Sexism in Teaching Literature & A True Teacher’s Response

Yesterday the internet was buzzing with some extremely sexist remarks made by Professor Gilmour – a University professor in Canada. He wrote:

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” he says, making an exception for one female writer.

“Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories,” he says. “But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.”

Instead, Gilmour says, “[w]hat I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.” Via

Holger Syme, a true teacher repsonds:

Is passion about your subject matter important in teaching? Absolutely. Is the passion required in teaching typically stirred because the teacher identifies with the author or the text she teaches? I seriously hope not. I can only speak for myself, but I can categorically say that I have never identified with Shakespeare. (Marlowe, well. Is wanting to be someone the same as being someone? [For the record: I don’t want to be Marlowe. I like my eye-sockets too much.]) I don’t believe I have a reputation for lacking passion for my subject, though. But what do I know. From what I can observe in my colleagues, I don’t think too many of them only teach authors in whose works they see mirror-images of themselves. English Departments would otherwise be rife with psychopaths, morbidly jealous types, would-be kings and queens, and wealthy socialites. And people who ride around on donkeys. (They’re not?) I don’t even want to think about how dangerous a work environment history departments would be.

The exact opposite of Gilmour’s point is true: good teaching requires empathy — an effort to understand things, ideas, and people totally unlike you. Some of those people are your students. Some of those things are of the past. Some of those ideas are the ideas of authors from different cultures than yours, and yes, shockingly, even of a different gender. Engaging with those people, things, and ideas is not just what research means, and why research is necessary, it’s what reading is. via

Gilmour has since offered an apology but one can only view in light of the vitriol that has been aimed his way in response to his outrageous and egregious misogyny. I’m not a teacher, but I am a woman and an author. Purposefully excluding women from what you consider to be academic worth is offensive and wrong. The more teachers promote ideas like this, the more students believe what society teaches them–that women’s work is worthless.

I’ll never forget during my studies when a male student told one of my female professors that he refused to be taught by her, or read any of the books she had chosen on the syllabus with female authors. He said, all these books were written by women. What could they possibly have to say to him. He wasn’t interested.  He was removed from her class, but it is my opinion he should have been kicked out of the program for that kind of disrespect.

How can you inspire and teach when your very students don’t consider you an authority? How does society respond to female minds and female achievement when authorities denigrate them continuously?

Knock Knock Knocking on Reddit’s Door

English: Simple but elegant old brass door kno...

Yesterday I got into a fight on the internet. Wellllll three fights, but they were all in the same place and they were all the same argument, it just so happened that it was with three different people.

Anyhow, it was about sexism in the publishing industry and how that can, unfortunately, help to foster sexism in readers. Basically, someone created that list I shared yesterday of 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women. And oh boy was there a tither from the male peanut gallery:

Redditor1: [Seriously as the reader I could care less about the race or gender of the author of a book. Is it a good book? If yes then I am happy to read it, other than that I could care less about who wrote it. Am I supposed to lower my standards for books just because the author isn’t a strait white male? No that would be silly and frankly condescending to the author that they would be held to some sort of different standard because of their background.]

Redditor2: [The author’s gender is irrelevant. If you care about the author’s gender then I question your ability to judge the writing.]

Redditor3: [It isn’t just the publishers tho, our genders tend to write differently too. So then you gotta consider the audience and who’s gonna serve it. For example, women generally don’t write hard sf. Nature or nurture? I dunno. Think about hormones and classic gender roles. Nesters and penetrators. Yin and yang. There’s more to gender than genitalia. Maybe it’s spiritual.]

I had someone, two feminists on Tumblr actually, tell me that there was basically no point in engaging these people. Redditors, especially male redditors, are ridiculous. Except, that’s pretty problematic itself. To say that you shouldn’t even bother to engage sexists because there’s no point in trying to change minds? I mean, isn’t that the very point of feminism itself? To be an activist and work, against the odds, to change minds? (I also don’t like the implication that there’s places I shouldn’t go. That’s like saying women shouldn’t leave the house at night, etc.)

The fact is, I argued for hours. Round and round with these guys. From probably 1pm in the afternoon to about 6 o’clock at night. It wasn’t pleasant. It was frustrating. It was exhausting. At 4:30 I realized I’d broken out in a cold sweat and as I typed my hands were trembling from both stress and over-caffeination.

This isn’t preaching to the choir, this is once more into the breach. And it’s exhausting. It burns you up and, long term, it can burn you out. I don’t even want to know what my blood pressure was. Eventually I had to go to my own private corner of the internet and just reblog animated gifs for a while, to get my mind off it.

But guess what? Sometimes, once in a while, you get a win.

There was no response from Redditor1, but I ended up as a moderately high comment by being upvoted by other users. When other people are listening, it’s always encouraging to me.

Redditor2: [I see your point. I didn’t consider the social implications, just the quality of the writing.] –This actually amazed me. But I’m really glad to have changed his mind.

Redditor3: [No doubt we can transcend all that gender-induced mindwarp if we try. The best probably do.] –This guy was basically arguing that women are biologically less able to write hard scifi/men’s fiction. So I think him finally caving and saying that actually that isn’t the case was significant even if his final comment was odd.

Some people, its true, WILL never change. But can’t know who they are when we start off, only after we engage them. here’s no way to know who is open and who is closed until you knock on the door.

Keep knocking.

Throwback Critiques: Thinking About Old Movies (Possession 2002)

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Today I watched a movie I hadn’t seen in years; Possession with Gwyneth Paltrow & Erin Eckhart. This is probably a pretty random movie to review, partly because it’s so old, and partly because I don’t believe it received much critical acclaim.

