“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of undergraduate women (and men)”
That’s how that epic poem began, right?
I’ve been thinking about that riff on the real opening line tonight as I return to blogging from a 6-month hiatus. You’ll see why.
I had a blog hiatus so I could focus on learning to teach for the first time. It was a class that I constructed almost entirely from the ground up, entitled Women, Gender, & Theology, and we covered the following topics in the historical survey part of the class: women in Scripture, and feminist and womanist readings of Scripture from thinkers such as Phyllis Trible and Delores Williams and Elizabeth Johnson; Audre Lorde’s critique of Mary Daly (which first involved spending a very fun day on Mary Daly, and no I am not being sarcastic); Perpetua and Felicity; Augustine and Monica; Aquinas’s Aristotelian biology; Julian’s Showings; and Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603). Contemporary topics included Christian theological treatments of the following: female language for God; gender essentialism, gender constructivism, and Mulieris Dignitatem; women’s ordination; same-sex relationships; body image; rape culture & Maria Goretti; and, lastly, The Color Purple.
I had been given many warnings about attempting to teach such material to the undergraduates. Various people were concerned that the undergraduates would not be able to accommodate the rough edges of such controversial material. That whole conversation is also wrapped up in current efforts to understand what the undergraduate theology curriculum is all about; specifically, there are ongoing questions about the place of feminist theological concerns in a college-level Catholic theological education. That’s a long story for another day…but if you’re even reading this blog I’m guessing you can fill in the gaps of those conversations yourself.
Anyway, this concern about my class was fortunately proven invalid by the end of the semester: the students generally learned how to think better about theology and about gendered aspects of that enterprise. At least four of them have told me that my class has given them a way to remain Catholic — to remain faithful while allowing themselves to sit with real questions about gender and the voices of women — instead of leaving the Church. That’s one way to know I did my job.
I think the students and I ultimately built up enough trust in the classroom to discuss these topics productively and even with emotion when necessary (for example, if they weren’t upset about violence against women at the beginning of class, I tried to make sure they were by the end, and if some of them were justifiably angry about the material, I would try to make space for that anger and allow them to process that in their informal writing assignments and in discussion). Sometimes in our discussions the students made each other angry (I think the spectrum of religious ideology among the students went from Ultramontanist to atheist. So.) And I’m fairly certain that I sometimes upset the students when I felt it necessary to push them, but I think we generally got through unscathed, and I have nothing but respect for those folks. And I think they respect me.
Let’s go deeper though. It’s really not enough simply to say that the students somehow learned through great effort to wrestle with theological questions about gender and gendered questions about theology. My class didn’t simply force them into inhabiting a more complex intellectual space against their will. They didn’t go in as tabulae rasae, entirely ignorant of problematic gender dynamics or of theological questions. How patronizing of me to have thought that.
Rather, I came to realize that many of them, especially but not exclusively the women, the LGBT students, the students of color, (and, obviously, students inhabiting all variations and intersections of these kinds of limited identity markers) were very much living at the forefront of gender and theology concerns in the course of their daily lives. Many of them were looking around at their world and seeing injustice and violence. Many of them, for various reasons, experienced discrimination frequently because of their appearance, their race, their sexual orientation, and/or their gender identity. And I speak in these general terms only for the sake of my students’ privacy; everything I mention comes from actual conversations I had with students, either in class or in individual meetings. So this class material wasn’t a threat to them; it wasn’t even an academic luxury; for many students it was an absolute necessity, the difference between feeling suffocated and alone and feeling the space to breath and to cherish their own lives through theological inquiry.
Importantly, many of them were experiencing the slings and arrows of exclusion within the context of the social life of the university.
And, as I came to see, they were enraged.
On the last full class day of the semester, I allowed for a more free-flowing discussion in which they could present what they had discovered in writing their “media watches.” This special assignment had allowed them to find something in the general news, the Church, or on campus that involved gender and Christianity, and they had to analyze the situation and then tie it to the class. Our conversation that day started politely, with a couple students raising their hands at my behest and offering in subdued tones, say, a feminist theological analysis of the fake papyrus mentioning Jesus’ wife or of the condemnation of Pussy Riot in Russia.
However, perhaps from some kind of perverse desire to push their buttons, I steered the conversation toward the gender dynamics on campus; I knew that many of them had written about college rape culture, and I wanted to see what was brewing via an actual face-to-face conversation.
Well. Buttons pushed! Upon my asking the question, the class exploded into chatter and groaning as students started commiserating with each other about infuriating gender dynamics on campus. Clusters of students started yelling with each other across the room while some sat shaking their heads and quietly smiling angry non-smiles. Others defended some of the university’s practices, and those individuals received heated, fast-talking push back.
So we had to have a more generalized conversation about the particularly sexually conservative, hyper-heterosexualized gender culture on campus. So what exactly am I talking about?
I’m going to mention a few examples that seem relatively minor in order to paint a picture. In the analysis of the university that follows, I will be sampling from a media watch from one of my students. I chose this media watch because this student ended up describing multiples instances of gender-policing occurring within the more-or-less official infrastructure of the university, so I thought her writing would faithfully represent the voices of other students lamenting these same dynamics. I have received her permission to do this, though she understandably does not wish for her name to be used. She speaks only about her own experience of being at the university, so if you disagree with her, please do so with the utmost respect. I don’t think she wants to get slapped by the internet. So here goes…
First, let’s talk about freshperson orientation, or “Frosh-O,” as my students called it. I gather that this event was run by each dorm (and the dorms are all single-sex) at the beginning of each academic year, and it’s one of the first times in which the incoming students are thoroughly socialized within the confines of the university. This particular student, who shall henceforth be called “Sarah,” explains in her media watch that the older staff members of her dorm immediately told the incoming women that they were expressly there to meet boys, and that that was the best part of college. Sarah was honest about her reaction: “[M]y heart sank with disappointment. Here I was with a group of young women who would soon become my peers and friends. They were the women I would be living with for the next four years. They were the people with whom I wanted to start building relationships. The boys can wait, I thought to myself, but I had no say in the matter.”
