Another “crazy” woman

“My mom gets crazy when I’m not doing well in school.” -14-year-old student

This week I turned my class’s attention to the idea of critical theory and specifically the concept of reading a text with a feminist lens. While some may argue that middle school is too early to do this, I have increasingly found that critical theory adds nuance to students’ thinking by providing them an avenue through which they can interpret text. Simply asking students what they see in a text generates a broad range of response, some of which are more helpful at moving their thinking forward than others. While there are tasks that are appropriate for this open-ended approach, I find that students benefit from going through a text with an analytical framework and a distinct set of vocabulary through which they can explore, critique, and understand a text.

We’re reading Antigone. Notably, I went back to using the Robert Fagles translation this year after two years trying Seamus Heaney’s. The Fagles translation, published in 1982, is replete with the pathos that I associate with Greek tragedy and students immediately draw comparisons to the more melodramatic telenovelas that some are more willing than others to admit they watch. Aside from the richness of the language, what I also like about Fagles’ Antigone is that it provides an accessible opportunity for students to see the gender dynamics that are inherent. As a Greek woman, Antigone acts out of a duty to her oikos. As a powerful Greek man, Creon is obsessed with the polis. The play is as much about the two characters as it is about restoring the balance to the oikos and polis of Thebes, both of which have been thrown into disarray as a result of the fate of Oedipus, the war between Polynices and Eteocles, and subsequently, Creon’s ill-fated inheritance of the city and denial of burial rites to Polynices. One of the ways Creon’s brand of hubris plays out in the story is that his objections to Antigone take on distinctively misogynist overtones.

However, it was one of the more subtle examples of misogyny as opposition to Antigone that later provided an opportunity to challenge the casual misogyny that we all experience today. When Antigone is brought before Creon for the first time, the Chorus tries to make sense of the revelation that she is to blame for burying the body of Polynices and breaking Creon’s law (lines 417-424):

Here is a dark sign from the gods —
what to make of this? I know her,
how can I deny it? That young girl’s Antigone!
Wretched, child of a wretched father,
Oedipus. Look, is it possible?
They bring you in like a prisoner —
why? did you break the king’s laws?
Did they take you in some act of mad defiance?

The subtle misogyny is easy to miss without an understanding of the historical and cultural context of describing woman as mad or hysterical. This is not a new phenomenon but rather one that is part of all patriarchal agrarian societies; it was the ancient Greeks, after all, who coined the term hysteria. We talked as a class about the inherent problem of assuming that Antigone is motivated solely by emotional rebellion; this assumption is rich with irony given the moral high ground on which Antigone stands at this moment in the play. It has always been the easiest dismissal of women to call them mad.

But this point became most salient to one of my students outside of class later in the day. He approached me with concern about his grades and behavior. Since he is a strong student and earnest in his behavior most of the time, I asked why he was concerned. With the close of the quarter and upcoming parent conferences he said, “I want to be sure everything is good because my mom gets crazy when I’m not doing well in school.” It was a casual comment that I’m certain most 14 year old boys have said about their mothers at one time or another. Even though I know this student has a strong relationship with his mother, I knew instantly I had to point out his word choice. I asked, “Your mother loves you enough to want to make sure you’re successful in school, right?” He nodded. “But you’re a male who just called his mother’s expression of her love for you crazy.” His eyes immediately widened and he let out an audible gasp as he quickly realized the connection I was making.

The moment was easy enough for me to point out given the relevance to the day’s earlier lesson. But it has since had me reflecting more on the casual misogyny that exists all around us and how it enters my own language. This student was mature and reflective enough to have realize his mistake. I am acutely aware of the disparity between how confident my male students use their voices in class and how silenced my female students can feel. While I actively try to create space for female voices and quieter voices, I realize more needs to be done on this front. A few thoughts that feel most salient to me:

  1. It’s not just about my actions to create a classroom where all students develop a strong sense of voice; I need to teach students to be aware of how their gender influences the way their voices are perceived and valued so that they can do this work for themselves.
  2. As a male teacher, I must model for my male students the ability to be silent for the express purpose of giving female voices space. Similarly, I must model how to disagree without dominating.
  3. It is inevitable that casual misogyny will come up in the classroom. Given this, I must be more aware of how I play a role in ensuring it does not go unaddressed.

The student with whom I had this interaction was gracious and mature about my response to him. While I know it won’t always go that way, it gives me comfort to know that English class is doing exactly what I believe so strongly it has the power to do: reading good books makes us better at living our lives. The fact that it was a 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy that created an opportunity for this reflection to occur for my 14-year-old student and for me is what I most love about teaching English.

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