Thoughts on our education system, and how it harms even those who are successful
I recognize that I have been and am lucky. I recognize that the particular intelligences I have are particularly well geared toward success in our education system. I recognize that I have parents who had the skills, time, financial ability, and desire to support my education in pretty much every way possible for a kid growing up in rural Maine. I recognize that I had a few amazing teachers who did great things with the resources available to them at a relatively poor public school and who supported me in ways that had nothing to do with academics. I recognize that I am incredibly privileged to go to the college I do and to have the opportunities that presents me. But I also recognize that I have not gotten through these first 20 years of my life unscathed.
For as long as I can remember, I have dealt with issues of perfectionism. Although when I was very young it was less noticeable – to me and others – I can remember a sense that I had to do well academically.
When I was in third grade, we had extra worksheets that we were supposed to work through when we’d finished our other work. There was really only one girl in my class who worked through them at the same pace I did, and I remember feeling that I had to go faster than her. Not because I wanted to beat her specifically, but because it felt as though my work was worthless if I wasn’t the best in the class.
In fourth grade, I had my first experience with lack of understanding. For a number of reasons, I really struggled with learning division when it was first taught to us. I literally did not know what to do. My mother eventually taught me on the back of receipts at one of my siblings rec sporting events because I could not handle what was, to me, an unacceptable failure. The knowledge of impending standardized tests only added to my panic. I felt that if I didn’t know everything that was on the tests, then it didn’t matter if I knew most things on the test. The only option was perfection. I cried in class when we got our report cards for that quarter and I had the first B I had ever received (in math, largely due to my issues with division).
I can tell similar stories from throughout middle school and high school. Most of the time, academics came easily to me, so I didn’t have to work to do well enough to stave off the perfectionism. But when it came out, it came out in (what I can now recognize as) moments of panic and depression. It got really bad the first semester college when I shut down and could not function in my French class because I was so unable to deal with working really hard at schoolwork and still not succeeding. I actually had to leave class to go throw up because I was so nervous and upset about having to give an in class presentation, a reaction I have never had to any other case of public speaking.
See that’s the thing about perfectionism, at least for me. You’d think it leads to increased productivity and motivation. In reality, the feelings of panic and inadequacy and shame are at times so overwhelming that it’s impossible to even start, let alone finish things.
And this is where our education system comes into the discussion, and where I realize that I was damaged by it in ways I couldn’t even recognize until recently. My entire life, I have been rewarded for my perfectionism. Particularly because I usually managed to push through the panic and complete my assignments – and do well on them – no one ever really picked up on the extent of my issues. There were occasional mentions of how “gifted kids” (which my school determined me to be, and which is a label that requires its own discussion) tend to be perfectionists, but nothing was ever done to figure out what that meant for me or to support me with it. Instead, I was held up as an example of the high achieving students at my school. My principal put notices in the local paper when I did well on the PSATs and the National Merit competition that goes along with them. I was given awards. I was told repeatedly by everyone who had power over me that grades were important and doing well was necessary for getting into a good college. I was told I was smart and that people expected big things from me. I was told that perfection was what I should aim for.
Not once was I told that it would not mean I was less of a person if I failed in some aspect of academics.
And so now, I am a junior in college and just beginning to unlearn some of this shit. But I spent so long internalizing it, so long defining myself in terms of academics and learning how to live with (rather than deal with) perfectionism. Lately I’ve seen quite a few posts on here reminding people that grades do not define their intelligence or their worth as human beings. It took me a while to figure out why I was emotionally reacting to those posts when I’ve never gotten poor grades. I think the reaction was twofold. On the one hand, I was reacting against the posts because they made me feel like shit for valuing my grades as much as I do. I feel guilty that grades matter to me so much because I recognize that they’re very arbitrary and not always good measures of learning. On the other hand, I was also reacting because I think my walls of perfectionism may be beginning to crack. (I doubt if they will ever crumble.) I’m starting to recognize some of the triggers of my perfectionism. I may not yet be able to overcome them, but at least for the moment I can avoid them.
