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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

ravenAK Sat 25-May-13 23:37:31

Greythorne - because of the way he presents her in the final three sections, & the fact that she doesn't get a hearing until then. It's all about the structure of the text.

I teach a Controlled Assessment on the presentation of CW: Steinbeck controls our initial access to CW in exactly the same way as her 'dh' does wrt everyone else on the ranch. It's a huge part of the purpose of the novel that we are obliged to be complicit in gazing at her in the same way that the men do.

When she first gets a voice, in chapter 4, she uses it to threaten a black character with lynching. A less clever novelist would have made her a straightforward victim, but Steinbeck forces us to see that the only power she is allowed is sexual & that she uses it unpleasantly after being told to get lost - she uses it to drive a wedge between the men because they reject her.

& then she is allowed to share her dream in section 5, but the illusion of finding a listener is just that - Lennie couldn't care less about what she has to say.

If you look at section 6, Steinbeck is fairly explicit in his pity for her.

Tbh, I think he's decidedly patronising about it. Which I like, when teaching top sets at least, because you can get into the evaluative stuff that you need for A* - he obviously intended this as a sympathetic portrayal, but is it really? How limited is it because of the writer's intention, & how much because of his own mindset? How is our evaluation affected by being C21st readers of an early C20th text?

I don't think TTOTS is misogynistic, either. Shakespeare's heroines (& villainesses) jump off the page precisely because he gives his female characters so much more ooomph than most of his contemporaries would've dreamt of.

I'd imagine Lady Macbeth or Richard III's mum would've wasted no time in telling Curley's Wife a few home truths when it came to not taking any shit off the men in her life! The message of OM&M is that her options were effectively non-existent - as for pretty much every character in the novel.

Greythorne Sat 25-May-13 23:12:03

Up thread The Taming of the the shrew was cited as pure misogyny.

So, just because we don't have a letter from Shakespeare to say it was not misogyny, Shrew is considered misogyny?

And Steinbeck writes a book laden with all sorts of stereotypes about race and sex and gender but because we all know he's a good left wing egg, it's ok?

Greythorne Sat 25-May-13 23:08:43


What evidence in the text?

ravenAK Sat 25-May-13 17:52:32

'what eveidence in the book is there that he disagrees with her treatment at the hands of the men?'


dancingwithmyselfandthecat Sat 25-May-13 14:04:21

Only skimmed the last few pages, so apols if this has come up. Part of the issue behind this debate is the fallacy that some books inherently aren't problematic while others are. Bollocks. All literature is inherently problematic and this is why it is valuable - we can analyse what themes the author wanted to address and what themes arise which the author didn't even realise might present issues to future generations.

To kill a mockinbird has been cited repeatedly as a "good text". But Mayella's story isn't believed because she is a poor woman. Tom Robinson is believed because he is "respectable". What does that remind you of? Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article on pre civil rights black white rape trials in which this scenario repeatedly arose in real life and served to act as a defence or mitigation for black men who were accused. Reading Mockingbird against that background is inherently a much more problematic - but also richer experience and I can't believe none of you feminist English teachers don't teach it that way. Against Lee, Steinbeck is fascinating because some of his blind spots and prejudices coalesce and some don't.

Also, if at any age pupils say "its ok to use that word or think that because the book said so" then that is an opportunity to teach them about the difference between a book and real life. How the former can guide us because it makes us reflect on our own experience through something outside of it, not a mandate to act according to it.

Lovecat Sat 25-May-13 11:00:16

Never read OMAM but am now tempted to do so!

Wrt The Faraway Tree, DD is currently working her way through the trilogy as her first free reading. They are the first books she's been genuinely excited to read and I'm quite enjoying the cliffhanger chapter endings myself (although I think the school edition has been updated as Fanny is Frannie, Dame Slap is Dame Snap and I can't see any racism anymore!).

The one thing that has bothered DD the most is why their mother is only bothered about them getting their clothes dirty rather than them going missing for 48 hours at a time! We have discussed the fact that the books were set a long time ago and expectations of girls and boys were different then, I wouldn't want to lose the first books she's ever shown an interest in.

