Thursday, December 15, 2011

Intentionally Bad Christmas Gifts and Unintentional Sexism

Jezebel recently posted a video clip from the Jimmy Kimmel show, under the premise that it's an entertaining watch. Kimmel challenged his fans to pull a Christmas prank on their kids, to give them undesirable early presents and film their disappointed reactions.

The video clip contains a montage of various fans' videos, all with kids tearing open beautifully wrapped presents only to drop their jaws in confusion and disappointment. Kids reacted to receiving such "gifts" as a Tupperware with a half-eaten sandwich, a battery, and an onion.

Now, much of this footage is adorable and chuckle-worthy. But not every kid received such gender-neutral bad presents. Some of the kids were little boys whose parents got them "girl" gifts, and if you watch the video with idealized gender roles in mind, you can see that in the cases where the intentionally terrible present was based around gifts of the "wrong" gender, the boys' reactions raise some truly troubling questions about how early children learn sexist attitudes.

To see what I mean, you first have to watch the video.

Now, this thing starts out amusing. When the children eagerly tear open the packages, only to find ridiculous items housed inside, they clearly struggle with feeling disappointed and trying to mask that disappointment because their parents are telling them to be excited. Anyone who works with young people knows the amusement that comes with watching little faces work out emotions bigger and more grown-up than they are: are they serious? Should I be honest and show that I hate it, or should I pretend to like it? (spoiler alert, kids: you're still going to be asking yourselves that as an adult). Also endearing is how you can see it gradually dawning on the kids that their parents are messing with them, and those moments are very playful and cute. The exchange between the mom behind the camera and the little girl getting a half-eaten sandwich in a tupperware container! The one little girl's pouty reaction to her mom saying "I thought you loved my cooking, so I made you this!" is downright adorable.

But reconsider some of the reactions given by little boys whose gag gift was "for girls." In these scenarios, the joke stems not from the unexpected status of the gift (that it's rotten, half-eaten or already used up), but rather, from the fact that the gift violates gender norms (that it's the "wrong" kind of gift.)

The boy who got a girls' sticker book:

This was the first reaction in the series where the kid got openly angry. He's not just frustrated and dealing with disappointment. He's panicked and yelling at his parents. "I got a girls' activity book with stickers!" he cries plaintively. "I'm not a girl!" His little sisters got boys' gifts, and they sadly chime in "I'm not a boy eidder" (ok, the lisp is adorable), but their reaction is not as defensive or extreme as the boy's. The clip ends with the boy beginning to cry. "This is the worst Christmas ever," he says, sounding heartbroken.

The shrill panic of this boy at receiving a girl gift made me recall a fact from Still Failing at Fairness, a book about research conducted in public schools on sexism in education. The authors of this research found (often unintentional) gender inequality both in curriculum and in the way teachers facilitated discussion, again and again, all across America.* One study they did really stayed with me in particular. They surveyed almost 1100 hundred middle-school age students in Michigan with the question "Suppose you woke up tomorrow and found you were a member of the other sex. How would your life be different?" (112).

While a large portion of the girls surveyed thought being a boy could give them some advantages, 95% of the boys surveyed "saw no advantage at all to being female." Most startlingly, 16% of those boys said that if they did wake up to find they'd changed into girls, they would kill themselves.

Quotes from the students surveyed:

"I would kill myself right away by setting myself on fire so no one knew."
"I'd wet the bed, then I'd throw up. I'd probably go crazy and kill myself."
"And I would never wake up again and would head over to the cemetery right now and start digging."
"If I woke up tomorrow as a girl, I would stab myself in the heart fifty times with a dull butter knife. If I were still alive, I would run in front of a huge semi in eighteenth gear and have my brains mashed to Jell-O. That would do it."
"If I was a girl, I would scream. I would duck behind corners so no one would see me."
"I would hide and never go out until after dark."
"If I turned into a girl today, I would kill myself."

