During a weekly faculty mindfulness group I’ve been participating in this year, a colleague mentioned that he showed the film “Into the Wild” to his students. Usually he shows this film to his 12th grade students in a class on identity, but he also showed it to his 9th graders this spring. The results, he said, were quite positive. After learning about Christopher McCandless’s story — donating his trust fund to Oxfam, cutting up his credit cards, heading to Alaska — several students wrote him inspiring emails late at night, clearly moved by this example.
Things do not end well for McCandless, of course. And while there are some parts of his life to value, it’s also an important cautionary tale. But my colleague’s comments came as I was teaching a unit on Marx, gender, and advertising and resonated with some of my experiences there.
Today we watched Jean Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly 3.” (It’s dated — there is a 4th edition — but I prefer her presentation in this one. Also, it’s on a VHS, so it’s almost like I’m showing the students a historical artifact: pre-DVD technology.) Toward the end of her talk, she walks her audience through several steps:
Consider a broad range of human qualities: strength and vulnerability, independence and interdependence, empathy and toughness. We can divide these qualities into two groups, assigning them to one gender (strength, toughness, independence: masculine; vulnerability, interdependence, empathy: feminine). Having done that, she argues, we consistently devalue feminine traits.
The result? We only have access to half of our humanity. Both women and men (and boys and girls) are dehumanized by this process, as it prevents us from accessing the full range of human qualities that we all possess. Today, we looked at advertising and the way in which it sets norms of unattainable beauty for women; Friday, we’ll look more at masculinity and the way in which men and boys police each other when they say, for example, “Man up.” But in both cases, we see the ways in which we are unable to be the authors of our own lives, to connect fully and completely with who we are and who we wish to be. (Marx would refer to this as being alienated from our species-being.)
All of this is to say that our students need models of being in the world that are different from the ones they’ve been given. Men who are vulnerable; women who are tough and independent; genderqueer folks who challenge simple binaries — our students benefit so much when they can see different ways of being human in their peer groups, in their teachers, and in the material they study.
This class also read Chimamanda Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists, and she makes similar points there as well. The students are hungry for ways to engage in the world with authenticity and meaning — for ways to live unalienated lives where they see their potential and their selves reflected in the work they do and the communities in which they live. It is our task as educators, I think, to help them question the ways of being in the world that they have inherited (from the media, from their culture, from their family and school contexts) and to help them imagine alternate ways of being human that connect deeply with the selves they most value and most wish to become.