Greythorne Sat 25-May-13 00:16:18

I think the OP is being given a hard time.

We happen to know Steinbeck was very left wing and so we assume that the fact that Curly's wife is never named is deliberate and that he is writing neutrally about the sexism around him....buit what eveidence in the book is there that he disagrees with her treatment at the hands of the men?

Genuine question.

I read it 30 years ago, hated it and really can't remember.

Mind you, I hated it not nearly as much as I hated bloody Grapes of bloody Wrath.

TheOriginalSteamingNit Fri 24-May-13 23:54:28

How does writing about the difference between now/then add anything to our understanding of the actual text?

TheOriginalSteamingNit Fri 24-May-13 23:53:20

It's all the 'curley's wife is a big old whore who ruins everything but nowadays everything's fine because we're not sexist any more: discuss' questions that are the problem.

And also the 'how does the reader feel' business. I hate how everything is about some imaginary reader as though that's all a text could ever be for.

Alisvolatpropiis Fri 24-May-13 23:41:02

I honestly cannot believe that you think substituting OMAM with TKAMB is any better? Do you think racist language is more acceptable when written by a woman?

I was taught both books at school and the sexism and racism inherent then and how it is/isn't different now was the backbone of our learning. I had an absolutely amazing (female) English teacher who really made the issues come alive,she encouraged us to discuss and debate the difference between now and then.

Honestly,as others have said - you're missing the point of being an English teacher.

UptoapointLordCopper Thu 09-May-13 11:08:19

I don't remember much of DH Lawrence, but there was a very small line somewhere in The Rainbow where it was said that all that the heroine was looking for was equality in friendship, and that struck a chord with me. Don't remember anything else though!

SolidGoldBrass Thu 09-May-13 02:02:00

Fascinating thread. I am almost tempted to go and read OMAM again myself. Because we did it at school and I hated it - not for the racism and sexism (which I, as a fairly middle-class white teen 30 years ago, didn't really percieve) but because it was fucking boring and whiny. I didn't give a shit about these two men moaning and bumbling about and then they all die in the end.
Mind you, I also remember being taught DH fucking Lawrence as a set text. And being sent out of the room by my (female) English teacher for saying that Lawrence wrote all this crap about women needing to submit and be mastered because he was a short-arsed ginger drip who was bullied by his mum.

UptoapointLordCopper Tue 07-May-13 19:06:52


I did finally overcome my rabbit-ist attitude and read the book last year. Couldn't put it down.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 07-May-13 16:42:34



UptoapointLordCopper Tue 07-May-13 10:14:00

LRD A slight digression, but for years I had the irrational idea at the back of my mind that Watership Down was written by a rabbit ... confused

KoreRenati Tue 07-May-13 10:12:57

"Yes, Curley's wife is discussed in the context of her having no name and no identify. My main objections are the terms used to describe women (I've listed them up the thread) "

But what's to stop you talking about the terms used in the context of her having no name or identity? Surely it's all tied in?

"Other members of my department teach it, presumably because they like it and the terms used to describe women don't bother them"

Maybe the terms do bother them and so they've decided to challenge them?

Minione Tue 07-May-13 06:42:17

Glad to see all the other English teachers on here are teaching OMAM as it should be taught! I agree with the posters who said students' opinions of Curley's wife change as we learn her story. I sometimes get bored of teaching it but it is a fantastic piece of writing and students can get so much from it.

Agree with the poster who mentioned 'Their eyes were watching God' - absolutely love this!

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 07-May-13 06:39:34

raven - fair enough, but if her students don't respond like that - and she says they don't - and they do respond well to another text, I think it's harsh to insist it she has to feel bad for not teaching it. I've had some amazing teachers but they all had texts they just didn't like to teach. My A Level English teacher admitted she just hated teaching Othello. It wasn't because she was no good or she didn't rate Shakespeare properly, it was just not her thing. It was fine.

I've got to say, mind, the way you describe OMAM makes me want to go away and read it! grin

(Thanks for explaining about 'authorial intention' - I was trying to think what we were taught and have an awful memory of some very daft woman banging on about how the author of bloody Watership Down intended the rabbits to be 'real' and we weren't ever to write about them as if they were personified. confused I still have no clue what in god's green earth she meant. But I digress.)

