Pacing back and forth on stage, which is my custom to the chagrin of my 8th grade speech and debate teacher, I press the button on my clicker and the slide on the large screen at the front of my 500 hundred seat theater changes. I pause my lecture momentarily and look out over a sea of faces, counting how many have furrowed brows or heads cocked sideways like a confused house pet. The slide is simple with a black background and white letters that shows a quote from our text book You May Ask Yourself:
I stand quiet and the rare silence draws the eyes of the entire class toward the stage. I wait for a few moments and ask, “do you see it?” Awkward silence and muted chuckles fill the air until someone, typically in the front, raises their hand and asks, “do we see what?” “Oh, you don’t see it. Here, let me help you.” I push my clicker and this appears behind me:
“Do you see it now?” I ask again. After the confused silence becomes unbearable a student will inevitably say something to the effect of, “wow, that really sucks for women. Is that what you are looking for?” I shake my head no. “What would a conflict theorist say about this last half of the sentence.” Still nothing. “Ok, don’t feel bad, what I’m asking you to do is some fairly high-level analysis and that takes practice.”
“You’ll remember that conflict theorist are always asking, ‘who benefits from this?’” I hope you’ll also remember how conflict theory argues that those in power hide in plain sight either because their privilege seems unremarkable or because the privileged are not spoken about. With this in mind look at this sentence again and ask the conflict theorist’s question, ‘who benefits from this?’"
The class and I work together to solve the mystery of the loaded language and it doesn’t take long for us to decide that men benefit from sentences like this.
The inspiration for this activity came from what Michael Kimmel (2004) wrote in the New Internationalist magazine:
Often, though, the invisibility of masculinity makes it hard to see how gender equality will actually benefit us as men. For example, while we speak of the ‘feminization of poverty’ we rarely ‘see’ its other side – the ‘masculinization of wealth’. Instead of saying that US women, on average, earn 70 per cent of what US men earn, what happens if we say that men are earning $1.30 for every dollar women earn? Now suddenly privilege is visible!
I push the clicker one more time and the following appears:
With a single question we start a class long discussion about gender, privilege, and the social construction of reality. “Why don’t we say it like this?”
Kimmel, Michael. 2004. “A Black Woman Took My Job.” The New Internationalist Retrieved online July 30, 2012. http://www.newint.org/features/2004/11/01/men/
This is in no way intended to be a critique of Conley’s You May Ask Yourself rather it is a critique of nearly all introduction to sociology books. I flipped through 5+ intro books before writing this and all of them have a sentence similar to the one that appears in my slide above. ↩
The first week of a sociology class is tough. One of the first things many of us teach is the Sociological Imagination, or the idea that our individual lives are affected by social forces. I’ve found that students either don’t understand what that means or they think that “only other people” are affected by social forces. To illustrate the concept and to show them that it affects them personally I have this dead simple activity.
Ask your class to break up into groups of 3–5 and answer some question (the question is irrelevant to the activity). Tell them that each group needs to identify one member to be the leader and another member to be the secretary who writes down what is said. Let them work for about 2 minutes, just long enough that every group identifies a leader and a secretary.
This is where I tell my class to stop everything and stand up (I teach 300+ students so, that many students standing is a sight to behold). With the whole class standing I say, “Ok, if your group is all male or all female sit down now.” After about a third of the students take their seats I say, “Now if you are not the leader or the secretary, sit down.” “Great, now I want all of the group leaders still standing to come up to the front here and stand on the left side of the stage. And all you secretaries still standing can stand on the right side of the stage.”
As the students file down the aisle and take their sides an awkward laughter slowly builds. “So what trends do we notice in these two groups?” I ask the class. It doesn’t take long for the students to notice that there are almost no male secretaries and only around a 1/3 of the leaders are female.
“So, like I was saying, our individual choices are guided by social forces and cultural values. Do you see what I mean now?”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s unbelievably catchy pop song Call me Maybe. The song has become an internet phenomenon with lip dub versions of the song being posted online by celebrities like Katy Perry, The Harvard Baseball Team, President Obama, and even the hosts of NPR did a cover of the song. Given the ubiquity of the song within pop culture, the song is worthy of sociological critique and I can guarantee your students will have at least heard the infectious number.