Were these particular respondents being melodramatic? Maybe. But the numbers show that by middle school, these students had all picked up the message that the idea of a girl becoming a boy is no big deal, but the idea of a boy transformed to a girl is "appalling, disgusting, and humiliating; it was completely unacceptable" (113). The idea of becoming a girl panicked the male students, made them say fearful and desperate and contemptuous things about what it means to be a girl.

And when the little boys in the Kimmel clip receive girl gifts, their reactions encapsulate this desperate panic, this utter contempt for being given a gift of the "wrong" gender. Their reactions reveal that the girl item is not a gift to them, but a challenge.

Watch the rest of the video. Watch the reactions of the little boys who get girl presents. Watch how the boys who get girl gifts seem to take extra offense, how they seem to already know, at such a young age, that to be given a "girl" gift is a terrible insult.

The boy who got a sparkly costume:
"You stinking parents!" (flounces over to the camera and pushes the costume at the parent) "Take it back! I want a refund!"

Then later, we see this same kid again, crying and pointing his fingers at the parent/camera:
"[Santa's] putting you on the naughty list!" When the parent asks why, the kid sobs "because you gave me a stupid Hello Kitty gift!!" and hides his face in his hands. And then the same kid appears again, throwing a tantrum and still hysterically sobbing: "you stupid parents! I hate you! I hate you all!"

We see a third boy, who got a pink sparkly pony and shrieks "I got PONIES? I got PONIES?!?! I don't want ponies, they're for girls!" We then see the boy with his chin on his fist, defeatedly saying "this is the worst Christmas I ever had."

Sure, all of the kids were disappointed, and some of them were upset and angry. One kid flings his gift, across the room, saying "that's not what I wanted." Another pouts at the dinner table, saying he's sure Santa would never have brought him a potato. But the only ones who say it's the worst Christmas ever are the ones distressed by girly gifts. Many of the kids objected to the gifts themselves, but these young men objected to them because they were "for girls." The girl doesn't want the sandwich because it's half-eaten and gross, but the boy doesn't want the sticker book because it's for girls, because he's internalized how wrong his world thinks it is for a boy to be associated with anything girly.

So what am I trying to say by reading these kids' reactions in light of Still Failing at Fairness? Not that these kids are sexist, or that these families are sexist, or that the Jimmy Kimmel show is sexist (although the way the montage ends, with a clip of a kid saying "tell Jimmy Kimmel he can suck my balls" speaks volumes about how the show defines "funny." What do you expect from the guy who did The Man Show?). I'm saying that the extreme desperation with which little boys want not to get girl gifts reflects how early and often the society they live in gives them the message that girls are inferior, and that to be called a girl, even in as subtle an implication as being given a girl gift, is wrong. These kids are so young, and I'm sure they couldn't articulate why, but even at that young age they already know that to be given a girl gift as a boy in our society is an offense of the highest and most hard-hitting order.

And you might be thinking that I'm reading too much into this. Many people do. And maybe I am. Then again, many people don't think about how even the smallest and most seemingly inconsequential of messages about the value we place on normative gender roles isn't isolated, but rather, the latest small incident in a never-ending stream of small messages that accumulate into big, over-arching messages. As a literary scholar, I know there's depth to be gleaned from even the briefest of textual excerpts, and as an amateur sociologist, I believe we can observe the system through the individual. Every small individual reaction like the ones mentioned in this piece reflects a larger climate in which the media, peers, parents, teachers and society in general send the message to young people that to be called a girl, even in subtle implication, is deeply humiliating -- whether they mean to send this message or not. And implicit in that message is another idea, namely that girls and women are inferior to men (this inequality being the source of the humiliation). Kids grow into these messages, accept them as status quo. This normalization of inequality is the reason why, even in today's supposedly liberal society, women still earn about 30% less than men at every level of education.**

And so I challenge you, dear reader, to replicate the experiment with the young people in your life. Ask them: if you woke up tomorrow as the opposite gender, how might your life be different? If their answers are in line with those from Still Failing at Fairness and the boys getting girl gifts in the Kimmel clip, think about how no one's probably telling them explicitly that girls are inferior, and how even without that explicit instruction, they're still getting that message, anyway. Ask yourself how a child so young could already believe so vehemently that such inequality is natural, and how you might deflect the messages of inequality they're absorbing and help them see being a girl's not so bad after all.

