Video: Seán Williams on ‘Cancer Coiffures’

Cancer is an experience that is now part of everyday life, a familiar celebrity confession, and a stock plotline in blogs and vlogs, published memoirs, TV series, and on the big screen. As a scholar in a university’s School of Languages and Cultures, I’m interested in such cultural representations. But to really understand the “cancer discourse” in which so many of today’s narratives of selfhood are embedded, I teamed up with medical sociologist Kari Nyheim Solbrække — thanks to a Wellcome Trust Small Grant.

Cancer stories are important, because they help patients and relatives tell their own experiences of the disease, and its effect on their lives. The number of cancer diagnoses is increasing dramatically around the world. But what is most important is diversity in cancer stories, to avoid patients’ alienation when living, and coping, with cancer.

Cultural and gender critics such as myself are well-used to pointing out that popular storylines are stereotypical, or that they buy in to Western, consumerist ideals of beauty and identity that are increasingly becoming global norms. This is certainly the case for Sex and the City, and the spin-off texts and series it has inspired, and which Kari and I discuss in our article. But while spotting stereotyping is an important critical task, I’ve also learned to view mainstream and seemingly (hetero)normative stories against the rhetoric and popular plots about cancer in particular. Seen from this “cancered” perspective, they can be critical — and even therapeutically helpful — for some cancer patients, despite their normative narratives in other respects.

Sometimes cultural studies must concern itself with the value of surface, “skin deep” arguments that can all too easily be overlooked.

Of course, what is a subversive story for some cancer patients might alienate others. And so our study of popular cancer scripts brought forth the challenge of talking about what it means for a cultural text to be subversive or normative at all, in the context of competing categories of intersectional identity in globalized, consumer-capitalist culture. In our article, Kari and I seek to redeem the critical value of some cancer stories that are, and should be, otherwise seen as problematic (e.g. from the perspective of gender).

Because our corpus comprised film clips, fiction, autobiographies, radio documentaries and other forms of media, it seemed fitting to collaborate with BBC Arts to create a short video on the topic for a general, non-academic audience.

Access the full article here.