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The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Current Journal Editor:
Katherine Macro kjmacro@gmail.com
Volume 11
Fall 2002


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You Have to Go There: "Literary Cross-Dressing" and Other Journeys of Gender

Meg Peterson
Plymouth State College, NH

The other night I was reading a book with my 8-year old son, Marc. The main characters were involved in a class play about Greek mythology, which seemed to revolve around fight scenes with fake swords and different gods issuing flippant challenges to lesser gods. Marc stopped his reading to announce, "Jeez, there must be a lot of boys in that class."

Marc has been ruminating on gender a lot lately. He was made more acutely aware of gender differences by having been placed at a private school in a first grade class in which chance factors of that year's admissions made him the only boy. When the class went to write a group story, fairy princesses, unicorns and rainbow backgrounds dominated the plot. The teacher wisely allowed Marc to introduce a wizard character.

The experience was tough for Marc. Ten little girls are not the most welcoming peer group for a little boy. He stood out. The teachers found him to be more active, and less willing to put up with anything remotely tedious, than his classmates. At one point they suggested he might be hyperactive. Some of my friends comforted me by saying that it might help him to develop his feminine side.

While the experience was uncomfortable for him, I do think it left him with a healthy awareness of gender. He has never been fond of what he calls "girls girls"-the ones who "wear pink and are all obsessed with their Barbies" and read books about My Pretty Pony, or whatever the latest "girl-oriented" cartoon might be. But at the same time, he has developed strong friendships with some of his female classmates, and during a discussion of history, Marc remarked, "Men always think they are better because they fight all the time." He then shrugged with disgust at the inevitable.

He knows what the wider culture has yet to learn--that rigid gender roles are no one's friend. They are not true to anyone's nature, and they close off many possibilities of what each one of us could be. At the same time, gender differences do exist, and they are very evident in the writing classroom. Writing teachers, whether male or female, need to learn to work within them, appreciating what each perspective has to contribute, while at the same time expanding possibilities for everyone.

"You should put more in about defense. The defense is really important."
"Yeah, but you don't want to end up sounding like an ESPN commentator."
"Maybe you could just end it here."
"Aw, no, man, you have to include the Super Bowl."
"Yeah, I mean that is the ending of the story. And besides, that game was so awesome."

My first whole-class writing workshop of the spring semester seemed to have turned into sports commentary and a rehashing of the Patriot's victory at the Super Bowl. I had entered another world, and I, like my son, was experiencing some discomfort. This semester, for the first time, I taught a writing class for prospective English teachers that was dominated by males. Usually the gender balance is weighted in the opposite direction. In my upper-level course in the teaching of writing, designed for prospective teachers of English at the secondary level, women have always been in the majority. This may be related to the cultural perception of English and the humanities as female territory, and the gap in achievement in literacy, which tends to favor girls (Barrs, 2000; Cole, 1997; Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998). I occasionally get a class that is all female, but most often there are one or two males. I think nothing of having a lone male in the class. Yet this semester, when my teaching methods class was comprised of all males and one lone female, I was more keenly aware of gender. I noticed the difference right away. I felt a sense of being out of my own territory, of having entered another realm.

The six young men in this class are all majoring in English and studying to become teachers, although only two of them entered the college as English majors. None fits my stereotype of the beer-swilling frat boy thug. These were not the kind of students that Lad Tobin (1996) refers to as "embarrassingly male" (158). They are a thoughtful and interesting group, yet decidedly male, and there is a very different energy in their community than in predominantly female groups. They are drawn to the daring, to contests, to sport, They define their place in the universe very differently than do females.

Features I associate with male writing were in evidence from the start. The first week they were asked to write personal narratives. Almost all of these narratives involved renditions of adventures in which the young men nearly killed themselves--hiking the presidential range, whitewater rafting, ski jumping, a car accident and a paper about the Super Bowl. Peterson (1991) found that first year college students tended to base their personal narratives around physical challenges, and because they did not reflect as well on the meaning of the experience, their essays tended to be rated lower than female students' essays. Boys' writing has been described as being more violent because of this tendency to focus on physical contests (S. Peterson, 1998). In their portfolio statements, the young men in my class stated that they did not enjoy writing the personal narratives as much as the more open papers that followed. They found the form "confining". One wrote in his statement, "I learned that I do not like to write about my life." While female students tend to stay "close to home" in the topics of their papers, these male students were eager to branch out.

