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.
An example of the sort of ridiculous way women tend to be drawn in comics, often referred to as the “broke back” pose.
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. Read the rest of this entry »