The Song Lyrics & Messaging
I’ve talked before about using pop songs to teach gender norms and Call Me Maybe’s lyrics are ripe for a similar class activity. The song lyrics are vapid, standard pop song romance themes. The crux of the song centers on this girl’s desire to have the object of her affection call her. It’s the same standard “pick me, pick me!” passive feminine messaging. Instead of taking what she wants, the girl in the song is hoping she can lure the boy into pursuing her. The title isn’t “I’ll Call You, Maybe”. Analyzing this song, especially if you are teaching right at this cultural moment, would be a great lead in to a discussion of gender roles and sexuality norms between heterosexuals.
To highlight the gendered messaging of the song, play the video for Justin Bieber’s Boyfriend right after showing Call Me Maybe. Bieber, who is freshly 18 years old, is trying to redefine himself as a mature artist (I just threw up a little). Anyways, the first release off his new album Boyfriend is a song projecting his power, affluence, and sexual prowess. Jepsen is asking you to call her maybe and Beiber threatens to burn you with fondue gravy.
Bieber and Jepsen are touring together right now (don’t ask why I know this), so their music must be targeted to a similar demographic. I brought up this apples to apples comparison with my class last spring and we had a great discussion when I asked them, “why are there such starkly different messages about sexuality and gender between these two songs?”
The Video: Heteronormative or Not?
The video for Call Me Maybe alternates back and forth between Jepsen playing with her band in a garage and a heteronormative fever dream that she has for the Abercrombie & Fitch male model that lives next door. The video is a straightforward crush flick (just made that up) until (SPOILER!) the boy she’s been eying gives his digits to the guitar playing dude in the garage.
So is the video enlightened and pro-sexual equality? Well another way to look at it is, the guitar player and Jepsen both seem shocked if not distraught. The video is sure to inspire a healthy discussion about heteronormativity, gender roles, and even the relationship between a piece of art and the audiences reaction. That’s not bad for a throwaway, soon-to-be-forgotten, summer confection.
Hey, I just wrote this,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my idea,
So teach it maybe
Below is a guest post written by Paula Teander (@Sober_Sociology) from Wake Technical Community College.
“Why do you think the number of women having babies outside of marriage has increased?” I asked my Sociology of Family class. Knowing that students often blame pesky teenagers for these increases, I set the trap and waited for the first one to take the bait. The students were surprised that only 7.7% of out-of wedlock births (in 2008) occurred to girls under age 18. Then I brought up that non-marital births were actually higher in Scandinavian countries. “Is that because they’re all cold countries?” asked a particularly adept student. “What an excellent observation,” I said seeing a golden opportunity to point out the difference between correlation and causation.
In my excitement to draw the connection to causation I quickly said, “Did you know that ice cream sales and the incidents of rape are positively correlated.” A stunned silence came over the class; I thought they were mesmerized by my counter-intuitive gem. I went on, “It’s true, as ice cream sales go up more people are raped.” I went up to the whiteboard and drew out the relationship on a xy graph. I spent the next few minutes describing what a spurious correlation was, and how in this particular example it was the heat of summer affecting the increase in both.
It was at this point several students got up and walked out of class.
My face warmed and I could feel the blood surge through my veins as my heart raced. I quickly reviewed in my mind the last few things I had said. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what had just happened. I thought to myself, “why would they just get up and leave?”. I had a sinking feeling in my gut. I was confused, shocked, taken-aback, and anxious. All of these emotions engulfed me as I stood before my students.
Shortly after class I found that it was my discussion of rape and ice cream sales that inspired the students to walkout. . I spent the whole weekend thinking about what I did wrong, and what I could’ve done better. I was heart-broken, as the very last thing I wanted to do was alienate my students. I sent an email to the class explaining how teaching is a two-way street and that our classroom was a learning environment for everyone, careful to include myself.
Communication errors, which often result in hurt feelings, can occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes students’ stop listening and hear only pieces of what we are saying. Other times the timing and delivery of what we say is horribly “off.” Performers and comedians make their living off of delivery and timing, not a small thing—especially in the classroom.
Because I’d been using the ice-cream/rape example for years in my classes (sans walkouts), I suspected that timing and delivery played some part in the walkouts. My students were simply not ready for a methodological discussion at that exact moment, and my poorly timed example literally came out of left-field to many of them. But after discussing this matter with a former student of mine, I couldn’t help but take something else from this experience.
My former student admitted to me that she remembered the ice-cream/rape example very well. She also told me that she had heard the same example used in her Psychology class. I asked her if she could remember her initial reaction, and she told me “I first thought it ridiculous that someone would bring this kind of example up in a classroom!” She also confided that she had had a painful experience in her past, one involving sexual abuse. I began to question just how many other students had felt this way throughout the years. Although this particular student was eventually able to wrap her head around the concept, and even now agrees that it is a great way to illustrate correlation and not causation, it made me question the value of using an example that could trigger such a response.
