Monday, December 28, 2015

Contemplating Sexism and Racism During the Holidays

Part 1 - Instead of Fighting 

I don't write nearly enough about equity issues. This is a problem because ignoring situations don't solve problems. Then again, often I'm unsure about how to deal with them appropriately. This is why I'm in an informal book club reading The Dream Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson- Billings. This is why I follow some people I respect on Twitter, because they make me think about things that make me uncomfortable.
  • @RafranzDavis
  • @RusulAlrubail
  • @TheJLV
  • @Veronikellymars
Recently, I saw this brilliant tweet that made me feel less timid and less helpless about dealing with some issues of stereotypes, equity and "isms".

 Instead of fighting with people (especially little girls) who love princesses, work with the concept and turn it around. Instead of denying the appeal of Disney heroines, critically examine it and expand on it. I worried about my students' obsession with royal blonde beauties and this approach is pretty neat. When our kindergarteners sing our "Hello, How Do You Do?" circle song for library time, we ask "What else can we do?" and the answer is frequently a noun instead of a verb: "be a princess" / "be Spiderman". Lately, we've been probing with clarification questions: "What does a princess do?" / "What does Spiderman do?" The answers are fascinating, with suggestions such as "brush their hair". I'm on the lookout for a book describing real jobs of royalty, or maybe in a new Dramatic Role Play, we can deal with what royalty does.

I'm unsure if gender stereotypes play out in the same way that racial or cultural stereotypes do. I don't think little girls "grow out of them" like they do with princess obsessions. (My own daughter is turning 16 in a few weeks. When she was 3, she wore mouse ears and a tail everywhere and loved being a fairy mouse princess. Now she is a independent-minded, confident young woman who thinks most boys of her generation are cocky and self-centered.) Is there a way to take biased assumptions about other groups of people and turn them around to make them work, instead of battling them?

Part 2 - Can You Love Something Flawed?

I was originally going to make this a separate post, but I realized as I composed it in my head that thematically, it fit with Part 1.

A long, long time ago, when I first began my blog, I used to write a lot about Twilight the book series by Stephenie Meyer. I really enjoyed those books. I read Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn six times each. I joined fan sites. I attended conventions. I wrote chapter summaries for major websites devoted to the books. I saw the film adaptations on opening night.

Years passed, and something changed. I still had fond memories of the books, but there was something "not as perfect" about the novels. I had heard for years about the complaints that Twilight played into harmful gender stereotypes and that it normalized stalking behavior. I witnessed a Canadian YA author made a very public rant about it to several audiences; people encouraged me to have a verbal debate on the topic with that author, but I didn't think it was worth it. I still had fond memories of the series, but there was a valid point in the tirade. (I didn't agree with bad-mouthing another author's work in a public forum, but this was beside the point.) Even Stephenie Meyer was aware of the criticisms leveled at her work, which is partly why I believe she a) why she had a long interview published in The Twilight Saga: The Official Illustrated Guide and b) why for the tenth anniversary, she wrote a gender-swapping version of Twilight called Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined with Edythe replacing Edward and Beau replacing Bella.

Meyer said she was motivated to make the switch because of questions she received at signings about Bella being a "damsel in distress."
"It's always bothered me a little bit, because anyone surrounded by superheroes is going to be in distress," Meyers explained. "I thought, 'What if we switched it around a bit and see how a boy does,' and, you know, it's about the same."

(Cynical me says that it also was a way to make new sales on an old property.) I didn't read the new version, because now, the book series doesn't have the same allure for me as it used to. I still think the original does a wonderful job of describing what it feels like to be in love for the first time and how magical even holding hands can be, but the flaws are becoming more prominent.   This web article, written by actor Tyson Houseman, which discusses the portrayal of Native Americans in mainstream Hollywood movies, made the point quite well that the portrayal of First Nations people in the Twilight series was "problematic", to use his term.

So this is my question: can you love something that is flawed? I'm not talking about people here, because we are all flawed or less-than-perfect. I'm wondering if you can still be a fan of a book or an organization (like our current school system) that you can see is problematic, that might show or can do bad things to other people. I hope the answer, like I say Tyson suggested indirectly in his article, is that you can be aware of the difficulties but still be involved with it.

Part 3 - Holiday Tune POV

A short reflection here, on a couple of articles that I've come across this holiday season about the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" and the various interpretations, both liberating and sinister. I find it fascinating that a song could be, as time evolves, at first positive and now so negative.

I know that at our school holiday sing-a-longs that occur the last week of school (a practice that I've internally debated for quite some time, but never been bold enough to challenge or question), that there has been an effort to explain words or terms from popular classics so students understand the context - "don we now our gay apparel" from "Deck the Halls" is a common example. I'm unsure how effective the explanations are, be it because the students are too excited about the event or upcoming vacation to listen, or because addressing a gym-full of students ages 4-13 can be challenging as a teaching moment. What are the curriculum ties that make it relevant to carol in the gym? My school does not sing any obviously religious tunes during these sing-a-longs - what impact does that have? How can we approach this activity in the gym and afterwards in a way that helps students understand how language evolves and that respects both Canadian culture and our diverse traditions?

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