A professor of women’s studies at Washington State University (WSU), Noël Sturgeon will lecture and conduct research in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) in the fall 2010 term after being awarded a Distinguished Fulbright Lectureship.
Sturgeon’s internationally known research on the relationship between environmental and social justice movements, her planned collaborative research with York faculty and her graduate course on environmental justice cultural studies qualified her for the award.
The Fulbright Scholar Program, sponsored by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs, sends 800 faculty and professionals abroad each year to lecture and conduct research in a wide variety of academic and professional fields.
Right: Noël Sturgeon
“FES at York is the largest environmental studies program in North America,” says Sturgeon. “I’ll have a chance to work with prominent scholars and graduate students in a rare interdisciplinary environmental studies context, defining and expanding the new field of environmental justice cultural studies.”
Her most recent research examines environmental messages portrayed in popular culture since the late 1980s. In one chapter of her recent book, Environmentalism in Popular Culture: Gender, Race, Sexuality and the Politics of the Natural (University of Arizona Press, 2009), for example, Sturgeon has identified a consistent formula in popular movies that inaccurately depicts an inherent spiritual closeness of indigenous people with the natural world. This stereotype appears repeatedly in movies such as Avatar and Pocahontas.
Sturgeon believes this misrepresentation is just the beginning of where these plots go awry in terms of real solutions to current environmental problems. Typically, these formulaic storylines then morph into action-adventure dramas where the heroic American white male archetype, who has “seen the light” – usually through romantic involvement with a native woman or an attachment to a special animal – bonds with the indigenous culture to save them from the “bad guys”, for example other American-like white males who are fixated on conquering land and indigenous people for their own gain.
To Sturgeon, these movies are insidious on many levels, but especially because they leave moviegoers empty in terms of environmental solutions that are just and fair for all. “While people today might admire the many traits typically assigned to indigenous people, fantasizing that all would be better environmentally if we could just become hunter-gatherers or escape to another planet is a dangerous fantasy,” says Sturgeon.
And when these formulaic plots become focused on the fight for colonization, real solutions for global environmental action are bypassed. “I’ve spoken with students who have left Avatar feeling powerless about issues surrounding environmentalism – they are given no tools for correcting injustice or saving the planet,” she says.
Her book unpacks a variety of cultural tropes, including ideas about Mother Nature, the purity of the natural and the allegedly close relationships of indigenous people with the natural world.
Sturgeon is on the graduate faculty for the WSU American Studies program. In addition to environmental cultural studies, her research and teaching interests include feminist theory, social movements, and theories of globalization and transnationalism. She is widely published in peer-reviewed journals and is also the author of Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory and Political Action (Routledge, 1997).