This is a story about students assisting in the creation of feminist course content.
In the Spring of 2014 at Susquehanna University I taught an honor’s seminar on the cultural evolution of the Trojan War myth. The syllabus included The Iliad, Greek tragedies, The Aeneid, Roman tragedies, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Ellen McLaughlin’s feminist adaptations of Euripides’ Trojan Women and Helen and the 2004 film Troy starring Brad Pitt . From the early days of the semester my students encouraged me to watch the Disney film Hercules, a favorite in their memories. Their continual encouraging of me to watch this film indicated that for them there was a clear connection between it and our course material. Skeptically (I admit), I finally relented and it proved well worth the viewing. The song ONE LAST HOPE – with its blatant objectifying of females and unapologetic subjectifying of males – was tailor made for our Trojan War class.
The next day we watched together ONE LAST HOPE (which we came to refer to as the “SAVE THE GIRL” number). The students were instantly pleased, amused and engaged. They’d successfully encouraged me to watch a piece of pop-culture of their generation that they had very astutely sensed had a connection to our Trojan Myth analyses of gender and heroism. In this Disney song Hercules is instructed in the fine art of heroism, i.e. cultivating muscles and saving females. After watching “SAVE THE GIRL” we engaged in a discussion of how the Disney song represented our current romanticized, Hollywoodized notion of heroism – a very different brand of heroism than they were encountering thus far in The Iliad. Homer’s Achilles had no desire to save any damsels. From our post “SAVE THE GIRL” discussions the class coined the terms “damseling” and “de-damseling” as theoretical markers of the cultural evolution of the concept of male “hero” and his supposed dependence upon a helpless female to define him and his masculinity. Very significantly, the terms also assisted in our explorations of the possibility of female heroism versus damselness. Does Euripides’ Iphigenia de-damsel herself when she agrees that her throat may be slit for the cause of war? Or rather, does she further damsel herself?
My hope had been that this seminar would encourage students to consider the deep, gendered roots of “heroism” and its ever lingering and increasingly fraught representation in western culture. What was so rewarding about our cross-generational engagement with these issues was how empowering it was for the students to coin their own terms and to then apply them throughout the semester. Following our analysis of Hercules’ Disney mandate to be manly and save females, the students began to own the Trojan War myth material in an empowered fashion. Our discussions of heroism and gender took on new energy and an increasingly nuanced tone. The terms “damseling” and “de-damseling” flowed with ease as students displayed increased confidence in their mastery of the course material. I even included the terms in essay questions on tests and some students used the terms as the theoretical core for their final paper assignments. Speaking for myself – an incredibly rewarding teaching experience – facilitating students’ coining and application of their own gender/feminist theoretical terms.