I’m sure most of us use Trigger-warnings in our classes, although we may not actually call them that. If you show a video with graphic scenes, violent content, profanity, or sensitive topics, it’s probably always a good idea to warn the students about this in advance. A trigger warning is basically anything that lets your students know that the up-coming content could “trigger” an emotional/physical response, or maybe that the subject matter might make them feel a bit uncomfortable (not necessarily a bad thing in a learning environment, and certainly a hard thing to escape in a Sociology class). Anyone who reads feminist blogs has come across “trigger warnings” before graphic images or descriptions of rape or violence to women. I recently read that being triggered is like having an allergic reaction, or “an involuntary reaction to a substance which can vary from severe discomfort to serious debilitation and endangerment.”
I learned quite a bit from this classroom experience, and learning isn’t always a bed of roses. I’m still debating whether I’ll ever use the ice-cream/rape example in my classes again, but when/if I do I will make sure that the timing and delivery is right. Knowing that the word (rape) itself can trigger painful memories for some students, memories so vivid that they literally feel their heart-rate increase, they struggle to think or breathe, gives me pause. If I choose to use it, I will most certainly give the class a “heads-up” by saying something like “I’m about to give you an example that involves the word “rape,” but it is in no way meant to scoff at, or downplay the seriousness of rape—rather, it is being used to make us think critically about causation.”
The best lessons are the ones your students teach themselves. You can’t tell students anything, but you can give them the eyes to see their own behavior from a new light and they will teach themselves more than you could’ve ever dreamed.
I love gender because it’s written all over our bodies. Students come into class doing gender. You only need to draw their attention to their own gendered presentations and ask them to “see the familiar as strange”. That’s easier said than done.
When students see a “failed performance” of gender the intentionality of their own “successful” gender performance comes into stark contrast.
Photographer Rion Sabean did a collection of “Men-Ups” where men were shown in poses that are stereotypically reserved for women in Pin-Up calendars. The photos are men, doing “manly” things, but they are posed in gender opposite ways.
After my student’s have been shook awake and their own gender performance is drawn into the light, I ask them to help me come up with a list of “gender rules”. I split the room and half address how a person becomes a “girly girl” and the other addresses how a person performs as a “manly man”
Below are some slides I put together to highlight gender performances and media presentation of the masculine and the feminine.
The Codes of Gender
The Media Education Foundation has a great film that addresses gender and imagery better than any other I’ve seen. I’ve always liked Sut Jhally’s work, but this one is his best sinceAdvertising and the End of the World. Pairing this video with the Men-Ups calendar images is a powerful one two punch.
I top all of this gender imagery with an assignment that ask my students to go find a photograph of men and women in stereotypic poses and critically analyze the image. You can find those directions here. Enjoy.
This is not a moral judgment, but a reflection of many students own perceptions. I do not contend that there is a right, appropriate, or “normal” gender performance, but rather I contend that many students perceive there to be one. All gender expressions are equally valid and equally deserving of respect. Do your gender how you see fit. ↩
I tell my students to notice how we do gender with terms like “girly girl” and “manly man”. To be masculine is to be mature, but to feminine is to be infantalized according to the dominant stereotype. My students laugh when I ask them to consider if I asked them to tell me how to become a “womanly woman” or a “boyish boy”. ↩
Dr. Jhally if you are listening. Please please update this film. I’d love to show it in my classes, but the ads are comically out of date now. ↩
I throw a Rosie the Riveter poster on the overhead and ask my students “why is this photo an important symbol of feminism in the United States?” Long pause, a timid hand is cautiously raised. “Uh, it’s a poster used to encourage women to join the workforce during WWII.” I nod to encourage the student, “yes that’s right, but why was this such a big deal?” After some prodding a student always says some version of, “It’s a big deal because before WWII women didn’t work.” “Yes that’s right,” I say, “before WWII women weren’t in the workforce at all. Right?” Looking over the class I can tell my students are on to me.
My students are right that the common story of Rosie the Riveter is that it signifies when women entered the workforce. However, this isn’t really true (as I am sure you already know). Women have always been in the workforce (and I am not talking about domestic labor). Women who had no choice other than to work have always done so. Many women of color, poor women, and unmarried women have always been represented in the labor force. So “the story” of Rosie is a wonderful opportunity to teach our students about intersectionality.
