What the Student Teaches the Writer
In my teaching life, I encounter a diverse spectrum of young people. Mostly they are bright, open, engaging beings, willing to learn and give this writing thing a go. Sometimes they're not. Sometimes they are moody, sad, withdrawn or shy. Just like the rest of us, out here, in the real world. Mostly, they are compassionate, caring and polite, but not always, although rudeness is a rarity. In other words, the students I encounter provide a snapshot of a wider humanity. From that snapshot, it heartens me to know that we're mostly okay and heading in a better direction.
Every now and then, though, I hear or read things from the students that make me pause and ponder and, sometimes, despair for our advancement. On occasion, this feeling is stirred by a piece of writing where, for example, racism is casually glossed over, or where outdated gender roles are perpetuated without thought, or where rape culture and blaming the female for her violation is accepted as the norm. When I come across such works, I attempt to broaden the writer's thinking by pointing out these issues and representations, then suggesting that there are other ways to consider them and that we, as writers, can challenge rather than perpetuate such notions.
It is my sense that the stereotypes found in the student's work are not usually intentional, nor malicious. Rather, they are drawing on and unconsciously perpetuating deeply entrenched ideas within our society; ideas that are 'in our faces' every day but that we choose not to see. This was brought home to me when a student wanted to share two of his favourite music videos with me. As he spoke of them, I felt wisps of alarm rising through my mind but, as he was genuinely enthusiastic about the songs ("I think I can see myself in the lyrics”), I agreed to watch and share my opinion.
What I saw left me angry.
I have no wish to encourage the viewing of these music videos so I won't refer to them by title, but the first showed a young boy being enticed into a warehouse by a Faginesque figure, who offered him a coin to 'buy' his choice of scantily-clad, gyrating woman trapped inside a vending machine. As the song progressed, the women pressed themselves suggestively against the glass while the camera – predictably – focused on mouths, eyes, breasts and backsides, as though this was the sum value of each woman. More disturbing, each woman apparently represented a 'demon' (drug/sex/alcohol) overcome by members of the all-male band. So, the message of the video is – *sigh* – women are the site of sin and temptation; women are the corruptors of (male) innocence; women are only valuable as sexualised objects; women can be bought and sold. Oh, and lets not forget the scene where money starts falling from the ceiling, exciting the women to smash out of their glass cages as they 'go after the cash'. Yeah, coz that's what us girls are all about, right?!
The second video opened with a young man – the singer, all outrage and heartbreak, whose personality has split into a 'good/ evil' guy dictomy – shoving a bound woman into a chair in the middle of an abandoned warehouse. No prizes for guessing where this is going – yes, filled with indignation because the woman rejected him, the 'evil' singer screams into her face as he forces her to look at him. When the woman attempts to escape this lunatic, he promptly strangles her to death – but it's okay because his 'good' self feels so remorseful that he kills his 'evil' self, which – of course – was him all along. So everyone ends up dead; great. And all because a woman – if you believe the lyrics – made a choice about who she loved. The nerve!
Troubling as these videos were, what disturbed me more was that the student who had asked me to watch them had not seen the way women were constructed and objectified in these clips. Instead, while immersed in the music and lyrics, he had not even thought to challenge the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to kidnap and strangle a woman who rejects you, or that women are objects to be bought. It was only when I asked him to replace the women in the vending machines with men and to really consider the messages in the 'it's okay to strangle your ex' clip that the light suddenly came on.
I guess this is one of the bonuses of my work with student-writers. When I encounter such blatant and barbarous stereotypes, I can bring them to the student's attention and, hopefully, they can make the choice to reject and/or challenge these constructions and perhaps be more aware when such notions try to sneak (like low-bred scoundrels) into their writing and their lives. And, maybe, from their awareness will grow a world where people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or creed, are valued for their unique humanity.