In their second through fourth papers, which were open as to topic and genre, several characteristics emerged clearly. These features are similar to those that have been noted in systematic investigations of gender differences in writing (Graves, 1973; McAuliffe, 1994; Gray-Schlegel & Gray-Schlegel, 1995-6; Peterson, 1991; Tobin, 1996).

Almost every one of these students' papers contained a corpse that had met a violent death. The body count in this series of papers was truly staggering. It is impossible to get an exact count. In one paper, an entire regiment was destroyed in Vietnam; in another, a ship and all its crew went down leaving the narrator as the sole survivor. Two of the stories could be classified as supernatural murder mysteries, one involving a serial killer. Yet, despite all of the carnage, none of these deaths could be termed truly sensational. Even in the serial killer paper, the focus is more on the psychology of the killer than the gore. (He is grossly disfigured and before moving to murder, dismembers corpses in order to steal their faces). In the other murder mystery, the narrator keeps hearing the lyrics to Hotel California by the Eagles. The lyrics provide clues that enable him to solve the murder. There is clearly a fascination with action, risk, and strong deeds with harsh consequences. Despite the high degree of violence, the focus of the papers seemed much more on the twists of plot and the development of character than on the violence itself. Their statements support this. The author of the murder mystery writes, "The paper reflects my ability to create and manipulate ideas in any way I desire."

What strikes me as I review these papers is their audacity. These young men take on some real challenges. They stray far from the known in their writing. Pieces were set in Vietnam, on a flight to Japan, on the high seas in the 12th century, and in 18th century America. One student attempted an epic poem set far in the future. Themes of adventure, quest and conquest are evident. Their topics were ambitious and wide- ranging. While it took several revisions before they could begin to "pull off" some of these scenarios, I admire their willingness to undertake such challenges in the first place. There is a spirit of daring and risk-taking here that allowed them to grow in different ways than they would have if they had stayed with territories they knew better.

As a person in the world, and especially as the mother of three sons, I tried to pay careful attention. I attempted to work within their ways of being in the world. I confess to feeling some resistance. It was uncomfortable for me to "go there," to engage with the narratives as they were written. They resisted some of my writing as well. I remember particularly a piece I wrote about baking cookies for a function at my son's school past midnight one night in which I questioned how I was not like my mother. They had some difficulty in "going there," and were at first reluctant to comment on the narrative at all. Newkirk (2000) cautions that, "The most serious mistake…is viewing these preferences as pathologies, as anti-social ways of being that must be modified, or, if that is not possible, banned." In a similar vein, Tobin (1996) writes, "we need to become more informed and open-minded readers of texts-including... the conventional male narrative-that at first glance or on initial visceral reaction may seem inaccessible, facile, or even objectionable," (170). Bridging these gender gaps is not always easy, but it is important. Male and female writers have much to offer each other.

In my comments on their papers, I encouraged them to further develop their characters and their plots. In response to Adam's supernatural murder mystery, I asked for more development, more details concerning the information about the case. In my commentary on David's murder story, I asked for more specifics about the narrator. I noted that he seemed very easy-going, accepting that his girlfriend was bisexual, but went into a rage when a cowboy spoke to her in a bar. I asked him to explore these contradictions. I did not ask them to eliminate violence, or to choose topics closer to home, but I did work with them on helping to authenticate the contexts and the events they chose to portray.

In their final paper, they were asked to reflect on the time they had spent in schools over the course of the semester (the class contained a one morning a week school component), and reflect on how it changed them as a potential teacher. These narratives, also, contained a focus on challenge and conquest. Brad structured his paper around the metaphor of a prizefight. "I entered the ring scared …I was afraid all of the sleepless nights forming a game plan in my head would be worthless …They were a tough class with big mouths. I was fighting a battle; the bell had rung and I was backed into a corner and outnumbered." He extends this metaphor throughout the paper, casting his cooperating teacher as his trainer, complaining that he "did slack on the training in the late matches of my middleweight career. He left me open to attacks that could have seriously injured me, but I used my ingenuity to come up with something that would get me through." He ends the paper with an italicized section of mock sports commentary on his performance, complete with such lines as, "He took over using [cooperating teacher's] techniques at first, quick jabs with a few hooks thrown in." He concludes with "This kid looks promising; I hope he can find a venue to put him up for his first match." (This referred to his not yet having secured a student teaching placement.) I am struck by how he approaches the assignment in a spirit of play, how he is clearly having fun, but also by his honesty. Who among us hasn't felt as if initial practice teaching weren't some sort of battle of wills? Brad is honest, direct and not afraid to own the battle and engage in it.