*Sadker, David & Myra and Karen Zittleman. Still Failing At Fairness: How Gender Bias Cheats Girls and Boys in School and What We Can Do About It. 2nd ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

**According to SFaF, female high school graduates earn 34 percent less than their male counterparts, women with bachelor's degrees earn 31 percent less than their male counterparts, women with master's degrees earn 32 percent less than men with the same degrees, and women with doctorates earn 29 percent (or $22,824) than men. In general, "women who work full-time and year round earn on the average 77 cents for every dollar men earn" (25). And this is from research conducted in 2009, so it's very recent.

What We Teach Them: Thoughts on Processing the PHS Stabbing

In the wake of the brutal stabbing that took place earlier today at Poughkeepsie High School, I’ve been mulling over what happened and what it says about or means for Poughkeepsie. As many people did, I spent a lot of time today saying “this is horrible” and/or “that’s crazy,” but that’s not enough. I think I--we--need to go deeper than that to really process what happened today.

* * *

Last spring, in a course on creating inclusive classrooms, two of my classmates reported on an observation they’d conducted at Poughkeepsie High School. The experience horrified them, and their report was delivered with the sort of wide-eyed incredulity tinged with judgment and disregard that so often accompanies people’s descriptions of Poughkeepsie. When they went to PHS to observe, my classmates said, more than half the class was absent, many of those who bothered to show up did so late, and the teachers couldn’t get through the lesson they’d planned with so few students, so they let them have a double period of free time. The lack of learning perturbed my classmates, as they were there to take notes on how learning happens, to receive guidance as they began their own journeys as teachers. When my classmates made similar comments to the PHS teachers themselves, they laughed. “Don’t become teachers,” my classmates were told by actual faculty. “Get out while you still can.”

By the way, PHS has the highest dropout rate in Dutchess County, about 30%. Get out whole you still can, indeed. Students learn from what we teach them.

When my classmates reported this depressing advice, a momentary hush fell over the room. Sure, none of us envied their disappointing observation. We all wanted to observe rich learning environments where we’d pick up teacher tips and tactics to use ourselves. And we were sympathetic to these reporting classmates who clearly did not have the experience they wanted. But no one quite knew what to say. Some pursed their lips and shook their heads. Some faces clouded over. Some glanced about at everyone else, their raised eyebrows offering unspoken disbelief. The dismissive advice the PHS teachers gave our classmates hung over us, a silent cloud of discouragement. So when the professor broke this silence and spoke, her words effectively enacted a sort of official statement on the subject.

“Yeah . . . “she trailed off and cocked her head at that angle reserved for those thinking they’re about to dispense wisdom. “You don’t want to teach in a school like that. You want to end up in a nicer school than that.”

Inclusive classroom, indeed. An opportunity missed to discuss inequality in our schools. A reinforcement of the teachers’ assertion that PHS is a school no one wants to be at. Students learn from what we teach them.

* * *

When the students came barreling in today, hours before they were scheduled to arrive to the after-school program where I work, they told me that they were locked out of their school, and that at around 10:30 in the morning, one English teacher stabbed another English teacher with a screwdriver. In the hallway. In front of students. Over, and over, and over, a total of 16 stabs to this poor woman’s face, neck, and upper torso. These students didn’t know how to react. They kept saying “this is crazy, I don’t even know what to say, this is crazy” over and over. No adults knew how to react either—I shrieked “what? Are you kidding me? What?” in a shrill voice for about five minutes straight—and for a long time we sort of just stood there, mouths agape with the shock of fresh tragedy.

Local news coverage here

ABC news coverage here

We tried to say healing, productive things, but they all sounded obvious, hollow: this should not have happened, she was a veteran teacher, no one could have anticipated this, she must have snapped, some extreme circumstance must have driven her, etc, etc. The students were shaken, and nothing we could say in a supportive sentence or two could make it okay.

