Pink scissors

Pink scissors

Check, Ed

I am writing this for teachers like myself who are interested in looking for practical ways to support and validate all students’ genders.1 As a pro-feminist artist and educator, I critique traditional White masculinities as inadequate gender constructs and argue for pro-feminist masculinities that allow for feeling, expression, and intimacy for both boys and girls. I provide practical strategies for use in classrooms and communities At stake are not only how we teach students art knowledge, but also how we facilitate educational and emotional spaces where students can learn and practice positive and non-sexist gendered identities.

Within traditional masculinity settings,2 incidents like the pink scissors are not aberrational, as people would like to think, but as Bissinger (1995) points out “inevitable.”3 This pink scissors story then serves as a metaphor for me, representing inadequate models for how men must act to be masculine because it teaches gender inequality. “Pink scissors” also represents a pro-feminist challenge for me to rethink and rework how men can be.

Clatterbaugh (1990) describes six perspectives of masculinity in relation to feminism and social movements: conservative, pro-feminist, men’s rights, spiritual, socialist, and group specific.4 Nevertheless, White conservative and men’s rights’ perspectives dominate the masculine cultural terrain. Ethnicities, races, social classes, sexualities, histories, and geographies further complicate an already contentious issue. For example, masculinity for a White working-class second-generation East Coast Italian heterosexual man differs from the masculinity for an Asian-American third-generation Midwest middle-class gay man.

In Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, pro-feminist writer John Stoltenberg (1989) argues that White Western traditional masculinities require injustice (sexism, discrimination, etc.) in order to exist. Stoltenberg contends that violence is central to male superiority and that misogyny and homophobia are two of many ways violence gets acted out in culture. Such violence is often tolerated as an attitude of “how men are” or “boys will be boys.” Whatever our approach, boys suffer in ways often invisible to most teachers. It is not easy growing up a boy within traditionally White conservative masculinity paradigms.

From a developmental perspective, Clark and Dawson (1989) believe children internalize protection, safety, freedom, success, and self-esteem from positive and non-sexist external structure. Through a pro-feminist paradigm such as Clark and Dawson’s, students can develop self-discipline based on positive self-esteem rather than on fear or violence. Positive gender-affirming structure encourages students to develop their own nonsexist internal structure for taking care of themselves and others. Clark and Dawson promote positive emotional structure that facilitates both safety and learning. Both emotional and intellectual structure are important ways we as teachers need to offer support and validation to students and ourselves.

The Price Many Boys Pay

Starting in infancy, in traditional White masculinity paradigms, boys are provided modeled behaviors showing how to become “real” men (Silverstein & Rashbaum, 1994). Implicit and manifest within such entrenched traditional male gender socialization are cultural misogyny and homophobia (Frye, 1983; Stoltenberg, 1989). Boys are socialized to be active, aggressive, competitive, virile, and above all “masculine” (Mosse, 1993).5 Many boys learn to define masculinity in direct opposition to femininity. This polarity creates situations, for example, where boys are praised for being aggressive and assertive while girls are “put down” for the same behaviors. So, it’s the bullying behavior of the boy in the pink scissors episode, which so concerned his teacher, that is really acceptable male behavior in multiple contexts both in school and outside. That first-grade boy was practicing his manhood.

Pollack (2000) states that many boys do not receive the emotional attention, empathy, and support they need to become empathetic adults. Many boys are taught through punishment and shame to deny their feelings and repress their emotions creating what Sadker and Sadker (1994) call “emotional amnesia.”6 Pollack (2000) talked to boys across the country and found them despairing and isolated, desperate to tell their stories. Boys learn that it’s not okay to talk or to cry. This is partly the price many boys pay in highly competitive traditional male worlds.7 Sadker and Sadker (1994) describe other ways boys pay the price. Boys are more likely to fail a course than girls, to drop out of school in higher numbers, and dominate accident, suicide, and homicide statistics. By adolescence, the pressure to conform is relentless.

Within traditional Western patriarchal perspectives, boys learn early that misogyny, the hatred of anything feminine, female, or feminist is a necessary part of becoming a “real” man. Sadker and Sadker (1994) state that of anything a boy can be called, “none is more devastating than being called a girl,”woman,”sissy,”fag,’ or `queer (p. 206). “For boys the thought of being female is appalling, disgusting, and humiliating; it is completely unacceptable” (ibid. p. 83). Between 1988 and 1990, Sadker and Sadker (1994) surveyed over 1,100 children in Michigan. Students wrote essays about living life as the other gender. Sadker and Sadker report that 42% of the girls wrote positive things about being male, but 95% of 565 boys saw no advantages to being a girl. Only 28 boys wrote anything positive about being female.

