and finds regulated access to public demonstrations of experimentation (1988, 1999). As Shapin states: "Within empiricist schemes of knowledge the ultimate warrant for a claim to knowledge is an act of witnessing" (480; emphasis mine). The transmission of scientific results to one's peers relied upon the credible testimonies of erudite gentlemen. Upstanding ladies may be present in the room and watch as spectators; however, they could not provide credible testimonies as witnesses due to their too compassionate and unobjective natures. Laboratory technicians, while manipulating complicated machinery, also could not bear witness to the experimental results, due to their lack of class and educational standings. Only men in the right circles, with the right pedigreed relations, class, and education could credibly bear witness and produce scientific knowledge (Shapin 1991).

[40] Elizabeth Potter (2001) reads Boyle's private papers and builds upon Shapin's findings. The model scientist, according to Boyle, embodies a modern masculinity—he sexually desires women, yet remains chaste in order to focus solely on his work. He upholds his scientific experimentation as the ultimate devotion to God—to seek His revelation in nature's mechanisms. The scientist is a celibate priest, and his lab is a temple. A woman's central role is to avoid distracting male scientists from their Godly pursuits and to remain "modest and chaste"; "women's modesty, like their chastity, serves men's chastity by quenching illicit male desire and silencing speech that might express or give rise to it" (9). As Potter writes about Boyle's thoughts, "For women, modesty means modesty of the body and is contrasted with boldness, impudence, and wantonness. Whores are impudent; women are modest...immodesty in women turns out to be a problem for men because it tempts them" (9; emphasis mine). To Boyle, a woman's essential nature and tendency is "whore[dom]"; "thousands [of women] would be whores if they could get away with it" (9). He proposes a "modest reservedness of looks and gestures that countenances not vice and such as may quench all un[w]arranted flames in the kindling, silences all discourses that do but glance at immodesty" (9; as cited in Boyle's private papers, XXXVII, 153). While sexually desired women practice modesty of the body in the name of science, the model male scientist practices modesty of the mind (9). This includes writing laboratory reports in a "masculine style" that avoids "flowery" language (10-11). The origins of modern experimental science excluded many populations as credible witnesses; only heterosexualized, properly masculine Anglo men of social, economic, and political privilege could take part in the production of scientific knowledge.

[41] Today, within a U.S. context, gender, race, and class are dimensions in the social stratification of scientific participation. Nelson and Brammer (2010) conduct the first national comprehensive data analysis of tenured and tenure track faculty. They report significant faculty underrepresentation of women, minorities, and underrepresented minority women in the top 100 U.S. departments of science and engineering disciplines (1). In terms of science education at pre-college levels, gender, race and class inequalities provide certain populations—specifically white, middle class males—with unearned advantages that impact academic science and engineering pipelines (American Association of University Women 2010; Hanson 2009, 5). In anecdotal accounts, scientists perceive sex, race, class, gender and sexuality as dimensions of workplace and career discrimination (Barres 2006; Keller 2008; Sands 2008; Wayne 2008).

[42] What about female representation in the Nobel Prize Laureate population? According to Hilary Rose, women constitute about two percent of scientific Laureates (2008). Of these, the three most recent female Laureates' ages were over seventy years. She notes, "longevity is increasingly an additional criterion for women scientists to meet...Perhaps men with the power to give public recognition suffer from an inability to recognize scientific merit in peer-group women, whereas they have no such problem with peer-aged or even young men" (137). The Nobel Prize also bestows much cultural capital; if not already, Laureates become members of an ultra-elite with extraordinary access to political and military power (137-138). The Laureates in Bodnar's demonstration represent this powerful ultra-elite; they signify the origins and continued dominance of Boyle's class-privileged, Anglo, heterosexualized, masculine scientist.

[43] Bodnar's choreographed striptease challenges the origins of modern experimental science. With the EBbra as technoscientific prop, she casts her body, identity, and subjectivity as "wanton" witness. Already, by virtue of her sex, she has violated Boyle's prohibition on the possibility of female scientists. She is a medical scientist with over 20 years experience in clinical research and development. She is also founder and President of the Trauma Risk Management Research Institute and has led the Electrical Trauma Research Program at the University of Chicago. Internationally, she has worked with the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency (EBbra.com). She has proven herself as an accomplished professional—with sufficient "objectivity" to bear witness and report experimental findings.

