Heidi Yeandle, Swansea University
Another year, and another new batch of undergraduates to welcome to the world of Gender Studies. For the third consecutive year I am leading seminars for the introductory Approaches to Gender in English Literature module at Swansea University. This year, once again, the syllabus has been revamped, and the first year students now have to submit a 500-word cultural analysis after Christmas – they have to put the theory into practice, and apply what they have learned on the course to something in the “real” world beyond academia. This can be in terms of films, sport, events in the news, games, music videos, and anything and everything in-between. On that note, in the first seminar of the term, once everyone in the seminar group had introduced themselves and we’d discussed what the function of a seminar is in comparison to a lecture, I decided to use the majority of the class to get the students thinking about gender in contemporary society, and why it is important to study gender today. As anticipated, this gave me the opportunity to emphasise that the module is not called ‘Feminism in English Literature’ or ‘Women in English Literature’ but Gender – a recurring misconception that I have realised needs facing at the beginning of the course.
In line with the syllabus, I used Virginia Woolf’s ‘Professions for Women’ as a starting point, and asked the students whether Woolf’s words still ring true today; are there still ‘many prejudices to overcome’ (Woolf 1979: 62) for women? Moreover, what about men? This created discussions about inequalities in today’s society, and about the inescapability of the gender binary, with examples including publishing books, sport, horror films, Disney, the world of work, parenting roles, children’s toys, and the new pink and blue Kinder Surprise eggs – the latter discovery I made in the class, thanks to one of the students! I didn’t want to be prescriptive with the topics, preferring to give students the freedom to discuss what they wanted. While I had a Prezi prepared with some examples in case they needed some inspiration – including the use of pseudonyms and J.K. Rowling’s choice to publish her latest (crime) novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name Robert Galbraith, the British bank note campaign, the fact that mothers are STILL omitted from marriage certificates while the father has to write his name and profession, and differences in maternity and paternity pay and leave across the globe – I used this to different degrees with my seminar groups; sometimes to give inspiration, but mostly when it supported the class discussion.
So, what discussions did we have? These included, amongst many more: What do we think about J.K. Rowling using a male pseudonym? Why was the bank note campaign so important? What ideals do Disney films promote for children? What does the portrayal of Kate Middleton and Prince William say about contemporary parenting? Such conversations – raised by myself or by the students – allowed the class to think about many of the central ideas of the course using everyday examples, as well as to engage in critical thinking about such topics. The discussion about Disney films (and horror movies, in fact) highlighted the gender binary, for instance, and the active/passive distinction in terms of male and female characters. The marital aims of the majority of female characters – with the recent exceptions of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog (2009) who wants to run her own restaurant, and Merida in Brave (2012) who refuses to be betrothed – resonates with the dualistic world of children’s toys, which still tend to conform to the public-private/professional-domestic sphere distinctions. The pink and blue Kinder Surprises add to this with gendered toys too – dolls for pink eggs, and toy cars for blue. When I introduced the students to how these expectations and divides are depicted on marriage certificates where mothers are omitted and father’s names (and professions) present, they were quick to point out the patriarchal system this is indebted to, and the symbolism of the white wedding dress. The idea of archetypes was also reinforced by these discussions, particularly in relation to the ideal ‘mother’ role associated with Kate Middleton, laying the groundwork for their reading of the Introduction of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex later in the module. Likewise, the discussion of pseudonyms and the campaign to make sure a woman is featured on bank notes – which, as one student pointed out, are a national symbol – brings Woolf’s words in A Room of One’s Own, another text on the course, into the 21st century; for Woolf, ‘history scarcely mentions’ women (Woolf 2012: 59).
Thus, I think the introductory class will make a lot of the theoretical material more accessible as well as more resonant, by showing the theoretical ideas at work in contemporary society, which will also help the students with the cultural analysis at the end of the term. All I can do is look forward to seeing what they come up with, and hope they are as wide-ranging as the class discussions. Needless to say, on the whole I was impressed with the students’ insights and with their ability to critically challenge other opinions – this skill often needs work with first year students. On the basis of my two seminar groups and what some of the other seminar tutors have said about their classes, I have already invited the students to contribute to the Swansea Uni Gender Blog – http://swanseagenderblog.wordpress.com/ – either now or after they have had feedback from their cultural analysis.
While the students have the foundations in place for the module and have discussed gender today using Woolf as a starting point, I learned a few things, too. As well as finding out about the new Kinder Surprises, I discovered some more inequalities in sporting world, with gymnastics being one example – I didn’t know men and women did different gymnastic events on the basis of strength and flexibility. I have also learnt a bit about gender in other countries, thanks to some of the exchange students on the course who voiced cultural differences when myself and other students were giving UK-based examples of gender binaries and inequalities. Therefore, when it comes to teaching gender in the classroom, learning is a two-way experience.
Heidi Yeandle is a Ph.D. student and Seminar Tutor at Swansea University working on Angela Carter’s engagement with philosophical thought. Follow her on Twitter @HeidiYeandle, or see here for more information: http://swansea.academia.edu/HeidiYeandle.
Woolf, V (1979) ‘Professions for Women’ in Michèle Barrett ed. Women and Writing, Orlando: A Harvest Book, 57-63.
Woolf, V (2012) ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in A Room of One’s Own & The Voyage Out, Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 29-115.