Student Powered Feminist Theory

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.

4 thoughts on “Student Powered Feminist Theory

  1. Anna, it is really a pleasure to feel your gratification in witnessing/sharing your students’ critical and theoretical work. I hope you will be able to share some of their writing or creative projects at ATHE. I’m particularly curious to hear students’ different arguments about Iphigenia’s agency or lack there of within the damseling paradigm. On another note, there is certainly risk and reward in bringing Disney or other pop culture items into the classroom re: discussions of representation. The idea of childhood nostalgia triggering intellectual engagement is fascinating. I imagine it could also have triggered a defensiveness for precious childhood memories. It sounds like the seminar had a great atmosphere of inquiry.

  2. Anna, I love that you give your students the ability to actively name what they see. In the case you describe here the students decided to move the use of “damsel” from noun to verb, essentially giving the women characters a choice to “damsel” themselves or not. Your pedagogy encourages students not just to write down a “name” (noun) but to actively “name” (verb) what they see. I wonder if you find yourself “verbifying” more than you might realize? I wonder whether thinking about the actions we want our students to take is how we make more effective pedagogies? Your story really has me thinking about how I change nouns to verbs in my classroom.

  3. Anna, I share the above replier’s enthusiasm about the classroom atmosphere you seem to have created. I had a similar experience in a similar class about adaptations of classical texts–my Lysistrata & Medea course. I found Joshua Goldstein’s _War and Gender_ ( especially useful for the questions that came up in our class that were so very much like your group’s ideas about heroism and ‘damseling.’ As he claims, “Gender roles adapt individuals for war roles and war roles provide the context within which individuals are socialized into gender roles […]War shadows every gendered relationship, and affects families, couples, and individuals in surprising ways.” Hence the interesting complications that arise around female heroism–the ways it threatens heteronormative structures of war and family, and the way it undermines the traditional masculinities imbricated within those structures.
    On a totally unrelated note, I’ll be curious to hear how much you dug into theories of adaptation in this course, which I had a tough time deciding about as I planned my own course for undergrads. When you’re studying comic animated musical adaptations of tragedies, do you use any readings on adaptation studies to guide your students’ work?

  4. Anna, your anecdote demonstrates how empowering it can be for the students to “teach the teacher” in a real way. By “assigning” you a text to watch they took ownership over their interpretations of it and, in turn, over the language of the course. Such an inversion of the classroom’s dynamics seems to me to be a deeply feminist project, and it makes me wonder if there might be ways to deliberately stage similar pedagogical moments in our courses. For example, could we ask students to assign us something to watch or read and make them responsible for showing us why/how they think it is relevant to the coursework?

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