As the platitudes trickled out, my mind wandered back to the observation report from my class. I thought about the reported indifference of the PHS teachers, about their desperate appeal for young teachers to get out while they still can. And I thought about my professor’s response, and how it speaks to the insidious ways institutional racism and classism reinforce and perpetuate themselves. This was not a person who intentionally meant to be offensive, but her intentions don’t change the fact that she still affirmed the stereotype. Nearly two dozen grad students left that day with the message that Poughkeepsie was a bad school, a bad place to teach, with bad students who don’t show up to class and bad teachers who don’t want to be there. That professor reinforced the stereotype as though it was truth, and because of that carelessness, we all got the message, loud and clear: stay away from Poughkeepsie High School, which *happens* to be predominantly students of color and in an area with a lot of poverty.

That professor is not alone in fostering such disparaging thoughts about Poughkeepsie. As the students said when they processed this today, over and over again, the youth in Poughkeepsie already have a bad rep. Measures taken in the past few years to increase graduation rates have been eerily penal and punitive in nature. More security guards and mandatory school uniforms, even as schools are closed down. Cumulatively, these measures build into what looks like a push across the board towards treating our youth like criminals, or potential criminals.

Unsurprisingly, none of these measures have made crime go away. Large-scale gang fights still take place on or near the middle and high schools all the time. Dropping out still continues to be a big issue for Poughkeepsie. Lateness and absences--the conditions of that observed classroom--are signs of a path towards dropping out. Intervention at this stage is crucial to keep students in Poughkeepsie High School, as this Adelphi study suggests. This crucial stage, at least in the instance described above, was happening at the same time these teachers were tuned-out. If the teachers don't want to be there, can we really blame the kids if they don't want to be there, either?

* * *

A few years ago, I was screening a film and doing a workshop with a group of ten students, ages 9-12, when a man shot another man right across the street from us, not 50 feet beyond the front wall of the screening room. I heard a sickening pop, not a loud kerrang like it sounds in the movies. I ran to the window to watch one man crumple as another ran away. I yelled in alarm, and the students turned their heads to ask what was wrong. I stammered that someone had been shot and that we needed to call the police. The kids crowded around the window to look out, but it was eerily quiet out across the street, with the action already over and the flashing lights not yet on their way. They immediately lost interest and returned to their seats to continue watching the film.

As I dialed 911, I was more horrified by their apathy and indifference than I was by the shooting itself. Actually, it’d be more accurate to say that my white, middle-class self was more horrified by their apathy than by the shooting itself. The contrast between our responses forced me to reckon with my own white privilege. I’ve lived a comparatively sheltered life. I had never heard gunshots before. My students have definitely heard gunshots before. My obliviousness to those struggles, the fact of my privilege to go that long without ever hearing gunshots, the repugnance of the fact that I was horrified by their apathy . . . these things reflect and contribute to a society that masks inequality by (among other things) normalizing violence to the degree that kids are used to it. That kind of desensitization isn’t innate. No child is born indifferent to violence. This unequal system that we live in encourages them to be that way, whether we mean it to or not, by normalizing it and making it invisible. This is the legacy we’re leaving them.

When my own students arrived today, they began discussing what had happened and how they were feeling about it. I mulled over the aforementioned memories, wondering if and how they all fit together, hoping they might help me make sense of what had happened. And during this discussion, all of these anecdotes seemed to weave themselves together as I listened to my students react to and process what this whole thing might mean.

One brought up the fact that young people of color stab and shoot each other in Poughkeepsie's streets all the time and no one seems to notice or care, but when a white teacher from Rhinebeck gets attacked in the school, it’s big news.*

This prompted another student to say he felt like people expected it of Poughkeepsie youth, while they don’t expect it of teachers. Like youth in Poughkeepsie are all potential criminals, animals waiting to be caged. He was afraid people would see this as students’ behavior rubbing off on teachers’ behavior. Like the students had made the teacher wild.

