To research the history of immigrants Erica Rand studies sexuality on Ellis Island, the gateway for many immigrants into the US. Rand studies sexuality, because the values about sex in our society influenced the history of immigration and immigrants. I think this is a very interesting approach, but in this blog I want to discuss the golf ball Rand bought in the gift shop on Ellis Island.
In her article Normalizing sex at Ellis Island Rand writes about a golf ball with a heteronormative illustration on it. This illustration is also available on other items in the gift shop at the historical site. See for example the snow globe on one of Rand’s books. The image contains three people, presumably, a father, mother, and their offspring. Rand describes the image as a breeder sign, a sign that suggests (dominate) procreative family ties. I agree with Rand that from a “traditional” perspective this image is not out of place in a museum about history and ancestry; the image of a traditional family is a clear and most importantly, a safe one.
The breeder sign or illustration shows that blood and marriage ties are important to the exhibition on Ellis Island and in the visitor’s search for immigrant ancestors. According to Rand this excludes people who are looking for kindred spirits or their chosen family. She has a point, however for historical research on family (traditional or chosen) you need a database with names. Although, I agree that our historical narrative can use feminist theory in a positive way (some reasons why, are here to find), it is important to note that you can only change your focus on historical narrative, not the resources available. Therefore, I am interested in what Rand (or others) suggests as a solution for doing research on historical kindred spirits and chosen family.
Of course, the illustration on the golf ball does not stand on its own. In view of the other remarks Rand makes about the site, the Ellis Island museum is not at all inclusive. Derived from Rand’s remarks about the site, the museum is characterized by heteronormativity. To include everyone’s history, the complex should pay more attention to gender, for example by researching people who arrived alone or by refocusing on domestic life (more thoughts on heteronormativity in museums can be found here).
Briefly pointed out by Rand, but very interesting, is the role of the woman in the illustration. Assume that the illustration depicts a family. It looks like she is the one with the caring responsibilities. Drawn from a more personal experience, I can say that this role is changing but still overwhelmingly present in our everyday lives. Heteronormative thought is omnipresent Although the role as a care giver in advertisement shifts to a more sexual one, it is still widely represented. Click here and here to see some advertisements with women as traditional care givers and click here to see the promotional video of the ‘We are #WomenNotObjects’ campaign. In all kinds of media texts we are confronted with the woman as either a beautiful, loveable caregiver or as a purely sexual being. In a world that is built on heteronormative thought it is not surprising that museums are experiencing difficulties in avoiding those norms. Even a, on first glance innocent, illustration on a gift shop item can mean a lot.
By W. Brusse