Presumably, single-sex dorms are meant to encourage a sense of sisterhood and brotherhood among students. Perhaps there is a real fostering of authentic same-sex friendships (which seems absolutely crucial, especially for women), but I think it’s interesting to note that that doesn’t seem to occur apart from being socialized as a group to want members of the opposite sex in an active and notable way. The message to these women was: if you want friends, you better bond over wanting to be wanted by men.
So what actually happened? Incoming men from the neighboring dorm had to come serenade Sarah’s dorm, and then Sarah’s dorm had to reciprocate:
The Frosh-O staff proceeded to teach us lyrics to cheesy pop songs, the choruses conveniently altered to allow us to insert the name of any boys’ dorm for which we might perform. Indeed, this was a performance, meaning that in addition to learning the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” we were also taught a series of awkward dance moves. At one point in our routine, we were instructed to squeeze the nearest boy’s bicep, then to give a hoot of approval (as a naturally introverted person, this was a rather mortifying experience for me, and I’ve tried hard to forget details like this). Within a half hour, we were outside on our hall’s front lawn. Awaiting us were a group of young men from a nearby dorm who had been led over by their Frosh-O staff. We were then literally forced to pair up with a member of the opposite sex by forming two parallel lines, boys and girls facing each other. The boys performed their Frosh-O song first. This particular dorm had chosen a Backstreet Boys’ classic—at least, I think so. At this point, I was concentrating most of my mental effort on forcing myself to take deep breaths to avoid passing out from humiliation. Many of the boys acted goofy, thrusting their hips during sexually suggestive lyrics. Then it was our turn, and I survived. Dignity is overrated anyway, I remarked sarcastically to myself.
This supposed “right of passage” perhaps strikes one as innocent. Group singing outside! Laughter! Youth! THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE. But it’s interesting to note that such “innocent” socialization is bound up with the performance of heterosexual courtship, which means, of course, that boys will go first in singing, and it’s singing that of course cannot be divorced from the mimicry of male sexual aggression (pelvic thrusts, anyone?). The women will sing back, a reciprocation signifying approval of these advances. Female receptivity & such.
Sarah, along with many of my students, suggested that while the university’s most explicit ethos is relatively sexually conservative compared with other colleges (the party line is always supposedly “no sex before marriage,” which comes as no surprise given the university’s Catholic commitments), there is very much the expectation of tamed male sexual initiation (aggression) in relation to women, and, concomitantly, the relations between the sexes tend to be hypersexual. For this reason, as many of my students lamented, it is very difficult to cultivate healthy male-female friendships in this context. Because male-female relationships are encoded with such sexual meaning and barely-sublimated sexual desires, people in friendships with members of the opposite sex are assumed to be hooking up with their friends secretly. Because why else would one pay attention to somebody of the opposite sex?
Many of the students felt that this dynamic was further reinforced through the university’s use of parietals (times at night during which people cannot be in opposite-sex dorms without punishment) as well as the unfair allotment of punishment for breaking parietals: men tended to be given a slap on the wrist (but also a wink and a nod) for having women in their dorm rooms at night, and women tended to experience much more severe consequences for having men in their dorms at night (wink and nod notably absent). Further, the dorm parties (suffuse with alcohol) tended to occur almost exclusively in men’s dorms, while women’s dorms were expected to be quiet almost all the time.
Let’s put a finer point on it. In speaking about male dorms, Sarah writes, “A few months into my freshman year, one of my guy friends laughed as he repeated a quote said by his Resident Assistant at his first section meeting: ‘Men, this semester, I want us all to have a good time. We’re gonna get fucked up. We’re gonna slay bitches.’”
We’re gonna get fucked up. We’re gonna slay bitches.
Now, my female students indicated that, as women, they are basically told that they compromise their (“feminine”) respectability if they engage in drunken sexual encounters. But it seems that the men are (barely even unofficially) encouraged to use alcohol to expand the opportunities for sexual aggression toward women. Not only are women “bitches,” but sexual encounters with them are jokingly imagined as one-way acts of violence. It’s horrifying, and yet why does it feel so familiar?
Now, I’m not saying this doesn’t happen on other college campuses or in other forums; certainly this dangerous construal of male and female heterosexuality is endemic to our society. But I think this dynamic is much, much worse when it happens in a context in which there is, ostensibly, no sex before marriage because everybody is, ostensibly, upstanding and Catholic. If there is “no premarital sex,” then there is no allowable discussion of it. The slaying of bitches just has to happen behind closed doors, on Saturdays nights that have nothing to do with Sunday mornings.
Anyway, on the last day of class, I could barely contain my students; their rage was bursting through the seams of our discussion. Nothing was resolved, and nobody was healed. Some laughter was mixed in, but mostly I saw anger. Justifiable anger.
I’ll stop there. I heard so much more from my students, and I have so much more to say on this matter.
But, for now, all I can do is allow the Goddess to sing the rage of my students.