“What exactly is feminism? That is, how could we define the term?” I ask my students. After a few moments a student says that feminism is about equality between men and women. “Equality between which women to which men? Do you mean that women want to be equal to a poor undocumented immigrant man from Ethiopia? Do women want to be equal to a impoverished gay man? Or do women want to be treated as equals to a rich white heterosexual Christian able-bodied man?” Awkward silence sweeps the classroom.
The complexities of inequality that moments earlier may have been hiding are now laid bare. I have my students read the article that inspired this activity, Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression by Bell Hooks and a short article about the Matrix of Domination by Patricia Hill Collins. After breaking the common definition of feminism, the students and I work together to rebuild a new definition of the term.
“If two dudes kiss at a party does that mean they’re gay?” Sexuality and gender collide in this question. The social construction of both gender and sexual orientation lay naked. Sexual orientation becomes conditional not on exhibited behaviors, but conditional on the societal response to the exhibited behaviors. In the response to this simple question students can see how sexual orientation, which for many of them has up until now has been something that is determined solely by biology, can be something that is determined socially.
I have designed a “pop quiz” that asks my students to read a short story of two young heterosexual students who after a night of over indulging on alcohol end up kissing one another after a group of their peers repeatedly chanted, “Kiss, kiss, kiss!” The story ends the next morning when one of the two young people wakes up to their cell phone ringing off the hook. Someone recorded the kissing and put it on Facebook.
After reading the story the students are asked to write down what they think the consequences will be for the young people in the story. They are asked if they think the friends, family, and local community will think these two young people are homosexual.
What my students don’t know is, there are two versions of the story. Identical in every way except for the names of the two young people. One version talks about Jasmine kissing Alyssa & the other talks about Darius kissing Cole.
When my students have finished answering the questions I ask them to raise their paper in the air if they wrote down that they believe the community surrounding these two young people would think after seeing the video that they are homosexual. I collect the papers and ask the class to share any thoughts they have. While they talk I separate the pile of quizzes into two piles, one for the male names and one for the female names.
Without fail, far more students think that Darius and Cole will be thought of as gay by their friends and family. Every time I have done this activity the results are almost 2 to 1. Twice as many students think that men kissing at a party will be consider gay than women kissing at a party.
When I tell my students that there were 2 versions of the reading they’re shocked. They laugh and shake their heads. I tell them that twice as many students thought the men were gay than thought the women were lesbian. I tell them that I almost always get this result and I ask them why? This starts a long discussion on the social construction of sexuality and gender construction.
After this activity we begin a discussion focused on deconstructing gender and sexuality. I have my students read Masculinity as Homophobia by Kimmel or Dude, You’re a Fag by C.J. Pascoe to give them the eyes to see how expressions of gender are socially constructed. Both of these outstanding texts make it easy for students to see both how society narrowly defines masculinity and femininity and defines the two in opposition of one another.
I administer this pop quiz during my week long discussion of sexuality and specifically after the class discussion of the Kinsey Continuum of sexual orientation. The Kinsey Continuum is based on the national research Alfred Kinsey did on the sexual thoughts and actions people had in 1948. Kinsey found that the men who admitted to engaging in sex acts with other men, or fantasizing about doing so, or admitted being aroused by gay pornography almost always reported that they were heterosexual and not gay. The Kinsey Continuum is great, because it shows the disconnect between self-identified sexual orientation (a social construct) and the desires, behaviors, and fantasies of an individual (an empirical construct).
With a solid understanding of the social construction of gender and sexuality students are ready to see how sexual orientation is socially constructed and how narrowly defined masculinity is more intolerant to non-conforming gender expressions than is femininity. As a society we are more accepting of gender non-conformity in women.* Especially when the non-conformity is expressed in a way that delights heterosexual men. Two young women kissing at a party while surrounded by young men chanting, “Kiss, kiss, kiss,” is seen as non-threatening to our narrowly defined masculinity; scenes like this can be viewed as reinforcing narrowly defined heterosexual masculinity. My point here is not to judge expressions of sexuality and gender, but rather to demonstrate the flexibility of female sexuality and the rigidity of male sexuality.
*I feel compelled to acknowledge the violence and hostility that lesbians and other women who express their gender in non-conforming ways experience everyday. I feel it’s safe to say that narrowly defined masculinity is overall more hostile to non-conforming expressions of masculinity, but it’s not a competition. The larger problem here is the constraining of self-expression regardless of which sex is expressing it.
