Much to Robert Wilder’s dismay, his high school students still see feminism as a dirty word, but is he the right person to show them otherwise?
Every year about this time, I teach Hamlet to juniors in high school, and eventually we get to the scene where Ophelia drowns. I don’t know if it’s because health teachers in elementary and middle school are doing a bang-up job instructing kids on the dangers of suicide and playing around bodies of water, but many kids see Ophelia as weak, stupid even. I usually let them rant a while about her seemingly nonsensical songs (Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny), seasonally incorrect flower picking, and poor choice in men until I can’t listen anymore.
“Don’t you recall her harsh words toward her brother Laertes earlier in the play?” I ask, referencing a part of the text rarely remembered when the archetype of crazy-haired Ophelia is brought up in popular culture. This question of her sassiness usually gets little response when we’re discussing hot topics like drowning and insanity.
I forge on. “Does she really have choices given the patriarchal society and all the men who want something from her?”
I figure this one will get some of the girls going at least; many have predominantly male teachers in their grade level, in addition to male coaches, administrators, and, for some, boyfriends. I even go as far as to draw a cluster of men around Ophelia on the chalkboard and label what each dude desires from her.
“All right,” I say and call on a girl I know won’t freak out by my ambush. “Will you please do a feminist reading on this scene?”
“No way,“ she’ll say more often than I would like.
“Not me. I’m no feminist. I shave my legs.” Even more than with hipsters, you can’t get far in a talk about feminism without someone bringing up grooming or lack thereof.
“That’s not really what feminism is all about, you know.”
The class shoots me a how would you know, you’re a guy look. Or a you are paid to say that look. I could give a seminar on the myriad types of stares a high school teacher gets during any given period.
“Can we just start with women gaining the right to vote and move forward from there?”
“That would have happened anyway,” someone will say, code for this is too hard to discuss with all the boys (and some of the girls) looking at me.
I have to face it year after year: Feminism is still a dirty word to some.
Instead of ranting at them about equal pay for all and the origin of why married women take men’s last names, I usually stick to the text and show them how harshly and unfairly Ophelia is treated, her limited access to power, and that since she is owned by her father, he could legally have her killed for disobeying. Any teacher knows suicide is a delicate subject in high school, so I usually give a brief public service announcement for therapy and clear signs of depression.
Believe it or not, I understand where my students are coming from. When I graduated from Staples high school in 1984, all I knew about feminism I’d learned from Joan Jett and Pat Benatar LPs. In my intro to sociology class during my first semester at Wesleyan University, only an hour drive north on the Merritt from my home, I had a rude awakening by a professor who was literally in my face asking me how a white male from a town full of cucumber sandwich-eaters knew anything about anything when it came to race and gender. She scared me straight. Well, straight in terms of knowing what I didn’t know about the women’s movement, which was a lot.
I’ve asked my students over the years why feminism is such a taboo term for them. You’d be surprised at the variety of answers I get. Of course, there’s the stereotype of the butchy, no-fun Lesbian who dresses like a lumberjack (Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: That’s not funny). Sascha Baron Cohen, through his parodies of feminists in Borat and Ali G, can take some of the blame as well (so could Portlandia), but a lot of my female students seem caught in between generations; a lot of adult women they know (and may be related to) want equal pay in the workplace during the day and, at the same time, expect men to pick up the dinner tab at night.
If nothing else, my students belong to a generation that was raised to spot hypocrites, little Holden Caulfields if you will, only with access to iPhones, YouTube, and Adderall. I don’t know if I blame their mixed feelings given the hundreds of voices they encounter on any given day, and I often wonder if I’m the right guy, a white male (who sadly loves cucumber sandwiches) whose ancestors came over on the goddamn Mayflower for Betty Friedan’s sake, to teach them about something I can only know in theory.
Robert Wilder is the author of two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink; both have been optioned for television and film. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and numerous anthologies. He has been a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition, the Madeleine Brand Show, On Point and other national and regional radio programs including the Daddy Needs a Drink Minute which airs weekly on KBAC FM. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” is printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. He was awarded the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder lives and teaches in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit his website at www.robertwilder.com.