Chubfuddler Tue 07-May-13 06:22:03

Thank god there are still decent English teachers out there (I mean rosabud and raven). The ops posts are incredibly depressing.

Dervel Tue 07-May-13 05:54:14

I'm on the fence here. On the one hand yes if in your view the book as too casually racist/sexist then by all means don't teach it. However what worries me is how you present a pro feminist bias. (One I happen to agree with for the record!)

In critical analysis of literature, (or even a study of history) what is omitted presents just as great a bias, as what is. If you choose to excise any novel from study that contains any sexism either blatant or implied not only do you limit your reading list (and indeed a great many classics amongst them), you push an agenda.

Now that in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing (or even avoidable no matter how hard you try). However in your study of literature are you not trying to teach your students the value of critical thinking? (Yes as it pertains to literature, but the modes of thinking you impart have incalculable value).

Now you can attempt to push a pro feminist bias by attempting to shield children from any experiences of it (this I am afraid would probably risk comparisons to King Canute!), or you could give the students themselves the tools to be able think for themselves, and reason why dogmatic and outmoded thinking marginalising women was and is wrong, and more importantly why. This approach elevates teaching from mere instruction to actually bringing a student to the dawn of their own understanding.

Now reading between the lines I take it Of Mice And Men is not one of your favourites? So might I suggest another great American Novel from the same year (1937): "Their Eyes Were Watching God" - by Zora Neale Hurston? Through that novel you can better examine the themes of sexism and racism and if you're inspired by the subject matter that will doubtless come across in how you teach it. Best of luck!

WhentheRed Tue 07-May-13 02:33:10

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

ravenAK Tue 07-May-13 02:10:25

But that's why it's such a great novel for teenagers, LRD.

They invariably loathe CW at the outset (girls much more so than boys, interestingly & sadly). THEN you lead them through the novel & watch them re-assess her as they do so - making them explicitly aware that they are being forced to do exactly what the men on the ranch do. We're all gazing at her, judging her, analysing her behaviour in terms of her gender.

You've got to teach the novel as a crafted text - specifically, you have to make them aware that Steinbeck is deliberately manipulating the reader's response, & using stereotypical ideas of femininity to mislead. The really tricky bit is when she threatens Crooks with lynching, because you have to discuss how our C21st response to the racism is much more foregrounded than the original audience's. She loses a modern reader's sympathy at that point probably much more than she would have done a contemporary reader's.

I don't get my lot to bang on about 'authorial intention', now you come to mention it! I do get them to refer to the writer, a lot, because that's what is being assessed: 'Steinbeck uses ___ because__________' type constructions.

I've had predominantly C/D borderline students for the last couple of years, & found OM&M is by far the best novel for teaching Lit to them.

Nothing wrong with TKAM, either, but it's not nearly such a successful text with teens - hence something like 90% of AQA schools going with OM&M. (Personally I'd welcome a change...)

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 07-May-13 01:49:07

To be fair to the OP, I think she's just fed up with the response she gets from her students about one of them. I can understand that. Maybe something in TKAM doesn't make them respond the same way?

(Btw, do people teach 'authorial intention' as a term, is that the approved term?)

BOF Tue 07-May-13 01:48:55

OP, you say " 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 think that this is exactly why we should teach texts like this, rather than leaving them to be casually read by individuals. You are well-placed to encourage critical thinking in your pupils, and frankly, if that's not what you are doing, I think it leaves them ill-equipped to deal with contemporary products of our culture which are problematic (to pull an example out of the air, say the film Django Unchained, with its copious use of the N word).

FairPhyllis Tue 07-May-13 01:43:02

OP's responses to OMAM and TKAM are really fascinating (and bewildering) because as books they are the inverse of each other wrt what narrative voice and authorial voice are doing in them.

OMAM - objective narrative about a racist, sexist society, arguably written to condemn said racist sexist society. OP refuses to teach it.

TKAM - subjective, anti-racist character POV narrative about a racist society, arguably written for a white liberal gaze only. OP thinks it's just fine.

Er ... wut?

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