In many high schools, from elementary through high school, “queer,” “gay,” “fag,” “girl,” and “like a girl” are a few of many epithets used by students, not only to shame and embarrass each other, but also as a way for boys to project and practice their masculinity by putting each other down (Check, 1996). Often, such denigrations are accompanied by violent physical behavior. Verbal and physical harassment and violence are both testimony and celebration of the public codes of cultural masculinity and a reminder to all boys of the consequences of unmanly or unmasculine ways. In elementary through high school, boys learn that a man’s masculinity is just about the most important character trait to protect Inordinate pressure is placed on boys and men to act and look masculine. All males are subjected to traditional White masculine cultural norms and are expected to develop “normal” masculine cultural traits. Within such traditional frames, boys are required to exhibit power over others and demonstrate their manhood (Abbott, 1991; Kimmel, 1991). Sadker and Sadker (1994) point out that misogyny learned in boyhood carries through logically into adulthood. And while Askew and Ross (1988) describe boys as victims of their socialization, boys are also perpetrators of sexist practices.

Likewise, teachers are not immune to misogynist and homophobic teaching practices (Fischer, 1982; Paley, 1984; Ruenzel, 1999; Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Many teachers witness gender harassment and do little. For some teachers, verbal and physical harassment is considered common teasing or the proving ground of successful gender identification. Ruenzel (1999) describes multiple instances where administrators and teachers did not support students reporting abuse based on sexual orientation. This is important for us because most of the abuse Ruenzel talks about is based on gendered stereotypes. To date, literature in art education about masculinity is sparse, suggesting that much work remains for art teachers to explore the personal and pedagogical implications for masculinity in our classrooms and curriculums.

Lessons and Strategies

for the Classroom

In Open Minds to Equality: A Sourcebook of Learning Activities to Affirm Diversity and Promote Equity, Schniedewind and Davidson (1998) suggest multiple strategies to help teachers examine themselves and their classrooms for sexist practices. Three areas to begin to self-examine for bias include attitudes and behaviors, use of language, and evaluating curriculums for bias.

Attitudes and behaviors represent learned ways of thinking and being in relation to race, social class, and gender.8How do a teacher’s attitudes and behaviors impact her or his practices in the art room? How does a teacher assign classroom chores? Does she or he adhere to traditional gender roles? Expect girls to be neater than boys? Offer different role models to boys and girls? Expect students to treat each other in terms of gender? For example, do boys act as if girls do not exist? Does a teacher expect boys to treat girls with respect and vice versa? These are ways to begin to assess classroom attitudes and behaviors. It’s important for the teacher to ask the students within the classroom and for the teacher to be willing to learn from these students how gender cuts differently across multiple race, social class, and ethnic communities. Teachers who reflect about and change genderrelated teaching practices will probably feel uneasy as will many students, but this kind of change can be empowering for both boys and girls, as well the teacher.

In Boys and Girls in the Doll Corner, Vivian Gussin Paley (1984) reflects about her attitudes about gender toward kindergarten boys and girls. Through observation, journal writing, and self-examination, Paley reconsiders her biased language and curriculum content. Initially, she had less tolerance for boys’ aggressive play and more tolerance for girls’ quiet tablework play. Toward the end she noticed fewer differences between the genders. She risked seeing beyond her own stereotypes of children. Paley thought beyond the powerful stereotype of boy rough-housing and found serious drama occurring in their play. This resulted in her looking more closely at the social and cultural environments of her students for clues. Paley recalled when boys, prior to kindergarten, were more comfortable in girl spaces. Though Paley gives no set answers, she models how teachers can change and evolve throughout their careers.

Recently, as part of an introductory exercise to gender in the visual arts,

I asked undergraduate art education students to write on a card what they liked best about being a woman or a man. We had just finished reading The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (Guerrilla Girls, 1998). In a class of 19 students, 15 female students wrote down a variety of responses including: “the ability to have children,” “openly share my feelings,” “can be moody,” “cry in public,” “allowed to be sensitive,” “can change my mind,” and “get away with things because I’m a woman.” The 4 male students wrote about themselves in opposition to the female or femininity: “being able to take quick showers and being ready in 15 minutes,” “not having to ever wear a dress,” “easier to get ready and take care of myself,” and “we are not near as difficult, for the most part” Male students were hesitant to talk about masculinity in class. For these male university students, masculinity appears to be defined as the avoidance of anything feminine (Kimmel, 1991). A female student in class challenged the male students’ responses and argued that they did not answer the question. She felt they had avoided the question. She still wanted to know what they liked best about being male. None of the male students responded to her request.

I use this exercise with students from elementary through university levels. Talking about masculinity and connecting it to social inequality and injustice heightens students’ awareness of discrimination. At each educational level, it is difficult to get males to talk about masculinity. I find many conversations to be uneasy. Undergraduate students, both male and female, comment about how inadequate they feel discussing the issue or how ignorant they are about the social and cultural implications of gender. A few students explore gender themes in their art and lesson planning. Some students thank me for having the opportunity to use their own lives and gender experiences as motivation for creating art and lessons.

