The other day, I wept in front of my class. We are reading a bunch of stuff about pornography and gender and how girls and boys get into gangs and how they organize themselves (or are organized) within those gangs, and lot of other stuff. Lots of difficult reading, and stories of suffering and confusion. We also read a couple of chapters from Robert Jensen’s book, Getting Off: Pornography and the end of Masculinity. And an article that talked about how to educate for gender equity. It’s an old article, from the late 90s, and it talked about ‘hallway politics’, with a description of how girls are sexually harassed by boys in the hallways of schools.
It is difficult to read this. And difficult as well to live it. Women become used to it. We learn from infancy how to either ignore or attract the male gaze. We learn from infancy how to be ‘girls’. Even when we would rather be boys.
I asked them to take five minutes and write out their emotional responses to the material we had just been reading and discussing. Not judgments, just feelings. “Keep your hand moving,” I said, “keep writing ‘I don’t know what to say’ until something emerges. It will. Just write. If you are more comfortable writing in a language other than English, please do that, no one will read it.”
Then after that, i handed out different coloured construction paper. “Okay, here I want you to write the dominant feeling that emerged for you. One word, or two. And put it up on the wall, and then look at what your colleagues were feeling too.”
Anger. Confusion. Frustration. Fear. Anxiety. Rage. Anger. over and over again the word “Anger”. One man wrote “Relieved (because I am a man)”. I walked around, I read them aloud. I looked at my class, at these women and men who are embarking on careers as teachers. They looked back at me. Was it my imagination or did some of them look a bit shook up? Was it my imagination or did the men drop their gaze when i met their eyes? I said, “Oh, thank you. Look at this, ‘anger’, frustration, confusion’–I,…” and then the tears came. I felt all of it, all at once. All of that frustration and rage and sadness they wrote out and tacked onto the walls. There it was.
See, this is what we feel all the time, I think. Women, anyway. We are always angry. How can we not be? Everywhere we go, everything we see, every place we go, we see our imperfections reflected back at us, writ large. We see we are never safe. We are never in charge, and we are never safe. Even the women who are in charge, the few CEOs and politicians and the judges, for example, the school principals and the school board chairs; they are still in charge of a man’s world, which is, in turn, in charge of them. And they too are always subject to the male gaze. and the implicit threat of violence if they refuse to ‘play nice’.
How can we dismantle this? how can we imagine living without the constant presence of fear and rage? Mine lives right here at the base of my neck, and right here, behind my eyes. What would I see if it were removed?
I am teaching teachers. They are, WE are, all of us entrenched in the big reproductive machine–the Education System–we think we can change things. Education is important, you can make your way with an education, you can make a change with an education. That’s what we believe, that’s what we’ve been told. But the system makes us.
Meanwhile, boys still sexually harass the girls with whom they are in class; and men everywhere learn they are entitled to look at us a certain way and expect us to bend to their will, in myriad subtle and not subtle ways. And the system grinds away and we say to younger women, “well, it was worse when I was younger”. But I don’t think it was.
Maybe I’ll write a post about why I am optimistic in spite of all that. Fueled by rage and fear, their is a light that shines like the sun through the clouds of evening.