Junctures: Interview with Kerry McElroy, Cultural Historian & Freelance Writer, PhD (ABD)

NP:  You have led a fascinating life. How would you describe those junctures in your life that lead to significant course changes? What inspired you to move to Montreal? What excites your imagination and what depresses you?

McElroy: Like many of the people who write for your journal, I think, I am a person who has lived many different lives. I might have been someone who stayed close to home and family in the town where I was raised (Chicago) had my former fiancée not very much wanted to move to San Francisco after we finished university. Ironically, when the relationship ended, I was the one who was then set on a path to keep moving after our years there. I moved from San Francisco to New York City to do my master’s at Columbia. It was a change in lifestyle in every way. Then I left New York after a few years and went to do a master’s at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. From there I moved out of the US and have lived outside the country ever since. I only planned to do my PhD at Concordia University in Montreal, but I fell in love with Canada and Quebec. I have also spent a good deal of time in Europe, for both travel and research. I am currently in Switzerland.

I think new ideas excite me the most, seeing positive changes in the world that help people and solve problems. Inventions, technology, lifestyle changes. I am a writer and artist and wasn’t particularly good at sciences in school– but as an adult I find myself to be a real student of these things in practical matters. The state of the arts is important, but it doesn’t affect most people’s day to day existence. Technology that allows disabled people to walk again, detectors of cancer at the microscopic level, the possibility that the world may move to non-slaughtered, cultured meat, radical re-shifts of capitalism like universal basic income, advances in women’s rights and safety around the world– these are exciting and tangible ways the world really is changing for the better.

Many things depress me. I tend to be a deep thinker on the state of the world, which can definitely lead to despair if one lets it take over. I find the fact that many of the problems still plaguing humanity are simply so unnecessary to be the most depressing. Income inequality, violence, war, terrorism, inhumanity, misogyny, exploitative capitalism, factory farming, environmental degradation– they are all, simply, backward. There are better ways to do things in the world, some of them not even that complicated to understand or attempt, but so many cling to the bad old ways. The biggest thing that depresses me is the consistent presence of criminality, cruelty, and real evil in the world. Sometimes it feels like the bad guys are winning. Then we have to square our shoulders and keep fighting the next day once more. 

NP:  How would you describe your work as a cultural historian? You depict yourself as a Hollywoodist? What does that involve? When you look at the influence of Hollywood on people’s lives and popular culture do you think it is misplaced or superficial? 

McElroy: I have always loved history, but I am particularly committed to areas of history that deal with people’s lives– everything from food and fashion to marriage habits or gender roles. I am a feminist and also would especially describe myself as a cultural historian who looks to the role of women in culture. In this, my work has more concentric circles with sociology, anthropology, even psychology, as compared with traditional masculinist history that has put almost all focus on dates, treaties, and wars. I find that when most people think “history is boring” as a subject, it’s because they were taught in the latter traditional way in school, and it turned them off. Everything is culture. Everything is history. How could it possibly be boring, when put that way?

In my overall, post-PhD life as a writer, historian, potential documentarian, I will look to any and all instances of cultural history of the type I described above. As I finish my PhD thesis in the next few weeks, my time primarily as a Hollywoodist will come somewhat to an end. My PhD project has been a labour and class-based study of women in Hollywood, particularly focusing on the studio system. It’s been a wonderful project and I expect to keep working on women in Hollywood going forward– but more to compare with women in other cultural systems, other time periods, and then on to other topics altogether.

As for Hollywood’s influence on culture, I approach this question and answer it differently than almost all cinema scholars. Most of them are looking at the influence of films on society– gender roles, or violence, political messages, aesthetic style. As for me, I don’t study in films, I study behind films. I look at Hollywood as an industry and culture– what its values are, who has controlled it, who has been oppressed within it. So, one of the contentions of my thesis project Class Acts is that Hollywood has for a century functioned as a pretty dysfunctional space– hyper capitalist, unethical, dehumanising, misogynist, white supremacist– and those values are then transmitted into the culture at large. Less from the content of the films than the power of the industry and the Hollywood American Dream itself.

NP:  Please tell us about your book and what it entails? How did you decide on the subject matter? Was there anything that surprised you in your research?

McElroy: So, my PhD thesis, which I have just recently completed, is called Class Acts: A Sociocultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood. I’ll be defending it in a few weeks, and I have had some interest from presses in publishing it as a partially academic, partially mass-market text. I hope it will find a home soon.

