Kathleen Murphey: The Power of Stories

There’s a poem many of you are probably familiar with, it’s called, “First They Came…” It’s about someone standing on the sideline as other people were discriminated against and not intervening because it wasn’t their fight. This week’s portrait, Kathleen Murphey, is the antithesis of that mind set. Murphey is a wife and mother of 3 lovely daughters, a writer and poet, a subversive knitter and a fierce fighter for justice for all. She teaches composition and literature courses in the English Department at Community College of Philadelphia and has a Ph.D. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, she has presented conference papers on the masculinization of female sexuality in popular culture and has been trying to give voice to more empowered visions of female and diverse sexualities. That effort has resulted in two collections of alternative fairy tales, “Other Tales” and “Other Tales II”, and a book, “Rainbow Tales.”

Tell me a little about yourself.

I was born in Bala Cynwyd, just outside of Philadelphia, in 1965. 

So, very close, which high school did you go to?

I went to Archbishop Carroll, mostly to annoy my mother! It was a pretty uneventful childhood. I did a lot of babysitting and probably worked in every single store in the Bala Cynwyd shopping center. I played some sports in high school but mostly spent my free time working. [Laughing] A pretty unremarkable high school career as well. I went to Boston University my freshman year and then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. My dad taught at Penn for a long time.

That must have meant discounted or free tuition, what did he teach?

It was a decent discounted tuition which was pretty nice. He taught American Civilization, since then Penn has sort of corporatized and a lot of the smaller departments like folklore and American Civilization were swallowed up by the history department. As an undergraduate I spent my junior year in Bologna, Italy with Penn’s program there. I took an art history class but it was more about the culture and sociology of Colbert and other artists of that time. It was very interesting and a fantastic course. I’d been studying comparative lit, but when I came back, I switched everything over and graduated with a degree in art history. While I was there I met a boy who believe it or not was from London, so after I graduated I spent about 18 months in London and worked for an antique dealer which was great for a bit. I loved working with the objects, but I hated the sales aspect. The hustle of trying to push things. 

Because I enjoyed working with artifacts, my dad told me that the American Civilization department had a material culture program which would lead to museum work. It was an appealing idea, so I worked at a few historic house museums in Germantown, Clivedon and Wyck. I also did some things for the Art Museum, and I enjoyed them, but the museum world is very small and a very 9-5 world and… Actually, let me go back, my parents divorced when I was very young and my father got custody of the children which was very unusual for the 1970s. His teaching schedule was flexible and allowed him to be home on holidays, so I began to think about teaching. 

Nice, but before we get into that, tell me a little about the rest of the family.

My mother was also a professor, she taught at Community College of Philadelphia for about 20 years. I have two younger siblings; my younger brother wrote a novel and got into screenwriting, he was the original writer on Will Smith’s remake of “The Karate Kid”, and my sister is a social worker in Portland, but she used to do some stunning pottery. 

Were your parents very progressive?

Yeah, they demonstrated against the Vietnam War! My dad died a few years ago, but he’d drive around with a bumper sticker, “FDR, now more than ever!” And one of my mother’s very good friends was a gay man who taught English at CCP and had a degree in sexology; he was a powerful influence on me. I had a lot of friends who were gay or bisexual who made deep impacts on my life. 

How did that transfer to the work and the writing that you do?

I’ve been at CCP for about 20 years and though we don’t have a “publish or perish” mandate, I do a lot of presenting at different schools and conferences. A lot of what I speak about are the depictions of female sexuality in popular culture. Having taught Women in History at Community College of Philadelphia for several semesters, I was looking at the continuing challenges that girls and women face in our culture. One of the things that struck me in popular Young Adult fiction was the absence of any description of sex. And when sex is depicted, there is no discussion of female arousal or of their arousal being different than male arousal or of their having different sexual needs than their male partners. They depict female protagonists who can be instantly ready for forceful vaginal penetration. There’s no foreplay necessary, they’re instantly lubricated and don’t need anything other than a male penis when we know that’s not true. Seventy percent of women don’t actually orgasm that way. It bothered me, along with the fact that my three girls were being taught sex education at school with no reference to female pleasure and climax at all.  They were shown pictures of the female reproductive system without images of the clitoris. 

It’s so ridiculous. 

Yes, and having written and presented on this topic for years, I started playing around with fiction of my own to write what I wasn’t seeing. First, I wrote an unpublished fan-fiction version of “Twilight” titled “Stalked” and then started doing rewrites of fairy tales and wrote two collections of alternative fairy tales, “Other Tales” and “Other Tales II”, a collection of stories that are twists on familiar fairy tales and folklore. A world where stepmother’s aren’t always evil and beasts aren’t necessarily fearsome. 

A lot of the stories featured couples who were heterosexual, but many of them weren’t. Because, why would they all be? I wanted all different sorts of people and stories. In “P Pan and Beyondland”, P Pan is non-binary and offers sanctuary on Beyondland to children of the world who are threatened by physical or psychological abuse including a pair of twins who have been quietly questioning their gender identities. It’s kind of cool, a friend of mine had me turn it into a script and it was performed in the 2018 Fringe Festival. Our cast were all members of the LGBTQ+ community and my family who all got involved. My youngest acted in it and my husband filmed it for us. 

That’s exciting! So tell me about “Rainbow Tales.”