Lessons discussing gender and masculinity need to be a part of ongoing dialogue in our classrooms. There are several practical ways to engage in such a dialogue, as subject, as lesson plan, and as personal motivation. As subject-multiple artists examine issues of gender in their own art.9 As lesson plans-teachers can provide opportunities for discussion and exploration about genders. As a motivation-teachers and students have their own lives as initial examples, places to start. We can simply begin by sharing our stories with each other.

Language is another area we can examine for homophobia and misogyny. What is sexist language? And how can we avoid using it? Teachers teach by example. The teacher can avoid using sexist language in the room and encourage students to think about and use alternative language. Language, in turn, connects to how we think about and imagine our worlds. For example, words like master, genius, and artist are closely tied to patriarchal histories. Artists are often understood to be male. A common teaching practice naming classroom art tables after famous male artists like Picasso, Manet, and van Gogh perpetuates a patriarchal knowing of art that virtually excludes women and all non-White artists.

Diversifying names, adding women and non-White artists, is essential to understanding the complexity of art.

Reexamining what words mean and represent can be unsettling. Although the word “artist” appears to be nonsexist, the institutional and cultural histories of art and artists represent something other. “Artist” is often understood as a male-identified word.” As teachers, we need to reexamine the roles of artists in the production of the visual arts: which artists get talked about, which artists gets shown in class, and which artists form the content of our curriculums. This requires reconsidering words like “genius” and “master.” Why are most great masters male? What is the connection to being male in cultures and the opportunities to flourish in the visual arts? All students need to know about such issues.

As teachers, we can reexamine ways we talk to students. When we treat boys and girls equally through our words, our message is loud and clear.

For example, we can compliment all students about their observation skills or their wonderful touch when manipulating materials. We can model nonsexist language for students who model to each other. What strategies do we employ in the classroom when teaching and listening to students? Do we react to boys differently than to girls? Are boys given opportunities to explore their sensitivities? Do we expect or allow both boys and girls to listen and share ideas? How inclusive or exclusive are we during discussions? Do we have lowered expectations for any particular groups of individuals? Do we favor boys over girls? Girls over boys?

What do we do when boys make fun of girls with gender stereotypes? When boys are made fun of with gender stereotypes? To do or say nothing sanctions their behavior and words. Allowing boys to call each other “gay,” “sissy,” or say “You’re acting like a girl” is verbal harassment and emotional bullying. Such language reinforces oppressive gender socialization of males in our culture. By not intervening, we validate misogyny and prejudice about boys, gay people, and the narrow behaviors permitted to straight men. Discussions about sexual harassment help students better understand what kinds of behaviors at their age are examples of sexual harassment and therefore not allowed at school.

Know and include the varieties and histories of your students’ languages. Find out about students’ lives and interests. Don’t assume you know it all or that there is only one way to study something. What are kids interested in learning about? Grounding lessons in the realities of students’ cultures capitalizes on intrinsic motivations and cultural identities.11 Class conversations and discussions are wonderfully rich repositories of lesson ideas. For example, investigating the music students listen to provides opportunities to talk about how song lyrics represent people. Some lyrics disrepect both men and women. Offering students a forum to discuss who and what they admire and why in lyrics is a great way to validate youth culture.12 ( This works the same for contemporary visual imagery and movies.) How and why do students identify with such words or images? Is it about being cool and responding to peer pressure? Are they reacting against oppressive mainstream cultures? (We also learn about our own biases as teachers.) How are complex social issues such as gender conflated into abbreviated cultural forms such as a song? Or a painting? The responses can serve as subject matter for artmaking.

Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be You and Me (1972) demonstrates how simple and powerful words are. Her groundbreaking collection reexamines traditional gendered stereotypes through music and stories.13 Her book includes stories, songs, and poems for adults and children to create alternative ways to think about race, social class, and gender. For example, the song “It’s Alright To Cry” challenges traditional masculine norms that punish boys for showing emotions. The song “William’s Doll,” examines the social pain experienced by everyone when a boy wants a doll. The words of the song detail that in spite of community ridicule and parental shame, a wise grandmother gives her grandson a doll realizing that this is the only way her grandson will learn how to care for children. A similar message is found in the recent French film Ma Vie En Rose (Scotty & Berliner, 1997). French parents are upset when their young son indicates he wants to be a girl. After neighbors and school officials ostracize the family, even the supportive mother eventually capitulates to societal pressure. The parents’ anger and violence replace their initial curiosity and laughter about the son’s “phase.” Once again, an “eccentric” grandmother is one of the few people who recognizes and validates the humanity of being a person and not just a boy. She not only accepts but encourages his curiosity. Such permission “to be” or to create what gender you want remains marginal and highly suspect in White Western European culture. Ma Vie En Rose is an invaluable pedagogical tool for multiple class lessons.

