Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Living Down to Expectations

I give up: my students in the Gender and Medieval Literature class have let me know that the fight to gain equal rights for women has utterly failed. Life today is apparently much like that of Anglo-Saxon England (although with better plumbing). Men, they tell me, are still expected to be brave and strong like Beowulf and the other warriors. You don't want a guy falling apart in an emergency, one told me, a woman can fall apart. Yeah, another agreed, if you go to a scary movie, you want to be able to hide on his shoulder when you're scared. Yes, as a horror film veteran, I rolled my eyes.

But I have to admit it feels like all the efforts of second and third wave feminists have been for naught. Given the virulent sexism of the political coverage for the last 18 months or so (brilliantly skewered by two of the funniest women working now, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) even by supposedly "liberal" commentators like Jon Stewart and Keith Olberman, it kind of makes a gal lose all hope.

Teaching the Zemeckis Beowulf film in my upper division course rubs salt in that wound, too. I do still find it shocking that 21st century filmmakers have even less regard for women than the 11th century monks who wrote down the original text. The monks at least thought women had some purpose other than as sexual objects for men, could even seen women as powerful leaders. At least a couple of students in that class were appalled by the film, but it's small comfort when I have creative writing students writing about their future wedding day as "the best day of my life" -- yeah, and it's all downhill after that?

Is it really such a radical notion today that women are people, too? Not defined by biology? Not just not-men? I guess so.

7 comments:

Cranky Yankee said...

Yeah, working in a college environment is depressing for those of us who take our feminism seriously.

I'm surrounded by "little girls" who feel they shouldn't speak up in class because they're afraid the boys won't like them. And goddess forbid if one of their peers does talk in class...they are rudely made to feel like an outsider. And if you're an older woman (like myself) they (male and female) come right out and openly ridicule you.

K. A. Laity said...

Yeah, it's so depressing. You expect (or rather, I guess I expect) that college will be filled with women who want to learn, to prove themselves and be all they can be. I find them in short supply at our college. I think I had more women struggling with traditional expectations when I was in Houston, but most of them had ambitions to move beyond that. Maybe it's just these sheltered suburban kids? A lot of our majors are in education, which I find even more depressing.

Crispinus said...

Agreed about sheltered suburban kids. Though I find that at Skidmore the situation is reversed: the women in class tend to be the most thoughtful and forthcoming, the men grunting and guarded. An anomaly? I refuse to believe that my institution is an earthly paradise.

K. A. Laity said...

I think you may get more of the crème de la crème up your way. The few men we have in class often tend to do little more than grunt and model baseball caps, with the exception of upper division courses where all the engaged majors join in enthusiastically.

I suppose one of the things that puzzles me is where those enthusiastic independent thinkers come from -- are they just not engaged in the sophomore level courses, suddenly springing into full flower when they hit that junior level?

I should say I have a couple of awake students in my sophomore class (and even in the 100-level, medieval for non-English majors, course), both women. There's only one guy which seems to provide the worst dynamic here at Saint Rose. I hate hate hate the way the class full of women tends to defer in silence to that one male.

Wendy said...

As you know, Kate, I feel your pain. It's so frustrating when students not only don't see the blatant sexism in a text, but also when they don't recognize their own role in the system.

Still, we may complain about college campuses, but at least we are talking about these issues. There are much more hostile environments for women.

Now, in my class today, we had a bunch of white kids talking about race... if I didn't laugh, I would cry. (well, it wasn't that bad, but still...)

The Queen said...

Sadly, it seems that most young women I'm in contact with have no problem playing second fiddle, if they get to play at all.
It's everywhere- the media sucks it up & spits it out: advertising uses women provocatively & rarely balances that with provocative male figures; music videos are frankly pornographic with the emphasis on male-only pleasure, the proliferation of photos on social networking sites and songs that are 'we're young girls with girls and isn't it hot, guys, but we're not really gay because that's too threatening' makes me sick.
Shall I go on about the hate culture we have? "Reality shows", politics, and websites all showcase the negative, bullying, hateful attitudes that are paraded around as if it's normal behavior. And, once again, a lot of the negative is directed towards women.
Sorry- I think I just ranted all over someone's blog....

K. A. Laity said...

QOE -- that's what blogs are for, you know?

Wendy -- yes, you're right. Certainly the corporate world is far worse than the academic one, something many of my students will be discovering to their dismay once they graduate. Funny how the real world makes them realise these things.

Yeah, hard to talk about race in a monochrome classroom. Makes me miss my UHD students again.