I personally love this movie because I adore Jennifer Ehle (Pride & Prejudice 2005) and Jeremy Northam (And Paltrow, sorry but I think her acting is great even if some of her personal values are a bit wacked out). I know, I know, it’s heresy but I don’t much care for Eckhart at all. I don’t think the man is a very good actor. I think Eckart’s best movie is Thank You For Smoking.

Sorry, tangent there. Anyway, I hadn’t seen this movie in probably five years at least, if not longer, and I remembered it being a favorite. I didn’t expect to change my  mind.

What really stood out to me on rewatch is that I have learned a lot more feminist jargon than I had when this movie was first released on dvd (I did not see the film in theaters). I’ve also come to view, I think, films in a far more critical manner when it comes to my feminist ideologies (realizing far more quickly if a film fails the Bechdel Test, how much of the film is just about the male gaze, and whether heroines exhibit personal agency or if they’re simply accessories for their male counterparts).

Within the first three minutes of the film there is a very obvious anti-feminist jab at directed at the main female lead: “So when will your little suffragist trinkets come up?” –they’re at an auction.

Now those who have seen the film, and enjoyed it especially, will argue that the speaker is something of a villain in the film, and we’re supposed to take his words as a portrayal of that. He’s anti-feminist, and he’s the bad guy. This is what I thought at first too, but in many ways Possession uses this rhetoric to uphold anti-feminist values because it comes up again and again—and not always from villainous characters.

Further into the movie: “”Listen. Let me ask you. Do you know a Dr. Maud Bailey?” “Yes. I know Maud very well. She teaches gender studies at Lincoln.”” This sounds ordinary enough in text, but there’s a hit of disdain when it’s spoken.

The third most obvious quote was against feminism directly: “I was accused by feminists at a conference of dyeing it to attract men.” Though Maud teaches gender studies, and is in appearance a feminist, the film seems quite stubborn in setting her apart from “those” types of women. Feminist aren’t egalitarian, they’re man haters who pick on other women for conforming to the male gaze.

But it’s obvious that Maud is being portrayed as something of a straw feminist, even while condemning stereotypical feminists. Earlier in this same conversation she refers to the poet Ash, Northam, as a “softcore misogynist.” So it’s quite obvious that Maud is not only a gender studies professor, a strong female academic, but she’s familiar with feminist jargon. She’s also our heroine, so what makes her an anti-feminist character?

It wasn’t until a little while after I was nearly finished rewatching the film that it dawned on me how much of a strawfeminist Maud is meant to portray:

  • She wears thick, heavy turtleneck sweaters so that there is no extra skin shown on her body, and she wears pants for the entire film. The pajamas she wears are also shown to be full length pant and sleeve pajamas that button all the way up the neck
  • She wears her hair tightly pulled back in a bun every single day—and explains the reason is in part because of feminists criticizing her
  • She is portrayed as very cold, if not outright frigid.
  • Unsmiling & stern
  • Very critical of her male colleague (Eckhart) and never breaks rules
  • Once she begins something of a romantic relationship with Roland (Eckhart) she begins to “loosen up” –as though a little male affection were all she needed to alter her personality

Oppositely, Roland (Eckhart) is portrayed as:

  • Constantly smiling
  • Friendly
  • Warm
  • Upbeat & friendly
  • Easy going
  • Not a rule follower
  • Adventurous
  • “Good Guy” –in that he doesn’t want to sleep with her on the “first date” to prove his motives regarding Maud are honorable and loving rather than simply sexual

Yes, these differences are framed as a theme of English Old World vs American New World. But these are stereotypes that you can see in many different films, which are predominantly made up of American characters entirely. Women are the unfun rule enforcers and Men are the fun, lackadaisical adventurers.

Finally, now that I have more experience with the portrayal of queer culture in the media, I find it strange that a film/book would choose to have a lesbian woman (Jennifer Ehle) fall into a heterosexual passion (with Northam). It is mentioned in the film that Christabel (Ehle) may have been bisexual. And this is not meant as erasure of bisexual identity. Certainly, bisexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation.

My quibble is simply with the fact that these are not real people, they are created characters. Which means that those who wrote the book, and then adapted it into film, decided that it was important to show a woman who was in a very open (for the 1800s time period) relationship with another woman.

She is shown to, in many ways, reject her queer identity that she had embraced in the past. She is shown to cause great heartbreak to her female lover and abandon her emotionally for a short, sexual relationship with a male partner.

Ash (Northam) is discussed as cheating on his wife. But it is never mentioned that Christabel (Ehle) is doing the same thing to her spouse. Ash & his wife do have a short conversation regarding their marriage and lack of sexuality—though it is not explained why they are unable to have sex. So his desire for Christabel is shown to be understandable. He NEEDS her because he can’t have sex with his wife.

But why does Christabel need Ash?

Christabel’s lover is shown committing suicide due to heartbreak over the infidelity and Christabel is shown to never be in another romantic relationship again. She dies a spinster. Why? It’s not explained.

Overall, I would say that there are many troubling messages in the film. The chemistry between all of the actors is very good, the cinematography beautiful, and finally the period costuming is lush and inviting for those who enjoy costume dramas. Not to mention, forbidden love.

That makes the anti-feminist and anti-lgbt messages of this film all the more disturbing. You don’t even necessarily realize they’re there. They’re not outright hatred. They’re shown to exist, but then you’re shown a better way. An alternative.

Maud & Roland are shown to save the day by breaking rules & loosening up emotionally. Roland even tells Maud—“You should wear your hair down.” It’s important to him that she not hide her sexual appeal.

And Christabel ends her life pretty unhappily—almost as punishment for not following societal norms of marriage.