Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"I mean, that's just, like, the rules of feminism."

For those of you who don't recognize the title of this post, it's a quotation from the movie Mean Girls, in which Gretchen Wieners explains to Cady that the "rules of feminism" include not "liking" or dating the ex-boyfriend of another girl. Apparently, if my students' papers are any indication, the "rules of feminism" also include an implicit belief that "young girls," "teen girls," and even women are "impressionable" and "very easily influenced by the media," which is what makes them get eating disorders, have poor self-concepts, dress like sluts, act like sluts, and I'm not sure what else. What I have learned from these papers is that "young boys" don't have similar problems, and that my (primarily female) students who chose to write about these issues have internalized all of this shit about what it means to be female in our culture that a) constructs women as victims, b) constructs girls and women as total slaves to any media they consume, c) constructs women as unthinking and vain creatures who will do anything to get the attention of men (which, of course, their arguments explain, is wrong, not because it's inherently wrong to define oneself in relation to men, but because beauty is about what's on the inside and/or one can be sexy without whoring it up and baring her navel).

This isn't a post about the "influence of the media." It's not a post about the causes of eating disorders or about whether 12-year-old-girls should dress like hoochies. At the end of the day, I don't really care where these students come down on any of these things. I care that they make a nuanced argument and that they support it with strong examples and analysis within a solid rhetorical structure. I'm a writing teacher, and so those are my things, you know? (Incidentally, the course that I teach has a theme of celebrity in contemporary culture, so I knew I was taking the risk of getting these papers when I designed it, but at the same time, I did not ask them to write on this specific topic. The assignment was to perform a comparative analysis of two texts in the service of some broader argument about celebrity.) This is a post about the fact that my students so readily accept the idea that girls and women are these unthinking sponges that are entirely constructed through consumption. They do not interrogate this idea, nor do they wonder whether consumption affects male subjects in our culture similarly. They do not think critically about these issues at all. At the same time, they believe that the papers that they are writing about "young girls" and how detrimental popular culture is to them are in some way exemplary of how far women have come and the fact that women should not be objectified. (Although I should note that most would never use the word "objectified" nor would they call themselves "feminists." These students generally fall into the "I'm not a feminist, but..." camp.)

One of the difficulties of being a feminist and being a teacher is trying to strike a balance between letting students come to their own personal feminisms on their own intellectual paths and challenging their assumptions about what it means to be a girl, a woman, a feminist when those assumptions are overly simplistic or just plain screwed up. This becomes even more of a challenge when one is not in a classroom that is designated as fulfilling the "race/gender" general studies requirement because one faces the potential resentment of students who feel like I don't have the authority to challenge their claims outside of that context.*** No, I'm not teaching a women's studies class this semester. I'm teaching two sections of writing and an introduction to literature class. Does that mean I shouldn't address these issues? Or that when I do address these issues that students have license to tune out with the sigh that they reserve for bleeding-heart-liberal-feminist-professors? (This is what happened yesterday in intro to lit, the sigh.) How do we get through to our students that "feminism" or issues related to women (or ethnic minorities, or religious minorities, or whatever) affect many different disciplines and many different aspects of their lives? How do we challenge their assumptions about sex, gender, and race in a way that is constructive and productive, when those assumptions are so firmly entrenched and when those assumptions are in many cases the result of their exposure to these issues in the courses where they're "supposed" to be thinking about these things?

***I should note that one student did consider the media's influence on men in a similar way. That student is a male, african-american student, and he considered this in terms of the way that rap music can be a bad influence on young african-american men. I think the same problems applied to his argument as apply to the arguments of the "young girls are impressionable" camp, and that both versions reinscribe power dynamics that keep women and people of color in the position of Other.


D.B. said...

Ah, Mean Girls. I don't know how it happens, esp. since I don't invite it, but I get, without fail, 3 Mean Girls papers per class. I have a feeling there are about 25 nationally and they all circulate among sorority chapters.

In a way I feel like my students don't *actually* believe in the idea of women-as-victim-slash-subject-of-media-hypnosis, but they write this stuff b/c it sounds deep. Or at least, that's how Teen People has taught them to sound when they want to sound deep. I'm not sure women-as-media-victim informs actions in everyday life.

I gave my students a crash-course in feminism through a Joanna Russ story last semester. It's about a post-apocalyptic planet of women; at the end, men return from another planet to "save" them & power struggle ensues. At first there was rampant, unrestrained resistance to the idea that "men are unnecessary and bad" but after discussion and a few paper assignments several claimed on evals that it was their favorite story. In short, I would do my best not to route gender discussions through The Media or Mean Girls in particular--they construct their audience as stupid & said audience just reproduces said stupidity.

Dr. Crazy said...