Their earnest faces as he said this! The gravity of the discussion pooled in their eyes. They had done nothing wrong, they were simply trying to process the day’s events, and yet, they’ve gotten and/or are getting the message they will be blamed for their teacher’s heinous behavior.**

Students learn from what we teach them. The normalcy/invisibility of violence, the discouraging statements from teachers, the drop out rates, the stereotype that Poughkeepsie is bad, this unequal system we live in . . . they’re all interrelated. If youth in POK are used to gunshots, it’s because they see adults and the media trying to solve problems with violence. If students don’t want to be in school, it has a lot to do with teachers not wanting to be there, either. If we accept violence as the norm, then we’re telling our youth to do the same. They will navigate the world with the models we give them. If youth give up on themselves or become desensitized, it’s because we've taught them to do it.

The thing is, as with my former professor and as with my horrified reaction to what my students see often, these awful lessons we’re teaching our children are often not intentionally communicated. They’re in the media we make, and valorize, and encourage them to consume. They’re in our perpetuation of harmful stereotypes that contribute to thinking Poughkeepsie, and by implication its youth, are “bad.” They’re in the everyday ways that seem normal and not worth questioning. Quite the contrary! If we’re unhappy with violence being a normal occurrence in our children’s lives, I think we’ve got to start really reckoning with the ways we make it normal or invisible. We’ve got to interrogate ourselves to start making sense of this senseless attack.

I'm trying to make sense of this incident, and the clearest picture I get is when I take it as an unfortunate example of a lesson that illustrates how and what we implicitly teach our youth. If your reaction to the stabbing was "That’s crazy!” then think about why all the youth violence in Poughkeepsie isn’t seen as crazy, but rather, as normal and expected. Think about what kind of message that sends to every young person out there, how we might start working against it rather than contributing to it (whether that contribution is unintentional or not).

If your reaction was to be shocked that it happened in a school, ask yourself what kind of school environment allows such hostility and resentment to build, encourages such a climate of open violence and hostility, that suppresses us and then gives us these violent roles to play out. If your reaction was to be outraged that it happened in a school, ask yourself why you’re not outraged when it happens in the street. Ask yourself what we might be able to do about it.

If your reaction was “wow, Poughkeepsie schools really are so bad,” think about every single young person who’s being taught to internalize that message, to accept it as normal. Ask whether the message that sends to our youth is that they’re the “bad Poughkeepsie” everyone’s afraid of. Think about what that message does, and will do, to a young and growing mind.

I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I wasn’t already doing it myself. To productively process what happened today at Poughkeepsie High School, I’m asking myself all the questions above. I believe we’ve all got to ask ourselves these questions, so that the incident transcends its tragedy and becomes an opportunity for creating change in our community. Asking ourselves these questions is uncomfortable, and unpleasant, yes, but we have to look at ourselves before we point fingers. Students learn what we teach them. Let's turn this into an opportunity to take a long look at what it is, exactly, that we’re teaching our youth, what we may not even realize we're teaching them.

* (This comment really made me self-reflect, and I realized I am guilty of this thinking, too. The news of English teachers fighting seemed extreme and unusual in a way that news of shootings on Cannon street doesn’t. That’s white privilege talking. I’m working on it.)

** One student who swore he didn't really have a reaction to the event. He said he was just glad to get out of having to do homework. And again I was reminded of the shooting I saw years before, the casual attitude towards violence those students displayed.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Revised Novel Titles, Inspired by the NewSouth Huck Finn

In the spirit of the NewSouth Huck Finn, I humbly present:

Famous novels with titles revised to be "acceptable" for the 21st century classroom

One Hundred Years of Perfect Contentment

As I Lay Just Resting My Eyes

Moby Male Reproductive Organ

Lady Chatterley’s Platonic Gentleman Caller

To Capture for Observation And In No Way Harm A Mockingbird

Laughterhouse Five

Pride and I’m Not Prejudiced, I Was Raised A Certain Way

Crime and Constructive Criticism

Peace and Peace