It’s 7:45am. Driving to campus. I’m listening to the radio and my two year old daughter. Male voice streams into consciousness, “If she ____ing tries to leave again, I’m going to tie her to the bed and set the house on fire.” What? What did the radio just say? Female voice follows, “just going to stand there and watch me burn, thats okay because I like the way it hurts.” These are the lyrics to the number seven song on iTunes- Love The Way You Lie by Eminem Featuring Rihanna. It was the number one song in the United States from July 31st to September 4th. I shut off the radio and start signing Row Row Row Your Boat with my daughter.
I am certainly not the first to say that music and other cultural symbols prescribe gender roles and contribute to or justify, rationalize, or normalize misogyny/patriarchy. So if this isn’t breaking news in your world, I understand. However, I have a clever way of teaching this to students. Have your students deconstruct the gendered messages in the top ten best selling songs on iTunes for that day. Students love this activity because it is current, relevant to their lives, and they typically have a better understanding of pop culture than I do. The best part of this activity is that unless something dramatically changes in pop music, you can rest assured that there always will be explicit gendered messages regardless of when you do it. I have done this for years and the songs/lyrics have never let me down… or they’ve always let me down, so to speak.
To start the activity I typically play the songs as students are coming into the classroom. When class starts I pass out a packet of all the songs lyrics and ask my students to, “think like a conflict theorist”. “Listen to these songs, look at their lyrics, and tell me how they portray women/femininity and men/masculinity.” I typically have the entire class work together to breakdown the first song and then let them work together on the rest.
Don’t do all the work. You’re sure to miss some things anyway.
Try as I might, I will certainly miss one aspect of a song that reinforces stereotypical gender roles. It is also a given, that I won’t get some innuendo or some pop culture reference. The beauty of this activity is that you empower your students to do the deconstruction work. They are certain to see something you didn’t and expose even more gendered messages. Students love that they are able to “do sociology” in a way that even their teacher can’t. I find it’s best to start the ball rolling and get out of their way.
Don’t be a fuddy duddy.
You should be careful when you do this activity with your students. If presented poorly they will think you are just a stereotypical older person who is out of touch with their reality (maybe there is an activity on ageism here). I find the best way of doing this activity is to provide them with the sociological tools and let them provide the critique. If your students think the take home message is “kids these days” or that people who like this music are bad people you will create a barrier and push your students away. If you let them do it themselves they will almost certainly make the same critiques you would make and you can strengthen the connection you have with each of them.
Analysis of this week’s top ten:
I wanted to provide you with a quick analysis of the top ten songs on iTunes as of Friday Sep. 10, 2010 to give you an example of what you could do in your classes. Below are the aspects of this weeks top ten that I would be sure to bring up in class. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I am sure that you and your students will find far more examples of gendered messages.
Love The Way You Lie by Eminem and Rihanna
I would dedicate the most time discussing this Eminem song because it is by far the most explicit in it’s gender stereotyping. The song tells the story of an abusive seemingly codependent relationship that graphically describes scenes of domestic violence. Be sure to watch the music video as it is highly graphic and surely controversial. Here is the video (apologies for the forced commercial):
Note: This video is extremely disturbing and will undoubtedly offend or upset some students. You should preface any public viewing with a warning to your students. I have seen this video on MTV at 8am in the morning, but we must be aware that for some of our students this isn’t just a video. This may be a scene they have lived.
Now you’re getting f___ing sick Of looking at ’em You swore you’ve never hit ’em Never do nothing to hurt ’em Now you’re in each other’s face Spewing venom And these words When you spit ’em You push pull each other’s hair Scratch, claw, bit ’em Throw ’em down Pin ’em So lost in the moments When you’re in ’em It’s the rage that took over It controls you both
The video clearly sexualizes domestic violence. Pleasure and violence were presented as though they are inextricably linked. Most disturbing is the a part of the video that seemed to depict a rape scene. See the still image below:
I imagine my class would be divided on whether or not the song was sympathetic or not toward men who commit domestic battery. One interpretation of the song could be as a long apology to a victimized partner, while others may see the song as a half hearted apology given that Eminem frequently follows his apologies with lyrics describing further abuse. The quote below is by far the most damning evidence to the latter:
Next time I’m pissed I’ll aim my fist At the dry wall Next time There will be no next time I apologize Even though I know it’s lies I’m tired of the games I just want her back I know I’m a liar If she ever tries to f___ing leave again I’mma tie her to the bed And set the house on fire
Rihanna’s chorus where she says she, “likes the way it hurts” and, “loves the way you lie” is controversial to say the least. She is perpetuating the submissive woman archetype and presents the female figure in the song as complicit to the domestic abuse. I would be sure to ask my students to imagine that they are an abusive partner. How would they hear these lyrics? Would it justify their violent behavior or assuage any guilty feelings they have? I would also ask what a pre-teen heterosexual girl would think about these messages?
