The f-word.

I haven’t bitched about my students this semester (I’m teaching an intensive Spring class; we meet 4 times a week). This is because I have the dream class; the class that makes me remember why I actually do really like my job. They are keen, they read, they talk, they ask and answer questions. We have interesting debates, and generally I get the impression that they are learning and thinking, and they tell me they are enjoying it. It is so awesome, I could just collapse into a warm fuzzy glow.

We did have a moment last week, though, and it was particularly interesting in the context of this class because they do seem to be bright, and open to ideas. I had them read the widely anthologised essay “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” by Emily Martin. Martin’s essay essentially talks about the way we are all taught that science and science writing is neutral and objective, and yet when you read it carefully, it presents its material through “stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female.” Thus the sperm is the active, heroic figure, bravely battling its way to the passive egg, which waits, rather like Sleeping Beauty.

How is it that positive images are denied to the bodies of women? A look at language – in this case specific language – provides the first clue. Take the egg and the sperm. It is remarkable how “femininely” the egg behaves and how “masculinely” the sperm. The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively “is transported,” “is swept,” or even “drifts” along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, “streamlined” and invariably active. They “deliver” their genes to the egg, “activate the developmental program of the egg,” and have a “velocity” that is often remarked upon. Their tails are “strong” and efficiently powered. Together with the forces of ejaculation, they can “propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina.” For this they need “energy,” “fuel,” so that with a “whiplash motion and strong lurches,” they can “burrow through the egg coat,” and “penetrate” it. (from Signs 16.3, 1991. source: JStor, footnotes omitted.)

Martin’s essay presents a case made up of numerous specific examples from a wide variety of articles; students always complain about how long it is, but when pressed, they admit that the weight of evidence is partly what makes the essay work so well. They agree that it is an excellent example of linguistic and rhetorical analysis, that Martin supports her case thoroughly and that her research is well documented (there are 12 footnotes in the passage I quoted above). Did they like it? Survey says: “not so much.”

“Why not?” I ask, because in my class rule one is “you may have any opinon you like, as long as you can support it.” There’s a pause, and then Mickey, a very put-together PR student who is working as a realtor while she studies for her degree (i.e. successful and ambitious working woman) says in a depricating tone, “Well, it is a bit feminist, isn’t it?”

“You say that like it is a bad thing,” I reply, and there is a collective intake of breath. Now it is on for young and old. Excellent.

I have a version of this conversation every semester I teach this course and ask my students to read this essay. Sometimes there is a big argument about it, other times the class is apathetic and hasn’t read it, or doesn’t care, and no one says much. Usually, there is some antagonism, often directed at me for raising the issue of the f-word in the first place, other times members of the class get into it with one another.

There was a solid group in the class who, earnest as they are, really tried hard to get me to see their point of view, which essentially boiled down to: “The article would have been so much better without the feminist parts”. What? “The evidence without the connecting argument?” asked Nathalie, who suddenly emerged as an Amazon heroine after being quite quiet up to this point. “If you take away the feminist parts, then there is nothing to say.”

Further pressed as to their objections, it became clearer and clearer that the students agreed in principle with what the article was saying, and more broadly, with feminist ideas. The problem is not feminism itself, but that they have an allergy to the word. I think this attitude is sadly prevalent. I see it all the time in other contexts, too. For instance, on that argumentative forum, a character who claims to hate feminism and all that it stands for said the following:

Am I a feminist? No, I am not. I just don’t let any person take charge of my life. I have self confidence and don’t really care what anyone thinks of me and how I live my life. I’ve always been that way.

Now to me, that idea about not letting anyone take charge of your life bespeaks a strongly feminist ethos, but apparently, to the writer, “feminist” is some kind of insult.

My students seem to feel that way, too. “Can’t we use some other word?” they often ask, as if the word itself is somehow offensive, or that it signifies something unspeakably evil. I say “unspeakably” advisedly, because they have a lot of trouble defining their objections. One thing they often bring up is that feminists have “extreme views,” which, in the case of Martin, apparenly means “she expresses a clear, strong opinion on the topic at hand.” This, of course, is what I nag them to do all semester.

