Can Feminism Be Taught? Can Feminism Be Learned?

By Sally Evans

Following its publication, many people read Clementine Ford’s article at dailylife.com.au about the cultural sanctions on women’s sexual and reproductive freedom.  The commentary about that article, along with other discussions centring on recent (primarily American) attacks on women’s reproductive rights, is proof enough that this is an area that deserves further cultural examination—one that shouldn’t be dismissed, hidden, or silenced.

This article was significant to me not only for its position on feminism, but also because it came less than a week after I taught a class about patriarchy to a group of 2nd-year creative writing students at the University of Wollongong. I told the class what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar meant by the Angel in the House and the monstrous feminine. I told them that Gilbert and Gubar were writing specifically about literary (read: middle-class Western canon) representations of women in the nineteenth century. I told them about the selflessness of the Angel. I told them about the demonisation of women’s sexual behaviour. I used examples from James Bond: Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye. I told them about Laura Mulvey and the theory of the male gaze and how the advent of moving pictures resulted in a certain kind of psychoanalytic approach to film theory to try to account for how exactly filmic images of women serve to objectify them sexually.

And then a little more from Bond, the disgusting 1960s misogynist du jour: a bikini-clad Honey Ryder rises from the ocean in Dr No. She’s been looking for shells (which explains the Bowie knife strapped to her hip), and asks Bond what he’s looking for. “Nothing,” he drawls, “I’m just looking”. Thus is the first filmic Bond girl born, blonde and white and Venusian, the perfect pleasure object. And sure, it’s nice that the Bond franchise, still kicking 40 years later, chose to put an African American woman in a bikini for Die Another Day. The racial politics read so much better, so much more modern (italics for horrified sarcasm), but the sexual politics remain dismal and degrading.

I linger on Bond because, if you’ll pardon the pun, he was the perfect tool for this task, and because I love the James Bond franchise in spite of the misogyny, just as I love it in spite of the ludicrous storylines and horrendously oversimplified representations of race and nationality. Coincidentally, as I revise this article for the Ellipses Project, it is the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr No, and thus 50 years to the day since Ursula Andress slipped out of the sea with her white bikini and overdubbed dialogue. I daresay that, when faced with a bikini-clad female film star, the male gaze has not significantly changed in that time.

Two Mondays later, I was back in front of the same class. Building on what I’d already given them I tried to suggest, as per Judith Butler, that gender is performative. That our culture dictates our gender behaviour, and that biological essentialism is only part of the story. I emphasised that lived bodily experience is important but that the presumed association between male sexual characteristics and masculine behaviour (and between female sexual characteristics and feminine behaviour) is a cultural fallacy. I talked about Julia Kristeva and the suggestion that political feminism doesn’t address the serious issues of the representation of women—what we think of when we think about women, write about them, depict them in films. I showed them Kate Leth’s ‘Fuck the patriarchy’ cartoon because she drew it and posted it on Tumblr the same week that Clem Ford’s article came out, in response to the same horrendous misogynistic policies coming out of the US. I used it as an example of what Kristeva calls ‘making the second sex a counter-society.’ I took them through Jack Halberstam’s introduction to Female Masculinities. I suggested that gender is more complex than the binary division between male and female. I was careful to refer to trans* experience. I was careful to use Halberstam’s preferred gender pronoun. In the past fortnight I have put a lot of energy into teaching patriarchy, feminism, and queer theory in a balanced and intelligent way, and trying to be an advocate for balance and intelligence in contemporary culture.

I didn’t stand on a soapbox, because a university lecture isn’t the place for that kind of thing. And I didn’t blame men because I would argue that this problem is bigger than ‘men,’ that ‘men’ as a category do not all stand against ‘women’ and that actually it’s gender binarism that’s at the root of the problem. I’ve been reading Halberstam, damn it, and Halberstam’s idea of multiple forms and performances of genders (plural) makes academic and practical sense. In my own limited way, I feel like I’m doing feminism right. My second undergraduate major was in Gender Studies. I know what the stakes are, and I know the traps. And I know that my idea of what gender is isn’t the only one and that looking at gender in terms of cultural determinism is a problem and looking at it in terms of biological determinism is a problem and that looking at it in terms of personal determinism is a problem as well, because not everyone feels that their gender can be chosen without it somehow being inflected by culture or nature and because some people don’t want to choose one of the limited versions of gender that we have names for. These are things that I know. Things that I take pains to remind myself of, regularly, because it’s frighteningly easy to forget them and they should not be forgotten.

But outside of my little academic bubble, apparently things aren’t so straightforward.

I had forgotten, of course, that I have already learned these things, and that some people have not. That once upon a time these were new and difficult ideas for me as well. My pedagogical strategy, the mantra that I come back to again and again, is to try to take people from things they already know to things that they don’t. And, let’s face it, teaching is difficult because learning is difficult.

However, though I make these concessions for my students (many of whom were in fact more engaged and articulate about gender politics than I expected) I have to wonder: as young writers, surely these people can understand the value of empathy, of different subject positions, and of the power of representation to dictate behaviour and interaction in the real world? Did I find it difficult to teach feminism because it’s a difficult topic? Because it is complex and students can be notoriously stubborn? Or did I find it difficult to teach feminism because, in a room of digitally connected young Australians in the 21st century, it shouldn’t be so hard?

The idea of teaching feminism strikes me as a little strange. First of all, the fact that in 2012 we still have to teach feminism, even though, in a privileged Western country like Australia, most men on the street will say that they respect women and consider them equals. For that matter, most women will say that, despite overwhelming statistics showing that they are harassed, assaulted, and discriminated against in myriad ways on a regular basis, things are pretty good and they don’t need feminism the same way that their mothers’ or grandmothers’ generations might have.

Secondly, thanks to the internet and increasingly visibility around issues of gender and sexuality, teaching feminism is an increasingly narrow path into a realm of gender politics that contemporary young people inhabit every day. And third, I struggle with the question of whether teaching has any practical value–and, by extension, whether it’s worth teaching feminism and whether doing so will encourage anyone, either the teacher or the student, to actually enact feminist ideals.

And this is why I’m such a poor feminist: I can talk the talk, but that doesn’t give my students any sense of how gender politics affects people in the real world. This is a pitfall for teaching any aspect of literary theory, but I can’t pretend to have faith that my two hours spent analysing texts about feminism can make any sense of the vast, vibrant, and contradictory elements of feminist and queer practice. Both preparing and delivering the lecture made me feel empowered, as though my voice and my articulation were helping the feminist cause (whatever that might be) in a material, practical way. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I’m overcome by the sense that teaching it at all might not be doing feminism any favours.

There are very good reasons to teach feminism, even at the risk of oversimplifying or misrepresenting it. As any teacher knows, you can only present your own knowledge and expertise, and hope that that leads your students to be smarter, more articulate, and more considerate humans. If my two hours might prevent the kinds of narrow-minded, thoughtless misogyny that continues to flourish in white Western middle-class society, then that is a worthy achievement.

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Sally Evans is a PhD student and occasional teacher in the Creative Arts faculty of the University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia. She graduated in 2009 with a double degree, majoring in Creative Writing and Gender Studies, and is completing a PhD dealing with the implications of digital technology for poetic practice. Her approach to her thesis currently resembles her approach to big bosses in computer games: attack briefly, then run away terrified and spend the majority of the time hiding behind a rock to regroup and heal. Like many postgraduate students, she has a great deal of knowledge in some fields (literary theory, poetics) but is completely useless with practical things, such as budgeting and political savvy and working out time zones.