You can take your gay gene. I don’t want it, I don’t need it. My identities are not “natural” facts about me over which I have no control, but rather are radical acts of creation through self description.
Someone explain to me why I have to bottom out into mental places and actions that scare the shit out of me in order to deal with my feelings. Because I’m exceedingly not okay with what I did on Friday, but I feel like I purged all the feelings that were making me miserable in the process. All the repetitious thoughts about my ex have subsided and for the first time in months I think I might actually be able to get to a place where I’m truly okay with whatever happens with her. Now if I can just learn to get here without always having to go through the terrifying parts.
I hate myself for being like this. I hate that I’m being so needy. I hate that I can’t get over you. I hate that I don’t want to get over you. I don’t hate you. And I don’t really hate my feelings for you. I just. I don’t want to be that person who can’t let things go and who’s so demanding of your time and energy. I want to talk to you so much but I’m constantly afraid I’m bothering you. I know you’re busy and that you don’t purposely take a long time to reply in order to hurt me. But I don’t know how to remind you to reply or find times to talk to you without feeling like I’m absurdly needy and demanding. We’re not even together. I just. Fuck. All I want to do is talk to you.
Night is when I miss you most. Maybe it’s because there’s a comforting feeling of invisibility in the dark that makes it easier to think and feel big things. Maybe it’s just because I’m alone and without distractions. It makes sense though. So many of the little things I miss most about our relationship are tied to nighttime. I miss visiting each other at work, even if it was only for a few minutes, because we both worked late and our schedules never lined up. I miss those times we went stargazing and could barely see the stars for all the clouds. I miss being cuddled up watching movies when we should have been doing homework. I desperately miss those rare occasions when we got to share a bed.
I thought I’d at least be on the road to getting over you by now. I thought that getting distance, literally and metaphorically, from our relationship would help me shift my feelings into friendship or neutrality or dislike or anything but love. But I’ve found a new clarity to my feelings. I am more sure that I love you than I ever was when we were together. It took me a long time to allow myself to be in love, and even longer for me to realize it had happened. Once I did, I thought that maybe I was just scared of losing the relationship. That maybe I was reacting to my fear of dealing with all the possibilities and risks of a long-distance relationship by clinging more tightly to you.
And then you ended it. Ended us. I was undeniably hurt, but I managed to develop some measure of control over my feelings relatively quickly. I thought that was a sign that I could get over you. And I still found myself wanting to be your friend and I thought again that this was a sign that I could shift my feelings into something else.
But here’s the thing: I can’t seem to get over you.
The longer I’m here, the longer I’m away from you, the more I realize that I still love you. When I think about what I miss about home, the person who stands out most clearly is always you. And what’s more, I’ve realized that my feelings aren’t about a fear of being alone or about missing sex. I can’t deny that I miss the physical parts of our relationship, but they’re not the reason I miss you. I miss you because I miss… you I guess. Just everything.
I wish I knew exactly why you ended things. I don’t want to push you or make you uncomfortable, but I’m still struggling to understand what happened. I know that the distance scared you - it scared me too - but I wish I knew what about it scared you. All I can say (although I feel incredibly narcissistic doing so) is that if any part of it was concern for how I’d cope or what I’d do if we didn’t last, you needn’t have worried. I’ve learned that I can handle not being in a relationship with you, even if it makes me unhappy, and I’ve learned that my feelings for you will remain even when I have limited contact with you.
I don’t know what will happen when we talk. I know that I need to tell you these things because keeping them in my head is making me so unhappy. I know that I want you to say you want to get back together, too. I know you probably don’t. I can’t wait to see you, though, even if it’s only over Skype.
Clearly I am still in love with you because any kind of communication just makes me giddy and excited. And it’s not even a sex thing because all I want is to cuddle up and talk and watch movies and be around you. I don’t know what this means for us when I come back. I don’t know if you’ll still feel like we can’t be together. But I do know that I can’t wait to see you again, even if it’s only as friends. I can love you and be friends with you. But I’m still hoping we’ll get another chance when I come back. And I don’t even know if I believe in second chances for relationships.