"In short, I would do my best not to route gender discussions through The Media or Mean Girls in particular--they construct their audience as stupid & said audience just reproduces said stupidity."

Yeah, see, I just don't agree with you on this. First of all, I'd say that if students can't talk about everyday things in a sophisticated way, that we're not educating them for the real world. As much as I don't believe that the job of a liberal arts education is necessarily a professionalizing one, I do believe that giving students the tools to evaluate the "texts" of their worlds (which are most likely to include popular culture texts, like a movie like Mean Girls, which I honestly think is kind of smart in places and which none of my students wrote about - I chose the quote on my own because I think that it illustrates the thing I'm talking about - and no, I'm not kidding) is important. The reality is that students aren't likely to have a water-cooler chat about a Joanna Russ story. Ever. If we only teach them to evaluate gender, race, etc. through such "authorized" texts, like Literature or Fiction or Art or any of those capital-letter-cultural-capital-bearing-texts, they won't necessarily see that they can translate those skills and use them for the evaluation of other kinds of non-authorized texts.

Also, I don't believe in the premise that we shouldn't think critically about texts that construct their audience as stupid. In fact, I think that those texts demand that we critique them. And as a professor, I feel like I need to impress upon students that things they see as "just entertainment" or as not worthy of academic inquiry are precisely those things that take up the majority of their time. If we don't learn to evaluate those things and pay attention to them, what ultimately is the point of the humanities?

I should say, though, that you may be right about the fact that students may write this kind of paper because they think it's what the instructor wants. My question, then, would be, though, who wants these papers? Is it people in women's studies or intro. to multi-culti classes who want them? Because I certainly don't.

Derrick said...

Dr. C.

You know that I am in Education, primarily as an advisor and sometimes (when the Academic Affairs V.P. is not intellectually constipated) I am a philosophy/religion instructor.

This may not be the time but at some point I would like to hear how you see someone like me as a stakeholder in this discussion. It's not that I am clueless about some kind of answer. (I am getting caught up on some reading after your post about your article.)

But I value your perspective on this question. I teach a course called "Ideas in Living", among others, and I think there is an intersection there with this discussion.

Dr. Crazy said...

I don't think you're clueless at all. I mean, really - you read my blog, and so that makes you one smart cookie :) Kidding, kidding. But really, I don't think you're clueless. I would like you to say more about what you're asking me to talk about, though, about somebody like you being a stakeholder. What exactly would you like me to talk about, so that I can respond to you adequately?

D.B. said...

"I don't believe in the premise that we shouldn't think critically about texts that construct their audience as stupid. In fact, I think that those texts demand that we critique them."

I completely agree with you, Dr. C, and really with most of the points you make (I wasn't entirely clear above). I think we should teach students how to read pop-culture, and that may be our primary task. My point, though, is that the tools we give students to make these critiques necessarily come from "authorized" texts or at least authorized academic discourse. So when I say I can't see a way to route discussions of gender through the media, I mean that you can't mount a sophisticated criticism of an Abercrombie ad on its own terms. The terms that pop culture offers for its own critique are terms that reproduce what it's trying to accomplish in the first place, i.e. reify gender roles to foster consumption. When a student criticizes consumer culture on its own terms, all s/he can say is that it's hypnotic. And if that's the end of the criticism, then the media have done their job. I think all these papers concluding that People Do What the Media Tell Them testify to this.

The reason I find the Russ story (which isn't authorized in quite the same way that say, a Kate Chopin story is) helpful is because it puts the construction of gender and gender hierarchy on display. Do you need to read "authorized" fiction in order to open the door for ideas and vocabulary like "the construction of gender"? I think not. But it does open that door in a way that is oddly more engaging than an academic essay in a rhetoric reader, if only b/c students think they're being entertained on some level by fiction that they wouldn't expect from an essay by Susan Bordo, hilarious though she is. I suppose I also have some investment in the idea that college is about exposing students to things--not just ideas, but cultural artefacts--that they wouldn't necessarily engage otherwise. I probably have some investment too in something as aweful and traditionally elitist as the cultivation of taste, but a) I'm not sure that's something I'm entirely willing to be cured of and b) I think that's what any academic committed to raising consciousness is doing anyway. Ultimately I think ideas raised by Russ and certain authorized fiction give students the vocabulary to criticize the media and the late capitalist society they live in, and I certainly make those connections in my class & invite papers on travel brochures, packaging, movies, etc.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, now that you've clarified your point I think that we are more in agreement than in disagreement. I should note that we haven't only read pop-culture texts in this course, though we primarily have focused on those. This decision, as much as it is a political one on my part, is also a pragmatic one: I can't fight the good fight about exposing students to important cultural artifacts in my writing classes. Why? Because it's hard enough doing it in my other two classes that I teach. When I revamped my writing courses this summer, I consciously removed a lot of the higher-brow stuff from them, not because I don't think that students should be exposed to higher-brow things, but because i can't be all things to all people in all of my classes. It became a matter of changing the courses to allow me to be a human being. With the four course load, it's just not possible (for me) to do it all without cutting some corners. Thus, I've turned my writing courses to a more pop-culture emphasis and I focus most of my energy on trying to teach students how to make their writing coherent. In my lit courses, I spend energy on teaching things like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to students who claim never to have read a book. Ever. It's a trade-off. And thus I step down from the moral high ground. :)

Derrick said...

