Seventh Graders and Sexism
A New Teacher Helps her Students Analyze Gender Stereotypes in the Media
Illustrator: David Kamba
I began teaching three years ago in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. As a daughter of Mexican immigrants, I feel a strong connection to this community. Teaching, for me, is an opportunity to help my students think critically about society’s inequities.
I feel especially strongly about the injustices that living in a male-dominated society has created, especially for women of color. Part of my commitment to this issue has to do with my own struggles growing up with the strict gender roles in my family.
Early on, I realized there was a double standard in many families in my community: The expectations and responsibilities were different for boys and girls. Boys were expected to be independent and strong, to grow up to be heads of families, to be leaders. In preparation for this, they were encouraged, both explicitly and implicitly, to express their thoughts and ideas. Girls, on the other hand, were taught to cook, do chores, be nice, and not defy authority. We were strictly monitored and warned against having inappropriate encounters with boys.
I don’t want to make it seem worse than it was. Girls were also encouraged to do well in school, and our parents wanted us to have a better life than they had. But the expectations were clearly different for us than they were for boys.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the girls I grew up with became teenage mothers while still in high school. I became pregnant when I was 18, during my first year in college. Even though it was difficult, I continued my education. It took me eight years to graduate, and by the time I did, I had four children.
Along the way, influential professors and works by authors such as Paolo Freire, Ronald Takaki, Gloria Anzaldua, and bell hooks helped me become more politicized and broadened my understanding of issues of social justice, especially sexism. I read a lot about feminism and was frustrated to realize that men still earned more than women, that men still held most leadership roles, and that many women were still victimized by the men in their lives. I also realized that racism and classism intensified this problem for minority women.
When I became a teacher, I understood that I alone couldn’t solve these problems in my classroom, but I felt it was my responsibility to address and discuss these issues with my students.
WHY LEARN ABOUT GENDER?
Problems that arose in the beginning of this school year in my seventh grade class prompted me to focus specifically on gender and sexism sooner than I had anticipated. Rivalries among girls seemed to be constantly erupting, girls accused boys of touching them inappropriately, and students used the the terms “gay” or “faggot” frequently when boys engaged in any activity that deviated from accepted male behavior.
I had also become worried when, in answer to a question about their future hopes and dreams, several girls had responded, “to find a guy to take care of me,” or “to get married,” while nearly all the boys had mentioned either an educational or professional goal. Although I tried to deal with these issues and incidents as they came up, I felt that exploring issues of gender in a more sustained way might be useful.
I planned a language-arts gender unit for my homeroom class. My homeroom students are the students with whom I spend most of the day and with whom I establish the strongest connections with. (I also teach science to the three seventh grade classes in my school.) One of my first goals was for my students to understand that sexism is still a problem, since many of them, I found, thought gender equality had been achieved. I planned for them to reflect on some common gender biases and to critically analyze the media’s role in reaffirming these stereotypes. I wanted them to gain a deeper understanding of feminism and move beyond the common notion that feminists are a bunch of angry, bitter women who hate men. Finally, I hoped that both my boys and girls would incorporate the ideas and ideals of gender equity in their lives.
To facilitate this, I tried to help them make connections. For example, I wanted my female students to begin questioning why most of them continued to let the boys do most of the talking in class discussions, why many of them tied so much of their identity to their appearance, and why there was so much jealousy and competition among the girls instead of a sense of unity. I wanted my male students to explore this as well, and to begin asking themselves why many of them felt threatened to show emotions such as caring and empathy, why many of them used such homophobic language, and to reflect on how they related to the girls in our class both verbally and physically. In addition, I wanted both the boys and girls to challenge their expectations of what they could strive for in life.
We started the unit by reading An Island Like You by Judith Ortiz Cofer. I also used the Spanish version, entitled, Una Isla Como Tu. The stories in the novel deal with such issues as body image, peer pressure, and gender expectations — all told from the perspective of Latino teenagers.
Although the stories had already helped provoke some discussions about gender issues in class, we had not explicitly discussed how and where we learn gender stereotypes. In order to facilitate such a conversation I did an activity originally developed by Paul Kivell of the Oakland Men’s Project in Oakland, Calif.