[44] However, not only is she a "witness," she is a "wanton" witness. Silly sexy nerdy humor—as affective response to Bra Removal (Motion 1)—delights in the materialization of Bodnar's unseen breasts in the audience's and Laureates' imaginations. She performs an iteration of Alex's easy, nonchalant striptease and Rachel's comical variation. This sexual titillation—accomplished by her baring of breasts—directly flies in the face of Boyle's commandment, that modest and chaste women not bare their breasts, display their necks, nor wear makeup in order to restrain their true natures as "whores" in the name of science (Potter 2001; 5). With respect to Bra-Masked Men (Motion 3), Bodnar casts the male Nobel Laureates as Weird Science's Gary and Wyatt. Though the film nerds embody many of Boyle's model qualities for a masculine scientist—that of male sex, celibacy, active heterosexual desire, and class status—their forays into science fiction and the supernatural violate Boyle's tenet of modesty of the mind. Furthermore, it is Bodnar's technological invention and deliberate seduction that has rendered the male Laureates as sexually inexperienced, nerdy, adolescent males. On stage, they are transformed into nervous and giddy young boys with bras on their heads—a far cry from the dignity Boyle commanded of his model masculine scientist. Its accumulated humor easily obscures the meaningfulness of her motions. Working within an affective economy of silly sexy nerdy humor, Bodnar performs a scathing feminist technoscientific critique of institutionalized knowledge production.


[45] This paper has seriously considered popular science, technology and paramilitary culture as complex terrain riddled with both postfeminist trenches and feminist technoscientific activist possibilities. Understanding the ways neoliberalism and postfeminism are entangled, especially during states of emergency, calls for interrogating sticky configurations of science, technology, risk, bodies, femininities, and performance. The "stickiness" of bodies and objects is constituted through intersecting dimensions of gender, race, nation, sexuality, and class, as well as circulated through networks of popular knowledge.

[46] I have moved beyond the expected reading of Bodnar's EBbra as a heterosexist, racist, nativist, postfeminist, neoliberal technology of governance that maintains systems of inequality and injustice. I make this move—because I neither seek to present myself as 'in on the joke,' nor as a 'so over that' postfeminist who laughs along with nerd boy humor and its masculinist and heterosexist trappings. Far from rejecting this feminist reading of the EBbra, I consider it the first strand of a more complex story. There is something important at stake in this double-stranded reading; I believe that a feminist technoscience lens helps develop richer feminist readings of resistance across disciplinary locations and modalities. I hope that it better enables collaborative work between, at least, two populations as broadly outlined: on one hand, feminists who critique representations and, on the other, feminist scientists and women scientists who navigate—on the ground—a distinct set of obstacles not necessarily appreciated by feminist media and cultural studies scholars. In her retrospective essay on the state of feminist science studies, Banu Subramamiam calls for greater collaboration between feminist theorists and practicing scientists (2009). This double-stranded reading is a step toward this future.

[47] Ig Nobel Prizes recognize scientific achievements that first make us laugh, and then make us think. While many feminists may not support Bodnar's actions, I suggest they practice generosity, in considering the possibilities of feminist technoscientific activism. I make this request: While we might not laugh with Bodnar, let us not laugh at her.


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[1] As of August 16, 2013, the Annals of Improbable Research's YouTube uploaded file, "Improbable Research Collection #128: The 2009 Ig Nobel Prize for Public Health," had 101,424 total views. Video and viewing statistics available at «http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxf3HK21BWI»

[2] «http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/total-recall-three-breasted-woman-358209» Accessed 18 August 2012. As quoted by Borys Kit in The Hollywood Reporter (August 3, 2012), film producer Neal Moritz of Total Recall (2012) remarks that the three-breasted woman is the most asked about element in the remake of Total Recall (1990).