To date, lesson plans examining masculinity are rare. Even progressive journals and sourcebooks, such as Rethinking Schools and Open Minds to Equality, that focus on social equality and justice, rarely examine masculinity as a potential lesson source. Examining masculine assumptions and behaviors is an unsettling pedagogical act. Yet, not to begin to examine masculinity is to leave unexamined a huge category of potential lesson possibilities that impacts all of us. Teachers should not only expect but also encourage students to investigate gender themes in their art.

How do we examine our curriculums for bias? According to Schniedewind and Davidson (1998), this includes examining who gets represented, what content we cover, and what perspectives we present. What is the ratio of male artists compared to female artists used in the art classroom? How many male artists do we know? Female? From other cultures? Do we exhibit as many women as men artists in the class? Do we include discussions of the impact of genders throughout the histories of art, such as the impact of Camille Claudel on Rodin’s life and art? Or the stereotypes of the macho male and submissive female in lowrider art in some Hispanic cultures?

Historically, men have been at the center of curriculums and histories about art, and anything feminine, female, or feminist was marginalized. In spite of this, art has been described as effeminate, frivolous, and emotional. For some males, to study art casts suspicions on being a straight male both in terms of gender and sexual orientation. We can see this in artist Robert Henri’s directions to his male art students to “[b]e a man first, be an artist later” (Todd, 1993, p. 18). Kurtz (1992) considered artist Jackson Pollock’s exaggerated masculinity as paradigmatic of the United States’ “insistence on hypervirile, heterosexual masculinity [even] in its art heroes”

(p. 16). The implications of the conflation of gender, creativity, and sexuality in art are evident today. Artist Kenny O’Brien (in Vaucher, 1993) speaks about the pain that shapes his artistic process-the pain of accepting creativity in spite of the connections with femininity: “It was shameful to be slightly effeminate or creative, and creativity was effeminate” (p. 59).14 bell hooks (1995) suggests male artists have no choice but to “enter the phallocentric battlefield of representation and play the game [or they]… are doomed to exist outside history” (p. 43). We need to challenge these biased perceptions and realities of manhood and create saner ways for boys and men to live and make art.

Kate Lyman (2001) taught about gender stereotypes as part of her curriculum with second- and third graders. She overheard a conversation between two thin female students about a weight loss video. It encouraged Lyman to develop lesson plans about gender issues. First, Lyman learned more about her students’ knowledge and perceptions about gender, including facts and stereotypes. Her class compiled and compared lists of masculine and feminine stereotypes and facts. This activity led to critical examinations of stereotypical images of women in toys and the media. Lyman talked with students about magazine ads that illustrated gender stereotypes. Students combined image and text in posters that were displayed in the school halls. Lastly, her class explored gender discrimination by role-playing an oldfashioned school day, replete with costumes. Students collected parents’ memories of schools and how girls and boys were treated differently. The class spent one morning acting out their fictionalized page from history. Lyman was particularly interested to see if students noticed the subtle differences between the genders. Lyman felt that if she exaggerated the effects of gender discrimination in this exercise that her students would recognize more subtle forms of sexism they encountered daily in their lives. Yet she recalls that at the end of that long day, she overheard the same two students talking about losing weight.

Lyman comments about things she could have done differently: more planning, more background, more time for discussion, a follow-up action project. She reminisces how a visiting university student was impressed with how well Lyman’s students handled such complex topics. Although Lyman is doing groundbreaking work, she expresses frustration because some of the attitudes she experienced as a school child, she now sees in her students. I identify with her frustration, the frustration of not knowing where to go with newer ideas. Nevertheless, teachers can ill afford to ignore misogyny and homophobia in their classrooms.


Examining White traditional masculine paradigms helps teachers see how misogyny and homophobia impact men and women, boys and girls. Administrators and teachers can work together to co-create spaces free of gender bias and harassment. Administrators and teachers need to develop learning environments that are emotionally and physically safer for all students and teachers.15 We as teachers can begin by examining our own stereotypes in relation to genders. Teachers and administrators can support and validate students living and thinking through tough gender issues.

Such an analysis provides information by which we as teachers may consider how we enable misogyny and homophobia in our own lives and in our classrooms. This kind of analysis can motivate us to develop strategies that challenge oppressive sexist conditions in schools and encourage more equitable and saner gender constructs for both boys and girls and for ourselves. It encourages us not only to allow but to expect students to investigate such themes in their art (Lee, Menkart, & Okazawa-Rey,1998).16 To move the discussion beyond the color of scissors.

Copyright National Art Education Association Jan 2002

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