“Rainbow Tales” is a compilation of all the queer stories in the series. In addition to P Pan, there’s “The Frog and the Transgender Prince” about Stephanie, the spoiled, awkward princess who betrays a talking frog. Stephanie realizes that the frog must be under an enchantment, and she hopes the frog will transform into a prince, but the frog reveals that it is a she, so Stephanie chooses to be a prince to be with the frog princess. “Beau and the Beast” is Beauty and the Beast story, only Beauty is a boy instead of a girl. Beau finally tells the beast, Nathaniel, that he loves him, a fairy appears and transforms Nathaniel back into a boy. 

“Snow White and the Huntsgirl” is about Snow White being groomed by her step-mother, Queen Lauren, to be a queen herself someday.  As part of this training, Queen Lauren shows Snow White her secret, magic mirror, that the queen uses very carefully to watch over the people and to know when to offer aid or assistance to those who need it.  Lord Thomas threatens the kingdom, and Queen Lauren sends Snow White into hiding in the care of the huntsgirl, Tanya, and Nathan, one of the queen’s guardsmen. Snow White and Tanya had always been friends, but having so much time alone in the woods allows them to develop a more intimate relationship. Once the threat of Lord Thomas ends, Snow White, Tanya, and Nathan return, and Snow White begins to come to terms with being coupled with Tanya publicly. 

What made you feel it was important to write stories that were inclusive of the queer community?

Because they’re part of our community! Right? I wasn’t seeing these stories, so I figured I should write them. A colleague mentioned a young adult book series to me because it was supposed to be inclusive. There were a few African American characters and an Asian character, and they tried to show a positive sexuality with the main female character, but there were no gay people in the story. It was such a glaring omission, it made me mad. When I was writing my stories, it just seemed to come naturally out of the tales. Like the Huntsman from Snow White who gets in trouble for letting her go and has to run away. He’s the one who meets the Beast and falls in love and they have a great relationship supported by his grandmother, a former midwife. I don’t know, it just felt natural. 

Backtracking a little, it seems like we are currently under siege with “Don’t Say Gay” bills, and even here in PA school boards are trying to ban books and stifle free speech. You seem fearless talking about sex in young adult books and calling out things by name.

One, I teach at the college level which changes things up quite a bit, though I have to say it can be a mix, they can be quite conservative about some issues, but also because of all the work I have done — I teach gender studies — I have a lot more leeway to talk about those subjects in my classes. And a lot of the books that we’re reading are from people talking about those subjects, whether it’s Audre Lourde and “Uses of the Erotic”, or bell hooks or Adrienne Rich. 

The second thing is that CCP has rewritten their “General Education Requirements” and one of the requirements specifically asks us to engage not just culture and race but also sexual orientation, ability, gender, and more. So I’ve tried to be very conscious of that. This semester I’m teaching a course called, “Food History” and as you can imagine, it’s a lot of non-fiction, so I’ve made sure to add some poetry into the mix. I’ve included disabled poets as well as LGBTQ+ poets in the list. There’s a poem called “Peanut Butter” by Eileen Myles where she talks about wanting to eat while she’s having sex with her partner. It’s very important to me to have diverse voices represented. 

Do you ever get any pushback from the students, “Why do we need to learn about that or them?”

Not really. My students are pretty vocal about the fact that everyone should be heard and respected. They’re pretty horrified about what’s happening in Florida. 

I read that you also worked on Making Visible the Hidden Histories of African American Women in Philadelphia. I love that you walk the walk and make sure that all voices are heard, even if you’re not a part of that community. 

Well, I have students of all colors, but mostly Black and Brown. It’s important to find topics that will be relevant and keep them engaged. 

And how did you teach your own kids about LGBTQ subjects?

It’s kind of the same, it’s important to make sure my college students are exposed to diverse stories and it’s equally important to me that we have stories that express diversity in my own home. “William’s Doll” is one that comes to mind, but there were several, along with stories about strong African American girls, or others that are underrepresented in the canon of children’s literature. 

Would that every parent think that way, especially in white households. It makes me think of how when I was growing up, Black children were often given books about white children and dolls that were white and no one thought anything of it, but if you gave a caucasian girl a Black doll, people got uncomfortable. 

Yes, it’s still often true. But we always had a range of dolls for the kids to play with. In fact we needed some black dolls for the production of P Pan and we happily already had them at my house. 

Let’s wrap up with a couple of random questions. What talent would you like to have?

I’d like to be able to draw. The best I can do is very weak stick figures that look pathetic. I appreciate the way people like my sister can do it so effortlessly, even just making a line. It can make a drawing of a flower look real. I don’t possess that talent. 

The thing you get complimented on the most?

When I have time, I enjoy cooking and I can cook relatively well. I especially love when I can share it, like when I bake a cake or cookies I like to be able to give them to someone else. [Laughing] Because I don’t need that temptation in my house! 

A favorite song or artist?

I really like Sade. 

You and me both, and Wanda Sykes. Google Wanda Sykes and Sade for a quick laugh. Do you have a favorite motto or saying?

I think it’s on my mind because I was just at a restorative justice workshop, and I was looking at the William Penn quote, “Let’s see what love will do?” [Pause] Sorry, I get choked up, I mean in this crazy world… I have my students read bell hooks’s “Love is the Practice of Freedom” and the only way out of this mess, it seems to me, is radical love but I don’t see that many people preaching it, or even basic civility. We need to turn it around. 

Well, if we can clone you that will be a good start.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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