So we went round and around the topic, and while none of them disagreed with Martin, or with any of the views I presented to them as feminist ideas, or even with the examples of gender stereotyping and body image I brought up, they were still resisting this nebulous feminism in the article, and more generally.

Finally, another heroine appeared. It was Annabel, who said, a little defiantly, and a little diffidently (understandably enough, given the previous discussion), “Look, I used to be like all of you, and think that feminism was a bad thing. But I didn’t really know what it was, just that I didn’t like it. Then I read a couple of books on feminism, and I realised that these were ideas that I agreed with. So, now I am a feminist.”

I couldn’t help it. I collapsed in a warm, fuzzy glow.

7 thoughts on “The f-word.

  1. sparkle

    i would love to get a copy of that article. where can i find it?

    i was opposed to “feminism”, too, since all the self proclaimed feminists i knew were aggressive and angry. then one day my male lit prof calmly told us all he was a feminist and what it meant to him. i was a convert.

  2. whatladder Post author

    If you have access to an academic library, you can get it through JStor, which is a subscription service. It has also been very widely anthologised in books of essays for freshman comp type classes. I know it is in at least 4 of the collections I have on my bookshelf: Landmarks, is one, The Broadview Reader is another.

  3. ahsodiffy

    I heart Emily Martin. Loved reading her stuff at college.

    Sadly I face the same shit with my clearly-feminist friends who think it dirty and disgusting to be anywhere near and associated with the F word.

    Though to be honest, I call myself one when probed (hard) and when appropriate. I know of people who flaunt their F thinking it gives them street cred, particularly if male. I think you had to be at my college to really get a good picture of that sort of bloke who did that.

    I do wonder what it is that makes so many of us frightened of being called “feminists.” I think it is easy to blame the media and negative stereotypes, but I do wonder as well if it has something to do with how feminism is so plural and not uniform as an ideology, let alone a social movement. Hmm.

  4. Lorelei

    This is another case of a word that has been used by those who don’t truly understand it, and who deliberately link it to hairy-pitted angry lesbian man-hating bra-burners (some of whom, sure, may be also feminists) in an attempt to imply that if one is not a hairy-pitted angry lesbian man-hating bra-burner, one is not a feminist.

    Not that there’s a damn thing wrong with being any or all of those things, of course, but that’s a rant for another day.

    A similar screw job has been attempted upon the words “liberal” and “prejudice”. Not all liberals are tree-hugging war-dove anti-government commie pinko socialist organic pro-gay intellectual coat-dwelling elite highly-educated well-read flag-burning arts-supporting folk. They may tend to drift in that direction, but the word itself is burdened with connotations that scare people who are not conservative to label themselves green, independent, moderate, apolitical, etc. It’s a case of trying to stuff too manyt stereotypes into what was once a perfectly servicable and much less loaded word.

    As for prejudice, it does not always refer to racism. Sometimes pre-judging a situation (not a person, mind) based on past experience is a wise and even noble thing to do…though I am being deliberately vague at this point, because I am tired and writing two crit papers and don’t feel up to a lengthy rant at the moment. Suffice it to say, we ALL prejudge certain things, and we’d be foolish if we didn’t do so at least some of the time.

    Though prejudging people based on wild ideas about how “all X do Y” is, and will always be, crappy, lazy thinking and best avoided.

  5. A Girl Gone Mad

    I have come here and read it, as directed. And some other bits as well. And now I think I will be blog-stalking you, because you make things sparkly around the edges, just as I like them. I think I adore you.

  6. Joe

    I personally like the part in the essay about her methods. I forgot she has none since it was an oped for a socialist magazine.

    I could not quote this article in any of my classes because A. It is old B. No peer review

    I also loved the part where she states “this reinforces the stereotype of women as weak”. Then five pages alters states “reinforcing the stare type of women as aggressive and dangerous.

    A real study would compare current text, not not things published in 1948. It would also have some clear organization with clear sampling done. It would not be cherry picked to reenforce ones beliefs.

    Like I have stated before, I could not turn in work of this calaber and it is truly sad that teacher use this.


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