I began by putting up two pieces of posterboard, one with “Act Like a Man” and the other with “Be Ladylike” as headings. I then asked my students to brainstorm words and phrases they associated with these labels. Beforehand, I had gone over some ground rules, explaining to my students that although I wanted them to feel safe to share their ideas, I also expected them to do so in a respectful way.
At first, it was a slow process getting my students to participate. Many students seemed afraid of what reaction their peers might have to what they might say. Eventually, though, we had a lively class. Although it was tempting to interject, at this point I tried to just facilitate the discussion. As usual, the boys did most of the talking initially and I had to explicitly invite the girls to share their ideas.
In the end, both posters were full of the students’ ideas. Under “Be Lady-like” were words and phrases such as “be nice,” “helpful,” “have catfights,” “gossip,” “shop,” “wear makeup,” “talk on the phone,” “like guys,” “cry,” and “do housework.” On the “Act Like A Man” poster were “don’t cry,” “like sports,” “mature,” “violent,” “responsible,” “serious,” “tough,” “work hard,” “fix cars” among others.
I asked students to compare the two lists and to think about where these ideas come from. Although at first no one said anything, two of my most vocal boys soon spoke up.
“Because it’s the truth,” Rolando said.
“That’s how it is,” Fabian added.
Several other boys laughed at their comments. The girls once again retreated and fell into silence. Whenever this happened I encouraged them to contribute — something I feel they both appreciated and dreaded because many were more comfortable letting the boys do the talking.
Finally, Rita said “From our families?”
Elena followed “From TV?” I noted, as I often had, that the girls offered their suggestions in the form of a question as opposed to the confident answers the boys tended to offer. At these times I often interjected and pointed out to my students the difference in amount and type of participation between the boys and girls and how this was connected to girls having their opinions devalued.
Other students joined in with suggestions: music videos, novelas (soap operas), commercials, songs, magazines, and billboards.
I then asked students to think about what happens when boys or girls defy these gender roles. Some of the boys, referring to the Act Like a Man poster, said “they’re a sissy,” “a wimp,” “a fag.”
“Boys aren’t supposed to cry,” someone said.
“So are boys never supposed to feel sad?” I asked them. “Are girls just more emotional?” Reminding them of what we had learned in our science class about the human body, I asked them if there was some physiological reason that prevented boys from crying. If not, then when — and why — did boys start believing that it was wrong to show certain emotions?
By this point, many students pointed out that boys are told early on that they shouldn’t cry like a girl — and being called a girl seemed to be the ultimate insult. “Why is being called a girl so horrible?” I asked, reminding them that when I talk to a group of boys and girls and refer to them all as guys (something I’m trying to stop doing), no one seems to mind. The students pondered these ideas but still seemed pretty skeptical. Although somewhat frustrated, I realized that at this early stage in our unit, students had done very little, if any, critical thinking about gender stereotypes. Still, it was a beginning, and it allowed us to visibly explore their gender biases, even if they didn’t yet identify them as stereotypes.
In planning this unit I understood that I was going to have to provide a lot of background knowledge, which unfortunately was not in any of our textbooks. One of the challenges of teaching outside the prescribed curriculum has been finding and adapting resources to suit my class. This is made harder because of the 31 students in my room, five are beginning English learners. My room is not a designated bilingual classroom but because I am the only fluent Spanish-speaking teacher, I tend to get most, if not all, of the students with the greatest language needs. Although I realize that these students might be better served in my room, I am not a trained bilingual teacher. Still I do the best I can, and I am learning along the way.
For this unit and other lessons, I incorporate a variety of methods, including gathering materials in Spanish, getting Spanish versions of the novels we are reading, translating resources, and pairing students with peer helpers. A bilingual resource teacher also comes in on a semi-regular basis.
The resources I gathered for the gender study included the introductory essay from Feminism Is for Everyone, by bell hooks; the short story “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid; essays from My Sister’s Voices, edited by Iris Jacob; and a news article entitled “Latinos Redefine What It Means to be Manly.” Unfortunately, I found that there is not a lot written specifically for teenagers about this subject, and for a lot of the readings I had to provide extensive support. For example, several of the readings had challenging words so I used those as the vocabulary words of the week. There was also a lot of figurative language that had to be explained to the students in simpler terms. Because of this, we did most of the readings in class. When I assigned readings as homework I often accompanied them with questions that would help them get through the text and pick out the important ideas in the readings. And I supplemented the readings with several videos that deal with gender issues, including The Fairer Sex, What a Girl Wants, Bannat Chicago, and Tough Guise.