An interesting sub-plot to this song is that Rihanna is herself a survivor of partner violence. Famously, R&B singer Chris Brown beat and strangled Rihanna. I would share this with your class, who will probably be already aware of the incident, and ask them how this changes their impression of the song. I would also come prepared with some statistics on partner abuse to give the problem scope.
Now for the rest of the songs:
Be prepared that your students will find messages that seem on the surface to be pro-women or anti-gender binary. For instance look at the #1 song on iTunes Just The Way You Are by Bruno Mars. The song is all about how wonderful and beautiful the singers partner is. But if you read just below the surface it’s plain to see that the song 1) focuses on the aesthetic aspects of the partner and 2) perpetuates the stereotype that women always hate the way they look and rely on their partners to define their value. Here is a sample of the lyrics:
Oh her eyes, her eyes
Make the stars look like they’re not shining
Her hair, her hair
Falls perfectly without her trying
She’s so beautiful
And I tell her every day
Yeah I know, I know
When I compliment her
She wont believe me
And its so, its so
Sad to think she don’t see what I see
But every time she asks me do I look okay I say
When I see your face
There’s not a thing that I would change
Cause you’re amazing
Just the way you are
And when you smile,
The whole world stops and stares for awhile
Cause girl you’re amazing
Just the way you are
Women are not complete without a man
Listening to Teenage Dream by Katy Perry we hear the familiar romance theme of a woman being incomplete until she finds herself a man.
Before you met me
I was a wreck
But things were kinda heavy
You brought me to life
I finally found you
My missing puzzle piece
Some Other Overarching Messages:
Heterosexuality rules the day. None of the songs mentioned the LGTBQ community at all.
Both men and women spend a lot of time, “in the club”.
Almost half the songs spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the male gaze.
Men enjoy cheating on their partners. See this line from –I Like It by Enrique Iglesias featureing Pit Bull:
“Tiger Woods times Jesse James equals Pit Bull all night long”
Messages about women:
Women as sex objects
I’ma get your heart racing/
In my skin-tight jeans/
Be your teenage dream tonight/
Let you put your hands on me/
In my skin-tight jeans/
Be your teenage dream tonight/
Female empowerment is gained through being sexual.
Women are obsessed with their appearance and their value as a human being is directly associated with their physical appearance.–>
I am a white middle class heterosexual male sociology teacher. I teach about inequality that I benefit from. I teach about inequality that I can mindlessly recreate both inside of and outside of class. I teach about inequality that some students deny exists and some know on a first name basis. From the outside this could seem hypocritical; I could appear a fraud. Have I chose the wrong line of work? Can white teachers teach race and ethnicity? Can middle class teachers teach economic inequality? Can male teachers teach gender inequality? Can straight teachers teach sexual inequality? They can and they must.
I’m let in & taken at my word
As a white middle class male heterosexual teacher I walk into my class room and when students lay eyes on me they more often then not have their preconceptions of what a professor is going to look like met. My collard shirt, my wedding ring, my clean shaven face all reassure them that I am what they were most likely bargaining for. I fit the stereotype of a professor and subsequently benefit from it. When I talk about inequality students take me at my word. They don’t say to themselves, “well of course you would say that you are _______”. When a person of privilege asks, “why are things this way; why are things so unequal” the taken for granted aspects of our culture are more easily knocked down from their perch of sacredness and honest exploration of the status quo can begin. (Messner 2000).
For students of privilege I can use our shared cultural experience as an illustrative example of how inequality is created. When I tell my students how I mindlessly hurt someone with my own prejudice I can role model how to grapple with and acknowledge privilege. For all of my students I can be an example of someone who stands up for social justice and does not tolerate intolerance. I can show them that no one is inoculated from being prejudice, discriminating, or holding biases. I can stand before them not as a savior with all the right answers, but a fallible educator with some of the right questions.
I’m obligated for countless reasons, but here are two of them.
