Standing up to sexism

It was Father's Day in Australia recently and in support of all the dads and dads-to-be out there, one author wrote an impassioned plea for society to stop its relentless criticism of men. As well as the media, the writer targeted educational institutions for reinforcing such negative views.

The Father's Day article reminded me of an extraordinary exchange I'd had earlier in the year with a 16-year-old boy.

"You really hate men, don't you?" he'd levelled at me, in the middle of a class. We'd been reading Of Mice and Men and discussing Steinbeck's portrayal of Curley's Wife - the classic objectification of the marginalised female. I was explaining that she wasn't a tart, she was just misunderstood.

I felt that I was being wilfully misunderstood too. The more I defended Curley's Wife's position within the story, the angrier several of the boys became. They felt that any discussion about the issue of female discrimination was a direct criticism of them as men.

Later on in the course, I chose a novel about Australian football and coming of age. We talked about what it meant to "be a man". Several boys and girls suggested the witty definition that it meant to "grow some balls". This led to the unfortunate retelling of an old and obscene joke that it should actually be "grow a vagina" because.

At this point I enlisted the help of a male colleague to explain to the entire class why this was sexist and offensive.

As a female English teacher, I'm aware that the boys in this class - I teach in a relatively deprived area of semi-rural Australia - are twitching to leave school and start working in male-dominated trades. Several of them have already applied for apprenticeships in construction and plumbing. They find it awkward to give their opinions on sensitive issues and they certainly don't want to talk about their feelings.

Many of my students are not confident readers or writers and cover for it by getting angry or telling inappropriate jokes. This is a phenomenon that many colleagues around the world will recognise.

So why don't I just leave them alone? Why continue to tackle the issue of gender? Am I just another woman teacher guilty of "feminising" her subject and alienating boys? In short: is it me? Or is it them?

The Father's Day writer explained that he was fed up of seeing the media portray men as clowns and fools, troublemakers and deadbeats - and I couldn't agree more.

But I also don't want to see girls depicted as possessions or objects. The English classroom is the place to question stereotyping wherever it may occur, because stereotyping results in prejudice.

The trouble when you challenge a prejudice that someone actually holds is that they may react defensively. But that is no reason to let it go unchallenged. In fact, I would say it's my job as a teacher.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia

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