I need to hear someone with skills articulate why "feminism isn't just for feminists" in the world of education. At my school it is just dismissed.

We are undergoing our "self-study" for re-accreditation. I asked my committee what part of that study examined diversity/equality issues. The response? That would probably be the one which deals with fair hiring practices.

Obviously, my colleagues do not see this little community college as having anything at stake in these discussions. We don't see ourselves as stakeholders in gender/race discussions (let alone transformations).

I want to claim otherwise and when I read the third paragraph of your post this was the bell it rung for me. You are writing about the impact of feminism across the the curriculum (and beyond).

What would you say to me and my colleagues about our stake in this?

Does that help?

Dr. Crazy said...

That totally helps, Derrick, and I'll be happy to respond to it in an actual post (for it should not be buried in comments, as I think that other readers will have things to say about it as well). Thanks for the request and for the explanation of what you want me to talk about!

Derrick said...


gingajoy said...

really interesting, doc.
i remember teaching what sounds like a very similar course a few years back "women, writing, and america." (freshman writing--and I used Bordo's "The Ideology of Hunger" and they ate that shit up, pun intended). of course, your course is not directly about gender, which makes a real difference. i too have gone into freshman comp, and found this kind of resistance.

the gender class was one of the most positive experiences of my teaching career, but there were some shocking experiences there--like finding out how many of my female students did their fricking lame-ass boyfriends laundry. i too was leery of making this a "let me tell you why you need to be a feminist" course. but before I had to respond with a "you're kidding me, right?" reponse, the other women in the course, so appalled by what they heard, did it for me.

as for "teaching" feminism. I think that much of this type of critical inquiry can be taught effectively with traditional rhetorical analyses. like you say, nothing exists in a vacuum. unpacking, and looking at audience, context, purpose, etc can easily help us introduce issues of broader cultural contexts--whether you are looking at the rhetorical standpoint of a snuggles ad, or a political campaign ad. and yes, sometimes asking students to examine things from a perspective other than their own requires supplementary readings.

maybe this can be feminism under the radar. but sometimes, just sometimes, you have to say "you've got to be fricking kidding me."

Terminaldegree said...

I don't have anything profound to add right now...but I wanted to say that this is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking posts I've read in a while. Thanks. I'll look forward to the reply-to-Derrick, too!

Mel said...

One of my strategies (which sometimes but not always works) is to drag my students (kicking and screaming) back to a text -- whether it's an article, an ad, or a personal narrative of their own. If a student wants to explain a clear example of how s/he was brainwashed by some particular media text/agency/socioeconomic institution, then we have something to work with, something to analyze. And, actually, sometimes they have such stories, which can usefully complicate the Bad Media vs Little Girls picture.

Tree of Knowledge said...

I think all writing teachers know the "women have been brainwashed" paper by heart. A professor at my former University taught me a mantra: "They're just 18. They're just 18. They're just 18." It helps. Her thinking is that they're learning feminisim, and that means getting through all of the women-are-victims stuff first, especially since many college students think that gender equality totally exists because their dads cooked sometimes.

The way I handle this in my classroom is that when I give an umbrella topic that relates to gender or pop culture, we have a discussion about it, with me just asking questions and them doing all of the discussing. Usually, the students will straighten each other out. When they don't, I start asking questions that require analyzing personal experience (How many of you expect to get married, and why? is always an eye opener).

And then I go back to my office and chant.

bitchphd said...

I think that you're not imposing gender on them; they've brought it up themselves, no? And the way I'd handle it (as you probably already know and will do yourself) is to just say to them what you're saying here, only phrased as a question: "many of these papers are arguing that young people are easily influenced by the media. but you yourselves are young people, and it seems that the arguments you're making in these papers are critical of that. do you think you, yourselves, are that easily influenced?" etc. etc.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for all of the responses. As for the suggestions for how to deal with the students, what I didn't say is that I'm in the middle of a conference week in which I'm meeting with them all individually, so I've actually had the opportunity to talk in a non-threatening one-on-one way with each and every one of these students (lucky me). I suppose my post came from my general sense of these issues more than from a specific problem I was having with dealing with students, though the specific problem of their papers was the inspiration for the post, if that makes sense.