Lisa Downing

Colleges, School and Institutes


Originally trained in modern European languages, literatures, and thought at the Universities of London and Oxford, I read for a DPhil from 1996-1999, under the supervision of the late Prof. Malcolm Bowie, on French literature and discourses of necrophilia. (This was published as Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature in 2003).  I have since worked at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Exeter, before taking up my Chair at the University of Birmingham in 2012.

In 2009, I was the recipient of a Philip Leverhulme Prize, awarded to “outstanding scholars under the age of 36 who have made a substantial contribution to their field of study and whose future contributions are held to be of correspondingly high promise”. This prize provided me with two years of funded research leave from Exeter from 2010-2012. During the two-year period of research leave, I completed a major monograph about the gendering and othering of the figure of the murderer from 1830 to the present day, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer, which appeared in March 2013 with the University of Chicago Press, and I worked on a co-authored book with Dr Iain Morland and Dr Nikki Sullivan about the work of the late sexologist John Money. The cheekily titled Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts was published in 2015, also with Chicago UP. My section of the book explores Money’s contribution to the controversial perversion/ paraphilia diagnosis.

Most recently, I have written a book entitled Selfish Women. This book examines cultural narratives surrounding women who espouse or explore discourses of self-interest, self-regard, and selfishness. The book asks how revisiting the words and works of selfish women of modernity, including Rachilde, Ayn Rand, Margaret Thatcher, and Lionel Shriver, can assist us in understanding our fraught individual and collective identities in contemporary culture. Moreover, it examines whether women with politics that are contrary to the interests of the collective can teach us anything about the value of rethinking the role of the individual. 

Research interests

All of my research is underpinned by a guiding interest in exploring cultural and historical understandings of, and reactions to, perceived (ab)normality, extremity, and exceptionality – whether these be found in the so-called sexual perversions/ paraphilias with which much of my earlier work was concerned; in those subjects who transgress the gendered expectations placed upon them, such as female murderers; or in the ‘selfish’, right-wing women who are the subject of my most recent book. This is also why the ideas of philosopher of ‘normative power’, Michel Foucault, has featured prominently as a theoretical constant in my work, in combination with an individualist feminist ethic which strives to see female subjects always as flawed, full human beings, beyond the straitjackets of gendered norms.

My current research projects include:

 (1) ‘(S)extremism’: Building on the ideas explored in the monograph Selfish Women and my other recent publications, the project undertakes an extended exploration and problematization of the expected relationship between categories of identity and political affiliation. The concept of ‘(s)extremism’ describes the set of cultural understandings brought to bear on women who express ‘extreme’ views or who commit acts of (political/ ideological) violence. This project involves both theoretical writing and collaborative, practice-based work, including an ongoing engagement with the artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos.

(2) ‘Against Affect’: This project explores the ways in which the so-called ‘affective turn’ within the academic humanities has coincided with a cultural shift in public discourse concerning reason, feeling, freedom of expression, and identity. I argue for a feelings-free, pro-rational feminist response to the ills of populism, identity politics-based factionalism, and anti-intellectualism. This project will lead to the production of a short, polemical manifesto.

A piece I recently published in the Birmingham Perspective on the “ISIS bride” Shamima Begum, sex stereotypes, and emotionalism in public discourse, gave me the opportunity to bring together some reflections on concerns central to both of these two research projects.

My inaugural lecture at the University of Birmingham took as its subject matter some aspects of my research project on ‘selfish women’.

Willingness to take PhD students


PhD projects

I welcome applications from PhD students in any of my current areas of interest, listed below:

Theoretical and cultural studies approaches to crime and criminality
Historical or contemporary sexuality and gender studies
Interrogations of feminist, queer, Foucauldian, psychoanalytic, and ethical thought
Identity politics and freedom of expression
Women and power, women and the right wing, women and politics
The gendering of ‘extremism’.