So. I’ve been thinking about gender neutral pronouns lately. Like, a lot. The past seven or eight months have been crazy in term of gender for me. I just. I started thinking about it a lot more than I ever had about fifteen months ago (for a variety of reasons that I’m not going to go into, mostly because they involve another person who I don’t want to talk about on here since their business is theirs) but it started getting worse over the summer, and then even more so when I came back to school. The beginning of last semester was awful for me (again, for a variety of reasons, again involving another person, but suffice to say I was more than a little broken-hearted). I’m not sure if the gender stuff got worse because I was such a mess or if I was partially a mess because of the gender stuff, but either way I was a mess and just not in a good place. I’m doing much better now and therefore I’m a hell of a lot more willing to talk about this stuff.
Anyway. In the whole mess that was last semester, I sort of came to this realization that I don’t identify as a woman (or a man). I mean, I’d thought about it before and had kind of considered my gender but hadn’t fully worked through it to the point where I could say anything before that, but I was suddenly just super uncomfortable with the idea of being called a woman and I was basically just like, “Fuck. I don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to deal with this, what the fuck am I supposed to do?” At this point, I’m a lot less freaked out about this whole thing (to the point where I’m willing to talk about it to random people on the internet, as well as some people I see on a daily basis). I just… I look in the mirror and I do not see a woman. I don’t see a man either, and I’ve never had any desire to be one (which I think was part of why it took me so long to realize that I had gender ~issues - I didn’t realize until probably last year that you could be something that wasn’t a man or a woman. It took me even longer to realize that you could be gender variant without having to feel like a combination of man and woman, which I also don’t feel like.) I don’t know what to call myself. I don’t identify as genderqueer or trans*. I couldn’t tell you why, there’s nothing wrong with those terms, I just don’t feel any kinship with them at the moment. Maybe in the future, but for right now they feel just as strange to me as man and woman (though maybe less distressing than woman?)
So, to get back to what is ostensibly the subject of this post, sort of out of no where for the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about gender neutral pronouns. I mean, I knew they existed before (once I’d figured out the whole gender variant concept), but I’d never really considered them before. I’ve never really had any strong discomfort with being called she/her (although I wouldn’t say I like it, I’m sort of apathetic. Mostly I’m just used to it.) So I don’t really know where this came from. I don’t feel a need to use gender neutral pronouns, I could go on use she/her and be fine with it for the moment. It’s just that my thoughts keep coming back to them and I wonder what it would be like to use them. A lot. Would it feel good? Empowering? Would it be too stressful to have to be constantly explaining and correcting people? Would it just draw more attention to my gender issues when I’m still not completely sure that I want everyone to know? Would people stop calling me a woman? Would people realize that continuing to bifurcate the world and assuming that sex=gender is hurtful to me (and others)? I don’t know. And I don’t know if I want to try to find out. I feel like this is going to reach a tipping point fairly soon and I’m going to have to decide one way or the other.
I just. I wish I could go back to before I realized any of this. At least then my life was less confusing. I might have been unhappy at times, but I was never confused about myself. Or maybe I was confused but I just couldn’t realize it because I didn’t even know I could be confused. I don’t know. I feel like I should talk to a real person about this, instead of just the internet. But I’m so busy, and I don’t know who to even talk to. I mean, I know people I could talk to, but I don’t know who would be my choice.
And even if I decide to try out gender neutral pronouns, I don’t know how to go about starting. Like. I don’t know what to say to people. And I don’t know who I should say things to. I just don’t know. And it’s so fucking frustrating. Plus I don’t even know what gender neutral pronouns I’d want to use. I do kind of like some variation of ze/zhe (particularly this one)/zie for the subject pronoun (the equivalent of she). But I’m not too crazy about hir for the object pronoun (the equivalent of her). I also don’t like the idea of singular they/them for personal use (although I will argue with you extensively on why it’s completely valid to use they/them to refer to a person of unknown gender in the third person, I don’t care if your English teacher says it’s wrong, but that’s a different post). I don’t know. I’m just… confused? bewildered? frustrated? I don’t even know how to classify my feelings about this.
