Upper School Elective Provides Insight Into Feminism
By Aidan Fennelly, Upper School English Teacher
To the male middle school mind, implicit in the idea that women need to empowered up is the idea that all men have done something wrong and accordingly need to be diminished. Our boys feel guilty by association. Plus, there’s the other middle school adage that each boy feels, but none is willing to admit: Girls are scary, dude, and I don’t really know what to make of them.
I certainly remember feeling this way about girls and about feminism well beyond my middle school years. A few years ago, my girlfriend asked me if I was a feminist. “No! I” replied. “Uh, why,” she asked, “don’t you believe in gender equality?” Like an idiot, I responded, “Of course I do, but I don’t like, go to rallies and stuff.”
The truth was, at the time I had no idea what feminism really was or what being a feminist really meant. I’ve since had some time to dig deep and repair the blunt-male-trauma to my head (thanks in no small part to the aforementioned feminist girlfriend). And it began by understanding the simple, beautiful goal of gender equality at the heart of feminism. Gender equality. Not burning men down and hanging them by their ties. Not assuming that all men are bad or toxic. And certainly not wiping men and maleness from the face of the earth.
At a certain point it dawned on me that I would have had a much healthier view of the world—and much healthier relationships with women— if I had learned this lesson earlier in life. So, in light of this realization—and also in light of #MeToo, the Kavanaugh hearing, and conversations about “toxic masculinity”—it made sense to offer a feminism elective in the winter term.
To my surprise, over 10 boys showed up. We began by unpacking stereotypes and misconceptions about feminism that were coloring the boys’ thinking. They assumed, as I guess many men do, that all feminists are outspoken, militant man-haters. They were taken aback when I told them that feminists just want gender equality, and that I, a straight white male with a good deal of bro-ness, am a feminist.
We spent the next part of that initial discussion exploring the idea of power. We focused on three types: cultural/social, political, and economic, and looked at concrete examples of how, on the whole, men have a disproportionate share of each. We then learned a little about the history of feminism, and I introduced them to a “feminist critical lens,” a series of questions used to interrogate works of art and media regarding how they support or subvert traditional gender roles.
Each week since that first, we’ve used our feminist critical lens questions to dissect a work of art or current events issue. The critical lens is a great mode for this sort of work because the questions push the boys to think about works of art not just as depicting “reality,” but as sending certain messages about the roles women are expected to play in our society. This forces perspective taking, what some scholars call “cognitive empathy,” and allows the boys to visit a different perspective while maintaining their own rational viewpoint.
So, armed with the idea that feminism=gender equality and the critical lens questions, the boys began to understand the ways in which our society has oppressed women. After a while, they approached the uncomfortable question: “what would I want if I were born a woman in such a society?” One answer I hope they’ve walked away with is: I’d want the men in my life to be allies.
It may be true that men will have to sacrifice certain material and social advantages in order for there to be true gender equality. But such a sacrifice will also entail a shedding of arrogance and an end to the relentless need to be the best at everything we do that comes with it. In the end, men, and our boys, will be better off for it.
I hope the boys learned valuable lessons. In our last session, I asked them what they walked away with. Most responded with some version of this answer: "During our feminist course, I have learned the importance of gender equality and how it is important to learn at such a young age.”
Eager to share what they’d discovered and discussed in their elective, these young men presented to over 25 Upper School boys who chose to spend a lunchtime in mid-March learning about feminism and engaging in a healthy conversation about it.