Beyond rural idylls: imperfect lesbian utopias at Michigan Womyn's music festival
Browne, K. (2011) Beyond rural idylls: imperfect lesbian utopias at Michigan Womyn's music festival Journal of Rural Studies, 27 (1). pp. 13-23. ISSN 0743-0167
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Whilst rural idylls have dominated some discussions of rural social difference, little attention has been paid to rural utopias. Imagined, material and discursive experiences of utopian rural ideals are critically examined in this paper. It takes as its focus the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – an annual US womyn-only festival – in order to understand the mutual construction of empowering rural spaces and non(hetero)normative women’s bodies. The first part of the paper moves away from the current focus on ‘rural idylls’ to understand social difference and ruralities, and argues that the notion of ‘rural utopia’ is a useful framework to reconsider rural possibilities for those considered ‘other’ to dominant (heterosexual) hegemonies. The context of the festival and qualitative empirical research methodologies are explained. In the second part of the paper four themes that arose from this research are explored. Firstly, the ‘free expression’ of sexualities, including sex and relationships is seen as creating a ‘slice of lesbian rural utopia’ at Michfest. Secondly, rural utopian understandings of Michfest as womyn’s space where diverse bodily aesthetics are celebrated are compared and contrasted to urban spaces, and particularly the gendered embodiments of ‘everyday’ life. Third, while womyn’s bodies may contest heteronormative performances of femininity, they also reiterate normative and embodied versions of ‘women’, creating womyn’s space through the controversial ‘womyn-born-womyn’ entry policy. Fourth, rural tensions are examined around the negotiation of work (voluntary and paid). The paper concludes by arguing that a focus on imperfect (lesbian) utopias furthers our understanding of gender, sexuality and rurality.
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