Last week, in a department meeting, I told my colleagues the following:
English teachers across the country are so focused on addressing, combating, and undoing the deplorable wrongs inflicted on women in society, media, and literature for centuries, that they’re inadvertently alienating the boys.
Only, of course, the above is what I was trying to say. What I actually said, was far more rambling. In fact, I cringe as I recall making reference to the hypocrisy of the advertising world using scantily clad men to sell yoghurt. As if that was going to help me push my case. So, it’s time to make amends. Here, right now, I’m trying to articulate myself the best way I can: through writing rather than speaking. And what I want to articulate is this: English is over-feminised. That is why less boys than girls are doing English at KS5 and at University; that is why girls are outperforming boys in exams; and in a more local context, that is why boys may feel that they suffer from lesser support in English lessons as a result of their male-ness.
There aren’t many subjects that explicitly provide students with the opportunity to explore what it is to be male or female, but English is one of them. And, as an English teacher, we are able to facilitate-and, crucially, direct- some quite fascinating gender debates. I absolutely love challenging students-male and female- who every year, write off Curley’s wife, from Of Mice and Men, as a ‘slag’:
“Why?” I ask, “Because she’s flirtatious? Aren’t people allowed to flirt? Have you considered that she may just be lonely and, because of the sexist culture she lives in, she feels the only way she can achieve some companionship is through sexual suggestion. Isn’t that appalling?”
In a curriculum that is largely dominated by the works of dead white men, I feel it my duty to challenge sexist representations of women at every opportunity. And yet, I am increasingly starting to ruminate: What is this doing to the self-esteem of the boys in my class? Is this constant hammering home of the fact that men have treated women unjustly for centuries going to make them like English? Or will they be bored to the teeth of hearing how hard it is to be a woman, without due consideration for how tough it is to be a man?
I teach ‘A View from the Bridge’ to Year 9 and every year, in reference to the tragic ending of the play, I say something along these lines:
“See what happens when you let masculine pride take over? It’s ridiculous. A man dies, for nothing else than masculine pride. It’s stupid; it’s idiotic. It’s childish.”
And, sure enough, the whole class and I laugh in utter disbelief that a grown man could be so infantile. Look how liberal we are! Stupid men! Boo-hiss stupid men! Let’s consider an alternative comment:
“Don’t you think it’s disgusting that Catherine refuses to consider Eddie’s suspicions about Rodolpho? Hasn’t Catherine considered the pressures society puts on a man to protect those he loves? How unfair of her not to try and understand him!”
I don’t think that many teachers would feel comfortable with stating the above. In fact, I’m not sure that for many of us, such a comment would even spring to mind. Perhaps, as English teachers, we need to start readdressing the gender balance, by planning responses to texts that take into account the difficulties of being a male: Perhaps Gatsby isn’t a selfish, naïve dreamer, but a really, really great man. Perhaps Romeo isn’t as ‘wet’ as all teachers seem so determined to make him appear. Perhaps, the boys on the island do a far better job at surviving than a group of girls would. Perhaps.
With regard to the issue of balance, when I stated, in our department meeting, that the English curriculum is over-feminised, a male colleague replied that no texts that we teach feature a male protagonist with the exception of Jane Eyre. Here’s a list of the texts taught where I am:
- War Horse
- A View From the Bridge
- Of Mice and Men
- Romeo and Juliet
- The Tempest
- Twelfth Night
- The Great Gatsby
- A Christmas Carol
- An Inspector Calls
- Private Peaceful
- Lord of the Flies
I concur with my colleague’s point. There aren’t enough curriculum texts that a) feature female protagonists or b) are written by women. However, I defend the teaching of the texts above simply because these are the texts that will imbue students with the cultural capital needed to compete with the 96% of privately educated students who will go on to University after also having studied these texts. That’s not to say things can’t or shouldn’t change. They should. And, as English teachers, we can help to speed up this change: I believe that ensuring students have an equal balance of ‘male orientated’ (featuring men and written by men) and ‘female orientated’ texts at KS3, the students who study these texts will go on to bemoan the lack of female orientated texts in Michael Gove’s DWM (Dead White Men) GCSSE curriculum. Eventually, these students will become adults and may have the power and influence to actively readdress the lack of gender balance in texts studied in English. Hopefully.
When my colleague implied that there was an inherent unfairness in the fact that the majority of taught texts are written by men and featuring male protagonists, he neglected to consider poetry. I have only ever taught the AQA anthology, ‘Moon on the Tides.’ With experience of this only, I’d argue that this collection presents an unfairly negative portrayal of the male gender that may serve to isolate male students. Of the fifteen poems in the ‘Character and Voice’ cluster, three of them- ‘Medusa’ (Carol Ann Duffy), ‘Les Grands Seigneurs’ (Dorothy Molloy), and ‘The Ruined Maid’ (Thomas Hardy)- explicitly, and powerfully, draw attention to the injustices suffered by women at the hands of men over the years: men are respectively portrayed as philanderers, idiotic and cruel, and destroyers of feminine virtue. A further three of the poems- ‘Ozymandias’ (Shelley), ‘My Last Duchess’ (Browning), and ‘The River God’ (Stevie Smith)- present deplorable portrayals of male personas: men are respectively portrayed as arrogant, murderous, and sexually deviant. Ironically, this is what makes these poems great; in my experience, it is these poems (barring ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘The Ruined Maid’) that students enjoy most and that’s because they ‘get’ them. Students are sadly, all too familiar with the gender stereotypes within them and this sparks some interesting discussion. But one has to ask, what damage is studying such a damning perspective on the male persona doing boys’ self-esteem and their liking of English as a subject? How can poetry not be ‘girly’ if the best poems are those that reduce men to little more than pantomime villains?
As an aside, I should point out that the anthology has changed. From 2017, we’ll be studying Michael Gove’s DWM anthology. Gone are Carol Ann Duffy’s best poems like ‘Havisham’ and ‘Medusa’, which so powerfully convey the nuances of the female experience, in favour of some of her softer, ‘less feminist’ works. This is an absolute abomination. Things are swinging back too far the other way; we need balance. The new AQA anthology is now split into two sections: ‘Love and Relationships’ and ‘Power and Conflict.’ Girls and boys you see? I have heard many an English teacher decry, “Boys like war poetry’ and I suspect that this new anthology will encourage many teachers to opt for the ‘Power and Conflict’ section for boy-heavy classes. This is sexist. Boys no more ‘love war’ than girls ‘love relationships.’ War does not capture the experience of the modern male teenager; it’s too abstract. If we’re going to indulge gender stereotypes can we at least credit boys with some humility? Why not teach them poems that focus on the nuances of more quotidian male emotions and experiences, however stereotypical they might seem? How about poems on the first illicit glance at page 3? Or how it feels to lose a fight? Or how girls are absolutely terrifying? These are things teenage boys can relate to and engage with; not war.
I accept the fact that some of what I’ve written may be controversial. And my sense of self is limited by my own experience and my own experience is limited by my anatomy. So, feel free to respond as you please. After all, balance is all I want.