The subject matter was a long and winding road. Like with most PhDs, the project changed a lot from beginning to end. One tends to find personal values and life themes bleeding into the research, at least if it’s work in cultural studies or gender studies, for example. And this then leads the project to evolve and be more personal. I started with a vague idea towards women in cinema curation. Over time my research brought me to a cultural study of women in Hollywood, with a focus on labour and class in American systems that hasn’t really been done before. This happened over thousands of pages of reading and research. I particularly developed an ethos towards memoir and interview as historiographic justice in reading about studio Hollywood in the words of the women who lived it themselves. This culminated in a real passion for oral history, and fieldwork in Los Angeles where I conducted interviews with twenty-six women in Hollywood, at all different levels of fame, age, position, and success. Finally, with #metoo, the work moved towards questions of feminism, misogyny, and trauma theory.

The most surprising thing was that an entire revolution sort of exploded in what I was working on in real time. That is something most PhDs cannot say! I was already working on the topic of women’s Hollywood history for several years before the Cosby and Weinstein cases sort of broke everything open. Even on my fieldwork trip in 2014, I left with the conclusion that women in Hollywood were sort of living under a pre-feminist consciousness, that they were not yet ready to revolt and force the industry in line with others in terms of its abusive practices of women. I would say I was happily proven wrong in 2017. I did not see #metoo coming at all, but in the ways that I talk about in my work, it has already changed everything, finally.

NP:  Do you sense the country and our culture(s) is ready for a change in direction? What do you see on the horizon in the various cultures and arts?

McElroy: Yes, I think in many areas, change is indubitably happening. The murder of George Floyd has had worldwide reverberations, for just one example. There is so much youth-driven activism that seems really heartening on everything from racism to climate change and antifascism. In terms of my areas of interest, change is definitely happening too. As a vegetarian pretty committed to animal rights, I hope that the coronavirus will spur changes in what people eat and how. We see how choices in food have been able to disrupt the whole world and bring misery and destruction to so many. And as a feminist and an advocate for women’s rights, I think #metoo has permanently changed some things for the better. Many scholars and thinkers are skeptical it will change the balance of power in Hollywood in any substantial ways, that it will end up being lip service and the same people will stay in charge. I am more optimistic than that, but I understand the skepticism when it’s based in the economic arena, as above. But for my purposes– women telling their own stories, sexual assault and trauma being believed, cultures of silence and conspiracy being broken– the system has already fundamentally changed.

I expect arts and creative industries will continue to make more attempts at diversity and representation. It won’t always be done perfectly, and there will be mistakes, but I don’t see how things ever go back to a Hollywood of the 1930s, or the 1960s, or even of the early 2000s.

NP:  Any number of people that I have listened to around the world have suggested that patriarchy has outlived its value and usefulness, that it’s abusive and that the world is ready for matriarchy. What are your thoughts? 

McElroy: I think patriarchy never had value, that is has always been a destructive and cruel social system that destroyed women’s lives and potential throughout human civilisation. But as for a move to more matriarchal modes of living, it’s possible. In political contexts, there has certainly been a great deal of discussion around such a shift lately. One discussion I have seen much of lately is how countries with women leaders have come through the coronavirus with flying colours by listening to the experts, while masculinist, macho authoritarians are the ones who have created the biggest disasters (Brazil, the US, Russia). I think humans will continue to live the way they do in personal relationships– that gender roles will not simply go away. But nor would I want them to entirely, personally. I think there is a place for masculinity and femininity without domination in humans’ interactions with one another. I’m not sure pure egalitarianism is what will happen in that area, or what is even needed. But on the socioeconomic and political levels, this is where I think a major shift in realigning away from old, masculinist values that hurt people is already happening. I hope that continues and begins to actually produce real societal progress.

NP:  What is your personal and professional future looking like?

 McElroy: Bright! After many years of feeling quite stuck in the PhD. It’s a very arduous process, and I don’t recommend it to people. I will defend my thesis in the next few weeks, and I am really excited to be in a period of openness and possibility. I am on the editorial board of Serai magazine in Montreal. I tutor English online internationally. I hope to secure a book deal for the thesis, and to continue to do freelance writing for magazines on women’s and political issues. I also hope to perhaps do more work in documentary. I am thinking about spending a year or two living in various places around the world for a few months at a time. Lots of possibilities once I realised I am not so enamored of the neoliberal politics of academia, and don’t really wish to pursue the elusive tenure-track path. I spent a decade under really high pressure, and now I am looking forward to continuing to do the same work I believe in passionately, but in ways I find meaningful and life-improving. It’s a healing, joyful, free, and open time for me– and I’m still not quite used to that feeling yet!