Tuesday, February 7, 2006

When gender doesn't mean gender

The small groups in my literature class were discussing Old English 'elegies,' and I asked them to think about the different uses of space and geography in three poems. As I was going around from group to group, the train of conversation in one group inspired me to ask them, "Are the spaces in these poems gendered?" (Two poems have women speakers in fairly circumscribed spaces, seemingly put there by others; the other presents a male speaker exiled, it seems, at sea and by indirect circumstances. I thought it was a no-brainer.) I had the following odd conversation with a student as a result (note, I'm paraphrasing both of us):

Student: Well, it's not gendered, really. Just different things happen to the women characters.
Me: How is that not gendered, then.
Student: It's not because they're women. They just happen to be women. And they're in different spaces. [This, by the way, could be a fair enough argument, but I wanted to push her to defend it. Thus, my next questions....]
Me: So isn't that gendered? Why is that different things happen to the women characters than to the male speaker?
Student: Well, because women just happen to be the people who were raped and pillaged in this poetry.*
Me: Um. And how is that not gendered????

Lucky for me, the student next to her was rolling her eyes and trying to get a word in edgewise, so I said, "Why don't I let someone else take it from here?"

*Note: actually, no one is raped and pillaged in these poems, but I decided that wasn't the salient issue at this point.


HeoCwaeth said...

Well, I can't help your student with pillaging, but W&E could maybe, possibly, if you look at it funny, include a rape story. It would still be gendered, though. Sigh. You could slip her a copy of Hrotswitha's Life of Pelagius, and see if she can see gendering of characters when the gendered/ objectified character is not who she expects it to be.

I have to study Late Medieval Drama this semester (the prof is beating Everyman half to death, reviving him, then finishing the job), and this girl is squandering OE opportunities. Maybe you should accidentally drop a book on her toe for me.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Ah, the old "it may be true, but if I agree with you, I might sound like a feminist" reaction.

I love that one.

Bardiac said...

It's sort of scary, how difficult it is to get students to make connections sometimes and even THINK about causality.

What did the next student say? Did she get it?

(And, was the first student male?)

Virgo Sis said...

I agree with AW. (HI!) It is especially sad in the context of the death of Betty Friedan this past week. We've come so far to slide back this much.

Since I went to all girls' schools through college I never had the fear of expressing my feminism in a mixed group. Of course I was completely unprepared for the real world, but that is another story.

Dr. Virago said...

HeoCwaeth - Yes, W&E (one of the texts under discussion) could maybe involve rape. Of course it could be lots of things. Sometimes I think it's about wolves. :) And hey, don't pick on late medieval drama -- that's *my* thing. Wanna trade? (Actually, I love OE poetry, even if it frustrates my students' desire for plot. But one, you'll be happy to hear, decided W&E was her new favorite poem.) Oh, and tell your prof that many of us think Everyman is neither medieval, English, or drama. Discuss. :)

Everyone else: here's the really weird detail I left out of the main post for fear that the student might stumble upon the blog and identify herself too easily: SHE'S NINE MONTHS PREGNANT AND DUE NEXT WEEK!!! So there she is, with a humongous pregnant belly, signifying gendered body left and right, and saying that rape and pillage aren't, you know, *gendered*.

Bardiac, I have to say I walked away to let the other student argue with her. I did that in part because I wanted in that particular class meeting to make them figure things out for themselves and not count on me to "explain it all," like they had in the last meeting on the elegies. But also, I thought that if another student argued with her, she might be less inclined to perceive it as a prof "forcing" a view on her. Since the other student was nodding at just about everything I said, I assume she made similar arguments (details of which I left out here). Besides, I had to go put out a fire in another group where they were *still* arguing about "what happened" in the poem, despite my repeated instructions not to worry about that.


Dr. Virago said...

Oh, and Sis -- careful when you use the phrase "real world" to signify the world outside of college when you're in the company of academics! :) Then again, a Catholic women's college is hardly the real world. :)

Karl Steel said...

All I can do is sympathize.

You could ask her how she thought it would have changed the poem if she'd swapped the women out and replaced them with men. Does she feel that it changed the meaning of the poem? Yes? Then there's probably something gendered going on.

I love OE poetry, even if it frustrates my students' desire for plot

What about my favorite the Battle of Maldon? That's plotty.

Fast Fizzy said...

I wish I knew what you all are talking about. Could you write a little sloooower? I'm a man with only one thing on my mind!

Bardiac said...

Wow, maybe she really needs to think a bit more about what she's doing with her own body and the space inside?

I hope she's not going to be one of those poor students who thinks the world is all perfectly gender neutral only to find out that all child care is her purview, as are all housekeeping and cooking chores.

Virgo Sis said...

Yes, sis, by "real world" I meant one where there are both men and women! Of course, it's still pretty surreal.

Murky Thoughts said...

"Gendered" means it has the little circles over the i's instead of dots?

Dr. Virago said...

Karl -- Yes, Maldon is plotty (or at least the speakers in it talk a lot about doing things!), but I'm not teaching it this time. It's a shame, too, because I have pictures from where they think the battle took place, and a quicktime video proving that you *can* hear people across the causeway.

Bardiac -- I'm pretty sure you've predicted my student's fate.

Murky Thoughts and Fast Fizzy -- have you two met? MT, could perhaps be my brother in disguise? (Actually, MT, I don't know what gender *you* are, but I keep assuming male because you share my brother's smart-ass sense of humor.)

HeoCwaeth said...

"I wish I knew what you all are talking about. Could you write a little sloooower? I'm a man with only one thing on my mind!"

Slow gin fizzy?

Dr. Virago said...

OK, HeoCwaeth, you just proved that smart-ass punning crosses all gender lines! :) And I'll make sure Fizzy sees this as that's just the sort of thing *he'd* say. Are you sure you two haven't met?