Stupid gender. Why did you have to go and be all complicated. Eventually I’ll stop getting queerer (I hope so anyway, I can’t go on like this forever).
So the other day (when I should have been doing homework) I watched Miss Representation. In case you haven’t heard about it, it’s a new documentary discussing the treatment and representation of women in the media and the effects this has on attitudes toward, and aspirations of, girls and women in US culture. You can watch the trailer here or watch the full film (as it was aired on OWN) here. Over the past couple of days of reflecting on it, and in conjunction with some thoughts I’ve had regarding some of the readings I’ve had for two of my classes (Gay and Lesbian Studies and History of Anthropological Theory), I’ve noticed a few issues with the film.
I’d like to start by saying that I think the makers of Miss Representation had good intentions, and I do think it is a decent, if not groundbreaking, documentary. Although it doesn’t really present any new information or issues, nor does it suggest any new solutions to the problems it discusses, it does summarize many of the problems with media’s relationship to women in a format that is accessible to the general public, which I believe is its intent. So in that regard it’s a very good documentary.
My main issue with it (and other films, books, etc. like it) is that it approaches the issues of sexism and feminism in extremely gender normative ways. There is a tendency throughout the film toward conflating sex and gender so that the words “woman” and “female” are used interchangeably with the implication that if a person was assigned female at birth they are a girl/woman (depending on age) and that if a person was assigned male at birth they are a boy/man. Some of this (alright, a large part) is due to the fact that American culture generally views sex and gender in this manner, so that people who are assigned female at birth are raised as girls regardless of what their gender identity ultimately turns out to be. This does not, however, excuse the fact that the experiences and views of gender variant* people continue to be unexamined and removed from discourses on sexism and feminism. These thoughts and experiences complicate and expand the ways we, as a society, look at patriarchy, sexism and feminism. Gender variant people are impacted by, and relate to, sexism just as much as cisgender, however the form this impact takes may be different than those traditionally examined. To deny gender variant people the chance to discuss their experiences with sexism is not only discriminatory but also denying our discourse a fuller understanding of what sexism is and how it functions in our society. Of course none of this is to say that the experiences of ciswomen shouldn’t be discussed, it’s merely pointing out that we reduce our ability to combat discrimination when we perpetuate it in our discourses about its effects.
My second (and somewhat related) issue with Miss Representation is that it is very focused on the impact of media on feminine women and girls without addressing how masculine women and girls may relate to these same issues. Although Rachel Maddow is interviewed in the film and makes reference to the fact that she receives hate mail based on her appearance, there is essentially no discussion of the compulsory femininity that permeats US culture. And since compulsory femininity is one of the effects of media representations of women, I find the omission of a discussion of masculinity/femininity particularly glaring. Again, I know that some of this omission is due precisely to that compulsory femininity which means that it is extremely difficult for women to attain power (whether through fame, politics or otherwise) without conforming to certain cultural ideas about what is properly feminine. But there are masculine women in the public sphere who the film could have interviewed, and it could have better used the interviews it did include with masculine women. Not addressing the different ways these women might (or might not) relate to media representations is dismissive and enforces some of the very issues the film attempts to combat. I don’t want anyone to think that I am disparaging or calling for an end to femininity and feminine women in these critiques. I’m simply trying to point out the ways in which the arguments could have been expanded (and in that expansion, likely strengthened).
I guess I’m just tired of watching documentaries like this and not seeing myself reflected in them. I do not identify as a woman and I am certainly not (and never have been) feminine, yet I am impacted by sexism and media representations of women. I am impacted in ways that are similar to the way the ciswomen presented in the film discussed but I am also impacted in different ways. And these are distinct from the ways (according to the film) cismen are impacted. We need a radical reimaging of how we address sexism and feminism that includes gender variant people and more nuanced understandings of gender presentation. We need documentaries about sexism that aren’t made simply by ciswomen about ciswomen and aired on tv stations targeted at women (e.g. OWN). We need representations of the wide variety of gender identities and presentations that make up our society because if we don’t have them, our understanding of our culture will continue to be limited by the narrow view through which we interpret it.