Because I felt that my students needed to read about other teenage boys or young men who were trying to do something to change sexist behavior, I tried to incorporate these into our unit. However, these proved to be the hardest to find. The closest I came to finding something like this was a publication by Men Can Stop Rape called REP. This magazine targets 13- to 18-year-old-boys and includes articles about making tough choices, communicating with girls, and dating respectfully and responsibly. It also features several ads with young men saying things such as “Our strength is not for hurting, so when other guys dissed girls, we said that’s not right,” and “My strength is not for hurting, so when I wasn’t sure how she felt, I asked.” This magazine helped generate lively discussions around dating and relationships, something that many of my students, whether ready or not, are dealing with.
In the beginning of our unit, I was often discouraged at what I interpreted as lack of interest or inner reflection from my students. Our discussions hardly included the type of deep critical thinking I had hoped would help them make connections to their own behavior and attitudes. It was out of frustration that I began incorporating free writing at the end of our lessons. These, I explained to my students, were not formal essays to be edited and graded (although we also did those), but rather a time for them to share freely what they were feeling or thinking about a particular topic.
It was through this writing that I saw the most evidence that the students were reflecting on what we were doing in class. On many occasions, students expressed things they hadn’t felt comfortable sharing aloud. For example, we watched the video What a Girl Wants,a documentary in which teenage girls are interviewed about the effects that depictions of women in music videos and movies have on their self-esteem.
Afterwards, I had students write about their reactions. Elena agreed with the girls in the video who’d said that media images influence the way they feel about themselves. “When girls see models or Brittany Spears or Christina Aguilera,” she wrote, “[and] how nice and pretty they are and they have big breasts but they are skinny … it makes girls want to have breast surgery.” Jose wrote specifically about the pressure that many girls in the video expressed of having to look perfect to get boys’ attention: “I thought that is not fair for girls. A girl has to get the same rights like boys. What a girl wants is respect. A girl shouldn’t be treated bad or called names by someone.” Elena wrote, “This video made me think about how unfair a woman is treated. She is seen as lower than a guy.” Claudia, after writing about what she liked about the video, added that seeing the images of women “made me feel bad, because people always say I’m ugly and these people are boys in this classroom, in school, or in the street.”
Some boys felt defensive and added that not all boys disrespect girls. Cezar, for example, wrote, “I also think that there are a lot of guys that still do look for personality [in a girl]. I’d personally look for both looks and personality. But all the stuff the girls talked about was mostly right.”
One of the most surprising pieces of writing came from a more formal narrative the students had to do. The school requires monthly compositions from each class and I try to incorporate them into our current focus. When the narrative composition came up, I asked my students to write a story that had to do with any of the issues we had discussed so far in our gender unit. We brainstormed a list together and came up with, among other topics, body image, gender roles, homophobia, and standards of beauty. I told them the composition could be fictionalized.
Rolando was one of the first to show me a draft of his writing. I was surprised because he had been one of the boys who seemed most resistant to the ideas we were talking about. He especially had difficulty accepting the idea that boys could express themselves in a variety of ways and was very prone to angry outbursts in class. On more than one occasion I had confrontations with him about his behavior or language.
As I read though his draft, with some trepidation, I was surprised to read that it was about a boy who was being harassed for being gay. His story described a fictionalized situation in which he and a group of friends begin to suspect that one of their friends is gay. After some teasing they finally ask him if he is gay. After he admits that he is, the boys laugh and Rolando writes, “I thought if I step up [and defend him] they will think I’m gay and they probably will laugh, and I looked down and left.”
Rolando continues describing how he decides to go to his friend’s house and finds him with a gun pointed to his head ready to kill himself because of the despair he feels from the rejection of his friends. Rolando writes, “Don’t worry a lot of people are gay. He started to put the gun down and he got on his knees and start to cry. I said ‘It will be alright, OK.'”
