Surprise! Feminism!

This week I’m going to be screening Miss Representation for my Media Ethics course. Ethics is the third and final mandatory humanities course for all students in Anglophone pre-university CEGEP programs. Students enrolled in my class are therefore destined for STEM fields as well as humanities, social science and music. They may or may not have ever thought about gender issues before, and they certainly didn’t sign up for a class on feminism. Despite this, they are being asked to watch a feminist film about the portrayal of women in the media and to write a response paper about it.

The first time I saw the film – which, though very good, does have its flaws – I was doing a post-doc at McGill. One of the on-campus associations had arranged a screening and a colleague and I went to check it out. Much to my dismay, there were only two men in the otherwise impressive audience.  Once again, feminism was preaching to the choir, and as is too often the case with gender studies courses, the room was packed with women. This bothered me for two reasons. Most importantly, the efficacy of the film is greatly diminished if men don’t see it. What’s the point of speaking truth to power, if those who inhabit positions of power – or who will one day inhabit them – aren’t listening? Second, the film does have its flaws and should be critiqued, and a more diverse audience would help with that project.

Unsurprisingly, then, I jumped at the chance to screen the film in a class that included men, and I put it on my syllabus almost without thinking. Since then, I have had time to reflect, and I am increasingly anxious as the day approaches. Some of my colleagues who have screened the film in their classrooms have noted that male students can react badly since they feel like the film is attacking them for crimes that they haven’t committed. This is a common response to projects which rightly point out our society’s systemic prejudice against women and which unintentionally make it sound like all men are perpetrators and all women are victims. Systemic problems are hard to explain in a nuanced way and things can appear too black and white in a documentary-style survey. This is especially true if the audience lacks sufficient background in gender studies.

And then there’s the issue of privilege. Ambitious youth brought up to believe that working hard will get them ahead – whether male or female – don’t want to hear that the system is not actually meritocratic and that some people are privileged while others aren’t. Men want to be able to take full credit for their achievements, and women want to believe they have equal opportunities. Gender inequality was supposed to be the fight of an earlier generation and it’s hard to hear that the battle is still ongoing. And so I find it entirely understandable that there’s a certain level of knee-jerk rejection that goes on.

Finally, none of us wants to admit that we’re that influenced by the media. Sure, role models are important, and portrayals of women on TV and in magazines aren’t great. But we all know the line between TV and real life, so what does it matter? Right? Studies linking what we watch to what we do have only been able to prove correlation, never causation, so it’s entirely possible that some people can consume hours upon hours of media content that marginalizes women and not take it personally and/or find that it simply mirrors a depressing reality that they’ve already come to terms with. Bleak as this picture may be, at least it allows for autonomy. And again, my students – like me – want desperately to believe that they have agency.

None of this is reason enough to avoid screening the film, but these potential reactions have given me pause when it comes to my decision to let the film speak for itself. The film is our first foray into the realm of applied ethics – we have hitherto been talking about abstract systems of morality – and I won’t be talking about the ethical issues related to the media’s portrayal of gender until the next day. This is because I wanted students to respond to the material without the filter of what I have to say. However, I am increasingly full of self-doubt about this particular decision because I don’t want to turn people off of the subject matter either. Basically, I’ve started to wonder if they would have gotten more out of it if I had decided to give the lecture first, and then screened the film.

At this point, the syllabus is set and there’s not much I can do. I will ask that people keep an open mind and that the men in the room remember that I will be talking about the media’s portrayal of masculinity as well. And then I will hit play. Hopefully, my students will find it interesting and engaging, but I won’t know if they’ve been drawn in by the film or if they’ve blocked its message out until I get those response papers.  I still think it’s really important for men to engage with these issues, but I also think that I need to do a little more work when it comes to introducing them to feminist critiques in general and of the media in particular.

My own relationship with feminism has always been complicated, so I bow to the wisdom of my peers and invite suggestions about how best to introduce this type of material. How do you talk about feminism in your class without “turning off” the men or depressing the women? Let me know in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “Surprise! Feminism!

  1. A strategy I used to use sometimes that worked well for striking this kind of balance was to ask students to tell me a question they were taking to the reading/expecting to have addressed by the reading (I never screened a film). This exposed underlying assumptions and also showed how differently people engage with sources, without needing much commentary from me. Then, we came back to these things as talking points after they’d done the readings. I can see this working super well for something like Miss Representation.

    • This is really interesting. I often ask students what questions they would ask their peers after completing a reading, but I hadn’t thought to test their preconceived their ideas like this in advance. Thanks for the tip!

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