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.
4 years ago