Although I realize that his story still contained some stereotypes and was a bit over dramatic, it was very encouraging to see Rolando even attempting to address these issues.
Another telling piece came from Mari, one of my most reflective students, which she entitled, “A Part of My Life.” Mari’s story, like Rolando’s, was fictionalized, yet written in the first person. The protagonist was a 12-year-old girl who is very “mature physically and emotionally” and looks like a girl who is 16. Mari writes about this girl’s ambivalent feelings toward being harassed by men on the street and boys in school. “While I kept walking many guys kept looking at me. In some ways I felt bad, but in others I like to get their attention (all women like that).” She continues, “I’m a girl and this is why I get harassed like this. Some people tell me that if I don’t take care of myself, I might be raped. I just hope nothing bad happens to me. Maybe I’m just going to have to cover up a little bit more.”
The story, although fictionalized, seemed very autobiographical. Mari was dealing with a lot of the same problems, especially harassment from boys. Several of the girls in the class argued that they should have the freedom to dress however they wanted and that the boys harassing them was something the boys needed to work on. While I agree that the boys should be held responsible for their actions I also wanted the girls to reflect on their self worth and identity and how much of it was tied into their appearance. Mari had never said much about this during class, and it was very encouraging to see her reflecting on these issues, even if it was clear that she still had a lot to sort through. Although I realize these are small victories, they showed a growing awareness on Rolando and Mari’s part, and were signs that what we were doing in class was perhaps making a difference.
One of the final activities we did was making collages that either countered or reaffirmed common gender stereotypes. I decided to do this because I wanted my students to critically analyze many of the popular magazines they liked to read. I hoped they would see how the media perpetuates the gender stereotypes we had been discussing. First, I collected as many old magazines as I could, trying to get at least some targeted to African Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups. Posting a sign in the office asking for magazine donations was helpful in getting all the magazines we needed.
I then arranged my class in groups of four or five. I assigned each group a specific task of either creating a collage that countered gender biases or one that reaffirmed them. For example, group one had to do a collage that countered male gender stereotypes, group two would do a collage that reaffirmed male gender stereotypes, and so on. Each group was given a stack of magazines and a small poster board and then was allowed time to browse through the magazines noting words and images they could use for their collage. A timer was useful in keeping them on track since it was easy for them to get side-tracked by the articles. I also provided a large manila envelope for them to keep their cutouts in order.
Although I pushed them to stay on task, I also encouraged the groups to interact, especially since some might find images that would be useful for the collage another group was doing. It was encouraging to hear the students express frustration at the limited number of images available that countered gender stereotypes. During the activity I would hear students call me excitedly when they found a particularly positive image of a man or woman. There were also frustrating moments, like when I overhead Fabian say that he was in the “gay group” because he was looking for images of men in non-traditional roles. In the end, we had several collages: some that contained images reinforcing male stereotypes, others that reinforced female stereotypes, and still others that countered stereotypical images of men and women.
It’s hard to assess how successful I was in achieving my goals for the class. As I look back, there are things I would have done differently. For example, I would have assigned more formal essays, and there were several readings and activities I never got to. I often wonder how much my lack of experience affected what my students gained from these lessons. Since I was doing many of these activities for the first time, I didn’t always anticipate the questions or problems that might arise.
It is frustrating to see that I am still struggling with some of the same problems as before. In particular, many of the girls still don’t speak up nearly as often as the boys. On the other hand, my students many times initiate conversations dealing with some of the topics we discussed. For example, when they see an item on the news about a kid getting harassed because of his or her sexual preference, they bring it up in class so we can discuss it, or we’ll critically analyze some of their favorite TV shows — many of which, unfortunately, are very sexist.
One of the clearest signs that the students were reflecting on these issues came several weeks after our unit was over during our elections for class representative. I was glad to hear many of the candidates being asked what they were going to do about sexism in the school and in the community. One student asked one of the candidates, “What would you do to end sexism in our neighborhood?” Before he could answer, another student exclaimed, “It’ll never end. It’s too hard. It’s too much.” Several students looked at me hoping for a more optimistic reply. At that moment, I understood that in some ways my student was right: The problem was too big. But I also believed and shared with my class that we could make things better, and that we could start with our classroom.