Yesterday, I watched Miss Representation, which is a 2011 documentary about the way women are portrayed in media and how that extends to their marginalization in society. Even though it told me very little beyond what I already knew, the film fascinated me anyway. I thought about how I have friends who work to fight for and protect women’s rights, and I also thought about how I came to, well, be a feminist. I think that at one point either during or after my adolescence, I began to really notice how people are marketed to and how what they see every day in the media helps shape who they are. And how once you notice this, you can’t not notice it anymore.
Take comic books. I’ve been a comic fan for nearly 25 years, and at some point in those 25 years I realized that most of the women being drawn in the books that I was reading (or at least seeing in Previews every month) couldn’t physically exist without a serious amount of surgery. Then I progressed to realizing that there were right ways to write characters–both male and female–and wrong ways, which made me a more discerning reader. And like I said, once you see that or notice that or think about it, you can’t unsee it or un-notice it or unthink it.
But I’m not sure everyone has had that moment or come to that realization. I watch a film like Miss Representation and I worry about the message that is sent to girls and women out there about who they can be and how they will become who they will be. I think about how I teach a very early example of literature that pertains to women’s rights, A Doll’s House, the ending of which is controversial for Nora leaving her husband. There are other works I teach that center around women, such as Alice Walker’s essay “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self” or Alice Adams’s short story, “Truth or Consequences,” both of which tie into an overall theme in the course I teach of the concept of identity.
This film could fit our discussion, especially since it bothers me when I hear both guys and girls in my classes use the word “whore” without thinking about its connotation, or who refer to an obese female classmate as “Fat [Name]” or who tell me that they don’t consider themselves feminists because feminism means that girls want to be better than them or take over or control things. Which I know comes from an upbringing that is of this area where I’m teaching–a very red state, Republican, conservative Christian upbringing that has misconstrued the definition demonized, and vilified the concept of feminism. Granted, I was once there, having been raised according to societal norms. I never consciously thought I was better than girls and my parents never taught me to think of myself as superior to women; it was just something that was unconscious in a sense. But at some point I realized that wait, 51% of the population makes 77% of what the other 49% does and is considered inferior? I don’t teach math but even I know that doesn’t compute.
But these are my beliefs and even thought I think they might be right and I have friends who would readily agree with me, as I was getting further and further along in Miss Representation, I began to wonder if I could actually show it in a classroom. The doubt started creeping in. And that doubt, which I have had before about other media, doesn’t necessarily come from whether or not it’s a good movie or documentary or if you could study or discuss it, but how many people this would offend.
And so goes my frustration as a teacher when it comes to controversial issues.
Now, I guess a study of women in the media would be more apt for a social studies class or the journalism class I used to teach. But I try to make English as cross-curricular as possible and that means that I’m often touching on the social sciences and not just looking at literary devices. Besides, media literacy is part of the standards and something we’re supposed to look to teach and I have always felt that I have a good leg up on that because my interest is in teaching journalism. But as the movie talked about the hyper-sexualization of girls complete with examples, I began writing the permission letter.
Next week, we are going to be watching this movie and it contains suggestive images, foul language and if you would not like your child to watch it, they can spend class in the library and have an alternate assignment.
Then I got to thinking about how subjective the film is because the film is not just an examination of women’s roles and portrayal in our modern day media, it’s an advocacy piece. The end of the film is empowering because the filmmaker interviews young girls and young men and they talk about what they’d like to see as far as people taking action. And I thought, “This is great.”
But then I thought of the insistence that as an educator that you be objective and how that voice inside your head creeps in and says, “Well, if you’re going to show this you need to find something that balances it out. You don’t want an angry parent phone call. Teachers have enough problems being accused of constantly indoctrinating good Christian children with liberal ideas.” Yes, I know that sounds snarky, hyperbolic, and probably a bit paranoid, but I’ve read enough letters to the editor and internet comments to know that I’m not unfounded in my beliefs here.
It also makes me wonder sometimes about where I am and about what this whole thing has become.