*I use the phrase “gender variant” here rather than some variation of “transgender” primarily because, although many people use transgender as an umbrella term for people who do not conform to gender norms, many others do not. Particularly since I do not identify as transgender despite having a nonbinary gender identity, I felt that using “gender variant” would be less alienating.
This is largely prompted by this post, although I’ve thought about this topic before.
I went to school in a pretty conservative area (Northern Maine is not the liberal enclave you envision when you think of New England). A few conservative Christian churches had a heavy influence on what was permissible, culturally and academically, in the schools, and my health teacher was a member of one of these churches, only furthering the influence of religion in that class. My sex ed experience was far from comprehensive (although I hesitate to lump it in with the worst of the abstinence only methods out there). And every year there were at least a few girls who got pregnant (and likely many more that we didn’t hear about because they miscarried/aborted/it ended up only being a scare and not an actual pregnancy). I have no idea what the STD/STI rate was like, but I’d venture it wasn’t low. In short, lots of people were still having sex, despite the fact that we were told from fourth grade on that we shouldn’t have sex.
No one mentioned what to do if you got pregnant in my health class. Birth control methods were mentioned only briefly, and then only to highlight the fact that they were not 100% effective, so we should just not have sex. We were told about how we shouldn’t have sex, how we should wait for marriage and what we could do instead of having sex. But even this we didn’t spend much time on; I’m pretty sure we spent longer learning about cancer, something (hopefully) few of us will experience, than about sex, something (likely) most of us will experience to some degree.
The thing that just occurred to me was how ridiculous it is that we expect sex ed to stop teens from having sex. As stated in the post, even the most comprehensive sex ed programs focus on how not to have sex, which is certainly an important aspect which should not be overlooked. But the fact of the matter is that teens know sex feels good, and they know adults do it. The attempt to turn sex into something bad and to be avoided is completely undermined by the experiences of teens and their perceptions of adults.
What is more, this method of sex ed promotes a vision of the world in which sex is not something that is considered healthy or an appropriate part of life. Most (but not all) people feel that sex is a necessary part of their life, and would not want to give it up without very particular circumstances. Why are we surprised by people failing to practice safer sex when we spend years telling them that sex is something to be ashamed of, only to turn them loose into the feelings of needing sex that accompany the teen years and adulthood?
We need to figure out a way to encourage a more balanced attitude toward sex. It’s not something to be feared and I don’t think we should teach teens that their primary reaction should be to avoid it. I fully believe that it’s possible for teens to incorporate sex into their lives in a healthy manner and we should be encouraging that, rather than just telling them what they can do other than sex. They know, they’ve been doing the non-sex activities for years.
In short, do I think thirteen year olds should be having sex? Probably not. Do I think sex ed should talk about sex being a good, healthy thing and how to make sure it’s good and healthy? Yes.
So. You may have noticed my Twilight liveblog last night. If you’ve been on today you may also have noticed my conversation with a Twilight fan about the creepiness of Carlisle. All this has gotten me thinking about Twilight, the messages it contains and the fervor of its fans.
By now we’ve all heard the arguments against Twilight: how it teaches young girls that their happiness is dependent on their relationship with a man, how it promotes obsessive love, how it portrays all women as incomplete without children. My intention here is not to reiterate these points, but to examine why so many people,of all genders and ages, are such ardent fans of a series which, quite clearly, to me at least, promotes these negative themes.
I don’t believe that the answer is as simple as naivety or a lack of the necessary literary experience to recognize these themes. Many well-read individuals with the life experience to notice these themes are either unaware of them, or do not believe they are dangerous, while younger individuals who may lack this literary and life experience are fully aware of the implications of the themes in the Twilight series.
Clearly, society plays a large part in determining both what is represented in literature and how that literature is perceived by the individuals who experience it. This is obvious in regard to the Twilight series. Societal concepts of gender roles are quite evident throughout the series, and these are generally presented in a positive manner. Gender roles are promoted even in something as simple as who the series is marketed toward, as modern American culture defines “romance” to be a genre which predominantly interests women and girls, although quite clearly there are people of all gender identities who are fans of the series. While these elements are important in understanding the series as an entity removed from its fan-base, what is more interesting to me is the way in which it is perceived and defended by its fans.