First, racism is not people of color’s problem, nor is misogyny women’s problem, nor is homophobia the LGTBQ community’s problem, etc. The oppressed and exploited are not responsible for ending oppression and exploitation. They are inextricably linked to it and certainly most affected by it, but it is not their responsibility to mitigate it. As an individual who begrudgingly benefits from exploitation and oppression I am obligated to work to end it. If you believe for one second that you benefit because of your social position (regardless if you seek it out or not) and you believe in social justice, then you either feel obligated to do something about it or you feel cognitive dissonance. If what I’m saying sounds to you like “white guilt” or one of it’s equivalents, then I ask you, how is cognitive dissonance treating you?
Second, research suggests that faculty of color and women are disproportionately assigned to teach what’s called in the biz, “required diversity classes”(Perry, Moore, Edwards, Acosta, and Frey 2009). These classes on race, gender, sexuality, and inequality are tough classes for any teacher. Subsequently this makes the tenure process, for which course evaluations are a component, more changeling for anyone who teaches them. Assigning faculty of color and women to teach required diversity classes recreates inequality and reflects the “oppression is the responsibility of the oppressed” mentality discussed above. As a person of privilege I am obligated to share the burden* of teaching these courses
Minding Your World View
Teaching inequality from a place of privilege requires me to be constantly reevaluating my world view, how I structure my class, and how I interact with students. Privilege is often automatically extended to the privileged. Bias emerges not from consciousness, but from being unconscious about how your world view is slanted. To understand your privilege and how you benefit from it you have to think outside of yourself. You have to imagine how your words and actions would appear to someone who does not experience the privileges you do. Its complex, convoluted, and at times maddening. But the burden of dealing with privilege is minuscule compared to the burden forced upon those without it.
Teaching involves power and so it has the potential to recreate inequality. All teachers must be mindful of this. You must be willing to own up to your mistakes and learn from them. You must be honest with your students about the privileges you hold and your humanity. This is the only way to reduce inequality, make your community a better place, and change students lives.
*For the record. I don’t see teaching diversity as a burden, but a privilege. I prefer teaching required diversity courses as I love interacting with my students on material that is challenging and at times controversial.
Kimmel (2000) wrote what I consider one of the best articles on masculinity, sexism, and homophobia in his article Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity. I am disappointed by the discussion of gender issues or gender stratification in textbooks. Reading through these chapters sexism, feminism, and homophobia are seen as women’s or gay and lesbian issues. Somehow the largest perpetrator of violence, aggression, and fear toward women and the LGTBQ community is somehow missing or only discussed indirectly. Many feminist researchers have rightfully criticized news headlines of rape incidents that say, “woman alleges rape” in the passive voice as opposed to, “man arrested for rape”. Textbooks that omit men and masculinity from discussions of sexism, feminism, and homophobia commit the same sin. In an effort to correct this omission I always incorporate discussions and critiques of masculinity in my courses.
Teaching students about masculinity issues is hard specifically because talking about masculinity is an unmasculine thing to do.
Traditional masculinity, according to Kimmel, is homophobic in the sense that any sign of femininity in a man is sure to draw emasculating criticism from his peers. Men, who subscribe to this narrow form of masculinity, then are afraid of or have a hatred of any none conforming men. Men and women emasculate non-conforming with words, violence, and isolation.
As a ice breaker into the subject, I ask the students to tell me what a “manly man” looks like, sounds like, walks like. Students can’t help but break into laughter as I take on all of the characteristics of a “manly man”. After that we talk about how gender is socially constructed and fluid. A great point of reference for this is the Maury Povich show. Maury frequently has a beauty pageant where some of the contestants are men in drag and others are women. He asks the audience to guess their gender. Most of my students have seen this show, so it is a great jumping off point to talk about gender as a social performance (Watch here at your own risk). I ask, “If gender is fixed and biological how could someone fool another into thinking they were a gender they are really not?” Students almost always jump on board the social construction bandwagon after this.
I also like to show a clip from the video Tough Guise that deals with many of the issues discussed in Kimmel’s article.
The Consequences of Narrowly Defined Masculinty
After we have clearly discussed how gender is socially constructed and defined what masculinity as homophobia means I ask my students to brainstorm the consequences men and women experience because of this narrowly defined masculinity. My students are quick to point out that many men do “stupid” risk taking behaviors to show they are tough. Students draw the obvious connection to the shamefully high levels of male violence toward women. Many men, they typically say, are hostile or even violent to gays and lesbians because a narrowly defined masculinity sees any non-compliance as an affront to their own masculinity. After this students usually go quiet.
