Monday, May 11, 2015

The Student Body in the Text

Mannequin in the Window
(view from my hotel window in Bruges)

" . . . for whatever else we are or may pretend to be,
we are certainly our bodies"

"To refuse hobbles and deformity
and take possession of your body
and glory in its power, accepting its own laws of loveliness.
To have someting to desire, something to make,
something to achieve,
and at last something genuine to give"

Germaine Greer
from The Female Eunuch

"What would happen
if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open"

Muriel Rukeyser
from the poem "K├Ąthe Kollwitz"

"Men have had every advantage of us in telling their story.
Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree;
the pen has been in their hands."

Jane Austen
from Persuasion

" . . . phallocentrism . . . raises the masculine
to the universal human, beyond gender,
so that the feminine alone
must bear the burden of sexual difference"

Jane Gallop
from Thinking Through the Body

When I gave a paper, "The Student Body in the Text," at the Indiana College English Association Conference, "New Insights for the Nineties" (University of Notre Dame, September 1991), my presentation was preceded by a paper which inadvertently illustrated a number of the problems I was attempting to solve. The paper preceding mine concerned the rhetorical analysis of speeches with some historical or social significance (either as written text or speech act) as a topic for freshman research papers. First, the names of no women appeared in the list of speakers / writers given as exemplary of this tradition (Jesus, Gandhi, Churchill, Nixon, etc.). When asked about this omission, the panelist hastened to explain that indeed many students had chosen female subjects (they were absent,apparently, only from his script, not from the entire tradition).

Second, every successful rendering of the assignment described had been written by a male student. The single example of a "troubled" approach, on the other hand, had been the work of a female student. Again, when questioned, the panelist was quick to say that many of the best results had been produced by female students (it's just that these particular success stories were not mentioned in the script of his conference paper). In his presentation, the female did not bear the burden of sexual difference so much as the burden of struggle and failure to master material in the academic setting -- as well as failure to produce material worthy of study.

I couldn't help thinking of how the term co-ed is impossibly gendered, despite it's implication of balance and equity. On my permanent taboo list, this unfortunate word (kind of like co - pilot: are they equal or not?) should point to an integrated student body, men and women educated together; but instead co-ed, the word -- and co-eds themselves -- "must bear the burden of sexual difference," often in a belittling (old - fashioned girls in sweater sets) or insulting (irresponsible party girls) way.

Similarly, "Women's Studies." Intended to signal enlightenment and equality, it is just as likely to make the history and literature of women bear the burden of sexual difference. Insead of highlighting, it marginalizes, implying that these gender studies are secondary to the real, universal studies, that women's literature is a subsidiary of the real, universal literature written by men. How about adding more novels by women to the curriculum without singling them out and calling them "women's fiction." Like "doctor" (male, universal) and "nurse" (female) -- "nurse" must bear the burden of sexual difference. Hopefully the days of specifying "female doctor" (and I don't mean gynecolgist) and "male nurse" (a la Greg in Meet the Parents) are coming to an end as both professions welcome both men and women.

Gallop's observation of raising "the masculine to the universal human, beyond gender, so that the feminine alone must bear the burden of sexual difference" occurs in her discussion of pink for girl babies / blue for boy babies:
"If blue, outside the infantile realm, is no longer a particularly masculine color, might not that relate to the phallocentrism which in our culture (as well as in most if not all others) raises the masculine to the universal human, beyond gender, so that the feminine alone must bear the burden of sexual difference? Pink then becomes the color of sexual difference, carrying alone within it the diacritical distinction pink / blue. Sexual difference itself becomes feminine" (163).
Disclaimer: I have to say that my husband and sons -- Renaissance Men, to be sure -- have never shied away from wearing the color pink. With a little help from Mom, Lands' End, and Brooks Brothers, the fashion world urges us a step forward in sharing the burden of sexual difference. A baby step.

Spring 2008 ~ Gerry (far right) wearing pink silk tie
with (l to r) Provost, CFO, and President of Purdue University

Spring 2009 ~ My Funny Valentines

Try to See It, Try to Feel It: The Body in the Text ~ Part 1
Try to See It, Try to Feel It: The Body in the Text ~ Part 2

Throwback Letter to Editor
Too Beautiful to Go on a Diet
Weighing In
The Fire Was Hot Within Here

1 comment:

  1. Excellent essay: