Texts taught in school and sexism

(108 Posts)
sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 10:46:57

I am a teacher, and refuse to teach Of Mice and Men to pupils because of the blatant misogynistic attitudes inherent within it (it is also because of the casual racism flung around.)

A primary colleague tells me they teach Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree to year 3 pupils. Again, sweet story as it is in some respects it is crammed full of casual racism and sexism - "No, you can't do that, you are a girl," sort of attitudes.

I am wondering if I am being unreasonable, I recognise it is in the context of a particular time but my argument is we cannot expect young kids to fully appreciate this and we are teaching them that these attitudes are okay and acceptable because of when they happened.

What do you think? smile

Roshbegosh Mon 06-May-13 11:24:41

Literature is full of sexism, reflecting the attitudes of its time and place. Can't the kids discuss these things? I guess Mark Twain is out of the question. It is a difficult one, I think you have to be careful with younger children but don't they learn to be more critical an reflective when they are older?

EmmelineGoulden Mon 06-May-13 11:30:36

I think you can teach people to see the racism and misogyny. And that really you ought you. Understanding mediation is a key literary skill surely (even if it isn't on the curriculum)? It's not as though the books and media your students see everyday are going to be free of misogyny, racism or other assumptions is it?

I think that's daft, sorry. Secondary school children should be able to critique a text.

TheYoniWayIsUp Mon 06-May-13 11:34:29

Wow. I have taught OMAM for ten years, and like every other English teacher I know, use it as a brilliant tool for teaching about the history behind all kinds of prejudice- racism, sexism, ageism, disablism etc. Several of the characters are isolated due to their innate differences- that is kind of the point. It is taught in the category of 'Literature from Other Cultures'

You don't sound like the brightest English teacher! My bottom set year tens understand the themes of the novel!

salcz Mon 06-May-13 11:37:18

I studied Of Mice and Men at school (all girls if that makes a difference) and I didn't turn out sexist or racist. shock Part of the lessons was it's historical context.

LizzieVereker Mon 06-May-13 11:39:04

It's only my opinion, but I think "Of Mice and Men" is an excellent tool to promote discussion about racism and sexism. The treatment of Crooks and Curley's wife is so overtly prejudiced that students can see it for themselves, and it raises issues which they might not have considered before.

If we don't show them texts which are set in a context in which prejudice was commonplace, I think there is a danger that students might believe it never really happened. They might also find it harder to recognise prejudice in the present.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 11:39:45

Yoni hmm not really sure what to say in response to that, to be honest!

Yes, it is the point of the novel, but I do not like reading a novel to children, adolescents, teenagers, that casually calls women "bitch", "whore", "tart" for being lonely. I dislike the very first chapter, where George informs Lennie that if he (George) was not stuck with Lennie, he could spend his money on prostitutes. I dislike the way that Crooks is casually dismissed as a "n*gger".

Yes, there are important themes, but I don't get the sense they are necessarily the key point of the story. Curley's wife was "asking for it", and the majority of the sympathy is reserved for Lennie, not the woman because she is a "tart".

If not wanting to teach children that women were referred to as a matter of course as "bitch" and "tart" and that it was once seen as perfectly acceptable to spend your money on having sex with women (because after all they are just objects) then I'll answer to that rude and personal charge of not being the brightest English teacher in the affirmative.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 11:41:30

Woah salcz that is not what I was saying! I am not saying the text makes anyone racist or sexist, I am saying it has no place in our schools BECAUSE we do not tolerate racism or sexism.

I don't think it is acceptable (personally) to give young people the message that their gender or skin colour has no bearing on who they are or what they do, and then teach a text like this where such awful attitudes are inherent.

I think the Magic Faraway Tree is a bad thing to teach, because it has no redeeming features and the sexism is insidious.

But Of Mice and Men is surely perfect, for the reasons theyoniway mentions? No-one (I hope!) thinks the message is 'yes, women are bad and disabled people should be killed', do they?

My English teacher - who was amazing - was really good at gently encouraging us to see how the books we were reading could get us to think differently about TV and current events, too. I don't think she'd ever have let us think 'well, the book is sexist so sexism is ok', but we might have thought 'the book is sexist but it's ok, sexism happened a long time ago'. Instead she got us thinking how there are still parallels to modern-day events and there are still a lot of uncomfortable prejudices in the modern world.

I don't know how much you can do that with children who're maybe at the beginning of secondary school? Can you get them to write about the story from Curley's wife's point of view, or something like that?

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 11:44:13

Lizzie, yes, I can see that.

However, my concern with OMAM is that there's no real point to counterbalance the racism or the sexism. In other texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance) the whole point is that terrible things DID happen but the underlying theme is that that was wrong.

I don't sense that in OMAM. The story is essentially about George and Lennie and the destruction of their dream. That is what makes the role of women in particular in that novel abhorrent to me.

Yes, the social and historical context needs to be taught, but it is the sheer casualness of it in OMAM which makes it distasteful to me.

women were referred to as a matter of course as "bitch" and "tart" and that it was once seen as perfectly acceptable to spend your money on having sex with women (because after all they are just objects)

But surely the point is, this attitude is not in the past? I might understand your reluctance to drag up the past if we all lived in a lovely, equal society, but we don't.

These attitudes are still in existence. If you can teach children about them from books where they are overtly presented, then they can learn how to tackle the more subtle and damaging echoes of these attitudes in the modern world.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 11:49:12

I don't think she'd ever have let us think 'well, the book is sexist so sexism is ok', but we might have thought 'the book is sexist but it's ok, sexism happened a long time ago'

LRD, that is my primary issue and concern with the text.

I applaud your English teacher but the latter attitude seems to be the one that is prevalent; partly because of the time factor (there is so much to get through and so little time in which to do it!) but also because I think many people, many teachers, DO think it's okay and it doesn't matter and it was a long time ago.

That is really what I am referring to when I use the word 'casual.'

I fully respect anyone who teaches this text and take task with the issues raised. However, I don't think that many do. Furthermore, there are alternatives that DON'T routinely refer to women as bitches and tarts, that give the message that racism is unacceptable and wrong and that are excellent stories - I suppose I don't understand why OMAM is such a popular choice in light of that!

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 11:52:29

LRD, I feel that given that these attitudes are in existence, it is unwise to condone them through the text.

It is like when the word "bastard" is used - you inevitably get kids saying "bastard" and when pulled up on it look all wide-eyed and say, "What? It's in the book!" grin

By saying these attitudes exist(ed), there is a danger of condoning those attitudes. I don't have a problem with the text being taught per se but the 'bitch/tart/spend my money on prostitutes' is not really taught as a prevailing theme in the novel; as such it is overlooked and therefore condoned.

ecclesvet Mon 06-May-13 12:05:49

What books do you teach OP?

What are your options if you don't want to teach it, then? I mean, I get it, you've presumably been teaching it a while and I can understand just feeling you don't have the energy to keep tackling this stuff.

What would you teach instead?

Btw, I really don't think OMAM does condone these attitudes (at all). I'm trying to remember whether we thought it did when we did it at school, and I don't think we did. But as you say, they can always point to the book and pretend they think it does, I guess.

Roshbegosh Mon 06-May-13 12:08:27

It is a way of challenging these attitudes and if you hear the music they listen to, badly needed.

GoblinGranny Mon 06-May-13 12:09:31

I've never been in a primary school that has taught Enid Blyton. The books are sometimes in the library as student free-reading choices.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 12:35:26

In place of OMAM on the other cultures section (AQA board, at any rate) I usually do To Kill a Mockingbird or Purple Hibiscus. Rabbit Proof Fence is a good alternative if you want a shorter text as well.

I don't know LRD, about condoning the attitudes. I want to agree with you grin but I think Steinbeck did view it as perfectly fine, acceptable, normal, to objectify women, and while there is some limited sympathy with the plight of Curley's wife it isn't the main focus of the novel, though I fully accept that we can teach it in a way that does bring sympathy with her to the forefront.

By the way, I am not suggesting for a moment a book burning fest grin I absolutely agree we need to have these books to see where we came from and where we are now. But I am uncomfortable about teaching it in the context of a classroom as an examination text to pupils of this age group.

I'm sure Steinbeck did view it as acceptable to objectify women.

But the novel is about people who largely end up in the shit. It's a horrible, flawed society. Whether Steinbeck himself would have pointed to objectification of women as one of the principal reasons that society was flawed doesn't seem to me to matter too much.

I love To Kill a Mockingbird. smile

VerySmallSqueak Mon 06-May-13 12:50:17

Surely teaching stuff that is of its time is ok.

In the teaching of it perhaps the comparisons can be made between life then and life now.

My DD's love all the Enid Blyton stuff where all the boys look after the girls and they all go home to home baked bread that Mother has made.I'd hate to deny them that.

Even at a young age I think they are perfectly capable of sussing out what is 'historical'.

sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 12:58:22

LRD - me too smile

Yes, good point about the flawed society. I suppose I am thinking in very practical terms insofar as we don't have time to explore that society in the sort of detail needed, and therefore important things (such as the sexism) are overlooked and that to an extent condones the sexism.

verySmall; I don't honestly know that it is, to tell you the truth, and I am saying that as a one-time ardent Enid Blyton fan! smile As adults, I think we can read (say) an Enid Blyton text and be charmed by the magic and the pixies and the fairies and view the sexism as just as sweet and silly, really, as the make-believe worlds that Blyton presents to us.

But just as very young children DO believe there might be a wishing-chair and a faraway tree with magic lands and pixies in the garden, I think they can believe that girls aren't as tough or strong as boys, and that they are essentially helpless silly little things or mini-Mummys, looking after the boys when they get into scrapes.

Of course in saying that I don't know how old your DDs are. I would certainly not censor Enid Blyton from my children but I would be wary about permitting the under-7s on it and I would ensure I kept up a dialogue with them about the times they were written in. Blyton was (is?) one of the most popular children's authors of the last and very possibly this century and yet she promotes a world where girls are feeble and helpless and xenophobia and bullying is not just acceptable but encouraged. That will have sunk in on some level, if not explicitly then almost certainly implicitly.

GoblinGranny Mon 06-May-13 13:06:18

I analysed Enid Blyton texts as part of my postgraduate work on insidious racism. There's quite a lot to go on.

JassyRadlett Mon 06-May-13 13:10:34

Goodness, I remember discussing sexism in EB with my mother when I was six, though I couldn't have identified it as sexism. Just knew that the attitudes to girls were wrong and old-fashioned, and people used to believe that but most sensible people didn't now.

My study of OMAM in secondary was really rich and challenging. I think the length of the text actually promotes and enables a deeper dive into the cultural context and contemporary echoes; not an easy choice but a rewarding one.

grumpyinthemorning Mon 06-May-13 13:35:13

I remember reading famous five and wanting to be like George. Strong female character right there, and in a lot of cases tougher than the boys.

I seem to remember the girls in secret seven being bloody smart too, but I could be wrong. It's been years since I read them.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now