I suggest that many father/son relationships are damaged by narrow definitions of masculinity. I ask my male students how many of their fathers are comfortable with hearing “I love you dad” from them? Many students laugh, suggesting that this is beyond the bounds of their relationship with their father.
At this point in the class I tell my students of a friend of mine, Ryan, who a few years back told me that he was going to buy a ring and propose to his girlfriend of many years. After a few weeks I had not heard any news of their engagement so I asked Ryan, “So did she say yes?” “No. We broke up a few days before I was going to propose,” Ryan said looking at the floor. “I’m sorry dude. That sucks. Did she tell you why she left?” Ryan put his tongue in the side of his mouth as though he was chewing on it and looked to the ceiling. After a long pause he said, “She said I was… emotionally unavailable.” He and I made eye contact again and he saw my perplexed look. After a few beats I said, “What the hell does that mean?” Ryan shrugged with and exclaimed, “I know, right?”
I tell my students it wasn’t until I started dating my wife that I finally understood what Ryan and his girlfriend were experiencing. A few weeks into our relationship my wife said something small that upset me. Seeing that I was upset she said, “Oh, how thoughtless of me. I have clearly hurt your feelings.” I scrunched my brow and responded, “Whoa lets not blow it out of proportion. I mean, that pissed me off, but it would take a whole lot more to hurt my feelings.” She showed me patience by letting it go for the moment, but a few weeks later something else upset me and she said again, “I hurt your feelings”. This happened many times over and each time I smiled or laughed it off and told her she was crazy. It wasn’t until a few months into the relationship that I finally woke up and said with a tone of surprise and discovery, “You know what… Just before I got pissed off I felt something… you DID hurt my feelings!”
Based on the looks my students give me I can tell that they think this story is contrived. How could the person who is teaching on the subject of masculinity be so oblivious to how it was affecting himself? I tell my students that I grew up in a family of four, my mom, dad, brother, and me. Being a 3/4 male household, I joke that our house was a, “toilet seat up house, if you know what I mean.” I share with them that I lived with men throughout my childhood and then with other men as roommates until the day I moved in with my wife. I was totally surrounded by men who, even though they loved me, didn’t discuss their or my emotions very often and when we did it was indirectly. After years of neglecting my emotions I had learned to not even acknowledge them. And in doing so I had lost part of my humanity.
Ryan and I were both emotionally unavailable. Both of us had lost touch with part of ourselves and this made us less able to be a equal partner with our loved ones. Fortunately for me I had a loving patient wife who gave me the space to find my way out of my narrowly defined masculinity box.
After this story I challenge my students to think of ways that women also emasculate men. Without fail a female student will say something like, “I have always thought that I didn’t want a boyfriend or husband who cried. I have even said aloud that to my friends.” Many men feel pressured to keep up their tough fronts around men and women. Women who stigmatize or ostracize men who are in touch with their emotions discourage multiple forms of masculinity. On the flip side women who flock toward men who put on the “bad boy” posturing reward the narrowly defined masculinity.
Kimmel argues that men feel powerless to masculinity. That even if they wanted to change their is little that a single person can do. This illustrates to students how social systems affect individuals, including themselves. The systemic nature of gender construction makes it perfect for any sociology course including a 101 course.
Every time that I have taught this subject in my class there have been male students who sit way back in their chairs, arms folded, with a disapproving look on their face. Early in my career I would say to myself, “Well not everyone is ready to get it.” But now I have come to realize that in all likelihood these are the very students who were most affected by what I and Kimmel had to say. That they were protecting themselves with the only tools our narrow definition of masculinity affords them. I often say at the end of my class “If you are put off by todays discussion or if you walk out of this room and say to your classmates, ‘What the hell was that guy talking about. He’s full of it.’ Then in all likelihood you are suffering from this narrowly defined masculinity the most.”
I feel I am at a distinct advantage teaching this class because I am a man. When I am critical of narrowly defined masculinity my students do not assume that I have an ulterior motive or that I am in some way a “man hater”. I can also role model a form of masculinity outside the narrow definition while still maintaining the power and authority given to me as a teacher. That said, I also feel a responsibility to teach this subject. This is a problem that affects me and that I have in thoughtless, low moments perpetuated the narrow definitions. I can discuss with my students how the narrow definition of masculinity has hurt me and how I have hurt others who didn’t conform. To be clear, I always am critical of my previous failings and repent for them in front of my class.