Although, as previously stated, the Twilight fan-base represents people of all ages and gender identities, it is clearly dominated by young (generally preteen and teen) girls. The experience of having been socialized female in a society that still contains large amounts of misogyny most likely contributes to the reaction of these individuals to Twilight. You can’t fight against things you can’t see, and I believe that some of these fans simply cannot see the issues with the Twilight series, due in large part to their experience with cultural misogyny.
If you have seen women represented as objects to be possessed by men, which is a common theme throughout American media, since infancy, the likelihood that you will notice the degree to which Bella is treated as a commodity, rather than an autonomous human being, is greatly diminished. If you have never had anyone argue against, or even point out, the rape culture we live in, how can you be expected to notice the amount of victim-blaming Edward uses to justify his initial reactions to Bella? (In particular, in the Twilight movie, he says that he hated her at first “for making [him] want [her] so badly.” He then proceeds to say that he doesn’t know if he can control himself. These are classic lines used by perpetrators of sexual assault and rape to justify their actions. I’m working without access to the books, so I can’t vouch for the existence of these particular lines in the books, although I’m fairly certain that there are similar arguments.) Without access to media that portrays women and girls as independent and able to achieve happiness without a man, why are we surprised when some who experience the series see nothing wrong with the fact that Bella’s entire happiness (and, indeed, existence) is tied up in her relationship with Edward? If girls who are interested in “masculine” or “non-feminine” activities and topics are (often publicly) shamed for their interests, the fact that all of the female characters in the series are (predominately) interested in nothing but stereotypically “feminine” things (i.e. clothes, prom, babies) does not seem harmful or even unusual.
There are many issues with the Twilight series that go beyond Bella and Edward’s relationship (see the aforementioned discussion of Carlisle’s creepiness), and I don’t have the time or space to discuss them all. What I’ve been trying to get at with this post, is that the reactions of Twilight fans to criticism isn’t a result of them not being smart enough to understand the arguments against the series. For many, I strongly believe that the way in which they experienced media growing up, and the way the continue to experience media now, shapes the way in which they are able to perceive the themes of the series. And because our experiences with media in our younger years can have a profound impact on our future perceptions of it, the fact that Twilight reinforces much of the misogyny present in our society makes it that much more dangerous.
I was super aware of the lack of queer couples tonight, for some reason. I was at a concert in this little bar/cafe thing and I could see out the windows from where I was standing. I just felt unable to stop noticing that all the couples that walked by were (to my eyes) straight. Now, obviously, I don’t know how these people identify, so there may very well have been queer couples that walked by that I didn’t notice. But even given that, I just felt so surrounded by heterosexuality. Which is sort of weird because I was in Portland, which is actually super queer-friendly and notoriously the gayest part of Maine.
I’m not sure why I felt so aware of the lack of queers. Maybe it was the age demographic of the audience (my friend and I were quite easily the youngest people there, most of the people were 50+), maybe it was the fact that I’ve been thinking a lot about queerness and what it means lately. I’ve recently been very taken with the idea of trying to inhabit “queer” to the fullest meaning of it that I can achieve. I often feel like we’re sacrificing the uniqueness of queer culture in our strive to convince mainstream society that we’re “just like straight people,” which is not to say that I have a problem with that argument, nor do I dislike or have animosity toward queer people whose approach to life is more in line with those mainstream or “traditional” concepts. It’s just that, for me, much of the beauty in queer culture comes from what we’ve made separate from, and often against the wishes of, the heteronormative culture in which we live.
There are so many aspects to my thoughts on queerness that I’ll make separate posts as I feel inspired. There’s no way I can write about all of it right now.
This is my ~personal blog, where I’ll be making more serious, usually longer, posts about topics that I feel don’t fit with the more casual feel of my main blog. Although it’s password-protected, an important element for my own processing of thoughts and experiences is the feeling that other people are experiencing my thoughts. So feel free to comment/respond to anything, my ask box is always open.