When I was pregnant I thought of how I couldn't have a boy because I wouldn't know how to relate to him, and besides my good feminist role modeling would be wasted on a boy. I have learned that making connections between the genders and their different ways of looking at the world is the most important work of all. What better territory for a meeting of the genders than the writing classroom, where everything is up for negotiation and consideration from multiple perspectives? Like my son Marc, I have had the opportunity to "go there," to venture into spaces dominated by the opposite gender and to learn to appreciate them. I learned to work within these spaces, and respond as I would to any student paper. As we do this, we begin to enlarge these spaces, and even to transform them by asking students to consider perspectives of the opposite gender in their narratives.

Understanding gender differences in writing can enable us to interrogate troubling narratives from either gender, and help us to do some "cross-dressing." Several of the composition instructors I work with have adopted the technique of asking students who write disturbing essays to experiment with different points of view. One student wrote about visiting strip clubs on a trip to Montreal. The instructor asked him to challenge himself to rewrite the narrative from the point of view of one of the strippers. She told him to give the narrative depth by fully imagining the woman's life. This type of gender shifting could be used in wider ranges of circumstances, challenging young women to write pieces in which they venture out of their comfort zones and portray themselves as actors in and upon the world. The point is not to substitute one perspective for another, or to say that one or the other is deficient, but to, as Paul D. does to Sethe at the end of Beloved, lay her story down next to his.

When we can look at both stories together, one can inform the other. Just as when we move beyond simplistic and rigid gender stereotypes, we can begin to move into a space where men and women can acknowledge the differences in their perspectives without one having to dominate the other. When this happens, the world will be better both for little boys like Marc as well as for all of his many female classmates. All of us, men and women, can benefit by "going there," by entering into another gender's worldview, and the writing classroom is a place uniquely suited for that type of quest.

[I am indebted to Merryl Reichbach for her insightful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.]

Works Cited

Barrs, Myra. (2000). Gendered literacy? Language Arts, 77, (4), 287-293.

Cole, Nancy S. (1997). The ETS Gender Study: How Females and Males Perform in Educational Settings. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Eagles. (1997). Hotel California. Asylum Records.

Francis, Becky, Jocelyn Robson and Barbara Read, An analysis of undergraduate writing styles in the context of gender and achievement. Studies in Higher Education, 26 (3), 313-327.

Pam Gilbert. (1998). Masculinity goes to school. New York: Routledge.

Graves, Donald. (1973). Sex Differences in Children's Writing. Elementary English, 50(7), 1101-1106.

Gray-Schlegel, Mary Ann & Gray-Schlegel, Thomas. (1995-6). An Investigation of gender stereotypes as revealed through children's creative writing. Reading Research and Instruction, 35(2), 160-170.

McAuliffe, Sheila. (1993-4). Toward understanding one another: Second grader use of gendered language and story styles. The Reading Teacher, 47 (4), 302-310.

Morrison, Toni. (1987). Beloved. New York: Knoff.

Newkirk, Thomas, (2000). Misreading masculinity: Speculations on the gender gap in writing. Language Arts, (4), 294-301.

Peterson, Linda H. (1991). Gender and the autobiographical essay: Research perspectives. College Composition and Communication 42 (2), 170-183.

Peterson, Shelley. (1998). Evaluation and a teachers' perception of gender in sixth grade student writing. Research in Teaching of English 33 (2), 181-208.

Tobin, Lad. (1996). Car wrecks, baseball caps and man-to-man defense: The personal narratives of adolescent males. College English 58 (2), 158-176.

Reference Citation: Peterson, Meg. (2002). " You Have to Go There: 'Literary Cross-Dressing' and Other Journeys of Gender." WILLA, Volume 11, p. 21 -24.


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