I don’t know if we’re ever going to have an honest conversation in a classroom. Students ask good questions and you do your best to answer them as honestly and clearly as you can. But every time I’m asked how I feel about an issue that’s controversial or might be a “loaded” one, I feel on some level that I have to tread lightly or walk on eggshells lest I be accused. It’s one of the things that contributes to this running narrative about how you don’t learn anything in school, school is useless, school is not authentic, or however you want to phrase it. We’ve been scared into sanitizing everything and presenting everything as milquetoast and boring as possible. I look at this film and I think of students I have taught whom I think would really enjoy watching and talking about it because they’re mature enough to get it and have the conversation.
Plus, it would be engaging. Miss Representation is engaging because it has interviews with people who were there, interviews with people who are experts, and it has representations. And yet, like I said, I get paralyzed by the fear that I can somehow get in trouble. Even if I don’t show the film, there’s a certain amount of trepidation that I still have about expressing my beliefs–not that I haven’t been afraid to express my beliefs, but there’s this sense that, “Who am I to say anything?” I get it from different angles–from those who would harp on a point about indoctrination, from those who want to label me as “just a teacher” as opposed to a subject matter expert or someone who is a worthy audience and is actually considered authentic enough.
I think we end up doing students a disservice because of the catch-22 of “Teach the curriculum you’re supposed to teach and check all the boxes to show student achievement but don’t forget to teach critical thinking while keeping it neutral, objective, and above all, PG.” As if I’m poisoning their minds that I want to bring in a different perspective or idea or that I want to open them up or have them discuss something that might change their opinion on a topic. But they’re young adults and they’re already being bombarded on a constant basis by the media, so I’m fighting that and what I have to say might not get through as it is. They may not agree but I don’t need them to.
So how do you have the conversation? How do you have an honest discussion? How do you honestly rip the band-aid off and honestly show the wounds without having to deal with accusations?
Because we don’t have them and we don’t do that. We get posters with platitudes and guest speakers who come in, make overly emotional presentations that end with everyone singing “Kumbaya” in a pseudo-Christian way. That’s clean, it’s neat, and it’s not honest. Oh, it seems honest, but the honesty I’m talking about is messy and it’s complicated and the discussion is likely going to cause more questions to be raised and might even lead to more problems to be solved instead of, “Well, treat one another right and here’s a video clip, song, poster, and T-shirt to remind you why.”
I know it’s presumptuous to speak for my colleagues or anyone else in my profession because they may not share my opinion on the topic, but not every teacher willingly takes a chance on every single thing that comes across their desk. A lot of teachers, myself included, do sometimes think twice about things that are controversial because as much as we want to open our students’ minds, we also hear a lot about accountability and the need to be employed sometimes trumps the need for opening minds.
And that hurts.
It hurts to think that I can’t have a dialogue with my students or that I can’t look at something that is an excellent example of how something is represented or is an excellent teaching tool but might have some cursing or a bit of nudity in it or has a message that might be contrary to the beliefs they were raised with that I have to censor myself, that I have to tread carefully and not fully engage in a way that could be rewarding because the fact that they might see this and might actually start to think differently about maybe how they treat someone else or look at something, becomes a problem, becomes me doing something wrong.
I hear a lot about teachers who inspire. I have no idea if I have ever inspired anyone and if I did, that’s awesome. I don’t keep track, to be honest. And I’ve heard it time and again that the great ones inspire students to change, to work harder, to succeed, to think differently. But I want everyone to know how much of a challenge it is to get to that point and how I struggle and how I fight with all of the noise I hear about teachers and how very frustrating that is.
I may not use the film. I may point to it as an example or encourage students to watch it on their own. I may show clips from it instead and start a discussion from there, or something similar–I usually don’t get around to the unit I’m thinking of until December or January anyway, so I have time to plan. But I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I tried to discourage myself right off the bat and I want to work to change that because I’ll never be any agent of change if I can’t work on myself first.